How To Photograph Your Art

For your viewing pleasure, a simple, easy to follow tutorial on how to avoid common mistakes in photographing your art...PLUS...because I like you, some common technical jargon explained. Grab your pencil and a notepad, Professor Prichard will break it down.

A quick bio: Professor Prichard is in by no means a professor of anything. I am a professional photographer, and more-so an artist. I shot almost all of the photography in our book, "Acrylic Solutions" (my co-Author Chris shot the pictures you see in that book where my hands are in there painting.) I know how to work cameras and have taken years of photographic study back in the good ol' days....like with film, y'all. Here is what I know:

Q: What kind of camera takes the best pictures?

A: I recently read somewhere that the best camera is the camera you have with you. It's true. I carry a Fuji X100s on me at all times. It is "mirror-less" which is somewhat new technology. You can read my review of mirror-less cameras (specifically the Fuji) here. Now...you're not shopping for a camera? Fine. Why is what I shoot with important to you, the artist? Because I am telling you, you do not need a DSLR to take quality pictures of your artwork. You just need to know how to operate the camera you have with you.

Q: Where do you photograph your art? 

A: The best pictures of your art are going to be taken during the day, using natural light. That is, unless you are in a controlled studio and know how to light art...let's just assume that you are looking to know how to photograph art at home, on the fly. Let's also assume that you are not taking pictures of art that is 5 feet wide by five feet tall. Say basic arts, crafts and paintings no larger than 24x24".  Here's how:

My lighting arrangement.

My lighting arrangement.

The easiest place for me to photograph my art is while it is on the floor, next to a window, with no overhead light. When the art is on the floor, I will position myself directly overhead to take the picture. This requires some balance... if you cannot lean over your art and hold steady for a second or two, then the best alternative to this would be to stick a nail in the wall and photograph your art while it is hanging. Make sure that there is not a light source (a window) behind you. It is important that you are not standing with light behind you. (You will create a shadow on the art.) Do not place your art on the table and take a picture of it while you are seated next to it. More on that later.

Let's learn about our cameras "Julie-Style" for a second before we continue. No matter what kind of camera you have, these principles will apply.

Aperture: Take your camera out of "full auto" and follow along with me. The word aperture refers to the opening at which light enters the camera to record the image. The smaller the aperture number, the larger the opening the light will pass through. Why is this important to us now? Because the more light that comes into the camera, the less likely you are to need an artificial light source. A-ha! Does your flash keep going off? That's because your camera is trying to help you take a picture...it's telling you it's too dark in here and you need a flash. But we don't want a flash. We don't want a picture that looks like this:

Flash glare on a painting.

Flash glare on a painting.

You with me? So in this case, if the flash were to fire, we need to look at alternative ways to get light into the camera to keep that flash off. We can set the aperture to 2.8 or 1.4 in some cases, but doing that, we narrow our depth of field. I think taking pictures of your art at an aperture of say 4.0 is nice... but what do we do if it is still too dark?

We need to increase the camera's sensitivity to light. We need to increase the ISO. Check your camera manual and read up on ISO. The higher the ISO, the brighter your images will be...however, shooting at high ISO numbers will produce "noise" aka "grain" in your images. Ideally we want to take pictures with the lowest ISO possible and still get a nice, exposed photograph.

One last component. Shutter Speed. I'm too lazy to set up a tripod to photograph every painting I make. I used a tripod to shoot the images for the book, but that's not practical for me every day. My set up next to the window can allow me the freedom of not having to set one up... you may not have a window, in which case, you may need to use a tripod. Have your aperture all set, your ISO set too...but notice your images are blurry? I normally shoot in aperture-priority mode. That means, I set my aperture, the camera sets the speed... cameras will probably give you a factory determined setting for ISO in aperture priority mode..but I push it when needed. If your Shutter Speed is below say around 1/25th of a second, you risk camera shake when taking your picture. You need a tripod to shoot with a shutter speed that low.

Let's recap: We've got our aperture around 4.0, we don't have any overhead lighting, our ISO is at say...400-600... (Newer cameras are doing an amazing job with ISOs even as high as 6400+; experiment with your images to see when you start to notice noise.) but the camera gives us a Shutter Speed of 1/15th of a second. Uh oh. What should we do? Two things- you can set up a tripod and remote shutter release cable so that you know your camera will be perfectly still when you take the picture at that slow speed....OR we can increase the ISO until we get to a reasonable shutter speed we can hand-hold.

