Duncan Miller

When you have finished the chores, tidied the garage, weeded the garden, washed the windows, painted the house and knitted the dog a winter coat, how do you keep yourself busy around the home during lock-down? You could take advantage of the enforced holiday to photograph and catalogue your mineral collection, even if you are not preparing it for sale.

Bonnie, decked out in MinSoc green (courtesy of Jo Wicht)

Photography of minerals need not involve very expensive equipment. My first attempts were with a light tent made out of a cardboard box and an automatic point-and-shoot camera with a macro setting. The cardboard box had windows cut in the sides, covered with tracing paper to provide diffuse sunlight. The camera was on a small tripod and produced good enough photography for publication in Lapis magazine (Volume 35, Number 4, April 2010). Surely that is good enough?

My first mineral photographic set-up

One has to experiment. The white background was better.

Unfortunately that camera died, so it was replaced with a much more complicated digital single lens reflex camera that took me years to learn to use properly. By then some if its functionality had ceased to function too, but it still works on the manual focus setting with an old macro lens that pre-dates the electronic revolution. This camera sits on the same small tripod but I have moved inside and out of the sun. The mineral specimen is on a sheet of white or black paper inside a cut-away plastic box to eliminate unwanted side light, and illuminated from above with an ordinary Anglepoise desk lamp with a cool white, frosted LED globe, all on the kitchen table. I set the manual white balance on the camera with a standard white card before each exposure, but could just as well set the colour temperature of the globe 4200 K. Either way the photograph needs some processing on the computer to adjust the colour balance, and often to brighten the image a bit.

My current mineral photographic set-up

Post-photography processing also involves renaming the electronic files, with the identification details of the specimen. It helps in keeping track of things later to include the specimen number, the main species name, the locality, and dimensions all in the file name. It involves quite a bit of work but means you don’t need a separate catalogue and can file the photographs in meaningful sub-folders on the computer. After all this work it is sensible to make external backups to an external hard drive. All my mineral photographs are also saved to two DVDs as a permanent record.

Once the files have been re-labelled it is quite an easy exercise to draw up a catalogue if you want one. There are several online options available through FMF (https://www.mineral-forum.com/message-board/) and Mindat (https://www.mindat.org/) but I prefer having my own filing system at home. So I have put together a very simple Excel spreadsheet which has all the record fields important to me, including a link to one or more relevant pages on Mindat describing the locality and sometimes characteristic specimens. This catalogue is also used for creating labels to accompany the specimens, which for lack of display space are stored in boxes, sorted by species or locality. These boxes are themselves photographed, labelled and stored on open racks, so I can access specific sets of specimens as easily as taking a book out of a bookcase.

One of several boxes of garnet specimens

If you have a large collection this all represents a lot of work. But apart from keeping you busy when you have time on your hands, it obliges you to look at each specimen closely, get to know your collection better, research localities on the web, and adds value to the collection. In the event that you must dispose of the collection, all the preparation work has been done and it can be marketed with a minimum of fuss. It is also much more fun than cleaning the windows or painting the house.