How to Perfectly Align the Skull for Facial Approximation…Every Time

frankfortActually, this tutorial isn’t just for facial approximation. There are plenty of people out there who need to photograph skulls…anthropologists, students, fine artists…the practice isn’t just limited to forensic art by any means. Taking the photo isn’t all that much of a chore, especially now that we have digital cameras. No, the tough part is: how do you get the skull aligned, not just so it’s stable, but also, that it’s on the Frankfort Horizontal Plane (FHP)? That’s the position that the skull needs to be in for any type of study, because it’s the anthropological standard that approximates the position that the head is held in life.

A laser level makes things easier, and that idea isn’t all that new; I’ve been using one for years. But what kind of contraption do you use to hold the skull? Every skull is different, so coming up with a way to get the same results every time has been extremely difficult, and frustrating. Just when you think you have the skull aligned properly in one view, you look at it from another and realize it’s off.

I do believe I’ve come up with the answer: a quick, easy and simple way to hold a skull securely, while being able to rotate and angle it in order to get it aligned on the Frankfort. Here are the supplies you’ll need, in addition to a camera tripod (that has an adjustable, three way pan head), and a laser level.

skull supplies1First, let’s get the mandible attached. I’ve used cotton cosmetic pads cut into little squares like so. This will provide the spacing to make up for where the synovial fluid was in life. It also protects the bone, and makes it easier to remove the glue afterwards.

cotton pads

Next, a bit of low temperature hot glue to secure it in place. Hot glue is preferable to something like Duco or other modeling cement. You don’t need to wait forever for it to dry, and it’s removed easily with a dab of isopropyl alcohol. Of course, I’m assuming you know how the mandible should be articulated…if not, check with your anthropologist, and remember, not to clamp the teeth together tightly.

glue mandible

Now, here comes the part where you’re going to be amazed. Did you know that all basic camera tripods have the same size camera mounting screw? And that a “1/4 – 20″ coupling nut will fit right on it?   Who knew, you say? And who cares?

Well, we’re going to create a universal skull mount to fit that camera mounting screw!

The opening in the base of the skull (foramen magnum) comes in all different shapes and sizes, and luckily, so do rubber stoppers. What we’re going to do is embed a coupling nut into a rubber stopper, and use that as the device to twist the skull onto! These stoppers and coupling nuts are available at the hardware store of your choosing, but you MUST make sure you use a “1/4 – 20″  (one-quarter inch, 20 thread) coupling nut.

stoppers

So, pick a stopper closest to the size of the foramen magnum, and drill a hole about the height of the coupling nut on the bottom, the widest part of the stopper (the smaller part is what’s going to go into the foramen).

drill…and then hammer the coupling nut in. The tension of the rubber is going to hold it in place, unless of course you made the hole too big.

hammerThen, just twist the smaller tapered part of the rubber stopper into the base of the skull like so. If you’re nervous you can add some hot glue around the edge, but you’ll be surprised how well this holds.

stopper in skull

Now, all we need to do is twist the skull onto the camera mounting screw of the tripod. Some fancy tripods (like my husband’s, which I’m using here) have detachable plates.  Depending on the model of tripod you have, you may need to mount the skull before you attach the mandible.

skull onto camera mount

Pretty cool, huh? So, here’s the basic setup (in my art room, anyway).

laser level setup Now, keep the laser level pointed at the skull, and use the pan and tilt handles of the tripod to get the skull aligned! You’ll know it’s right in every view because the laser level is telling you so.

aligning skull

And there you have it! Pretty inventive, wouldn’t you say? If you run into trouble, like you can’t find the right size stopper, then just whittle one down with an exacto knife (and be careful!). Use some added hot glue if you’re nervous that it won’t hold. If you don’t like the idea of a skull on a tall tripod, use a table-top one, and put some padding underneath if you’re really concerned it may fall off.

I hope this tutorial helps. I’ve used this technique to photograph lots of skulls, almost in an assembly line type of situation, and it works like a champ! Feel free to share this information, but please tell people where you learned it too :^)