05 May 2010

Photographing Your Artwork

I was planning to post new art today, but a more important subject presented itself while I was pushing to enter some pieces in a competition...how to photograph artwork. Since I started blogging, I've been frustrated by the poor quality of the images in my posts. Now that I'm starting to enter competitions, it's time to get serious about improving my photo method.  I wanted a process that was quick and didn't depend on natural light conditions or Photoshop improvements. The method I adopted gives decent reproducible results.  My guiding principal: The most important factor for photo quality is proper exposure during image capture. Much easier and quicker than trying to improve a marginal image later through digital processing.

Here's how I do it:
  • Set the artwork at camera level, illuminated by two 23W BlueMax cfl's (equal to 100W incandescents) in inexpensive swing-arm desk lamps, one on either side of the piece.  (My lighting "system" cost $75 total.) Minimize all other light falling on the artwork. Move the lamps around to eliminate hot spots and harsh reflections.
  • My camera is a Canon 30D with a polarizing filter and 24-135mm lens, set on a tripod about 6 feet from the artwork. I also carry a Canon PowerShot SD770, that would work, too. Any decent pocket camera will do. The polarizing filter is important, get one.
  • Set the lens on telephoto (greater than 70mm) to minimize shape distortion.
  • Set the aperture to f8 or higher (on aperture priority) to increase depth of field and give the sharpest possible focus.
  • Set ISO to the lowest possible setting (100 in my case) to minimize noise.
  • Use the self-timer set to 10 seconds.
  • For capturing the truest colors, always use custom white balance. Easy to set by following your camera instructions. You only need to do this once, your camera will store the setting for your lighting situation.
  • For the best value control and to overcome the camera's tendency to record the image as a middle gray, bracket your exposure setting. Exposure compensation is usually a really easy process, check your camera instructions. If your image is predominantly low key, adjust to negative values (-.67 and -1.33) to capture the darkest darks. Adjust to positive values for high key artwork, to keep the light areas bright. Play around with the setting. Exposure is usually the factor that needs the most attention during shooting, since values vary with each image.
  • After shooting, I process in Photoshop Elements 8 (good program, recommended). If image capture is good, digital processing will be minimal. After importing into Elements, I pick the best exposure, lightly sharpen it (100%, radius 1, threshold 1), crop and resize. That's usually it. If the colors are drab, I'll go into hue/saturation and adjust the saturation, sparingly.
  • If I get a color image that's way off base, I adjust white balance and exposure then re-shoot, rather than trying to salvage it in Photoshop, where I'm more likely to run into trouble. I shoot an old color chart along with my paintings. If I need to adjust colors, I use that as my guide.
      Here are some pieces I re-photographed using this set-up.  The original posted images are shown for comparison.

      Here's the "after" shot, using the improved method, minimal photoshop processing was needed.

      This earlier photo was taken using automatic camera settings then digitally processed to improve values. I originally posted this image here.

      Another example:

      Another "after" image requiring minimal photoshop processing. It's a good approximation of the actual drawing.

      Here's what it looked like using the older, less controlled procedure. Originally posted here.

      One more example, in color...

       The improved photo. No photoshop adjustments needed. Just cropped and resized.

      The original photograph (posted here) took some effort to clean up.

       To summarize:
      • Set up the artwork, camera on tripod, and lighting.  Close the curtains.
      • Set the camera as follows: lens on telephoto, aperture to f8 or higher, ISO to the lowest possible, self-timer on, white balance to custom, adjust polarizing filter, bracket your exposures, shoot.
      • After shooting, lightly sharpen, crop, and resize.
      It's easy.  Any questions?

      Back to art in my next post.


      1. Great tips Candace. Thank you for the very informative post.

      2. Great and useful post! I really appreciate the details! My work does not fit into a scanner lately, but photos come out really drab, even after a lot of digital corrections they still not 100%. I am bookmarking your post and will also link to it from my blog, so that my readers get the benefit. Thank you!

      3. Really makes a difference. great posts Candace. Thanks.

      4. After paying for a professional to photograph some of my work recently, I know that even with the best lighting and equipment, delivering a faithful reproduction is as much art as it is science. I was quite disappointed with the results - not to mention significantly out of pocket - to the extent that I intend trying it myself next time. I'm sure I'll refer back to this excellent post when I do.

      5. Peter, I did the same thing...tried a pro service with disappointing results. No easy answer, but this method gives pretty good results for minimal outlay.

      6. whoa...is this an informative post OR WHAT!--appears that your entire blog is informative and generous.
        you have a ----new follower!

      7. Fantastic information.
        Thanks for sharing it.

      8. Great tips Candece, I am going to try your way, and see how it works.Thanks for all this information.

      9. Great post! I'm always looking for ways to take better photos. Can't wait to try this. However, not looking forward to rephotographing all the paintings I have on hand. But judging from your results, it is well worth the trouble. What a difference, particularly in the color image.
        Thanks Candace!

      10. Thanks to everyone for your comments. If you have any questions or need clarification, please e-mail me. The post will be worthwhile if even a few artists get better images of their work.

      11. I have to tell you, this is waaaay over my head. (wink)

      12. Thank you very much for this great post..many of us are still fumbling around ....good luck to you on youre entries!

      13. Good informative post Candace. That's a very good way to do it. Usually for my studies I don't have the patience to do a proper photo setup but for finished work this is the way to go.

        I have 2 additions:
        F5.6 till F8 is great, more is not necessary since you're dealing with a flat object and will only make the image more blurry because lens diffraction will start to kick in.
        Also, if your camera can do it shoot in RAW-mode instead of JPEG so you can adjust Whitebalance in post (plus the dynamic range of a RAW-file is bigger).

      14. Oh my god, this sounds too hard...I'm a wimp.