Digital Photographic 3D Imaging for Preservation: What’s the Buzz?

Why 3D imaging for conservation and preservation documentation?

It would hardly be worth the effort of learning and building skills in 3D, digital camera image capture and processing if 3D images didn’t offer conservators and preservation professionals better and more actionable information than 2D film, digital and IR/UV imaging.  Most people know 3D imaging either from the gaming and motion picture special effects industries or from splashy, well-funded 3D laser scanning projects of high profile art objects or heritage sites. But using 3D, digital photographic images to document and monitor conditions? This is a slightly more obscure use of imaging technology and one that, it turns out, is far more practical and adoptable.

What do you have in digital, 3D photographic documentation that you do not have with 2D documentation?

  • In addition to all the rich color data of a digital photographic 2D images, 3D, point-in-time surrogates contain quantifiable contours, volumes, textures, forms and transitions from one plane or material to another that can be continuously and seamlessly viewed and measured, from any vantage point around the object.
  • These digital 3D surrogates can be saved, recalled and enhanced by future software improvements.
  • The ability of 3D digital surrogates to locate, detail and highlight deterioration, damage and condition changes are legion. The obvious major advantage is that you can capture images using any resolution and focal distance that can be used for 2D digital photographs but you can view the damaged or undamaged surfaces and volumes in ways that truly replicate the stereo view of a real-time human examiner.
  • You can also view the damaged or undamaged surfaces and volumes in ways that ENHANCE the stereo views of a real-time human examiner.  Unlike looking at the actual surface or object, a viewer can selectively view the details of the object by removing the color data, changing the virtual light source, changing the virtual reflectivity of the surface features or colorizing volumetric levels.
  • Subtle changes that human conservators are trained to look-for and detect can be observed, captured, quantified and compared in ways that are far more revealing than 2D digital images.
  • 3D digital photographic surrogates, taken over time, reveal greater detail about the rate and extent of change to a feature – tiny soap micro-protrusions in an oil paint brushstroke, for example, or the slow, volumetric sag of a 20 meter earthen adobe wall.

Conservators always need to answer and document several key questions about anything they are trying to preserve:

  • Where is the damage or deterioration located?
  • What is the nature, size, extent and apparent character of the damage compared to the surrounding, undamaged areas?
  • What properties of the undamaged materials or structures have been lost or diminished and what degree of recovery is required to arrest deterioration and impart stability and functionality?
  • Are the conditions actively changing or deteriorating and at what rate?
  • What are the causes or precipitating events that result in, or accelerate deterioration and damage?
  • Do treatment strategies arrest, slow or accelerate the rate of deterioration?

3D, digital photographic surrogates greatly enhance our ability to identify, document and monitor the answers to these questions in ways that 2D photographic images cannot.

In this 8-week project we wanted to determine:

  • If off-the-shelf, high-end, consumer-grade digital cameras, open-format digital photographs, combined with a consumer-grade lap-top computer could be used to capture and assemble detailed, data-rich 3D images.
  • If three 3D imaging capture and processing techniques – highlight reflectance transformation imaging (RTI), photogrammetry and structured light imaging – were mature enough to be used, right now, in the summer of 2012, to capture accurate, detailed and digitally-rich condition information for works of art, historic objects and heritage architectural sites and features.
  • If two graduate students and two collections technicians with no prior experience in 3D imaging of any kind could become fully conversant and self reliant in capturing and assembling 3D images in only 8 weeks, under the guidance of a conservator and 3D imaging engineers.
  • If the capture and processing metadata – the digital capture conditions and digital pathways and transformations leading to the assembly of condition-detail-rich 3D images – could be completely open-source and open-format, with no proprietary file formats or data pathways. In this way, scientifically valid digital lab notebooks can be kept and evaluated for their validity, replicativity and value.  Further, with no proprietary files or computational pathways, all steps and all images belong to and reside with the public trust agency of the resource, rather than a private or commercial entity with no legal, public trust fiduciary requirements and restrictions.
  • If the digital camera images could be captured and formatted archivally, using ISO digital standards (Digital Negative or DNG) so that the images could always be used to assemble 3D digital surrogates far into the future, regardless of future improvements or changes in digital cameras, 3D assembly and editing software or computer operating systems and file formats.
  •  If the digital photographic, 3D files could be computationally compared by computer software so that small, slow, incremental changes in condition, often missed by museum and heritage site professionals, could be recognized by computer software and highlighted so that conservators could make better assessments about the active and unstable nature of damage and deterioration.
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3 thoughts on “Digital Photographic 3D Imaging for Preservation: What’s the Buzz?

  1. Pingback: Pulling A Rabbit Out Of A Printer > > > | D I M E N S I O N E X T

  2. Hi Dale et al!

    The videos don’t seem to be playing…. after loading they pop up an exclamation mark and nothing else. I’ll try again on my computert at home.


    • Adam – Just checked and all seem to be running well here in the States. The difficulty may have been related to a WordPress maintenance cycle! For the photogrammetry workflow, Mariano Ulibarri’s update on unthreading quad processors and upping the contribution of a computer’s graphics card in the Agisoft Photoscan preferences is an important video update. This processing performance tip works regardless of whether you are processing high-res files of rooms or objects. Check it at: Photoscan Computational Usage on the Video tab under “Documentation”,

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