Photographing Egyptian flint tools using a lightbox

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The photography I’ve been doing at the Garstang isn’t all amulets and papyrus. I’ve photographed a lot of pottery for the Before Egypt exhibition, which in itself has been a lot more fun than I thought it might be. However, I’ve also photographed another type of object for the first time for the exhibition: flint tools.

There were two tools, in particular, on display in the Predynastic display case that we wanted to photograph. One is a fish-tail knife; the other, a tiny, agate arrowhead. Because these two tools are translucent, I wanted to photograph them over a lightbox; shine the light through to capture detail and bring out their beauty.

So, with these two flint tools, plus a small palette and a fragment of a quartz bowl, I headed down to the imaging suite.

How did I photograph the objects?

I used the lightbox in the departmental imaging suite. It’s quite a simple set up: a wooden frame with a lightpad underneath, a glass plate for the artefact to sit on, and a mount for my camera. Basically, it’s like an oversized microscope. I was really quite excited to get going with the photography to see what I could come up with.

I photographed the fish-tail knife and the arrowhead four times each. Front and back, first using just the lightbox underneath, and then adding in my LED panel light to create some raking side light on the surface.

I photographed the palette on the lightbox, not because I needed to (let’s face it; palette’s aren’t known for their translucence), but because my camera was already set up on the lightbox. And because the palette is dark in colour, the light background was the best choice.

I tried photographing the quartz bowl, but it was tricky to set up and the light shining through didn’t really do much aesthetically. I did, however, notice a tiny inscription on one edge.

I had to focus-stack all the objects, despite their not-very-thickness. This is the case with pretty much all macro photography, because the closer your lens is to an object, the narrower your depth-of-field (how much of the object’s in focus). So, even an object that’s only a few millimetres thick needs to be stacked.

The results

I’m utterly made up with the results of this session. I never thought I’d hear myself say this, but the arrowhead really is up there amongst the most beautiful artefacts I’ve ever photographed. (Me and prehistoric flint tools have never been a ‘thing’; my academic interests lie elsewhere.) The fish-tail knife is gorgeous, as well, and the lighting I used for the palette has brought out the surface detail surprisingly well.

Now, here’s the bit I like the best: the pictures.

The arrowhead (E.617)

The arrowhead has come out beautifully. Really beautifully.

Apart from the focus-stacking, these images have needed barely any processing at all. A little bit of cropping to get the arrowhead centered, plus a tiny bit of contrast tweaking. That’s all.

The image on the left has just the light coming through from underneath; the image on the right also has the side light.

I love them both, but, at a push, I like the one without the side light a little more. There’s just a bit more detail and depth to see, and I prefer the wider range of tones.

(The small, dark blotches you can see towards the right-hand-side is the accession number written on the underside.)

Macro photo of a tiny Predynastic Egyptian agate arrowhead
Predynastic agate arrowhead, lit from the underneath only (Garstang Museum of Archaeology | E.617 | 1.6 x 0.5 cm)
Macro photo of a tiny Predynastic Egyptian agate arrowhead
Predynastic agate arrowhead, lit from the underneath and the side (Garstang Museum of Archaeology | E.617 | 1.6 x 0.5 cm)

The fishtail knife (E.6560)

The fish-tail knife is beautifully crafted. In the photos below, you’re seeing it side on. The handle is on the right, with the dual blades on the left. The serrated edges are just amazing; so meticulously created. Remember: the blades on this knife are around 6 cm in length.

The first image (top left) has just the light coming through from underneath; the other two have the side light as well.

I created the third image (bottom) using not only focus-stacking, but also HDR photography.

A small, Predynastic Egyptian flint knife with a blade in the shape of a fish tail
The fish-tail knife lit from the underneath only (Garstang Museum of Archaeology | E.6560 | 12.5 x 8.4 cm)
A small, Predynastic Egyptian flint knife with a blade in the shape of a fish tail
The fish-tail knife lit from the underneath and the side (Garstang Museum of Archaeology E.6560 | 12.5 x 8.4 cm)
A small, Predynastic Egyptian flint knife with a blade in the shape of a fish tail
A composite image of a Predynastic fish-tail knife using the HDR method. Lit from the underneath and the side (Garstang Museum of Archaeology | E.6560 | 12.5 x 8.4 cm)

What is HDR photography?

