How to photograph artwork
It’s essential for artists to have good-quality photos of their artwork, either for displaying on an art website or for making print reproductions. In this article, we’ll cover methods on how to photograph artwork, both simple and advanced to ensure high-quality results.
Essential points for photographing artwork
Before we get to the techniques, here are the key points to keep in mind when photographing artwork:
- Even lighting: The image must be evenly lit, i.e., no glare from flashes, shadows, etc.
- Colour balance: The colours must be faithfully reproduced.
- Clean artwork: You want the artwork itself to be crystal clean, e.g., no dust or smudges on glass, etc.
- Precise positioning: The camera must be exactly 90° to the canvas and at a suitable zoom level.
- Post-processing: Once you have a good photo, you still need to ensure you have:
- optimised the colour balance,
- cropped the image (don’t have someone’s hand in the background, etc.), and
- saved the image in a suitable format.
Photographing artwork yourself, the easy way
With most modern digital cameras, it’s quite easy to take good-quality photos of artwork without any special equipment. Whilst this is perhaps not suitable for making high-quality printed reproductions, it will at least give you great-looking images to display online, which is essential for effectively selling artwork online.
A nice overcast day
The easiest way to ensure even lighting is to wait for overcast weather and photograph the artwork outside. The 100% cloud cover in the sky acts as gigantic softbox, giving a nice, even covering of light. Direct sunlight will produce reflection and glare effects and should be avoided.
Find a place where there is direct uninterrupted light from above—like in your garden, or on the roof. Avoid places where shadows might fall (near trees, for example). For this technique, you really need to have light from above, so having large side windows on your studio still runs the risk of uneven lighting.
Although having a tripod will make the job a lot easier, with a steady hand and careful eye you should still be able to take close to perfectly framed images. For best results, the artwork should be flat on the ground, with the camera held above it at exactly at a 90-degree angle to the ground. Make sure both the camera and the photographer aren’t casting any shadows on the artwork below.
Also, the lens should not be too wide of an angle so as to distort the image. For point-and-shoot digital cameras make sure you zoom in on the image (the zoomed out setting is almost always too wide angle). For 35 mm cameras, somewhere in the 35–70 mm range should be adequate.
For best results
As mentioned above, ensure the artwork is clean, and consider removing glass frames (although if spotlessly clean, it should be okay). If your camera has a white balance feature, using a gray card will help ensure the best colour balance (put the gray card on the artwork, point the camera at the gray card and use the white balance function to calibrate before taking the photo). Also ensure you are taking images at the highest possible resolution and quality; you can scale down images later, but there’s no way of scaling up!
Once you have finished the photo shoot, using a batch processing program like Adobe Photoshop can help speed up the post-processing. At the very least, you’ll want to apply “auto levels” to optimise the image. Either way, you’ll need to manually check each image is cropped correctly.
The advanced method
Adequate and even lighting is essential for photographing flat artwork. The method above is effective, but having lighting equipment gives you more flexibility.
Lights should not be photoflood lights. They are expensive and their colour quality degrades rapidly. A good choice would be photographic quality tungsten lights with stands, such as the ones contained in the Smith Victor K61-U kit. Using barn doors (a type of light modifier) is optional. They give you the ability to direct and shape the light. Another good option in the kit are the reflectors. These enable you to soften the light when you photograph art with raised edges, which could catch the light.
Alternatively, use less expensive construction grade tungsten lights. Look for 1000-watt bulbs and individual stands (if possible). You can also use a clamp-on variety, though these are more awkward to position if you don’t have the right surface. One other thing: these lights don’t have barn doors, but in practice, they’re not necessary. Simply setting these lights up according to the instructions here will give you great results.
To set up the lights properly, make sure they are angled at approximately 45 degrees to the surface, and position them so that they are slightly higher than the centre of the artwork. Square artwork to the camera as much as possible, and set the lights to be parallel to the camera.
When positioning the lights, use an incident meter, such as the Gossen Luna-Pro S, to determine the evenness of lighting from edge to edge and in the centre of your shooting area. The reading should be evenly accurate on all corners and in the centre. Once you have determined the correct location, you can place masking tape on the floor marking the position of the camera and light stands. This will reduce the set-up process next time.
Eliminate vibration, camera support
Without a steady and correctly positioned camera, your images may well be blurred or distorted.
