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How do I photograph artwork?

Here are the basics that I will expand upon further.
• Use a tripod.
• Use a digital camera with manual settings.
• Line up the middle of your camera with the middle of the piece you are shooting.
• Make sure that the amount of light is even across the artwork.
• The area behind the camera should be dark to avoid reflection.
• Shoot inside with photo lights if you can
• Do it on an overcast day if shooting outside
• Remember to take some close-ups along with the wide shots.

Specifically, I am referring to photographing two-dimensional artwork. Most of my art is rectangular so, for the purposes of discussion, I will stick with that. If the format of the artwork is an unconventional (non-rectangular) shape, the same principles still apply but may not be quite as critical. Rectangular artwork is especially tricky because of distortion caused either by the lens or the relative positions of the lens and subject. If your setup is wrong you will end up with slightly wonky shapes and that can be really frustrating.

How Do I position the Camera?
For best results, the camera needs be on a tripod. The tripod not only keeps the camera rock-steady, it maintains the same position. You’ll also need a tape measure and maybe even a plum-bob if you like. It’s virtually impossible to get a good result doing hand held photography. The middle of the lens has to be in line (or as close as possible) with the middle of the artwork that you are photographing. This is true both horizontally and vertically. For example, if the middle of the painting is 4 feet off the floor then so too does the middle of your camera lens. You really need a tape measure to achieve this. Being precise with your set up is the only way to avoid distortion in your images.

Getting everything lined up horizontally is another key part of the equation. It can be little tricky but I would recommend finding the horizontal middle of the art and aligning it with a line or seam in a hardwood or tiled floor. This is where the plumb-bob can be helpful. If not, a pen at the end of a string also works. Then you can line up the camera to the line on the floor.

I always have a roll of masking tape and a Sharpy handy so that I can use to make temporary marks on the wall or floor.

The camera needs to be perpendicular to the surface of the artwork. This can be made easier by the use of a spirit level. Otherwise, you can do it with a careful eye and some trial and error. I definitely prefer having a vertical wall or an easel that is set completely upright. It’s just easier to match two straight up-and-down planes than it is to match two odd angles.

It’s worth noting that the degree of difficulty in avoiding distortion and thereby ending up with wonky (skewed) shapes increases with size. So larger pieces make careful setup even more essential to success.

Use a Camera with Manual Settings
I won’t go into really technical detail about exposures here but the problem with shooting on automatic means that the camera is left to do a lot of guess work. There are many factors that can throw it off.  For example, the lightness or darkness of the artwork can hamper the camera’s ability to make an accurate white balance reading. The colour balance can really get out of whack and that is a problem when photographing art.

A camera with manual settings allows you to ‘bracket’ your exposures. Bracketing simply means taking multiple shots with different camera settings. I use the preview on the back of my camera to tell me when my exposure settings (aperture and shutter speed combination) are about right. I know from experience the image on my preview tends to be a little deceiving so I take that into account. Once I am happy enough with what I am seeing in the preview, I take two more shots with different exposure combinations. I prefer to keep the same aperture setting and vary the shutter speed. I take one shot with a shutter speed that is one setting faster and another that is one setting slower. Keeping a constant shutter speed and varying the aperture setting will also work.

One more thing – if your camera has the capability, shoot in RAW mode. This way you have the most range to adjust things like exposure, colour balance, and contrast after the fact.

How Do I Light Artwork?
You basically have the options of shooting indoors with artificial light or outdoors with natural light. Some people suggest a combination whereby you shoot the art work on a wall that is beside a window that is letting light in. In my opinion, this is just plain wrong. There is no way that you can get an even amount of light across the surface of the piece that you are shooting. This is essential to capturing an accurate record of the artwork. In other words, you have to have the same amount of light hitting the entire surface, top to bottom and side to side. Fudging things in photo-manipulation software after the fact will not be able to solve this. But I digress.

Shooting with Artificial Light
You need two photo lights that are set at a 45-degree angle to the subject. They need to be an equal distance from the art and also aimed at the middle of the painting. My paintings tend to have a glossy surface so getting this right is particularly critical. Otherwise you can easily end up with hot spots on the image caused by the surface reflecting the light back at the lens.

I have a pair that I bought on Amazon. Each is a soft-box on stand that holds 4 led bulbs and have two intensity settings, full and half. I forget how much I paid but it wasn’t a lot. They aren’t professional grade by any means but they do the job well enough. The bulbs I put in them are LED balanced to simulate ‘daylight.’ LED bulbs create very little heat and use minimal energy so are a great option. You can leave them on a long time without worrying.

You need to eliminate any extraneous light sources. Obviously, shooting after dark will take care of any light coming in from a window. Just turn off all other sources of light in the room and you should be all set. Control is key and you really don’t want to mix natural light and artificial lights because your camera settings will only work for one or the other.

Whether shooting indoors or out you don’t want to have any source of light coming from behind the camera. You can avoid a lot of pesky reflections this way.

Using Natural Light
You can also shoot artwork out-of-doors using natural light. This certainly eliminates the work involved in setting up your lighting but it can present some other complicating factors like wind, rain, and changes in the amount of light available from one moment to the next. I also find that setting up the artwork or even finding a good place to do that makes it more difficult than in a controlled studio or interior setting, which is generally my preference. However, shooting outdoors can be a great choice if the conditions are right. AVOID SHOOTING IN DIRECT SUNLIGHT. It is virtually impossible to avoid hot spots of reflected light. Shooting in shade or much better yet, overcast but bright conditions will yield much better results. The light is much more even, and diffuse in overcast conditions. This makes it much easier to have even lighting across the surface of the two-dimensional artwork. You can still get variation of light intensity from one side of the artwork to the other. I find it a good idea to have the work facing toward the brightest part of the sky.

It’s Time for Your Close-up
Once you have your wide shots done I strongly suggest taking some detail shots of the artwork. You’ve got your lighting all set up and your camera at the ready so why not take some close-up shots that can show details and what the surface or texture is like. I take the camera off of the tripod for this and do it hand-held rather than zooming in. You get better image quality this way. These close-up shots are particularly valuable when posting your artwork online. Sites like saatchiart.com and Etsy.com typically require that you have detail shots in addition to the main shot of the artwork. After all, showing or seeing online comes with a few disadvantages when compared to an in-person gallery situation. This is one way to help overcome that.

Wrap-up
Photographing artwork can be challenging but it is possible to do it yourself and get good results. I hope what I have written here will be a help to some of you. Bye for now. – L/C