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Recording the Treasure: Photographing Your Antique Furniture

by Fred Taylor (11/16/09).

If you really enjoy researching, discovering and acquiring pieces of older and antique furniture, not to mention repairing, restoring and maintaining your functional links to the past, sooner or later you are going to get the urge to photograph them. You have all kinds of legitimate practical reasons to make a record of your treasures, such as for inventory and insurance purposes and the like, but perhaps you just want to brag a little—show off the newest acquisition to a distant cousin or impress a friend who is still stuck in the “brass and glass” phase.

The straight on shot doesn’t ell you much about this English Regency tea poy.
The straight on shot doesn’t ell you much about this English Regency tea poy.

The open top reveals the fairly original interior of the tea poy.
The open top reveals the fairly original interior of the tea poy.

Taking pictures of your furniture is easy. Taking good pictures is a bit more difficult but, like taking pictures of your kids, it can be done. First, take some snapshots of your favorite piece, in place, as it stands in your house. After you get the pictures developed sit down with them and thumb through a couple of trade publications and compare their photos to yours. The fabulous photos in the magazine “Antiques” will humble you as a photographer. So will those in “Art & Antiques.” Of course, these are done by highly skilled (and highly paid) professionals in perfect studio situations, but there is always something to be learned. Next, stroll through some newsprint trade pubs such as “Maine Antique Digest,” “Antique Week” and “Auction Exchange” and look at the photos taken on site, in “as found” situations. Chances are even these on-the-fly shots taken at auctions are better than your snapshots. Why?

The first response is that whoever took all those pictures has a better camera than you do. Probably, but that’s a detail. How they use the camera and more importantly, how they frame the picture are the real differences in the photos. If you have one of the modern, ubiquitous digital cameras with a built in flash, zoom lens and perhaps even a macro function, or even if you are shooting with a 35mm camera and film, you are on your way to being an excellent furniture photographer.

The most important point to remember is that in order to get good pictures you must take a lot of pictures. If you think three shots will do, take 10 with minor variations of position and light. You never really know what is going to work in a given situation and some of the shots will truly surprise you.

Another point to remember is taking a picture of a piece of furniture is a lot like photographing a small child in most cases. In order to get the real sense of the child (or the piece) you must get down to their level. Don’t shoot a 28-inch-tall lamp table from six feet up. Get down to it and see what it really looks like. Or bring it up to you. If you need to elevate a piece to get the details or the sense of proportion, by all means do it.

The picture on the left doesn’t tell you much about the top of the table, just the Lladro cluttering it. When the table top is cleared you can see the distinctive pattern of crotch cut mahogany.

The picture on the left doesn’t tell you much about the top of the table, just the Lladro cluttering it. When the table top is cleared you can see the distinctive pattern of crotch cut mahogany.

And in order to see what it really looks, like you have to remove the lamp and all the other assorted items that tend to accumulate on horizontal surfaces. You don’t want the insurance man to see that awful picture of Aunt Mable in the middle of the top. You want to show the top itself.

Composition of the picture is very important. You want your subject to take up most of the frame but you must be keenly aware of what else is in the viewfinder of your camera. You may be looking at the lamp table but the camera is looking at a whole panorama, which includes the background and all the things on the periphery. One way to “clean up” the background and periphery is to use a bed sheet as a backdrop. No one will know the difference between your sheet and the expensive canvas drapes used by the pros. Tape, staple or tack your sheet to the surface behind your subject and watch how the photo changes. It sounds like a lot of work but it’s worth the effort and you only have to do it once.

When you take photographs of a piece of furniture, make sure the image shows the whole thing. You can’t possibly show all the details of an ornate chest of drawers in one photo. Shoot a whole series of shots like the glamour mags do. Show a full frontal shot, then a side angle, then an oblique, then a top shot, then go to details like hardware, carving, turnings, legs, feet, casters, etc. Don’t forget to shoot the back and don’t forget to get shots with drawers and doors closed AND open and be sure to record the important joinery, such as on drawers and stretchers on legs. If your camera has a macro function it is particularly useful with the finer details.

The photo on the left was taken from straight ahead and the flash bounced right back. When taken at a slight angle there is no glare from the flash.

The photo on the left was taken from straight ahead and the flash bounced right back. When taken at a slight angle there is no glare from the flash.

Lighting can make or break your photo efforts. Since most of your shooting will be indoors, you probably will be using the built in flash. In this case do not take a picture straight on of a flat surface like a chest front. You will get a photo full of your own flash reflected back in your face. Employ a slight angle so the flash bounces away from you. Even when using a flash unit you must be very aware of external light sources. An uncovered window in your frame will cause your automatic camera to react to the “backlight” and the resulting photo will be too dark. Always work with natural light to your back if at all possible. Employ auxiliary lighting to your advantage. Even a simple drop light from your garage set at a 45 degree angle between you and the piece will provide excellent side light while your flash fills in the front. Two drops are even better.

The photo of the chair on the left was taken against an open door. The backlight obliterates the details of the chair. On the right is the same chair using a blanket for a backdrop. Now you can actually see the chair.

The photo of the chair on the left was taken against an open door. The backlight obliterates the details of the chair. On the right is the same chair using a blanket for a backdrop. Now you can actually see the chair.

Finally, don’t try to get too much in one shot. It’s virtually impossible to show an entire dining room or bedroom set in one shot. Take an overall “group” picture just for the record but then shoot each piece individually after that. A little practice and a lot of attention to important details will make you a very good furniture photographer.

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Fred Taylor is a antique furniture Worthologist who specializes in American furniture from the Late Classicism period (1830-1850).

Send your comments, questions and pictures to me at PO Box 215, Crystal River, FL 34423 or info@furnituredetective.com.

Visit Fred’s website at www.furnituredetective.com. His book “How To Be A Furniture Detective” is now available for $18.95 plus $3 shipping. Send check or money order for $21.95 to Fred Taylor, PO Box 215, Crystal River, FL 34423.

Fred and Gail Taylor’s DVD, “Identification of Older & Antique Furniture,” ($17 + $3 S&H) and a bound compilation of the first 60 columns of “Common Sense Antiques,” by Fred Taylor ($25 + $3 S&H) are also available at the same address. For more information call 800-387-6377, fax 352-563-2916, or e-mail info@furnituredetective.com.

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