Cultural Heritage Imaging

Capturing 15th-Century Prints with RTI by chicaseyc

Our guest blogger is Dr. Lothar Schmitt, a post-doc in the Digital Humanities Lab at University of Basel in Switzerland. Thank you, Lothar!

For some people early prints are a boring topic, but a few specialists appreciate these crude woodcuts and engravings with their stiffly rendered religious subjects. There are reasons for this unusual predilection: Beginning in about 1400, prints became an increasingly important means to make images affordable for the general public. In addition, printing images stimulated the development of several technical innovations. Among these are ways to reproduce three-dimensional surfaces and to imitate the appearance of precious materials like gold reliefs or brocade textiles.

One such technique is called “paste print.”

15th-c. paste print with highlighted areas

Detail of a 15th-century paste print with numbered areas to denote materials used and damage.

With only about 200 examples existing worldwide, this kind of print is rare. It consists of a layer of a slowly hardening oil-based material (Fig. 1, No. 3) that was covered with a tin foil and brushed with a yellowish glaze in order to look like leaf gold (Fig. 1, No. 4). All these layers were stuck to a sheet of paper (Fig. 1, No. 1). To produce an image, the surface of an engraved metal plate was coated with printing ink and pressed into the paste. Through this process, the printing ink was transferred as a dark background (Fig. 1, No. 5), while the cut image of the metal plate generated a relief of golden contours and hatchings. Since these layers became brittle over time, most paste prints are heavily damaged (Fig. 1, No. 2). Moreover, the subjects they show are sometimes hard to decipher.

Traditional photographs are not well suited to reproduce paste prints because it is impossible to record the interaction between the light and the barely discernible relief of the print’s surface with one single capture. To document such effects, our team, a Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF) research group of four people at the Digital Humanities Lab in Basel, Switzerland, made the decision to try Reflectance Transformation Imaging (RTI). The benefits of RTI are ideal for revealing the material properties of the prints. However, since RTI is not able to properly reproduce the gloss of a metal surface, we were unsure about the results. The first test was very promising.

We traveled from Basel to nearby Zürich, where there is a paste print of an unidentified saint glued into a manuscript at the Zentralbibliothek Zürich (B 245, fol. 6r). The library staff, among them Rainer Walter and Henrik Rörig, were very helpful. Peter Moerkerk, head of the digitization center, even made a high-resolution scan of this print that we could use as a reference image (Fig. 2).

High-res scan of a paste print from Zürich

Fig. 2: High-resolution scan of a paste print of an unidentified saint from manuscript B 245 in the Zentralbibliothek Zürich.

For capturing RTIs we constructed a Styrofoam hemisphere with a diameter of 80 cm. On the inside of the hemisphere, there are 58 evenly distributed LEDs that can be triggered in succession. The LEDs are synchronized via a simple control unit that is connected with the flash sync port of the camera. The control unit coordinates with the interval mode of the camera in order to capture a sequence of images automatically. The resulting RTI file shows the subtle surface texture and is instrumental for comprehending the relief and the layered structure of the print (Fig. 3).

RTI file of the print

Fig. 3: RTI of a detail of the print in Fig. 2, showing surface texture and layered structure.

As we pointed out earlier, the glossy effects of the golden parts appear too dull, but the “specular enhancement” feature of the RTIViewer helps to distinguish between the surface conditions of the different materials that were employed to make the print.

RTIs of two other paste prints in Switzerland and several others in German collections will be captured in 2015 and 2016. If you are interested in our proceedings, please see our web site:

Creating a Portable Dome-RTI system for Imaging Lithics by chicaseyc

Our guest blogger is Dr. Leszek Pawlowicz, an Associate Practitioner in the Department of Anthropology, Northern Arizona University, Flagstaff, AZ, USA. He can be contacted at A longer version of this post can be seen at Thank you, Leszek!

When I learned about Reflectance Transformation Imaging (RTI) back in 2009, one of my first thoughts was that it could be a useful tool for imaging and analyzing lithic archaeological artifacts, flaked stone tools in particular. Not an original thought even back then, and over the next four years I’ve seen the occasional RTI lithic image pop up on the web, demonstrating how useful RTI could be in this application. Early in 2013, I started experimenting with RTI on some modern replica projectile points using Highlight-RTI method. Though I got usable results with these experiments, I decided that Dome-RTI was a more appropriate method because of the reduced data acquisition and processing times.

