Collections Work: Collections Kits


Taking the bare minimum (camera, notebook, writing utensil) into collections and hoping for the best is a horrible idea. Sometimes things go wrong–an SD card goes bonkers, the lighting is horrible for pictures… Other times you really wish you’d paid more attention and taken a good photo of that phylogenetic character that’s uncoded in your matrix.

Whenever you start visiting collections for research, you should start building up a collections kit–things you regularly take with you because you might or will need them, just like a dancer’s dance bag. Exactly what you take will vary depending on what data you’re collecting and what questions you’re trying to answer, but some things are ubiquitous. Below is what I take (or, in some cases, have considered taking) into collections.


I take my laptop, but if you have a tablet you may prefer that. It would be an easy way to access all the scientific papers you could want. If you choose the laptop route, do yourself a favor and invest in a lightweight one; you’ll be carrying it around a lot. If you have any spreadsheets of data (like caliper measurements or character matrices), save yourself some time later and enter them straight into your files in the collections.


It can be a good point-and-shoot or it can be a DSLR. I’d been taking my Canon EOS Rebel XSi into collections and was about to invest in a good macro lens when someone introduced me to a point-and-shoot (a Canon PowerShot SX50 HS) which cost pretty much the same amount as a decent macro lens and has good macro itself on top of good telephoto and phenomenal IS. I’m a birder with shaky hands, so those last two things are very important to me. I decided I’d rather buy a new camera than spend two or more times that amount on the decent macro and telephoto lenses I sorely needed. Extra bonus? Point-and-shoots weigh less than DSLRs and take up less space.

The advantage a DSLR has over a point-and-shoot is better resolution. If you use a point-and-shoot, you’ll want to make that ISO number as low as possible to maximize your resolution for specimen photos (though I’ve heard that each model is designed around a specific ISO and quality is only minimally increased below that?). Camera shake is more of a probably at low ISO numbers, so this is where you’ll want to use a tripod and a timer or remote button to take that picture.

Also, if you have a DSLR, get it serviced every few years. If you’re uncomfortable poking around the delicate mirrors and sensors yourself (as you should be), take it to a professional to have it done. University Camera here in town is great.


When I first bought my Rebel, I bought an accessory kit on Amazon that included everything I needed and more for a great price. It came with a cheap tripod which I though was just what I needed. It was light, took up very little space when folded up, and it worked. It wasn’t high quality, but I just needed something to hold my camera still at a specific height and angle.

…But then I found out that the horizontal bars between my tripod’s legs got in the way of taking specimen pictures all the time. If you’re taking pictures from the side, that’s not an issue, but when you take them from above…

So when my tripod finally broke, I shelled out the money for one with an arm that extends the camera away from the legs. Sometimes I need that extra distance even without the horizontal bars because some of my specimens are big. The legs can also be splayed out even farther than the default max if you want to get a good close-up shot of something small. I’ve enjoyed using it, but it is more annoying to transport because it’s so big and heavy.

Camera cleaning supplies

Lens wipes, the air squirters with brushes on them, q-tips. They don’t take of much space or weight much and you might end up in a dusty back room if that particular institution doesn’t get a lot of funding for collections care. You don’t necessarily need to take these to the collections, but you should at least take them with you during your travels.

Extra camera battery

Just in case you forget to charge the one you’re using and it dies in the middle of the day. That sucks.

Extra SD card

Also just in case. I’ve had one decide to stop working on me before.

Camera manual or cheat sheet

Unless you’re very familiar with all the digital camera settings, you should consider bringing one of these with you. The best setting is going to be different between collections (lighting!) and between fossil specimens (color and luster vary due to the differing chemistry of the fossilization process in different rock formations). Also based on what the purpose of a picture is (depth of field is a common one to change to highlight either whole specimens or single features).

Bidirectional bubble leveler

Helps to make sure your images are taken from a consistent angle. Maybe not important if you just want pretty pictures, but very important for 2D morphometric analyses. I used to have one that slides onto the tops of cameras (lost it somewhere), but now I have one on my tripod head. You should also consider bringing one to put on your specimens to check that they themselves are sitting at a consistent angle to one another (again, not as important if you aren’t doing 2D morphometrics).

