Photographing pre-Columbian art and ancient architecture


Review of practical, sturdy camera equipment based on 34 years professional photography experience in Germany, Japan, Australia, Belize, Peru, and elsewhere. Recommendations by Dr. Nicholas Hellmuth, Director (FLAAR.), who in addition to being an accomplished archaeology professor and art historian, is also an experienced photographer of pre-Columbian art and architecture. If you want more information on photography in art history, architectural history, archaeology, and museums, check out,, and


Visit our other informative web sites Digital photography or camera-scanners-flaar for more reviews.

Thirty-four years of experience photographing archaeological sites and museums worldwide has taught me many painful lessons. Although most of us seem to need to repeat the errors of previous generations, perhaps a few observations can assist the next generation from repeating my mistakes.


If you are already deep into photography, read on. If you are sort of beginning, and especially if you are an archaeologist or student, we are starting a special page for beginners/intermediate.



If you are on the move, location photography, it is worthwhile investing in Lowell Tota Lamps, which are the best portable lights available anywhere in the world. I started out with Smith Victor, but later evolved to the Lowell system. You can buy them at B+H Photo in New York (which long ago replaced 47th St Photo as the premier mail-order photo store worldwide).



Never use cheap generic film. Never attempt to save money with cheap generic developing labs. Always use only Kodak or Fuji film. Try to use Kodachrome rather than Ektachrome--it lasts many years longer. Always use a Kodak Q lab or professional equivalent. I use AdTech Photo Imaging in Houston.



Always use a tripod, but a good one. I am unable to recommend a solid tripod because I find that Gitzo tripods whobble just like all the others. Nonetheless I use Gitzo's exclusively out of frustration in being able to find any that are less wobbly while at the same time having all the convenient features of the Gitzo line. I have three of their heavy duty models, any of which can hold up to a full studio-sized 8x10 camera. Try the Linhof tripods if you wish to escape wobble in the studio. For the turntable for rollout photography I use a Ries tripod since it has a fixed leg length. This means it can NEVER sag or collapse.


For heads I prefer the original model of Arca Swiss, or the Gitzo Big Ball (in other words I like the Gitzo heads better than the Gitzo tripods). The ultimate head for studio photography is made in Italy, Manfrotto (Bogen). FLAAR. has two of these. I would never attempt large format photography on any head other than these Italian ones. They are worth every penny.



It is a myth that 35mm cameras can produce pictures that rival larger format. This myth is perpetrated and perpetuated by the manufacturers of 35mm equipment and the magazines that profit from their advertising. It is equally a myth that National Geographic uses only 35mm. Their best shots are with a 4x5 inch format. Look critically at issues of this magazine. You can generally tell which enlargements are from 35mm (the fuzzy ones). National Geographic deserves the accolades it receives for its photography, and probably 90% is capable utilization of 35mm cameras, but 6x6 cm and 4x5 inch still have a deserved place in their success. Try Rollei for 6x6 cm format but for long term investment go for one of the flexible bodies from Linhof. Avoid the flexibody cameras from Hasselblad--their Zeiss lenses are useless on tilt-and-shirt professional cameras. You need a camera body that can take Schneider or Rodenstock lenses for their larger image circle.

I use Leica and Nikon cameras nonetheless because 35mm color slides are the universal format for slide lectures (though I prefer to lecture with 6x6 cm format using both Hasselblad and Rollei projectors). I have the Leica R3, R4, and R5, and the Nikon F3, not being able to afford the more sophisticated systems.

This is a round about way of saying that if you want superior enlargements, use a superior system, namely 6x6, 6x7, 6x8, 6x9, or 6x12 (the latter two formats available from Linhof and other systems).

6x6 cm format is the only time that Japanese technology has not produced a superior camera. I would love to have a Rollei system yet I have taken 30,000 photographs with three Hasselblads (two aging ELXs and one SuperWide C). I use exclusively Zeiss lenses but would love to have the Schneider and other lenses made for the competing Rollei system--just can't afford them.

NEVER use cheap off-brand lenses. The pictures we took with lenses of the Tamron and Sigma class were useless for enlarging. Bad choice.



The best lights for illuminating complex artifacts are Dedo-lights, Munich, Germany. They are costly ($1000 each by the time you add necessary accessories, no that is not a typographical error), but worth every dollar. You need these in addition to the Lowell Tota-Lamps. For cool lights we recommend Videssence.



The Sinar systems of large format photography are the best of the world, but I am somewhat old fashioned, so I have two Linhofs, a portable 4x5 Technikardan, and a full-sized 8x10 Kardan Master. The later was not intended to be taken around to remote Maya sites but I have photographed Xpuhil, Dzibilnocac, and Chicanna with it easily, as well as in museums throughout Mexico.



If Santa Claus would ever make it possible for the FLAAR. Photo Archive to have what we need to go into the 21st century, it would be sure great to have a complete Sinar camera system (for 4x5 studio format), a complete Arca-Swiss 4x5 for taking out into the field, a complete Rollei system (for 6x6 cm format), a complete PhaseOne digital QTVR system, and the Better Light digital panorama dystem. But we have not meet any Santa who is making $100,000 donations recently.

I do hope that you have enjoyed the photographs in this Web site. FLAAR. works hard at doing it's best with the equipment which is available to us.



New page format posted November 10, 2009
updated March 20, 1999