Suggestions for Photographers

By Wendell E. Wilson
Editor-in-Chief and Publisher, The Mineralogical Record

Top-quality mineral photography combines the strict discipline of scientific illustration with the creative aesthetics of fine art. This guide provides basic, practical information regarding philosophy, style, technique and quality factors desired in photography for publication in The Mineralogical Record.

The photographic work involved many troubles. The translucency or transparency, the soft open or dense texture of minerals is certainly not easy to simulate in a photograph. In multiple aggregates of crystals, to catch just the right angle of illumination that will bring forward the edges, faces and intersections is a task of puzzling calculation, and demands a slight degree at least of technical information in mineralogy. In a measure the photographer’s equipment will make these distinctions, but beside that, the discerning eye and the responsive technique of the artist must also be called into requisition. However, the attempt to introduce color into figures [of minerals] has, as we all know, been tried with results that make “the judicious grieve.”
– Louis Gratacap (1912)


We are living in fortunate times; the technologies of photography and printing have developed to an exactitude only dreamed of by mineralogists of previous generations. The early volumes of the American Mineralogist (founded in 1916) have often been compared to the Mineralogical Record, and whereas the text of those early articles is excellent, the lack of specimen photos seems a glaring defect to modern eyes. Even the proverbial thousand words cannot adequately substitute for a high-quality color mineral photograph. Mineral specimens must be seen in order to be fully appreciated.

Over the years, entire collections, entire museums, have been lost or destroyed, with no record remaining of their specimens. No one knows, for example, what the original mineral collection of James Smithson looked like; it was destroyed by a major fire in the Smithsonian Institution in 1876. It seems almost ridiculous to suggest that images on fragile paper will outlast solid rock and mineral samples, but history has sometimes proven that to be the case. Louis Gratacap (1912) in his Popular Guide to Minerals, with Chapters on the Bement Collection of Minerals…was equally aware of this when he wrote:

The preparation of such illustrated catalogues gives a public permanency to the specimens. It is quite certain that had the Shepard Collection of Minerals, destroyed by fire, been given a literary and figured record, Mineralogy would have been benefited, and something more tangible than shadowy memories of its salient features would have replaced such dim and purely personal chronicles.

Gratacap recognized that every specimen illustration in the literature becomes part of an invaluable, perhaps immortal collection of mineralogical information.

The Mineralogical Record is perhaps the single most important published collection of mineral specimen illustrations (as distinct from idealized crystal drawings) in the history of scientific literature. Within its volumes are recorded photographic images of thousands of specimens, many of those in full color. Naturally we are proud of this accomplishment, but quantity alone is not sufficient. It is the overall quality of each photo which determines, to a great extent, the scientific value and also the aesthetic satisfaction provided. Our wish is, therefore, to maximize photo quality, and so this guide has been prepared to aid photographers in producing images of the best possible quality for publication in the Mineralogical Record. It is aimed primarily at photographers who already have some experience and wish to refine their skills. But, for those just beginning, an Annotated Bibliography is included to provide additional background and guidance. The book by Jeffrey Scovil (1996), Photographing Minerals, Fossils and Lapidary Materials, is particularly recommended for beginners.


Scientific illustration is an art form dating back to the Middle Ages. From early woodcuts to hand-colored engravings, chromolithographs, and finally to modern offset photolithography, the purpose has remained the same: to depict, with as much technical verisimilitude as possible, natural history specimens.

The restriction that binds scientific illustrators (the “Prime Directive,” as it were) is the overriding priority given to maximum, undistorted realism. This restriction limits artistic creativity but by no means eliminates it. A wide range of choices are still left to the illustrator, and through these choices art emerges. For example, the choice of specimens to depict coincides to some extent with the concept of “found art.” The orientation of the specimen, the nature of the background, the complex details of lighting all may vary widely without compromising the Prime Directive.

It is an obvious fact that each specimen contains far more “data” than can be depicted in any single illustration, no matter how expertly done. Consequently each illustration represents a collection of trade-offs, compromises and selections abstracted, as it were, from the bank of data that is the specimen. Because of this, creativity becomes a factor, and the illustration process manifests a flexibility which has scientific advantages as well. Illustrations can be tailored to the studies they support, giving emphasis to appropriate aspects covered in texts.

