This elegant antique miniature silver cross was made in Africa from cast coin silver. The crude casting method that was employed, as well as the quality of the silver used, resulted in a micro pitted surface that is characteristic of this genre of art. Decades of use caused a rounding of the outer edges that originally had been more distinct. Measuring only .7 inches high x .5 inches wide (1.75 cm x 1.25 cm), the cross is hung from a modern tiny silver chain. A better feel for the actual size of this cross can be realized when one considers that its chain is so small that the tip of a fine sewing needle cannot pass through one of its links.
If this piece been photographed using a telephoto macro lens and lit with a large diffused light source in conjunction with reflective boards for fill light, its essential design and characteristics would not have been revealed. Such a traditional approach would have resulted in very “flat” lighting, “masking” the intricacies of its surface pitting and the deep lines of each of the triangular shapes on the four extremities of the cross. In effect, they would have been “hidden” in plane view by such a soft, conservative lighting technique.
An entirely different approach was taken, one that emphasizes the overall form as well as the surface artifacts of this miniature cross. Deft use of diffused cross lighting addresses the challenge of how to best represent this piece photographically. However, the diffusion was not accomplished with a diffused “strip light” source and opposing reflector boards. This method was rejected out of hand due to the difficulty that would have arisen in attempting to control and balance the light intensity and quality at the nearest edge of the piece from the light source with the other three sides of the piece. The light on the front surface also had to be considered. It had to be crisp, yet subdued.
The answer to these problems lay in the decision as to which focal length of lens to be used, in conjunction with an indirect lighting arrangement. The cross was suspended with its tiny silver necklace chain from a horizontal bar that was placed approximately 24 inches (61cm) in front of a large piece of black velvet. This somewhat wide distance between the subject and the background was necessary in order to facilitate placement of the lighting components. A 50 mm macro lens was used on a 35mm SLR camera. This required that the cross be positioned extremely close to the front of the lens in order to fill the frame in this tight composition. A bone-white, two-ply archival mat board measuring 18x18 inches (46x46 cm) was used as a reflective light source. A circular hole was cut in its center. The hole in this reflective board fit snuggly around the outside diameter of the macro lens. The camera (with the reflective board attached to the macro lens) was anchored on a sturdy tripod and moved to a position directly in front of the suspended cross. The cross itself was approximately ½ inch (1.25 cm) away from the front of the lens and its attached reflective board.
The above set-up was now ready to be lit. Two Dyna-Light studio flash heads were placed behind the cross and on two sides at extremely acute angles to the reflective board. These flash heads, like most electronic studio flash heads, project a wide beam of light. They were placed very close to the reflective board and aimed almost directly at the board, thus allowing only light to “escape” from the small openings between the rim of their reflectors and the reflective board itself. This distance was approximately ¼ inch (.63 cm). Additional narrow strips of reflective mat board were placed at slight angles inward on the top and below the cross in order to “capture” and reflect light from the two electronic flash heads. One edge of each of these strips was attached directly to the main reflective board using white gaffer’s tape. The use of electronic flash was mandated by the extremely close distances between the various components of this photography set-up as well as by the need to work safely and with minimum risk to the art.
Constant quartz lights with their extremely hot bulb surface temperatures (900 degrees Fahrenheit) can never be used to achieve this type of lighting with small art objects. The lighting was determined by suspending the reflective board by itself without the camera, lens and tripod and by then taking spot meter readings of sections of the cross through the hole in the reflective board at various power settings for the flash, as well as by making slight adjustments of the flash heads themselves. The highlighted edges of the cross were metered and “placed” at Zone VII. The lights were adjusted so that the frontal surface of the cross “fell” into a Zone IV exposure. (The exposure “Zones” mentioned here refer to the exposure system that was developed by the late Ansel Adams and championed by other photographers such as the late Minor White. Zone V is neutral gray with a reflectance value of 18%. This is the average exposure value that all light meters are calibrated to achieve.
Reflective values above Zone V represent progressively lighter values, those below represent progressively darker values. Zone VII is characterized as being very light, but with some texture. Zone IV is characterized as being somewhat dark, but with definite detail revealed.) Due to the close proximity of all of the components of this photography set up, traditional through the lens meter readings or use of a hand-held incident light meter was not possible. The use a short 50mm macro lens enabled the deeply recessed front lens element, with its placement so close to the cross, to serve as a non-reflective “surface”. Use of this lens with its deeply recessed front lens element also provided protection from image degrading lens “flare”. (“Flare” refers to ghost-like shapes that are caused by non-image forming light striking unprotected lens elements and reflecting between them in a compound lens.) The 50mm macro lens, in conjunction with suppressed and carefully adjusted reflected perimeter lighting, enabled me to accurately define the form and primary characteristics of this unique cross as I perceived them to be.
As in all cases involving documentation photography of three-dimensional art, accurate photographic representation requires that the essential elements of the work be determined beforehand and that appropriate measures be employed to achieve “proper” photographic representation of the art. This necessitates some interpretation of the art by the photographer. Whenever possible, discussion of the art with its creator is highly desirable. In this case, the original artist was long deceased and unknown. The above formal description of the method that I adopted to photograph this art sounds rather clinical. However, the inspiration for choosing to photograph this cross as I did is found in my deep appreciation and respect for the spiritual values represented by the piece itself and, indirectly, by its maker. With this in mind, I believe that the unknown artist who conceived and created this art might be pleased by the efforts taken to represent it photographically.
This article was originally published in 2007.