July 5, 2023

Museum Photography Training

A case study in training the curatorial team at the Surgeons' Hall Museum in Edinburgh to take museum photography their fantastic collection.

Edinburgh Photography Workshop is well-known in Edinburgh for helping people new to photography to take better photographs. We are ranked number one on TripAdvisor for lessons and workshops in Scotland’s capital. However, we can also adapt our training to help with specific training needs. A great example of this starts in June 2021 when the Curator of the Surgeons’ Hall Museums approached us to provide training in museum photography. The goal was to train a couple of the curatorial team to take photographs of items in the museum’s collection to a high quality. That first e-mail took the team and me on a journey that was a little different to our usual sessions.

The background to Surgeon’s Hall Museums

The Surgeons’ Hall Museums is an award-winning venue in Edinburgh with three separate collections. The Wohl Pathology Museum, one of the world’s largest collections of pathological anatomy; The History of Surgery Museum, which explores Edinburgh’s contribution to surgical practice; Finally, The Dental Collection, which tracks the history of dentistry from its earliest days to modern times.

With such a vast and diverse array of collections, you might think the curatorial team that looks after the objects would be pretty large. The reality of most museums and galleries is that the task of looking after these items sit with small teams. Surgeons Hall Museums has a three-person collections team, led by the Curator, including a Collections Officer and Human Remains Conservator.

Louise and Danielle, the Collections officer, have many tasks supporting the museum’s activity. Their role includes cataloguing and storing the objects. Ensuring they are kept in conditions that preserve them for the future and, where necessary, arranging conservation for items. Perhaps most important is that museums are there to allow people to access the collections. The curatorial team have to find ways to allow this access through writing blogs, displaying exhibitions in the museum spaces and providing material for research papers. With this backdrop, we can see how training in museum photography would give Louise and Danielle another string to the bow while recognising that it would only be a small part of their overall roles.

The museum photography challenge

Following the initial e-mail Louise and I had a face-to-face discussion at the museum to understand the starting point. The museum photography was part of a funding proposal to improve the storage capacity for the museum, document and catalogue a large part of the museum’s art collections and improve the accessibility of objects in the collection (including photographing the items).

The museum team was photographing objects, but this was being done using a Fujifilm compact camera with an angle-poise lamp acting as a light source and a photography table. Any editing to the photographs was done using Adobe Photoshop. There was limited knowledge within the team of either photography or editing processes. The desire was to upskill the team so that they could photograph mainly two-dimensional objects such as paintings or anatomical drawings. However, there was also a longer-term desire to be able to photograph 3D objects. To help with the funding proposal, I produced a training needs analysis for the team, which provided an overview of how I could help move the team from its current state to its desired future position.

The expectation was that if the funding for the overall project were approved in August 2021, we would start training in early 2022. Sadly, the application wasn’t approved at this time, but a door was left open to re-apply in the next application cycle. This time, approval was given, and we could develop the training modules to upskill the team.


“In order to improve access to our art collections, we approached Edinburgh Photography Workshop to arrange training on photography. Museums are often requested to provide high-resolution images of collections for accessibility, research, or publication. We did not have this skill on staff to provide this effectively, so the externally funded project enabled the museum to undertake photography training. On seeing how much progress we as a team had made from our initial training, we again approached Rich to undertake further training for 3D objects which lay out with the original project and training”.

Louise, Curator

The training process

Following the recruitment of Danielle into the team, we were given the go-ahead to start training in September 2022. Given that the team’s skill set was low, the first element of training was to teach the fundamentals of how exposure works. The team had also bought a DSLR camera as part of the funding, so we also worked together to ensure that the theoretical principles were applied to their specific camera. This element of the training is similar to my Switch to Manual Workshop, but it does give an excellent foundation to tailoring to any other style of photography.
The next day and a half were when we started to place emphasis on museum photography by exploring the array of objects in the collection. While we were concentrating on flat items, we soon discovered that there wasn’t a single solution for each object. Some of the items were behind glass; others were larger than the shooting table available. The array of challenges was huge. However, I used the show, try, observe and re-direct approach to start the transition from absolute beginners to competent museum photographers.
For those unaware of this method, the process helps embed skills through a series of stages. The first is where I demonstrate my approach to photographing an object, showing my thought process in logical steps. The second stage allows those being trained to photograph a similar item with some guidance. Stage three allows the trainees to photograph objects without guidance to demonstrate their understanding, and this is concluded with the fourth stage of providing feedback to aid further improvement. Danielle and Louise swiftly progressed through these stages. After a couple of days of training, I could leave them comfortable to photograph the remaining two-dimensional objects in the collection.

Finishing the job

The final element to upskilling the Surgeons’ Hall team in museum photography was to be able to shoot 3D items, which took place in the last week. There was a whole range of new challenges provided by the collection. Many medical implements are made from reflective metals, some anatomical specimens are stored in glass jars with liquids to preserve them, and others have intricate detail that must be photographed with front-to-back sharpness.

Seeing the team of Louise and Danielle was confident in the skills taught nearly nine months previously was great. This made the next stage of training reasonably straightforward, but we still used a similar approach to training. This time our concentration was on understanding about the depth of field and the ways that we can ensure sharpness throughout in our end photograph. We looked at processes such as focus stacking and lighting objects using continuous LED lighting. In just half a day, we progressed to being able to photograph a multitude of images producing great-quality photographs.

Museum Photography expertise

Looking at the quality of photographs Louise and Danielle are taking now, I am happy that the training has succeeded. There is now potential for the pictures supporting the collection to be used commercially, providing a new funding source for Surgeons’ Hall. As the collection is world-renowned, media organisations often approach them for imagery, and they are now confident that it’s reasonable to charge for the high-resolution images being provided. However, I think it’s best to leave judgement on the training provided to Danielle.

“Before the workshops, I had mainly tried to teach myself, but none of the ‘tips and tricks’ I picked up via Google really meshed together, and I ended up back on automatic, just pressing the button and hoping for the best! Now that I actually understand the principles of what makes a good photograph and how to overcome the challenges of photographing awkward objects, I’m much faster and much more confident. I really feel like I can get images that show our collections at their best."

Danielle, Collections Officer

Can Edinburgh Photography Workshop help you?

This museum photography training is just one example of how I can develop bespoke training for various types of photography. If you need to help people in your organisation to take better photographs, please email contact@edinburghphotographyworkshop.com, and we can start the journey to taking better photos as I’ve done with Surgeons’ Hall Museums.

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About the author

As well as running Edinburgh Photography Workshop, Rich Dyson is a professional photographer. His photographs are regularly used in newspapers such as The Times, Guardian and Daily Telegraph. He also had two solo exhibitions and was featured in a members-sponsored exhibition in the Scottish Parliament. You can see and buy his photography at richdysonphotography.com.