Before getting down to a detailed discussion of the components of quality, however, it should be made clear that not all mineral photography needs to conform to the requirements of scientific illustration. We intend no criticism of work done from purely artistic considerations, regardless of how much distortion of mineralogical reality might be involved. Art is its own justification. It must be accepted on its own terms, and there are publications in which it is appropriate. A scientific journal, however, must place reality first and limit artistic expression to a tasteful, conservative, non-distracting level. The suggestions given here are geared to that goal.


Many factors affect photo quality. Variables such as resolution and color fidelity should always be maximized, and trade-offs balanced on the basis of mineralogical considerations alone. Other factors, such as specimen selection, orientation, focus and magnification, permit some consideration of aesthetics. And there are aspects, such as background and lighting, in which artistry is the major ingredient (once a few basic requirements have been met).

Specimen Selection

It is obviously important to select a specimen which prominently and simultaneously exhibits as many important mineralogical features as possible. Because features such as clarity, perfection of crystallization, obvious twinning, abundance of forms, intensity of color, well-formed associated species, freedom from damage, and so on, are aesthetically pleasing as well as mineralogically revealing, such specimens often turn out to be what are also considered the most beautiful and (micromounts aside) the most valuable. In other words, there is a strong element of connoisseurship required in selecting specimens to photograph. On the other hand, specimens must sometimes be selected specifically to illustrate certain points made in the text, and under those circumstances connoisseurship must take a secondary role.

In some cases the choice of specimens is very limited, and one must simply shrug and do the best one can. If information content is too low, however (as with photos of earthy specimens), the editor may well reject the photo for publication. It is necessary that the photographer be able to block out from his mind what he knows about the specimen, and see only what the photo actually tells, if he is to evaluate it objectively.

Given the good fortune to be able to select from some reasonably attractive specimens, the photographer must keep in mind what distinguishes the photogenic from the non-photogenic. This is simply a matter of how well the features of the specimen coincide with the technical limitations of photography. Imagine, for example, two specimens of vanadinite on matrix. One consists of a flat plate of matrix with all the crystals on one side. The other piece of matrix is roughly spherical with identical crystals distributed over it on all sides. Mineralogically and even aesthetically the two specimens might be considered equal, but the flat specimen will yield a vastly superior photograph.

A good procedure for assessing photogenic quality is to hold the specimen in your hand and close one eye; do not be tempted to slowly turn the specimen as you look at it, but rather hold it in a fixed position. If it loses much of its charm under those circumstances, a photo will probably prove disappointing. It is an unfortunate fact that some of the finest, most exciting specimens will fail this test, and there is nothing that can be done about it.

A photogenic specimen is therefore one which presents its best features to one single view. In addition, it should not be excessively deep relative to width and height. Specimens may pass the hand-held test and yet cause a problem if they demand depth of field which the camera cannot provide. Imagine again, if you will, two vanadinite specimens. One is the flat plate mentioned above, crystals on one side. The other is identical except for being “bent” into a 90º angle, like a half-open book. In each case all crystals are visible from a single viewpoint, but the photographer may find that he cannot keep them all in focus on the “bent” specimen. A specimen, in order to remain in focus, must “fit” within a certain planar space. The smaller the specimen, the thinner the space becomes relative to width and height. With practice a photographer develops an intuitive sliding scale in his mind which helps him make a quick evaluation of specimens of different sizes and proportions.

Another thing a camera cannot do is see around corners. If the best angle of view on a superb crystal is blocked by part of the matrix or other crystals, no amount of manipulation under the lens will help. Unless the owner is cooperative enough to actually trim the specimen, it is best to move on to another one.

A wide range of other seemingly minor flaws in a specimen can prove fatal to a photograph. Sometimes such flaws do not become evident until one is actually viewing them through the viewfinder or on the finished slide. They are unpredictable, and a photographer should not take such failures too personally.

The bottom line in specimen selection, however, is that no amount of technical expertise can fully compensate for a bad specimen. Sows’ ears are not made into silk purses by crafty mineral photographers. So it pays to select very carefully.

Orientation and Magnification

Once a specimen has been selected, the precise view to show must be chosen. This is not as straightforward as it sounds. The possibilities with respect to orientation and magnification are infinite.

The photographer should turn the specimen through all possible positions, examining it for composition relative to which direction is up, which side faces the lens, the play of shadows, the concealment or display of important crystals, and so on. All the while he must be imagining a rectangular photo border superimposed across the specimen and varying in size (i.e. magnification) from showing the entire piece to showing only tiny portions. When the whole specimen is shown it should not be surrounded by an excessive amount of empty background.