HDR stands for ‘High Dynamic Range’, and is a technique most often used in landscape and architectural photography.

It allows you get a wider range of tones in your photo than your camera would usually allow (tones relate to the range of light to dark). In photos with a wide range of tones, if you expose to get detail in the darker parts of the photo, you can blow out detail from the brighter parts, and vice versa.

To do HDR photography, you take three photos instead of one, each with slightly differing exposures. One has your exposure somewhere in the middle, and the other two are either side of that; one a bit darker (to get the brighter parts exposed) and the other a bit lighter (to get the darker parts exposed). Many cameras have a bracketing setting to do these triple shots for you.

You then load the three photos into HDR software, and it does ‘tone mapping’; i.e. it combines the three photos to get detail from the highlights, the shadows and the mid-tones. (Of course, with the focus-stacking, I had a few more than three photos to deal with: thirty in total. The focus stack had ten photos, but each one also had the bracketed lighter and darker version. I had to then process each set of light, medium and dark photos in the focus-stacking software and then put the three stacked images into the HDR software.)

You can then play around with the settings to get adjust the amount detail, contrast, etc. I try to stay within the bounds of a ‘natural’ look; if you push detail and contrast too far, you end up with what is, quite frankly, a horrible, harsh, vastly over-sharpened image that looks almost cartoon-like. If you compare the second and third images, the HDR one looks not much different to the second one. It’s just a little more even and has better detail.

For the main part, I’m not really a fan of HDR photography. I like having shadows in photos; it adds atmosphere. I can also find photos that have every single part in high detail (especially landscapes, cityscapes etc) too overwhelming to look at.

However, HDR has its place, and it’s also a matter of personal taste. I wouldn’t usually choose it myself, but in this particular instance, I think it’s produced the best photo.

The palette (E.5305)

This small, double-bird-headed palette is only 6.3 cm tall. Nowhere near the grandure of the large, ceremonial palettes such as the Narmer palette and the Hunters’ palette.

However, as they say, beautiful things come in small packages.

I wouldn’t ordinarily photograph a solid stone object on a lightbox, but my camera was set up already, so rather than have to take the box down and set up my tripod, it was simplest to stay as I was.

I added in a side light, and it’s produced a surprisingly detailed image. All those scuffs and scratch marks on the surface come from its crafting. Seeing that really highlights the human connection; that somebody, all those thousands of years ago, sat down and put hours into smoothing and levelling those edges and surfaces.

Wonderful!

A small, plain Egyptian palette from the Predynastic period
Predynastic double-bird-headed palette from the front (Garstang Museum of Archaeology | E.5305 | 6.3 x 3.8 cm)
A small, plain Egyptian palette from the Predynastic period
Predynastic double-bird-headed palette (back) (Garstang Museum of Archaeology | E.5305 | 6.3 x 3.8 cm)

The quartz bowl fragment (E.2539)

Finally, I photographed a fragment of a quartz bowl. I grabbed it from the display case while we were getting the flint tools and palette, as a bit of an afterthought. As the quartz is semi-translucent, I thought I’d see how it looked sitting atop the lightbox.

Unfortunately, the bowl was too thick for the light to make much of a difference. And the fragment is a little uninspiring, aesthetically speaking.

However, as I was turning the fragment over in my hands, something caught my eye just on the edge of one of the broken surfaces. Yes! It was part of a serekh … boom!

Sadly, the top half is lost, so it’s hard to tell which name is here. It’s possibly the bottom of the mr glyph in the name Narmer, but I couldn’t be sure.

The serekh’s only a few millimetres tall, so it’s hard to garner much detail. However, it’s always exciting to find something like this on an object. And afterwards, the piece went back into the display cabinet facing the opposite way it’d come out, to show off this super little detail we’d found.

The bottom half of an incised serekh on a piece of quartz
A fragment of an early dynastic quartz bowl with part of a serekh (Garstang Museum of Archaeology | E.2539)

This really was a fun photography session for me, as you might’ve guessed! Hopefully, there’ll be some more flint to go back and photograph, and I really would love to find a few more objects to photograph over the lightbox. It can bring a whole new dimension to these ancient pieces.

These objects are also in my Predynastic and Early Dynastic photo gallery, where you can open the images in a lightbox to see them in greater detail:

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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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