At the Garstang: first session photographing the Book of the Dead

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If you were looking for this post on the Retrograde Photography website, I’ve combined the two sites into one. All content from Retrograde is now here. Enjoy!

Last week, I had my first proper session in the photographic suite. I spent the day in near darkness, photographing a couple of pages from the Book of the Dead.

But why were you in near darkness?, I hear you cry. Because of my arch-nemesis: reflections.

The papyri are encased in sheets of glass, which were cleaned beautifully by some of the museum interns before I photographed them. However, the now extra-clean glass was was extra shiny, and therefore extra reflective. Although the walls and ceiling in the suite are painted black, even low amounts of light were reflecting off the light fittings in the ceiling back down onto the glass.

Two people cleaning the glass encasing the papyrus before photographing
Two of the interns – with Overseer of Works Gina – cleaning the glass plates with cotton wool and deionised water

The best solution I found was to turn my panel light down almost to its dimmest setting – to minimise the amount of light bouncing around in the space – and have a thirty-second exposure on the camera to compensate for the very low light.

Once I got my lighting and camera set-up working, I could get into the swing of things.

My camera on a tripod photographing a sheet of ancient Egyptian papyrus
My camera set-up

Photographing the Book of the Dead

The two pages I photographed were Spells 110 and 125 of the Book of the Dead.

Spell 110 depicts the Field of Reeds, a place in the afterlife based on real life. The illustrations show scenes such as people with oxen, tilling the land and growing crops.

Spell 125 is the famous judgement scene, where the deceased has their heart weighed against the feather of truth to see if they’ve led a good life.

I photographed both pages in full. However, instead of photographing each one in a single shot, I got much closer and photographed them over several shots. I can then stitch them back together in Photoshop, giving me a much bigger, more detailed final image. An initial play in Photoshop has given me files which can be printed out at about a metre in width.

As well as photographing the papyri in their entirety, I was getting shots of individual elements in greater detail. The advantage to working with a macro lens is that I can photograph tiny, tiny areas of the papyri which can then be printed out many times larger.

My camera sitting very close to the surface of the papyrus to capture detail
Getting up close-and-personal with the text

Here, you can see the hieroglyphs I was photographing on the LCD display on the camera. The actual size of these glyphs is around two or three cms. I will then be able to print them out at least at A3 size.

My camera sitting over a page from the Egyptian Book of the Dead
Photographing a palimpsest

The day took a little while to get going, having to mess around getting the lighting arrangement set up properly. However, I got some lovely photos, both for the Garstang’s upcoming exhibition and for my own personal project. Here’s a couple of photos of details I got for myself:

The face of the ancient Egyptian god Osiris in profile on papyrus
The face of Osiris
The name and epithet of Osiris in hieroglyphs on papyrus
'Osiris Wennefer'. I just love the recumbent hare

Unless otherwise stated, all content and photos on this site are © Julia Thorne. It’s a common misconception that images online are free from copyright. Copyright laws still stand. Please feel free to share online, but only with a link back here or to the relevant social media account. If you’d like to use any of my photos, please email me at julia@tetisheri.co.uk. Thank you.

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[…] out to play any more. (Of course, one major advantage of the papyrus not being in glass is that I didn’t have reflections to deal with. This meant a brighter light and a faster shutter speed, making my workflow much […]

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[…] numerous hours in the photographic suite, many more vying with Photoshop, followed by several weeks of nail biting, hoping my photos would […]

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[…] out to play any more. (Of course, one major advantage of the papyrus not being in glass is that I didn’t have reflections to deal with. This meant a brighter light and a faster shutter speed, making my workflow much […]

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