A preference has developed among mineral collectors (stemming from the study of formal crystal drawings) for seeing certain species oriented with the c crystallographic axis vertical or near-vertical. There is no real aesthetic or technical value to this, but failure to comply can sometimes have a jarring effect. Therefore, some knowledge of crystallography is a definite benefit to the photographer.

Another preference people seem to have, this one primarily aesthetic, is that a long crystal appears more “comfortable” if oriented from lower left to upper right. I have no explanation for this. Perhaps it just looks easier to pick up for a right-handed person.

Most specimen photos will have a center of interest, the best crystal perhaps. The center of interest is usually most comfortably located somewhat above center and either on the vertical midline or just to the right of it. General rules for composition have been formulated (see, for example, Poore, 1967), but a sufficiently skilled photographer can often break the rules and make it work anyway.

After an approximate view has been chosen it must be delicately refined through the lens until the photographer is satisfied. Even tiny adjustments at this stage can have profound effects on the visibility of individual crystals, crystal faces, surface features, reflections and internal characteristics.


Resolution or sharpness can be maximized by (a) using the best quality macro lens, (b) using a midrange f/stop, (c) eliminating sources of vibration, (d) using the “slowest” film available, and (e) using a large-format camera.

A test card can be purchased in any camera store and used to determine the sharpness capability of your system. It is amazing what changing lenses can do…most cameras do not capture sharpness up to the limit of the film. The lens I use for 35-mm work is a 55-mm Micro-NIKKOR (on a Nikon F3 body). This is a macro lens, made especially for close-up photography. For 4 × 5 work I have found Rodenstock lenses to be very sharp; Harold and Erica Van Pelt use Schneider lenses.

The sharpness of a lens can be compromised by the use of filters and tele-extenders, hence these should be avoided.

Sharpness tends to suffer slightly at small f/stops as a result of edge diffraction around the diaphragm blades. The best results will probably be obtained around f/11 for a 55-mm lens; some lenses will still be satisfactory at f/22 and even f/32, particularly if they are of longer focal length.

Vibration can be a vexing problem, especially if one lives in a multi-story wood-frame house near a busy street or freeway. The best situation would be a cast concrete floor, located far from heavy traffic. A heavy tripod helps, and the tripod can also be hung with weights to damp out vibrations. The table used should be firm and heavy; it can be bolted to the wall to increase rigidity. I like to prop the neck of the tripod against the table, with a gob of clay stuck in between, to join the two systems into one; if the table and tripod vibrate together the film will not show it. If a long lens is used, a little clay or a triangular wooden wedge can be stuck under it to steady it. Many cameras have a mirror lock which allows the mirror to be manually raised and held rather than quickly flopping up and down automatically. With exposure times of one second or more, however, the mirror vibration has a negligible effect. It has also been suggested that a wire cable release can transmit vibration, so I use a rubber bulb release.

As to film type, the general rule is, the slower the sharper. Since mineral specimens are very patient and will wait through even the longest exposures, slow films are the obvious choice. I use Ektachrome 50 Professional film for 35-mm color, Ektachrome Tungsten 6118 for 4 × 5 color, Plus-X 125 (or slower) for 35-mm B&W, and Polaroid Type 55 for 4×5 B&W. The Polaroid produces its own 4×5 contact print plus a 4×5 negative and is very sharp, much sharper than 35-mm B&W. For the highest resolution and archival quality, some photographers prefer Kodachrome Professional Film Type A (35-mm color). Color negative film and color prints are almost never used for publication purposes.

While we are talking about film it should also be emphasized that photoprocessing is important to monitor. Pick the best, most expensive lab in town to do your work. If in doubt, call several professional photography studios and ask who they recommend. This is most critical with 35-mm B&W work; the difference between a good lab and a bad one can mean life or death for a photo. Scratches, lint, poor print focus and poor contrast should not be tolerated. Have unsatisfactory prints redone. If nothing else, run your own test by submitting identically exposed rolls to several labs and comparing the results. Be sure the enlargements are “custom” printed (that is, the focus is manually readjusted for each print rather than run off at one setting). If nothing else, mail your film to a good out-of-town lab for processing.

