The collections of the Royal Commission include over 1.25 million photographs. From its invention, photography has been seen as an important technique for recording the environment, either on its own or in combination with other methods. Whereas drawings are subject to a degree of interpretation, photography may be an objective record. It is highly time-efficient compared with traditional measured survey, yet it can produce images of high visual quality and in many circumstances can provide a highly detailed and effective representation of architectural or archaeological remains. Increasingly, photographs can also be manipulated digitally as part of survey or publication projects, for example to correct perspective distortion and add accurate scales, show interpretations, bring out key details or produce conjectural reconstructions.
The range of photographic survey at the Royal Commission is wide. There are on-going programmes covering many types of threatened historical and archaeological features, be they large industrial complexes, underground mining remains or decaying wall paintings. This puts the Royal Commission in a unique position to add high-quality images to the permanent public record. It has produced illustrations for publications on hillforts, early Christian monuments, cottages and farmhouses, castles, coal mines, canals and early railways, among other subjects. It has also provided principal photography for recent county histories and Pevsner Buildings of Wales volumes.
The quality of some early photography in the Royal Commission archive has rarely, if ever, been exceeded, due to the dedication and skill needed to work with the cumbersome equipment and the high definition attainable from large glass plates. The ease with which we can now capture images does not necessarily guarantee good recording. Originally, the Commission relied entirely upon photography by investigative staff, who still take the largest number of photographs arising from survey work. However, the increasing recognition of the value of expert photography as a recording technique and the growing demand for illustrations for publication led the Commission to appoint a professional photographer and establish processing and printing darkrooms in 1963. In the early 1960s the National Buildings Record was transferred to the care of the Royal Commission’s archive in Aberystwyth, and this already included many superb professional photographs.
The use of large-format film cameras, with the necessary processing and printing facilities, continued until early in 2006, when the Commission moved fully to digital equipment. This means that photographs can be made available rapidly through digital media and seen on-line through Coflein. The need for high-quality recording is still paramount and, despite the apparent ease of use of modern consumer cameras, a disciplined approach is essential if structures are to be recorded well. Royal Commission photographs are a crucial component of the National Monuments Record and in many cases they may be the only record of a building or site.
Photographs are processed on computer from raw files in a colour-managed environment. The Commission has invested in a range of high-quality optics, including shift lenses, to match the capabilities of the earlier large-format cameras. Ground-based photography is carried out using tripods to guarantee sharp images and a considered approach. Lighting subjects well, either by careful use of available light or by controlled artificial light, produces the best results. In some cases it is only by special lighting techniques that the necessary information is revealed, as in the recording of early Christian monuments, where new detail has been made visible. A comprehensive range of electronic flash lighting, with both mains generators and portable units, can be used to cover most eventualities. This is synchronised by radio-control, essential for many sites that require complex lighting.
Film was a remarkably secure medium, even when not specifically produced to archival standards. The security of digital images is less certain and it is considered that less of today’s non-professional photography is likely to survive into the future than has been the case in the past. The Royal Commission has therefore invested in servers and back-up facilities to guarantee the safety of its digital files and ensure that images will remain accessible.
A selection of recent photographs taken as part of professional photographic surveys can be viewed throughout this website and in the gallery.