Photographing Artwork Digitally

The following article is taken completely from the webpage of the   Limner Gallery in Hudson, NY. It explains easily how to photograph your own artwork using a digital camera. Other, more technical advice is available at other websites, but this was selected for it’s simplicity.

Almost all galleries look at digital images, they do not look at actual artwork. The images are the only thing that you have to represent your work.  Here are some basic guidelines:

1) Proper representation of actual color. 2) Proper exposure (not too dark or too light) 3) Artwork must be lined up so square or rectangular artwork remains square or rectangular in the image. 4) The background behind the artwork should be cropped out.

If you are incapable of doing your own photography hire a professional. If you can’t afford to hire a photographer, here are some things you can do to improve your images:

Camera – There are many types of digital cameras, but if you want a good image file that will make decent size prints you should get at least a 7 megapixel camera. Sony, Nikon, Canon, Fuji, Olympus all make good cameras in this category. A good lens is important for artwork, the mini cameras with tiny lenses are not as good. Most galleries today prefer to view work on a web site, or images on a CD. A web site is better than a CD in my opinion, or photo sharing sites like http://www.flickr.com/ or even facebook is just as good.

Squaring up the work – It is bad if works are not square. If the work is not squared when you shoot the image you will lose some of the artwork when you crop it. Squaring up the work is easy, this is how it is done. Hang the painting (this applies to any flat art, I’m using painting as an example) flat against the wall it is to be photographed on. Measure to find the center of the painting. Make a line from the center straight down to the ground. From that point make a line on the ground straight out from the wall (do it by eye or use a carpenters square to get it straight). The camera lens should be centered on this line. The distance of the camera lens from the ground should be the same distance as the center of the painting is from the ground. As long as the painting is flat on the wall and the distance from the camera lens to the ground is the same as the center of the painting from the ground and the camera is centered on the line made from the center of the painting –  the artwork will be square.

Proper exposure – The image must properly exposed, neither too light nor too dark. With digital cameras this is now easy, as the auto setting works quite well and many cameras also do auto bracketing. Since there is no film to waste it is easy to experiment and get the setting that works best for your work. 

Proper color – Some older model digital cameras, especially Sony and Fuji models, have over saturated colors. This is not good for artwork. If buying a used camera to shoot artwork, avoid these models. Most recently made digital cameras have fairly good color rendition, and the auto setting work quite well in almost any lighting.  I find it best to shoot in direct sunlight or in a shady, but well lit spot, as clouds and mist will filter the light and can create color casts. Taking slides outdoors is difficult if your work is shiny due to glare. Glare can come from all kinds of objects. If your artwork is glossy, it may be better to shoot indoors under lights.

Shooting under lights – Back in the days when everyone used color slides you needed special lights, films and bulbs purchased from a camera store. With digital cameras I have gotten good results using these traditional photo lights, but also inexpensive portable, halogen work lights that are sold in the hardware or car department section of Wal-Mart or other discount stores work just as well. These are under $10 and are very good, they last quite a long time.  

Set up the picture indoors making sure the work is square. Set one light on each side of the painting. The height of the bulbs from the ground should be the same as the height of the center of the painting. The distance of the bulbs from the painting should be the same on both sides. You can adjust the distance and the angle depending on the artwork, if it is very shiny, you may need a sharper angle to kill the glare. I have found that you do not really need the special shades and reflectors sold at camera stores, you can get good results without this extra stuff if you spend the time to move the bulbs around until you get a glare free position. Once you have set the lights take some shots with different settings. When you get a good setting that works with your work record what you used. This makes shooting artwork easy in the future since you can use the same setting that worked for you before.

Most digital cameras work well using the auto settings. Each camera is different, so you have to experiment with the settings until you get a good result. If using indoor lights, use a tripod and the timer setting to take the shot. I have gotten very good results with my Sony camera using both tungsten and the outdoor work lights that I purchased at Wal-Mart for under $10 a piece in the car department.

Credit: The Limner Gallery, Hudson, NY.

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