Photographing Old Tools

This article originally appeared in the One Person’s Opinion feature on the M-WTCA Internet site, December 1998

Photographing Old Tools with a Digital Camera

Eric Peterson

A digital camera makes it possible to easily share pictures. One photography problem has been the shadows cast by the tool by the lighting employed; and, another problem has been the cost.

The price of digital cameras has fallen dramatically and undoubtedly will continue to decline. If you can get past that hurdle, the following suggests a setup that seems to work and is inexpensive to create. Most of this is not original, but I don’t recall where I read it.

The following is an outline of the setup I have been using to photograph old tools. I have briefly described a homemade photography stand suitable for small to medium sized items. The stand is easily assembled from readily available materials. You should find the techniques discussed here suitable for preparing displays and useful for documenting your collection for historical, insurance and other purposes. Please pay special attention to the safety considerations discussed at the end.

The elements required are:

  • A cardtable
  • A sheet of 1/4 inch “plate” glass, ( approx. 24″ x 30″) see below to determine size, edges and corners rounded.
  • A sheet of white cloth, fine texture and not shiny.
  • Clip on work lamps, 3 or 4 of them.
  • Light bulbs of your choice and fixture ratings.
  • An “incandescent” light dimmer, 1,000 watt size mounted in a 2 gang box with a duplex outlet. (Suggest you not use the common 600-watt size.)
  • Four beverage cans.
  • A digital camera

The setup:

  • Turn the cardtable upside down and place on the floor or at a convenient height.
  • Cover the underside of the cardtable with the white cloth.
  • On the cloth place the four beverage cans at what will be the corners of the glass plate.
  • Put the glass plate on top of the cans.
  • Put the tool on the glass plate.
  • Clip the lights on the upright legs of the cardtable; use 2 to 4 lamps. Bulb sizes to suit and by experimentation.
  • Turn on the lamps using the dimmer and adjust intensity.
  • Adjust the height of the lamps to be 45 degrees to the top of the tool.
  • Position tool and lamps to avoid shadows.
  • Take pictures.
  • Do not leave lamps unattended when on.

Comments and cautions:

  • I wired a 1,000-watt incandescent light dimmer switch into an electrical grounded two gang box along with a duplex outlet and a grounded heavy drop cord. If you do not know what you are doing, don’t do this. Get help. This can draw considerable current depending on the wattage that might be used. It can get hot if not properly done or neglected.
  • These lamps can get quite hot and can burn you or cause a fire if left unattended and not turned off.
  • Be sure the installed drop cord is heavy enough to carry the load. Check the wattage rating on the lamp fixtures you will use.
  • The dimmer has the obvious advantage of controlling the intensity of the light, but also reduces the life-shortening shock to the filaments in the lamps as they are turned on and off. This can be important, especially if you are using the expensive photoflood type light bulbs.
  • A thinner sheet of glass or one without safely rounded edges and corners will sooner or later cause problems breaking or lacerating the user. A suitably stiff piece of clear, scratch free plastic sheet will also serve this purpose.
  • Supporting the item to be photographed on a clear platform standing a small distance away from the background or backdrop will help to eliminate dark shadows. Lighting the item from several directions will also help in this respect.
  • The cardtable legs are used simply as readily available stands for the lamps to be fastened to. Be sure the lamps are firmly attached to the legs.
  • If shadows appear on the white cloth, they can be removed by using mirrors or white poster boards on the sides adjusted to redirect light. I usually use a flash on the camera set to low intensity. Experimenting with this will yield what works for you. In any event this discussion may give you some ideas and you can devise your own improved setup.