How to Take Pictures of Artwork

By | 4:36 PM
Having a method to get photos of your work transferred to digital format is highly important for artists for many reasons including, but not limited to, promoting art for sale and for duplicating original works in printed format. Most artists will use a scanner to capture a high-resolution image. In the place of that, you may use a camera for times when said piece of art is too large for scanning or is already framed. Anything that is in the round, of course will have to be photographed to be shared apart from in-person viewing. Here are some steps to follow if you want to do it yourself with decent results. 

For starters you should use what's referred to as a Pro-sumer-quality digital camera, meaning one that has output of 6 Megapixels or greater with either a zoom feature or zoom lens. Find an open space to work in where you can either hang your artwork level and flat as you can. You will need a tripod in order to line up the center of your artwork to camera’s position. 
How to photograph artworks: Photography demonstration with Becket Logan
image: See-ming Lee   (CC BY-SA 2.0)

If you are able to capture the photo outdoors, in the morning just after dawn or early evening right before dusk will get you a better type of light, yet might take some experimenting. Indoors, you will need to have a diffused light source positioned so that there is no glare on the art itself. Focus your lens so that your art is totally within the focal plane. You may need to change the lens length so that your image is not distorted. 

White balance is usually automatic in digital cameras. If you shoot with a mixture of light sources present it can cause the auto balance to struggle and cause an orange tint which commonly occurs when working indoors. This means block your windows as well as you can to control your light source from outside as well. If you can, you may wish to build a lightbox around the artwork to isolate it. Lightboxes are great so long as you can fit the artwork within it, providing an easy to control environment for the photo-taking.
DIY Lightbox
Ready-made lightbox set-up.

Once you have obtained a digital image you will want to import it to your computer and into the editing program of your preference. Photoshop, Aperture, Lightroom etc., you may even just find everything you need in a basic editor such as MS Paint. Here you can change the size desired and color correct if needed. Brightness and various other factors can be manipulated varying according to the filters available on your program of choice. At this point you will want to crop the image so only your artwork is showing. Choose a resolution quality that is at least 500px in RBG for printing. If you have a high quality color printer set up you may print a sample to proof your work. If you are sending it to a professional print shop or print on demand site check with them for the resolution and size requirements.

Building a Lightbox, DIY
Example of a self-made lightbox 
image: Tony Buser (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Here are some tips for overcoming a few obstacles that you may run into when photographing your art:

  • Glass
    Sometimes you just haven’t taken a photo before sending the art to the framers. Glass can be difficult in the picture-taking effort, even as it protects the art. The first things to look for are fingerprints, dust and smudges which you should use a cloth to hand-wipe clean from the glass. Glare and reflections are two other problems photographers run into with glass-encased subject matter. If you have access to a Neutral Density (ND) or polarizing filter you can work with that is what the professionals do. Lenses with vibration reduction are particularly useful when using slower shutter speeds. Another neat trick is cupping your hand around the top or side of your lens, however, these methods should be applied at a minimum – just enough to reduce the glare.

    There is also the simple matter of how to keep one’s reflection from appearing in the photo. Avoid your ghost in the camera by shooting from a slight angle. And, be alert to any reflections of people or animals moving around the vicinity creeping into frame on other sides of the item you're photographing.
  • Dark environment
    Okay, this is for exceptional instances where you just can’t get the lighting right no matter what due to a lack of light. Let me state here DO NOT use flash. This is a situation where you will need to slow your shutter speed and use longer exposures to get the best image possible. If your camera struggles to pick the right exposure try bracketing to get your shot.
  • Proximity
    Standing too near to the subject can cause problems with lens distortion so stand further back and don't use a really wide focal length. This is why working in an “open space” is key - you need to have the ability to get the proper distance for the best shot. If you have a zoom lens, use that to pull the artwork in so as to fill the image as much as possible. Using a smaller aperture will increase depth of field, ensuring the sharpness of the work you're photographing in its entirety. 
In composing this article I gathered information from many artists who shared their methods and found some advice on this from photographers as well. However, most artists I have mentioned this to are still working it out, not really confident with how they are capturing images of their artworks. This could be due to many different ways for getting good results and also various limitation factors.  

Have you found photographing art a tricky matter? Do you have advice you would like to share or suggestions to add here? Let me know, because it really matters, and I am always open to more input. Thanks!
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