Large-format photography, in which film size is larger than 35 mm, yields proportionally sharper results. The difference is usually not noticeable when photos are printed half-page in size or smaller, so for most purposes 35-mm cameras are fine. But for full-page reproduction the extra sharpness becomes obvious. This is why nearly all of our cover photos are shot on 4×5-inch film. It is a big step up in quality and expense, not to mention major sacrifices in convenience. Few mineral photographers need to go this far, but practically all of the “masters” use large format at least some of the time.


When important areas of a specimen are out of focus, information is lost and aesthetics can suffer. In rare cases a reduced depth of field can be used to throw a crystal into sharp relief where it is backed by potentially busy and distracting material. But generally speaking the goal is usually to get as much of the specimen into focus as possible.

Trade-offs come into play here. Re-orienting the specimen may bring more of it into the zone of sharp focus, but at the expense of composition or ideal angle. Reducing the f/stop will widen the zone, but at the expense of a little overall sharpness. Choices must sometimes be made among the various crystals present, not all of which can be brought into focus simultaneously.

Because most focusing is done at full aperture for best vision, it is easy to overlook fingerprints, dust specks, lint and cotton fibers which will snap into sharp focus when the lens is stopped down. A careful check for these little gremlins should always be made.

With 35-mm cameras the planar zone of sharp focus is always parallel to the film plane, but with large-format photography the zone can be tilted relative to the film plane. This comes in useful when the ideal angle on a particular crystal is in conflict with the deal angle for getting the rest of the specimen into focus. It is also handy for shots involving an arrangement of several specimens.

Tonal Qualities

Achieving a good range and distribution of tones (gradations of light and dark) is among the more difficult and subtle goals of mineral photography. Common faults committed by the novice include “burn-outs” and “black-outs.”

Burn-outs are reflections from crystal faces that are so intense as to appear a featureless white on the slide or print. Very small burn-outs are sometimes acceptably inconspicuous, but lights should be positioned to avoid creating large ones.

For non-opaque minerals, each crystal face, as seen by the camera, has two possible components: the internal view through the face, and the surface features of the face. Reflections should be placed with care, deciding in each important case whether it is better to see the inside or the surface of the crystal at that place. Each reflection can also be modulated in its intensity to provide a little of each, to one degree or another. But at its brightest it should still show clearly the surface features of the crystal face; more light will needlessly obliterate these features.

Black-outs occur where portions of the specimen are unnecessarily placed in total darkness. Usually this is the result of an overenthusiastic quest for drama in the photo. The play of dark and light across a specimen is useful for giving a sense of depth, but it is rarely necessary to darken areas all the way to black. Less severe lighting will show more data while still preserving an acceptable impression of depth.

Another purpose of lighting with reflections is to define crystal shapes for the viewer. Ideally, at each place where two faces meet, there will be a difference in how they are lit so that the edge is clearly seen. The key here is subtlety. Reflections should be kept to the minimum necessary for defining shapes and showing a sampling of surface features; otherwise the internal aspects will be obscured for no good reason.

One reason why beginners have trouble with tonal range is that they trust their eyes. The human eye is a miracle of bioengineering and is sensitive to a greater range of tones than film can capture. What looks well defined through the viewfinder can easily end up as a burn-out or a black-out on film. The photographer must learn to recognize the limits of the film’s capabilities and work within them. He must restrain his impulse toward dramatic extremes, and make careful use of fill-in lighting.

Color Fidelity

Color fidelity is usually not a problem so long as the lights are of the correct “temperature” or color. As mentioned earlier, lens filters should be avoided because they reduce sharpness. If filters become absolutely necessary for some reason they should be placed on the lights and not over the lens.

Alas, some minerals do not register correctly on color film. Minor corrections can be made by the printer, but with unreliable results. Well-known problem minerals include emerald, alexandrite (red to green chrysoberyl), dioptase, scorodite, blue fluorite, green fluorite and green andradite. The main difficulty, whatever the cause, seems to lie mostly with the blue-greens. Using a different film type, filters or light temperature generally is of little help.

Adding artificial color to specimens is a ticklish business. Non-digital methods include colored lights, colored reflectors and colored background swatches seen through transparent crystals. It can sometimes be argued that the attempt is merely to “trick” the film into producing a better approximation of the color our eyes see. More often the result is actually an enhancement or an exaggeration of the true color, something not acceptable in a scientific illustration. There are technical problems as well. Colored reflectors are really only appropriate for use with opaque minerals such as gold, where no distinction can be seen between surface color and internal color. A colored reflection looks strange on a transparent crystal because only the interior, not the surface, should have color. Only with opaque minerals does surface-reflected light actually change color. In any case, doctoring up the color should be undertaken judiciously if at all, and if the editor finds the effect obvious the photo will be rejected.