So began a two-year process of building my first Dome-RTI system and refining it. After multiple iterations of the lighting system, controller, and camera/dome stand, I wound up with an 18″-diameter acrylic dome that produces excellent results and is useful for RTI on larger artifacts. However, it’s grossly over-sized for most of the artifacts I’m interested in documenting. Most flaked stone lithic artifacts in the American Southwest are less than 3 inches in length, and an 18″ dome is easily capable of imaging artifacts of at least 4.5″ in maximum dimension (I’ve gotten useful results on artifacts up to 6″ in length). What’s more, these artifacts are housed in scattered locations (museums, government facilities, universities, etc.), and the large size of the dome and stand make transportation and setup of this big system cumbersome. So, applying lessons learned from the first system, I built a second system with an emphasis on portability and speed (Figure 1):

portable RTI dome

Figure 1: Portable RTI dome

  • Dome diameter is 12″, and sits on a stand that is 13.5″ square; total weight of the dome + stand + camera is less than 4 kg. The small size lets it fit into a Pelican case for easy transport.
  • The controller box automatically lights 48 3W LEDs in sequence for the light sources; maximum current is 1 amp, and can be set as low as 150 milliamps. The camera shutter is triggered automatically in sync with the LEDs using either a wired remote cable, an IR remote signal, or a Bluetooth HID transmitter; a manual shutter mode is also available.
  • Data acquisition time is about 3 minutes with a Canon S110 camera (12 MP, native 12-bit RAW), about one minute with Canon/Nikon DSLRs. A custom GUI front-end for the PTM and HSH fitters reduces data processing time to 1-3 minutes after the photographs are transferred to a computer.
  • Dome is mounted on a hinged stand, which allows artifacts to be swapped in/out in about 10 seconds.
  • Entire system is powered by 9-12V DC, either from a wall transformer or appropriate battery power supply.

The system can fit securely in a standard camping backpack with room to spare, with a total weight of less than 5 kg. The option of battery power makes this a truly portable, field-ready RTI system (Figure 2).

Portable RTI Dome “in the field”, north of San Francisco Peaks, Flagstaff, Arizona

Figure 2: Portable RTI Dome “in the field,” north of San Francisco Peaks, Flagstaff, Arizona

When recording archaeological sites out in the field, it is often not possible to collect lithic artifacts to bring back to the lab for proper documentation. You either have to photograph them in the field (usually with less-than-satisfactory resolution of artifact details), or hand-draw the flake scars (a slow and tedious process, and often highly inaccurate). This portable RTI system makes it possible to thoroughly document lithic artifacts on-site.

This system has a few more tricks up its sleeve. Full analysis of a lithic artifact may require microscopic analysis of edgewear to determine how it was used.

Dome in microphotography mode with USB microscope

Figure 3: Dome in microphotography mode with USB microscope

A simple reconfiguration of the system (Figure 3) allows high-magnification RTI imaging of lithic artifacts, using either the USB microscope (as pictured), or a DSLR equipped with a macro lens that has a working distance of 6″ or more (roughly 90-100mm focal length). A micrometer stage allows for accurate positioning of the artifact under the microscope.

You can also reconfigure the stand to mount the dome vertically for imaging larger artifacts. While I plan to use it in this mode to image the surface of Southwestern pottery, Figure 4 shows the system in vertical mode being used to image an oil painting.

Dome in vertical mode, imaging oil painting

Figure 4: Dome in vertical mode, imaging an oil painting

The normals may be off a bit because of the increased spacing between dome and painting, but you can still get useful results, like the specular mode image shown in Figure 5.

RTI specular image of painting surface shot in vertical mode

Figure 5: RTI specular image of painting surface shot in vertical mode

Total parts cost of this portable RTI dome, including the Canon camera, was well under $800. Scaling the dome up to a higher size would increase the expenditure by only the extra cost of the dome plus additional LEDs if desired (e.g. 64 instead of 48). For example, a one-meter dome with 64 LEDs would add approximately $400 to the total cost. In the near future, I hope to post information/instructions online that would allow anyone to build a system of their own. If I can build a system without instructions, I’m sure many others could easily build such a system with instructions.

In an upcoming post, I’ll present some of my lithics RTI imaging results from both of my Dome-RTI systems.

