Behind the Lens

The Garland of Howth (TCD MS 56) has not yet received all the attention it deserves, partly owing to the fact that hardly any images exist of it.  This is about to change dramatically, as we recently began full digitisation of this manuscript.

Fig. 1 The Garland of Howth, 8th-9th century, TCD MS 56, f. 10r © The Board of Trinity College Dublin, the University of Dublin. 2015.

For this project we are utilising a piece of book cradle technology (Grazer KT5242) which simultaneously cradles the binding, isolates and applies a gentle vacuum suction to the fore edge of the open page (fig. 2). Photographing a manuscript is a methodical process which requires many preparatory steps: environmental checks, lighting checks, colour targets, staging, focus and alignment of the camera, exposure, quality checks, all need to take place prior to capturing each image.

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Fig. 2 Gillian Whelan (Digital Resources and Imaging Services) and John Gillis (Preservation & Conservation Department) accommodate the Garland of Howth (TCD MS 56) in our new cradle. 10 November 2015 © The Board of Trinity College Dublin, the University of Dublin. 2015.

The camera we use is a Hasselblad H5D 200, from which we produce individual master image files of over 300 MB in size. Photography is carried out on the recto of each leaf, then the manuscript is turned and the versos are completed. This process ensures that handling is minimised.

A conservator assists the photographer throughout the process, positioning the manuscript on the cradle and ensuring the binding is well supported. Minor adjustments are made to the position of the manuscript as each folio is turned and prepared. Each folio is captured using Hasselblad’s multi-shot mode in order to produce an optimal photographic reproduction. The order of the images is adjusted later to reflect the order of the folios once the photography is complete.

During the process, a conservator monitors the relative humidity (RH) in the room, adjusting levels with a humidifier. Our photographic studios are maintained at between 50-55% RH due to the sensitivity of parchment and vellum to moisture. If the RH drops much below this level the flexibility of exposed parchment and vellum is compromised as it dries out in response to the environment and typically begins to curl and distort. This causes risks to the pigments and weak areas in the skin as well as to the binding structure.

These high resolution photographs will be published online in the new year with detailed metadata as part of the Trinity College Dublin Digital Collections. This will give researchers and the wider public unprecedented access and the amazing opportunity to examine each page online in great detail.

Gillian Whelan, Senior Digital Photographer, Digital Resources & Imaging Services