A Guide to Photographing Sculpture in Public
Written by Bob Pullen
This guide is intended to help you make the most of photographing what can be a difficult subject. Sculptures come in a variety of materials – bronze, steel, wood, concrete, stone, etc., and size – for example Nicola Hick’s Beetle made of bronze - 90cm high by 265cm length, Bristol, to Anish Kapoor’s towering ArcelorMittal Orbit made of steel - 115 metres high, London. They can be found in various locations – woodland, parks, roundabouts, pavements, squares, atop and side of buildings, etc. This guide will suggest the best method of photographing public sculpture in what many have described as the biggest, free art gallery there is.
The majority of public sculpture is large, fixed and can be in a difficult location – handling these works is very much out of the question. This guide is concerned with the relationship between you and your camera relative to the sculpture, its location and the prevailing weather conditions.
The aim of photographing any sculpture or monument is to obtain a sharp, detailed and clear photograph, showing its appearance and any interesting details – such as inscriptions and, sadly, any damage that has occurred, its location and its relationship to the environment. The photographs you take are a visual record of that work, which will support research or conservation work in the future.
How many photos should I take?
There are many photographs which show only the sculpture, framed tight to the subject, but if space allows you should move back to photograph it from a distance – this will show where it is sited in the environment whether rural, suburban or city. All sculpture is sited in a location for a reason, which may not always at first be understood especially if the immediate environment has changed since it was first unveiled.
Photographers will need to exercise judgement as to which selection of photographs most contribute to collecting good quality information. This project is particularly keen to collect information on the condition of public sculpture and your photographs can make a contribution to their conservation.
Composing the image
There is always the temptation to take photographs at high ISO to increase shutter speed and depth of field, but this can cause issues with the images showing ‘image noise’ which can degrade the quality of the image. Therefore, the use of a tripod can help and is particularly useful on days when the sun isn’t out, when exposures are longer and hand-held shots may suffer from camera shake, also it helps to precisely composing the photograph. In regard to the use of tripods, always take care especially if you are on a pavement, members of the public may not be fully aware of you and may walk into the tripod or yourself. Do not take up all the space on a pavement as you may be considered to be obstructing the public highway. Please see our advice on personal safety when taking photographs.
Always take care when photographing on days when the sun is out, it is all too easy to include the sun in the viewfinder of the camera. The reason to be aware of where the sun is located is that looking directly at the sun can damage your eyes. Photographically, with the sun in the photograph or just outside of the frame, lens flare can occur – this is where some of the light is reflected off the internal surfaces lowering contrast and producing points of coloured light. In the example here, it is possible to see the lowering and degradation of detail in the sculpture, and towards the base of the plinth a green crescent shape. There will be times where even using a lens shade will not work. On these occasions it is best to return another day when either the position of the sun is in a different place or the day is overcast. The best advice when planning a photography trip is to check the weather conditions beforehand.
Royal Fusiliers 1914-18 War Memorial by Albert Toft, High Holborn
Photography in public and private spaces
In recent years photography in public has become a difficult and challenging undertaking, due in part to the threat of terrorism and the public’s growing awareness of privacy issues in regards to the internet. If you are on the public highway, you are allowed to take photographs, even if your camera lens is pointed onto private land or into a building. You may very well find yourself on land or a shopping centre which is privately owned but is open to the public, in this case always seek permission to take photographs especially if it’s for commercial purposes or for this project, explain why you are taking photographs and what they are for – the owners may grant permission, ask for a fee or copies of your work, but more importantly may be keen to help you.
If you are taking a large number of photographs it is important to create a work flow – by adopting this method it is easier to maintain good working practice throughout the project, and ensures consistent results. And, by adhering to a consistent work flow it is easier to identify issues that may occur. Always check your equipment before setting out to take photographs: camera, batteries, battery, lenses, set your camera to the required file format – RAW – as required by the project. Take the survey form and clipboard, plus pencils with you to make notes. After taking an exposure check it by looking at the preview screen to see if it’s in focus, exposure is correct, and is composed as you would like. If you are using GPS note down the co-ordinates in your notebook with the title of the sculpture. When back at base download your images on the computer preferably in a named file – back-up your files on a hard drive, you may then decide to delete the images from the camera, but only once all the images have been checked. All raw images you take will require processing – allowing you to change file names, apply sharpening, colour balance, lens correction, and adding to the metadata, exposure levels, type of file format required for web or print. The majority of software will have the function to export the image in a particular file format, file size, image size, adding a watermark.
Type of camera
Ideally you should use a Digital Singe Lens Reflex camera (DSLR). This allows higher quality photographs to be taken, has higher quality lenses, and gives you greater control in taking of photographs. Some cameras may allow you to add your name, etc. to the metadata of each image. This way images are easily identifiable to the photographer. The camera should allow you to take photographs as raw files, which can be later processed to achieve the best quality. Lenses: it is important when taking photographs not to use too wide a lens, which can cause unacceptable distortion and change the relationship of part of the sculpture to another if used close-up, though there may be occasions when it is unavoidable. The use of a good high quality zoom lens with a range from the wide angle to telephoto can help to take the majority of photographs required for this project.
Photo Editing Software
Some cameras come with some form of photo editing software, which allows you to improve the photograph by sharpening the image, cropping, altering its size, and saving it to another file format – depending on the application you intend to use it for. Cameras which also produce raw files will have some editing software to process and covert raw files into other formats such as Tiff, Jpeg, Png, etc.
While we do not endorse any particular manufacturer or product, there is a wide range of editing software available, some for free and some which you have to pay for. Some manufacturers allow you to download a limited time trial version to try out. If you haven’t got editing software this is a good option to try to see what would suit your circumstances.