Image of a detail from The Ruzbihan Qur'an

How We Photograph Gold

28 May, 2020

One of the great, continuing challenges we face while digitising the Chester Beatty Collection is the photographing of gold. Within our varied collection the decorating, or illuminating, of objects, particularly manuscripts and scrolls, is a very common thread. It was used throughout the Islamic world, is common in European objects and was also used extensively in East Asian countries such as Japan, China and Thailand. 

There were a number of reasons why gold was used so widely. One reason is that as it was such a valuable material it was an obvious symbol of wealth. Yet, there are actually many more practical reasons for its wide usage. The chemical inertness of gold is a prime example of for its use. Due to this inertness it could be used with all pigments and unlike silver, which darkens and loses its lustre over time, gold keeps its appearance. 

Image of a detail from Scroll 1 from Tale of Tawara Tōda (Tawara Tōda monogatari)
Spread from Scroll 1 from Tale of Tawara Tōda, CBL J 1164.1

Yet, perhaps the principal reason for its popularity is the unique visual characteristics of gold, its warm lustre and reflectance. It is these characteristics that meant it was perfect to be used decoratively, such as gold flecks on Japanese scrolls, naturalistically, to represent light and luminous skies in Mughal miniatures and even for symbolic purposes such as in Western illuminated manuscripts where important religious figures were often depicted with golden haloes to show their religious importance. 

I mention all of this as it is important to know that gold was not just another pigment in the artist’s palette but it was one that had great cultural and artistic importance. Added to this, one needs to realise that these objects were never meant to be viewed as static objects. These objects were pages in manuscripts that were meant to be turned and tilted and moved, and throughout this the light would be catching the object from different angles and reflecting differently with each position. Gold would not have been used if its innate reflective characteristic was not important. 

CBL In 07A.2r, lit for reflective gold

CBL T 447 f.9r, lit for reflective gold

CBL In 07A.2r, lit normally

CBL T 447 f.9r, lit normally

And so our great challenge is how to photograph gold in such a way as to show the many faces of this distinctive material. As you can see from the images above, there is a marked difference between reflective and unreflective gold. In our department we have taken to referring to reflective gold as ‘gold up’ and non-reflective gold as ‘gold down’. 

After much deliberation we decided that in order to do the most justice to the objects we should aim to photograph them ‘gold up’ as much as possible. In doing so we would be celebrating the reflective nature of the material as much as we could through a static image.  

This decision as we later came to realise would not be without its own drawbacks but more about that later. 

Our first approach to photographing reflective gold was quite technology heavy. We bought a ring flash that would attach to the lens of our Phase One camera with the hope that this flash would provide even lighting across the object that would reflect well. In theory this idea should have worked quite well as the light and the lens are on the same plane, meaning that reflections should have been pronounced. 

This theory did not even get off the ground. Even at the lowest power setting the flash overwhelmed the gold and blew out the highlights dramatically.  

This led us to plan number two, use a diffuser with the ring flash. Alas, our forays into the world of ring flash usage were short lived. While the diffuser made the ring flash usable, the flash did not create the even lighting we hoped for. Even when we filled in with our other flashes there was not a sufficiently even reflection coming off the gold. Added to this, we had a difficult time using the ring flash and our Arca Swiss Cube tripod head at the same time. All in all, the ring flash was not a method that worked well for us. 

Image of digitisation in action at the Chester Beatty photo studio
Lighting for gold set up

The second method we employed was actually quite successful and we used it, with a fair amount of success, for the better part of two years. With this method we effectively create a light tent with our large 3’x2’ softboxes as high as possible above the object. This set up creates an even light over the object and promotes smooth reflections on a flat surface. 

This approach had its own down sides and over time they became more and more apparent. The basic weakness of this approach is that it is a very direct, powerful light. This often leads to an image where gold is exposed correctly but the rest of the image can be quite under exposed. It also can lead reflections occurring elsewhere in the image.  

There were two particular instances that led us to looking for an alternative light source. The first was while photographing a particularly gorgeous but subtly coloured Indian miniature. This miniature combined these subtle colours with gold accents and when photographed with this direct lighting some of this subtlety was lost. 

The second instance was when photographing a Jain manuscript which combined gold highlights with large areas of glossy paint. This direct, powerful light set up caused this paint to reflect, which turned the glossy, deep black into a gray colour.  

In both of these cases the final image was not an acceptable reproduction of the original and so we were forced to look for a new approach to lighting gold. 

Our current approach to photographing gold utilises a more indirect approach. It was inspired by conversations that our department had with a number of other institutions as to how they light for gold. One approach stood out, where the gallery would suspend a white foamcore bounce board above the object and direct the lights upwards towards the bounce board. 

We modified this approach by lighting the object as if it is not reflective i.e. with the lights far apart, angled towards the object at 45 degrees. Above the object we then suspend a large Lastolite reflector and have a third light with a small 1’x1.3’ softbox angled upwards, towards the reflector, which bounces the light down onto the object. 

There are a number of benefits to this approach. Firstly, it is quite easy to set up as it is not necessary for us to move the two main light sources. Thanks to this, we are able to switch between lighting for ‘gold up’ and ‘gold down’ very quickly, sometimes even within a single object. Secondly, the less harsh light allows less interference with the other colours and stops the problem of the underexposure of images when the gold is too reflective. 

The drawbacks with this approach is that, as the light is no longer direct, there is less reflectivity on the gold but this is a tradeoff we are willing to take as long as it allows for better colour rendition throughout the rest of the image.  

This process is very much a constantly evolving one and we will continue to try and perfect it. Who knows, maybe in six months time there might be a new blog post regarding our new approach to photographing gold. 

Jon Riordan, Digital Photographer at the Chester Beatty

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