Ideally, if your artwork is not too large, use a tabletop copy stand, such as those from Bogen. Depending on the copy stand you purchase, it will come with two, four, or no lights at all. The latter may be preferable if you already have your own lights.
If your artwork is too large for a copy stand, then you’ll need to use a tripod and free-standing lights to photograph your art. The tripod should be sturdy and legs braced with sand bags if necessary. Manfrotto make particularly good equipment. Also, make sure the tripod isn’t top-heavy when you photograph art on the wall. It should be securely braced.
When you photograph art on the wall, it’s important to position the camera exactly parallel to your work. Use a level and measure the position of the camera so it faces the exact centre of your artwork, both vertically and horizontally.
When you photograph art use a cable release to trip the shutter. If vibration is still a factor, use the mirror lockup (if your camera has one). Another option is to use the camera self-timer feature. By the time the shutter releases, the vibration should be gone.
A 50 mm lens with a 35 mm camera is a good choice for film, partly because it will give you an accurate “real-life” representation. If you use a wider angle lens, you are likely to encounter some distortion at the edges, while a longer focal length lens will tend to compress the image.
Photograph art vertically, not horizontally. Adjust the camera for a vertical format if necessary.
When using a digital camera, you’ll want to choose a focal length somewhere between the wide angle and telephoto settings, which will be different for each camera. To see if there is any evidence of distortion, use graph paper while conducting your tests, which you can then view on your computer. Any distortion will be evident and you can adjust the focal length accordingly.
Don’t use the camera meter. Use an 18% gray card to determine the correct exposure. Make sure the card completely fills the view finder when metering and use this setting to obtain the correct exposure. The 18% gray card will be accurate to within 2/10 of a stop (you’ll probably need to take the camera off the stand and move forward with it until the gray card fills the field of view).
When exposing the film, a setting of 1/8 of second at f/8 is a good starting point. Bracketing the shots in intervals of 1/3 to 1/2 of a stop is also recommended.
Use a professional-quality tungsten film and keep it refrigerated prior to use. I recommend Fujichrome 64T Type 2.
Glare is a problem that can ruin your images by creating hot spots on the surface. This can result if the artwork has a shiny surface or if the surface is uneven. One temptation is to tilt the lights to eliminate the glare, but that will disturb the uniform lighting on your surface. Here are some solutions to resolve glare issues:
- Use a sheet of window glass to flatten the original. The window glass will introduce a tiny tint of green depending on the glass, but usually it’s not enough to affect the image. However, if you photograph art on the wall and the light is catching on shiny bits of paint, you’ll have to use one or a combination of the following solutions:
- Create a shield that will fit over the camera lens, body and any surface that can cause reflections. A piece of black matte ABS plastic or black illustration board will do the trick. (In an extreme case, you would have to cover the white text on the camera lens to prevent the letters from reflecting back off the artwork.)
- If this is still not enough, you’ll need to get a set of polarizing filters that you can place in front of the lights. You’ll also need a separate stand or a clamp to hold the filter in place in front of the light. Be careful not to place the filter too close to the light, as the heat may melt it. The next step is to get a circular polarizing filter for your camera lens (B&W makes a good one). To make sure that the filter is working properly, place a coin on the working surface directly in front of the lens, then slowly turn the ring on the filter. When the coin turns black, the light has been polarized. Mark the position of the polarizer on your camera lens using a silver or gold marker so you’ll remember how to set it properly. (Be aware that when shooting with a polarizer, you’ll lose around 2 stops.)
- Some photographers don’t like the effect created by polarizing filters, feeling that it creates an unacceptable light shift. If that’s the case, the next option is to use scrims, which are pieces of translucent material in a frame that create a soft, diffuse glow. (You can build an inexpensive frame from pieces of PVC pipe.) You can use material such as frosted mylar (available from some art supply stores). A translucent white nylon will also do the job, though you may have to layer the material to get the right effect.
With some care, you can achieve professional results when photographing your own artwork. While traditionally 35 mm film is used, nowadays digital cameras are also a viable option, in particular because you can check your results as you go.
- How to scan artwork
- How to digitise your artwork
- Template: working with digital images
- Preparing images for the web
- How to Photograph Artwork: From Camera Settings to Lighting Setups
- Camera Equipment & Accessories for Photographing Artwork
- Artists’ Handbook Photographing Their Artwork on Amazon
This post was originally published in March 2011. Last updated: August 6, 2021.