Canon Vs Nikon by marlinlum
June 1, 2012, 8:37 pm
Filed under: Commentary, Equipment | Tags: , , , , , ,

I was recently asked, ‘What DSLR camera is better for RTI data capture? ‘Canon or Nikon?’ The answer is like Godzilla Vs King Kong. Its gonna be a good fight.

The Short Answer is that either camera will work.

In the hands of a professional photographer, they are both very similar. The difference is the workflow – what you’re familiar with, what high quality lenses you own, and what equipment you’ve already got in your gear bag and studio ——— and what “Capture/acquisition Software” you decide to start a relationship with. (think Mind/Body – these two need to be pulling on the same oar)

Capture Software

Before you purchase a camera, you need to examine *how you’re going to interface with your DSLR when you’re shooting in *tethered* mode. Here’s the scenario, your stage is setup, your object is in place, you’re tethered to the camera via USB cable, and you launch your ‘capture software’ App. You need complete command of the basics : Composition, Exposure and Focus.

DSLR Remote Pro for Macs (Canon -> Mac)  |

The most stable Capture Software that we have used (bare in mind that we use Macs and Canons), is coded by a third party guy, Chris Breeze. He has taken the (Canon and Nikon) SDK and developed for a “combo” of Canon, Nikon – Mac, PC configurations. I’m not going to deep dive into the setups, but what I am going to state is that (at this moment in time), the Breeze software is stable, solid, is easy to use, and hardly *ever crashes. The user interface is Ok, a bit bare bones, but this tool gets the job done, and thats what we all want. Again, bare in mind that we use Macs and Canons (we have only used the Canon—Mac version). This software is installed on all our computers is our goto tool for image acquisition procedures.

The main user interface is a bit bare bones, but DSLR Remote Pro is solid and can handle minute focus adjustments needed for RTI production environments.

The last version of the Nikon Control Pro 2 software that I experienced worked really well, *except for the fact that it was difficult to check focus and scroll around bc that particular window has/had a restricted pixel size. It wasn’t as small as a thumbnail, but lets say that it did not take advantage of your screen size. All of the other functions were well behaved. Check it here:

The Canon Capture Utility (free with the purchase of a new camera) has a great interface, looks clean, works well, but it could be better, much better — it could be more stable. Sometimes it just flakes out and crashes. We used it for years with lots of happy moments, but towards the end we had a bitter break up. As RTI grew and we pushed the technology, we began to experience flaws. Specifically, with the ‘Live View Focus Controller functions’ (and its algorithms). Numerous frustrating crashes occurred when we asked it perform fine focusing adjustments in the ‘magnified mode’. This is pretty important considering that RTI *requires the subject to be in focus. Software crashes were even more problematic when we used a modified IR / UV camera — for some reason(s) that we can not explain, the software just didn’t adjust well to the different wavelengths of light under those conditions.

 A few more comments:

If you use ‘good Glass’ (think prime lenses+superior optics) both the Canon and Nikon are going to get you professional results. We know many many Canon RTI shooters as well as a few Nikon shooters (and hasselblad-er(s). I think that the majority of users tend to be Canon. When we are asked to purchase equipment for client(s) we always steer them towards the Canon family.

With that said, I have seen professionals purchase a suite of Nikon gear and then *re-convert all the new gear and go to Canon. (and from ongoing conversations, they didn’t go back to nikon).

At CHI we’re Canon all the way.

Thanks for reading, Happy F-stop.


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Experimental Microscopic RTI Dome by chicaseyc
April 20, 2012, 6:48 pm
Filed under: Equipment, Guest Blogger, Technology

by Guest Blogger Eleni Kotoula, PhD student, University of Southampton, Archaeological Computing Research group

Application of normal and microscopic RTI to artifacts derived from the Hellenistic-classical Derveni cemetery in Macedonia, Greece, demonstrates RTI’s contribution towards prevention, investigation, documentation and communication. Microscopic RTI meets the conservation needs for limited human-object interaction, high quality and affordable visual analysis, advanced documentation and level of detail. Consequently, it does not only signal interesting developments of the technique, but also leads to its broader application in the cultural heritage sector and particularly in conservation practice.

Kotoula, E. And Earl, G. 2012. RTI and Conservation Practice, “Imaging in Conservation: Looking at artefacts under new light”: ICON meeting, Archaeology and Science Group, 10th – 11th November 2011, in STFC Rutherford Appleton Laboratory, Harwell Campus, Oxfordshire OX11 0QX. in press.