Producing images at the National Portrait Gallery

The National Portrait Gallery produces high-quality images as a visual record of our collections, alongside the other aspects of our cataloguing processes. This provides a rich resource for reference and re-use - in 1999, the National Portrait Gallery was one of the first galleries to publish images online in a searchable database, where users could enquire about re-use of images and could buy prints, raising revenue to re-invest in our processes. Within limited resources we have constantly improved our cataloguing and digitisation processes and over 150,000 portraits have now been digitised.

Much of this work goes on ‘behind the scenes’ at the Gallery. Curators and the cataloguers in our archives carefully research the portraits in our collections, to produce authoritative catalogue records. Many others are involved in the production of images. For example, when we photograph paintings, specialist Art Handlers fetch them from storage or take them down from display before the Gallery opens to the public. They are brought to our Conservation Studio where our Frame Conservators remove the paintings from their frames and set them on an easel. The Photographer then arranges the lighting and camera settings to minimise colour distortion, shadow and reflection from the surface of the painting, and creates an image. The task has to be completed swiftly, as the painting has to be put back into its frame and taken into the Gallery, to be re-mounted on display by the time the public arrives.

The process we use for producing images from our huge archive of photographic negatives is varied. We can sometimes scan them, direct, but sometimes we need to obtain a photographic print from our specialist supplier. Although it is tempting to see printing as an unnecessary or undesirable intermediary process, this interpretative stage can also be seen as integral to the production of the final image, for photography from the pre-digital era. The print is then scanned or photographed by our Digitisation team.

Producing a representative image of miniatures from our collection often raises interesting questions. The paintings are fragile and are frequently contained within a polished metal case with a domed glass window, which may be difficult to illuminate without creating very bright reflections. Removing the painting from its case can be a delicate operation. There is always a question as to whether the painting was ever intended to be seen, removed from its case, or whether the case is conceptually integral to the portrait as an object.

Three-dimensional objects, such as sculpture, present other challenges. Differences in orientation, colour, texture, levels of surface reflection and ease of handling, mean that the Photographer has to approach each object individually and to make suitable adaptations, whilst attempting to achieve some consistency with the rest of our repertoire of images.

When we want our in-house digitisation team to produce an image of a portrait which has been made on paper – for example: a print, engraving, drawing, etching or vintage photographic print – a member of the Archive or Photographs team has to make an assessment of whether, for conservation reasons, it is suitable for scanning on a flatbed scanner. Certain objects are too large or too fragile to be treated this way and along with others – for example: series of prints which have been bound into book form – must be photographed on an easel or in a suitable cradle.

Once an image has been created, either by our in-house team or by an external supplier, our Digitisation team checks and adjusts it before accepting it and linking it into our databases. This may involve a number of quality control processes. Several derivatives of the masterfile are produced and linked or exported into the Gallery’s systems.

Under UK law, many of the works in the Gallery’s collections, plus the images of those works, are subject to copyright so, before publishing images on the Internet and elsewhere, the Gallery has to research and obtain proper permissions.

Digitising the collections is important to the Gallery, because it helps us to show images of more paintings, sculpture, prints, drawing and photographs than we are able to display on our walls. It also helps millions of people, around the World, to enjoy our collections, even though they may never visit the Gallery.

We aim to continue this work until we have completed the collection. This represents a serious commitment, requiring significant funds. We raise funds towards this work in a number of ways, including by charging businesses for the commercial use of our images.