Now..having said all that...with my fancy window and floor set up...unless it is a super gloomy day..and around 4pm, I usually don't have any of these problems. There is enough light being filtered in through that window that will allow me speeds of 100th of a second or higher at minimal ISOs. You have to find what works in your location. Here is an example:

ISO comparison.jpg

This painting has a thick, resin-like glossy coating on top of it. It is difficult to photograph. I usually photograph paintings like this prior to adding the top coat. The image on the left is shot at the window set up. Even in that area, the painting picked up some ambient light which shows as glare on the left side. I moved the painting to my mantle, which is considerably lower lit, and had to make some adjustments. I changed the aperture from F2.8 to F2.0 (more light comes in), took a risk hand-holding with the shutter speed at 1/25 and cranked up my ISO to 4000. I think the camera handled it pretty well. Perfect for web images... I would never use that image with a 4000 ISO as a print though.

There are a lot of things that I can add even to this instruction...which I feel like is way to much instruction in the first place... I'll continue, but my BEST advice to you, the artist who wants to take better pictures of art or get a handle on camera exposure in general is to READ YOUR MANUAL. Cover to cover. Read it while holding the camera and trying out all the settings.

This looks great in theory...but it's trouble. Read why below.

This looks great in theory...but it's trouble. Read why below.

Here's an idea: We've got day-light, natural, fancy bulbs in our desk lamps...there are no shadows in this painting.. great! Right? Wrong. Look what the camera sees:

White balance issues- the image is too "cool". Also, the left side of the painting is brighter than the right due to the overhead light.

White balance issues- the image is too "cool". Also, the left side of the painting is brighter than the right due to the overhead light.

Now I know what you are saying. You're saying, "Well crap, Julie. I know how to use photoshop. I can adjust this no problem and fix 'er all up." Ok. But why would you bother with that when you can take the photo correctly and skip the manipulation steps all together?

The same painting, taken in the window set-up instead of with the overhead desk lamp. Notice the colors?

The same painting, taken in the window set-up instead of with the overhead desk lamp. Notice the colors?

That overhead light messes up our "white-balance". That's the fancy way of saying that our camera is trying to help us see what it thinks we should see...it is "correcting" the colors to make them read what it thinks are proper... I find that whenever there is artificial light, there is white balance error.

Now, you can set up color cards and make all kinds of custom settings on your cameras pertaining to white balance. I don't do it. (Lord...if any professionals are reading this, I probably lost any of the street-creed I had left before I started writing this.) My Fuji cameras do an excellent job of interpreting white balance in natural light. Much better than my super expensive Canon 5D MarkII ever did. You wondering why your art doesn't photograph how it looks in person? Read up on the white balance section of your manual.

Camera flash effecting color balance in this painting.

Camera flash effecting color balance in this painting.

Let's look at another example. Data on the painting above is: F2.0, 1/640th of a second and 3200 ISO. I allowed the camera to use flash in this photograph.

The same painting, un-retouched, only difference= no flash.

The same painting, un-retouched, only difference= no flash.

In this image, I simply turned the easel so that the painting was facing the open window and rephotographed the art. What a difference!

These steps may seem simple, but I wanted to show you some before and after examples in this post so that you can "read" your photographs and make simple adjustments.

Finally- distortion. When you are photographing your art, please place the art completely parallel to the camera. That means, don't "shoot" across the art.. don't sit next to it and take the photo from the side. Don't stand over the art by your window with the camera at an angle. Here is what happens:

The camera is not parallel to the painting.

The camera is not parallel to the painting.

Above, a square painting on my wall.. looks square? What if I crop it, say to post on my blog?

not square.jpg

Not so square! The photo editing program knows square... I don't. To even this out and make it cropped nice so that the walls do not show, I would loose painting. By taking the time to make sure that my camera is parallel to the art, I can make a crop like this:

The same picture, photographed properly, different location, different light.

The same picture, photographed properly, different location, different light.

To level out the painting shown above this, I would have had to crop the image so much, I would have lost my signature and a lot of painting. This painting shows my signature and I lost a lot less in the crop by making sure I held the camera parallel to the painting.

So not too technical, right? I get asked all the time how to take pictures of artwork. Even expanding on one of these topics at a time until you feel comfortable will help you improve. Like I said, the principles are the same from camera to camera.. the buttons may be in a different location...but they are all there. 

If your camera does not allow for a full manual setting, then you can make the adjustments to shoot without camera flash and overhead lighting. Find a shaded patio if you don't have a window. No tripod? Hang your painting on the wall and prop the camera on a chair or stool making sure it does not tip over. I know you're excited to post your art...save the photography for daylight and you will see improvement. These topics summarize the most common issues I see when viewing art online...I hope they help. 

Let me know what you think! I'll answer comments as I can. So if you post one, be sure to come back and check in a day or so for any response.