Scale bar

Don’t forget one of these. You’ll kick yourself later. So much extra work and so much introduced error… If you do happen to forget one, use something you have on hand as scale and measure it later, like that restaurant punch card in your wallet, or the lid to a pen. You could bring along graph paper and use that, but there’s no guarantee of good contrast between the paper and the specimen. I have a scale bar that’s shaped like a credit card and always carry it around in my wallet.


Something to prop specimens in place because they aren’t all going to sit the same. Many of them have bits broken off. I use a hacky sack with bright colors that are easily removed in Photoshop. Other people use moldable erasers, but I’d rather not risk leaving an oily residue on the specimens. If you use something like that, test it beforehand on something innocuous to see if it leaves any residue. Also make sure it doesn’t leave bits of itself behind or take bits of specimen with it.

But use whatever works. I’ve been thinking about sewing some microfiber or jersey knit beanbags. Sometimes the shadows in the big stitches of my hacky sack have to be removed manually rather than using the magic eraser tool to get rid of them on the computer with one click. Big time-sucker.


Some of my specimens are dark, some are light, and some are in between. Most collections won’t have photography stations set up for you, so you should bring your own fabric to place your specimens on. Try white for the dark specimens, black for the light ones, and some mid-range colored one for the in-betweeners. Don’t use a color that’s liable to be a fossil color, like red or orange. Turquoise, lime green, purple, or something like that would work better. I use my black laptop sleeve for the dark contrast and blank pages in my notebook for the light contrast because I keep forgetting to add fabric to my kit before leaving home.

Other photography supplies

You could get crazy—bring lamps and a tabletop light tent to stick your specimens in so the lighting is diffused—but that would be crazy. Lamps would be a pain to cart around. I do not recommend it unless your travel will be limited in scope and you know for a fact that the place you’re going doesn’t have their own. Light tents aren’t as useful without them and, depending on what you work on, your specimens might not fit in it anyway. Sometimes they also diffuse the light too much and the specimen looks “flat” in pictures.

FD filters will make it look more like your specimens were photographed under natural light instead of the fluorescents you’ll almost always be under. Sometimes that looks better, sometimes it doesn’t; depends on the fossil and the lighting conditions. But filters also decrease the quality of your images a little and aren’t as useful for scientific photography as artistic photography.

A lens hood might not be a bad idea, especially if you end up stuck in a room with giant windows that can’t be covered; less risk of flare.

A white balance card could be useful if you’re particular about true-to-life color. Otherwise, just use the presets on your camera. I don’t think true color is important for most types of scientific photos. I just pick the preset that lets me see what I want to see best.

Notebook or pad of paper

I prefer to take notes in a notebook, but you might want to do it on your computer instead; ymmv. You can also use the paper to draw specimens, which can be done much more quickly than doing it on the computer (unless you have an artist-friendly tablet with a stylus).

Drawing supplies

Going along with the previous idea, I bring drawing supplies to illustrate the most important specimens. How to draw study illustrations in collections is a whole post in and of itself, so I’ll eschew the details here and talk about that later.

Important checklists

As in, things you want to observe about each or some specimen(s). In my cases, that’s a character list for phylogenetic analyses. I highly recommend printing long checklists off beforehand and bringing them along in a folder. You have no idea how much time it saves vs. scrolling up and down in Adobe Reader. Plus I feel like I concentrate on things better if I’m looking at hard copies than at a screen.

Examination Aids

Hand lenses and flashlights are a huge help when it comes to seeing little tiny character states or looking into the depths of some specimen’s ear hole.

Any important papers

If you reference any frequently, consider bringing hard copies. Otherwise, pdfs on your computer are just fine. Unless you have a tablet, in which case the pdfs will probably always be just fine.

Sticky notes or tabs

You know those neon tabs you can buy to demarcate your books and folders? They’re really useful for keeping track of which drawers and specimens you still need to go through. More about that in a later post.


One thought on “Collections Work: Collections Kits

  1. richardhollis

    I have bullseye levels on all my hotshoes.
    You need to add extra batteries for the camera in case run out.
    When you return ask me about lights. There are some cheap, little LED lights that look marvelous.


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