Another subject of recurring debate is the degree to which true internal colors should be brought forth by backlighting. Minerals such as cinnabar and proustite may appear almost black under ordinary room light but can be made to glow like the Black Prince’s Ruby if sufficient watts are pumped in from behind. Purists complain that such a photo is misleading. On the other hand, the color revealed is a bona fide physical characteristic of the specimen. There is good logic on both sides of this argument; our policy is that backlighting in moderation is allowed.


Lighting is among the most important and most difficult aspects of mineral photography. As mentioned above, the light itself must be the correct temperature (3200ºK) to match with color film. Reflections from individual faces must be carefully chosen and moderated so as to fully define the crystals. The concept of definition also applies to the specimen as a whole, relative to the photo background. Where the border of the specimen is dark the background should be light, and vice versa. This makes the specimen stand out instead of awkwardly blending into the background.

Because we are accustomed in life to light sources being located above, the brightest light on a specimen should appear to come from above, say 10 o’clock to 2 o’clock. Less intense “fill-in” light can come from all other directions. Light falling on a specimen from straight ahead, near the camera lens, will make the specimen appear flat. In most cases a mix of darker and lighter areas sufficient to show depth and shape will require lighting at a high angle to the lens axis, typically 60º to 70º. Some backlighting (at 100º to 180º) may help to show internal colors and features but should be used only in moderation. Of course, for really showing depth the specialized techniques of stereo-photography can produce startling results (see Wilson and Chamberlain, 1987).

Diffusing material placed over the light sources will help to spread out the lighting angle, eliminate sharp shadows, burn-outs and black-outs, and create a softer, more appealing effect. Acetate sheets suitable for the purpose can be purchased in pads in most large art and drafting supply stores.

If light from the bulbs is allowed to strike the lens directly, a phenomenon called “flare” may result. This is a milky tone overlying the photo, and is often most intense near the center. Lens hoods are supposed to prevent this but are often ineffective in close-up photography. To avoid flare, cut a square baffle out of black construction paper and tape it over the light so that it casts its shadow on the camera lens but not on the specimen. This becomes progressively more difficult to accomplish with greater angles of backlighting, so extra care must be taken.

Fill-in light and reflections can usually be supplied with reflectors made from aluminum foil (frosty side out). White cards can also be employed. The angle these reflectors make with the primary light source can be adjusted to moderate the brightness. In generally bright situations extraneous fill-in light can be eliminated by the use of black “reflectors” or cards.

Because of the subtleties involved, the use of electronic flash for lighting rarely produces publishable results. Nevertheless, a few photographers have spent years developing specialized techniques which seem to work fairly well for them. The ultimate in delicacy and refinement, however, can only be achieved with normal lighting which can be minutely adjusted while the photographer studies the scene through the viewfinder. A few photographers have also spent much time perfecting techniques for the use of natural daylight. This is very difficult because direct sun is so harsh and indirect daylight, even on an overcast day, can be too blue. But the careful use of diffusers and reflectors can produce good results, particularly with bright minerals plagued by excessive contrast.


The choice of background is largely a matter of aesthetic taste, although there are indeed a few ways in which it can impinge on scientific veracity. Placing a colored background behind a transparent crystal, for instance, can seriously mask the mineral’s true color. In the same way, a brightly lit colored background can produce what amounts to colored fill-in lighting detrimental to an accurate depiction of the specimen. And, as mentioned above, the background must not closely match the color or tone of the specimen; if it does, visual confusion may result.

One school of thought, particularly popular among Europeans, favors close-ups taken to show only a portion of the specimen. In this way the natural matrix of the specimen can be made to form the backdrop of selected crystals, and the need to fashion artificial backgrounds can be partially or entirely eliminated. Many Americans, on the other hand, prefer to see specimens shown in their entirety. The decision is the photographer’s, although the editor may occasionally wish to crop a photo down somewhat. In the case of photomicrography, most micromounts permit the use of natural matrix as a background.

All the other aspects of background choice involve personal taste, but some very definite tastes have evolved among mineral collectors. Backgrounds should not distract from specimens. Shadows should be soft and fuzzy rather than sharp. A feeling of depth should accompany the background. And, of course, no clay or other specimen supports should be visible, no loose dirt, smudges or scratches should show, and no margins or fold lines in the background material should be evident.

