Pro's Choice; Museum Photography: Diverse Tools For Diverse Needs; The Complex World Of Photography At New York’s American Museum Of Natural History

"The Great Swamp was a treat," observed one of the photographers from the American Museum of Natural History's photo studio after returning from a trip to photograph this New Jersey marshland. "Nothing like slogging around in chest waders and dodging mosquitoes (unsuccessfully, I might add) for four hours in really nice smelling swamp water," he quipped. As part of a project to photograph aquatic vegetation for an upcoming exhibit, this intrepid photographer had to step outside the familiar studio environment, which happens on occasion. Some assignments have taken members of the photo studio to such exotic locations as Indonesia, Hawaii, and Africa to document scientists working and collecting samples for the museum.

This full-grown (4-foot-long) rhino iguana was photographed for "Lizards & Snakes: Alive!" and the picture was featured on the huge banner for the exhibit. The live lizard was pictured against white Formica on location, using a Canon EOS-1Ds Mark II with a 24-70mm zoom at 35mm, at 1/250 sec and f/18. The Speedotron studio strobe lighting involved one overhead softbox, with a second softbox on the right, while another strobe served to illuminate the backdrop.
© 2007, Denis Finnin/AMNH, All Rights Reserved

But most of their time is spent at this prestigious New York City institution, either inside the spacious photo studio or elsewhere within the confines of the museum or its grounds to photograph everything from the smallest ancient artifacts to the largest dinosaurs at one end of the spectrum, and live animals (butterflies, reptiles, and amphibians) and people (publicity functions) at the other. And to tackle this diversity, the team of Denis Finnin, Craig Chesek, and Roderick Mickens must have a working knowledge of a wide variety of photographic tools.

Changing With The Times
The museum has had a photographic department dating back to the early 1900s, with photography playing an ever-increasing role in museum life in recent years. Contending with mosquitoes at a swamp hinted at the next step in the evolution of photography at this institution. In the past, diorama backdrops had always been paintings. The purpose of this shoot was to produce a photographic image that would be blown up to a wall-size mural and, for the first time, serve as a background for a new, albeit temporary, exhibit focusing on water.

This photograph captures the essence of the museum's "Mythic Creatures" exhibit. The photographer used studio strobe to freeze the costumed figure's dance movements, shooting against a black velvet background in the museum's photo studio with a Canon EOS-1Ds Mark II with a 24-70mm zoom, for an exposure of 1/100 sec at f/16.
© 2007, Denis Finnin/AMNH, All Rights Reserved

What's more, photography at the American Museum of Natural History has seen a strong shift over the years, from analog to digital capture. That said, the studio did have to choose film for this assignment, using a 4x5 Sinar view camera and Fuji Velvia 100 for the huge blowup. A digital camera did accompany the photographer, but as backup. Metering for the Sinar was done with one of the handheld meters, Minolta or Sekonic, that the studio owns, with the addition of a Polaroid back.

"Since I've been here," Finnin observed, "there's been a greater awareness of how valuable images are to the museum, and that's been reflected in the gear we've been able to buy and the space that we have, which is really phenomenal." The photo studio in recent years has witnessed the evolution from Nikon F-series to D-series SLRs. Along the way, they added a Phase One back, which has more recently been replaced by a 22-megapixel Sinarback 54M, attached to a Mamiya RZ67 for large-scale reproduction.

Homo Heidelbergensis Rhodesian Man. This is part of the "Hall of Human Origins" exhibit. Homo heidelbergensis Rhodesian Man was photographed with a Sinarback 54M on a Mamiya RZ67. In addition to the lighting generally used to illuminate these figures, light also came up from underneath to give the features a more pronounced effect.
© 2007, Rod Mickens/AMNH, All Rights Reserved

Most recently, the studio added the Canon EOS-1Ds Mark II, which they use for sizable enlargements or high-quality reproduction in books and magazines, or when the photo is intended for an exhibit, such as the currently running "Mythic Creatures." This exhibit features 4-foot-high images of people recounting stories relating to myths. The images were shot in the museum's photo studio using the EOS and Speedotron studio strobes.