Photographing Your Collection

As your collection grows, you’ll want to keep a visual inventory of all the items in your collection. In addition to remembering what’s in your collection, such images will also help with insurance documentation and estate planning. And for those of us losing our minds, it’s often easier to go through pictures to remember what you have rather than digging through storage boxes, display cases, and notes in search of an item. This article will guide you through the basics of photographing your collection.

Getting Set Up

Unless you collect very large items (cars, tractors, paintings), you’ll want to locate an area that will accommodate an “assembly line” for taking pictures. If you have to photograph a large collection, consider utilizing a space that can be used for several days.

If you collect very large items, you won’t have as many setup options to choose from that will be conducive for taking photos. Although you might not be able to control background or lighting, many of the following principles will still apply.


To begin, a good, solid table with a neutral color will be helpful. If you don’t like the table’s color as a background for your photos, grab a neutral color bed sheet. If your items are really small, a piece of foam board will work great. You’ll want a big enough background so you can photograph your items from different positions without getting unwanted objects in your picture.


How your items are lit will be key in how well your photos turn out. Although most modern cameras will do some color correction, be aware that different types of indoor lighting will cast a different color on your items. Fluorescent lighting will cast a sickly green color on everything photographed. Incandescent lighting (and some of the compact fluorescent bulbs) will cast a yellowish tint to your photos. If you are photographing outdoors, then color shouldn’t be an issue.

For photographing outdoors, pick a location that has a good deal of natural light. However, never photograph in direct sunlight. You want diffused soft light so as not to cast any hard shadows.

For an indoor setup, you have a couple of lighting options to choose from. You’ll want to use a flash (which reproduces “daylight” colors) or you’ll want to set up lamps to shine light on your subject.

For flash photography, a flash diffuser across the flash will make your photos look less harsh with softer shadows. Unless you have a traditional detachable flash, you may not have many “formal” options for a diffuser. A nice trick is to affix a piece of white tissue or thin white paper across the flash to diffuse the light. This trick works on almost all camera flashes for close-up photographs.

RELATED ARTICLE: Collector’s Guide to Record Keeping

If you’re photographing on the cheap and/or don’t want to use a flash, then a couple of clamp lights shining on the subject at 45 degree angles will do the trick. Just remember about the color that may be cast on your photos by the type of bulb used in the clamp light. You can also diffuse these lights by placing some thin white paper or frosted Mylar across the lights. Be careful though, as some bulbs can get hot! The last thing you want to do is set your collection on fire!

Choice of Camera

Fortunately, technology has advanced to where most cameras you find today will take very good photographs. The camera in your smart phone is just as good if not better than some point and shoot cameras that came out a decade ago. When choosing a camera, use something you understand and are comfortable using. I’m still a fan of traditional SLR (Single Lens Reflex) cameras as they end up being more versatile. If you have a very simple point-and-shoot, it will work fine. Even your smartphone can be setup to take pretty good pictures (stay tuned for another article in the future on taking pictures with your smartphone).

I would suggest using a camera that can be affixed to a tripod. This will help you stabilize your pictures and keep each picture consistently framed and lit. If your camera doesn’t have a place to screw in a tripod mount, then get creative. For point and shoot cameras, you might even simply clamp your camera to a tripod.

When choosing a tripod, the heavier the better. Here are a few good tripod models. You want a heavy tripod so the camera doesn’t shake as much when you take the photo. A lightweight travel tripod can be used, just hang some heavy weight from the center post or around the legs to weight it down a bit.

Once you’ve got your camera, tripod, and lights setup, your work station might look something like this.

lighting diagram for photographing your collectionCheck out to create your own layout.

The goal is to have everything consistent so your photos are all similarly lit with similar backgrounds. This will make the focus on the item and not about the quality of the photo. Plus it will help speed up (or even eliminate) processing the photos in the computer.

Processing Your Photos

If you’ve setup your environment correctly and kept all your pictures consistently lit and positioned, then processing your photos on the computer will be much easier for you. In fact, if you’ve done an excellent job of framing, lighting, and positioning your items, then you might not have to process your photos at all! If you’re like most people however, you will probably want to crop some of the photos or adjust the color balance.

When cropping photos of my collection, I like to leave a little bit of the background visible so the item isn’t so bunched up against the edges. Often times, I will crop down to a detail of the item and save a copy so I have both the original photo and a detailed view of the item.

If the colors of the picture look off, then I will also color correct them as necessary. Usually I have to do this if I’ve photographed the collection without a flash and used artificial light. Most photo processing software today will allow you to do some sort of color correction on your photos.

Photo Editing Software

You have quite a few options when it comes to selecting software to edit your photos. Options range from the powerful (and high priced) Adobe Photoshop down to whatever image editing software came free with your computer.

When choosing software; at a minimum, you want to be able to crop and adjust the color balance of the pictures. Here are a few options:

Adobe Photoshop

Can be expensive depending on licensing but is very powerful with many features to learn. Used by professionals.

Photoshop Elements

Great entry level software and covers all of the basics. Might come bundled with a scanner.

Free. Will also cover many of the basics.


Another free photo manipulation software.

How to use each of the above software packages is beyond the scope of this article but there are many tutorials available for your use. If all else fails, read the help manual built into the software!

Storing and Organizing Photos

Now that you’ve got great photos of your collection, you want to keep them organized and easily accessible. This is where can help. We will keep a moderately sized version of your photos available for instant retrieval along with all the other notes you add about that item.

Even though will keep a copy, we suggest keeping additional backups. But what do you do with all of them? Organizing local copies of your pictures can be challenging at first, but picking a system and sticking with it can keep things under control. The system you choose is up to you but here are a couple of ways other people organize their photos using a combination of folder names and file names.

Date First (Year > Month > Subject.jpg)

folder structure


Subject First (Bullets > Year > Month > Subject.jpg)

folder structure

Whichever method you choose to employ for keeping your pictures organized, the important thing is to stay consistent!

Share with

Do you have any tips for photographing a collection? Do you have awesome photos to share? If so, we would love to hear what works for you and why. Drop me an email at, or submit your comments below.

All the best,

Mitchell Updates

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