Textured backgrounds should generally be avoided. Even the finest textures (velvet, silk, construction paper) become starkly obvious on film. Smooth, mat-finish colored papers (available in large art supply stores) are a good choice. So is glass or Plexiglas. Some photographers place the specimen on a sheet of clear glass, with a colored background paper laid out several centimeters below the glass. This causes the specimen’s shadow on the paper to fall outside the field of view, giving the impression of levitation. The specimen’s reflection in the glass will show unless the camera shoots from directly overhead. I prefer to use a sheet of white, translucent Plexiglas. It will not show scratches, and it causes shadows to appear as blurry puddles without sharp boundaries; it even causes two shadows (resulting from two light sources) to merge aesthetically into one.

Bright colors (particularly reds) are generally thought to be distracting, as are two-toned backgrounds. If a colored background is used it should be held entirely or partially in dimmer light so as to appear muted. A delicate pool or zone of brighter color is sometimes effective, but only the best photographers are able to make this technique succeed. White, grays and black are the safest choices. White also serves to provide some natural fill-in light by reflection.

Specimens look best if they appear to stand out from a background area which has some depth. The only way to achieve this is to have a gradation of tone in the background, usually from lighter at the bottom to darker at the top or lighter near the middle to darker around the edges. This is all accomplished with diffusers, baffles and hoods, in ways that each photographer develops on his own.


The photographic techniques and skills peculiar to working through the light microscope or the scanning electron microscope are beyond the scope of this guide (and of this author’s expertise). However, most of the criteria used to judge other photos apply here as well. Only the technical limitations differ, the major effects of which are to render a whole new class of specimens photogenic, and to eliminate most background options. With the use of bellows and a standard 35-mm camera and lens, fields of view down to 2 or 3 mm across can be achieved without recourse to other devices. From there down, however, specialized and expensive microscopes are required.


Just as any fine mineral collection should have a collection catalog or ledger recording all the pertinent information about each piece, so should a mineral photo collection. Full details about specimen size, history, locality and ownership should be carefully recorded at the time the photo is made (not later from memory). The simplest procedure is to number the specimens consecutively, or to begin renumbering each year and include a year prefix (e.g., slide 04-135 would be the 135th specimen photographed in 2004). Numerous exposures of the same subject may be worth saving, and each need only be marked with the assigned catalog number.

To avoid any possible ambiguity in the photo records, it is advisable to include a quick thumbnail sketch of each specimen next to its catalog number. This also facilitates the occasional search for particular subjects that have been photographed. As a safety precaution it is wise to photocopy the ledger every couple of years and store the copy in a safe place. One might also wish to copy full information onto one slide of each specimen and file these in a chronological catalog.

As to the preservation of the photographs themselves, it should be remembered that heat, moisture and light will all speed deterioration. If no special precautions are taken, most Ektachrome transparencies will begin to lose color fidelity in about 25 years, and Kodachrome transparencies will show deterioration in about 60 years. This can be prevented by storage in air-tight, light-tight containers placed in a freezer. Frozen film will probably survive for many centuries unchanged. Just be certain to let the containers warm up to room temperature before removing photos for use, or condensation will take place on the cold film.

Finally, unless you plan to have your photo collection buried with you when you die, you should give some thought to its eventual disposition. Be certain your instructions are clear and that your ledger goes with the photographs. Otherwise all your years of work may eventually be thrown in the trash can by an unknowing descendant.


Most journals today have made the conversion from film and pasted up boards to digital, direct-to-plate technology. This means that all photos submitted for publication must be scanned and converted to a digital file if they were not in that format when submitted. Digital photography is just beginning to find use in the production of mineral specimen images. In fact, satisfactory mineral photos can sometimes be produced simply by laying the specimen face-down on a scanner and scanning it directly (see Wilson, 2003). Producing professional-quality images with a digital camera requires much retraining on the part of the mineral photographer because a wide range of parameters are adjustable which could not be adjusted using film photography. Most good mineral photographers have stayed with film, at least for the time being. Nevertheless, we do accept digital images for publication. Adjustments in hue, tint, color saturation, overall brightness, background and even sharpness can be made by utilizing the Photoshop software. Caution is advised, however, lest this tempting technology lead one to improve upon nature to an objectionable degree.


Learning to take publishing-quality mineral photographs is a difficult task. Many years and thousands of photos can go into refining one’s technique, but the rewards can be significant. Mineral photographers who become known for doing good work will usually be welcomed by collectors and sometimes even by museums. They get to handle and examine beautiful specimens that other people are allowed to see only through the showcase glass, if at all. And they build what amounts to a personal collection of specimen images which can be enjoyed over and over. The researcher who does his own photographic work extends his expertise in a way that improves the value and accuracy of his published studies. In the long run, however, it is the readers and the science of mineralogy which profit most.


My thanks to the editorial and photographic boards of the Mineralogical Record and also to Dr. Carl Francis, Terry Huizing, Dr. Anthony Kampf and Clive Russ for reviewing the manuscript and providing helpful suggestions.


Many helpful books and booklets have been written for the beginner wishing to learn photography and close-up photography. Any large photographic supply store will probably have a selection of the latest titles on hand. The following titles are also recommended; most of them deal with the personal techniques of various experienced mineral photographers.

BEHNKE, d. (1991) Photography of microminerals. Mineralogical Record, 22, 471-476.

BETZ, V. (1977) The Photographic Record; most German minerals. Mineralogical Record, 8, 304-307. [Notes on technique, with many fine examples, by one of Europe’s best mineral photographers.]

BETZ, V. (1990) High-magnification mineral stereophotomacrography. Mineralogical Record, 21, 475-480.

CHAMBERLAIN, S.C. (1978) The Photographic Record; the Waddell Collection. Mineralogical Record, 9, 91-94. [Good discussion of factors to be considered in black and white mineral photography, with examples.]

GRATACAP, L.P. (1912) Popular Guide to Minerals, with Chapters on the Bement Collection of Minerals in the American Museum of Natural History, and the Development of Mineralogy. Van Nostrand, New Yoek, 260-264. [Gratacap is perhaps the earliest commentator on the specific difficulties of mineral specimen photography.]

HEDGECOE, J. (1978) The Photographer’s Handbook. Knopf, New York, 352. [Includes a good discussion of the basics of close-up photography, plus a review of many other aspects of photography. A well illustrated and thorough general text.]

OFFERMANN, E. (1975) in The Photographic Record; photographing Swiss micromounts. Mineralogical Record, 6, 302-309. [Discussion by Mineralogical Record Associate Photographer Eric Offermann dealing with his techniques for photographing micromounts using bellows and daylight. Many fine examples.]

PINCH, W.W. and HURTGEN, T.P. (1975) Photographic minerals, in 9th Here’s How Kodak “idea book” AE-95. [Touches on a number of problems and topics pertinent to mineral photography.]

POORE, H.R. (1967) Pictorial Composition and the Critical Judgment of Pictures. Sterling Publishing Company, New York. Republished (1976) by Dover Publications under the title Composition in Art. [The rules of composition which apply to fine art generally apply to mineral photography as well. This work gives a good review of the basics.]

SCHALLER, W.T. (1953) A photographic technique for showing some mineral relations. U.S. Geological Survey Bulletin 992, 83-94 plus 14 plates. [A primitive approach to setting reflections.]

SCOVIL, J.A. (1984) Mineral photography: basics and a different approach. Rocks & Minerals, 59, 272-277. See also his following installment: Mineral photography: equipment and vibration. Rocks & Minerals, 61, 70-73.

SCOVIL, J. A. (1996) Photographing Minerals, Fossils and Lapidary Materials. Geoscience Press, Tucson, 224 pages. [Excellent review of the basics for beginners.]

WILSON, W.E. (1974) The Photographic Record; lighting techniques. Mineralogical Record, 3, 167-170. [Here is given a detailed explanation, with several examples, of how to position and illuminate mineral specimens. Common mistakes are discussed.]

WILSON, W. E. (1987) A photographer’s guide to taking mineral specimen photographs for the Mineralogical Record. Mineralogical Record, 18, 229-235. [The original version, updated for the current website.]

WILSON, W. E., and CHAMBERLAIN, S. C. (1987) Mineral stereophotography. Mineralogical Record, 18, 399-404.

WILSON, W. E. (2003) Record-keeping for mineral collectors. Mineralogical Record, 34, 210-212. [Contains a description of how to produce mineral specimen photos using a scanner, and how to fine-tune then using the Adobe Photoshop software.]