A while back, we discussed how Dan dos Santos photographs his artwork. However, just like painting, everyone has their own way of doing things. In this article, artist Dave Palumbo discusses his method for photographing artwork, and even shows you how to build a professional set-up for less than $300… camera and all!
A quick note: Some people debate the choice of manufacturers and if the brand matters. Basically, it doesn’t. The examples in this article are shot using Canon cameras and lenses, though I believe that the results would be near identical using any major brand of camera gear. The big picture truth is that the differences between brands are minute in terms of the end results and each company is constantly striving to be competitive with the latest offerings. Any camera should be able to provide satisfactory results if used properly. I’m a Canon user because that is the system which I chose to invest in and I am very happy having made that choice, though I fully support comparing options and getting whatever suits both your needs and your budget.
Additional note: This article was originally written in 2013. The text has been updated (Jan 2020) in places to reflect new developments in technology and improvements to my process.
There are plenty of tutorials on photographing artwork available and I encourage you to read through those as well, because I don’t believe any one method to be the one true way. That said, I’ve read a number of those other tutorials and felt that it might be helpful to some people to share my own method which I’ve developed over the years. I’ve gone through many different processes, set-ups, and cameras and shot hundreds of paintings over that time and have come to adopt a work-flow which is fast, simple, and potentially very budget conscious. The goal here is to demonstrate how to achieve clear, accurate photos of your artwork for the purpose of reproduction in a streamlined fashion. This may look like an impenetrable wall of information, but it is really very simple and fast to implement once you get a handle on it. Using this method, I generally get great results on the first shot with a total time of less than a minute to set up and shoot, and then another minute of digital processing. I also want to demonstrate that, though I recommend using the best equipment available to you, professional print quality results are completely possible on a shoestring budget.
To begin, there are a few basic tools which are absolutely essential.
Choosing a camera is itself quite a broad topic because there are so many options to get confused by. If you are working on a tight budget, you’ll likely be looking at point and shoot or pocket sized cameras or used DSLRs from a few generations back. If you want something more advanced, you’ll be looking at new mirrorless and DSLR systems.
When shopping for a compact camera to photograph paintings with, there are a few key features to look for. The first and most important is to find a model which will allow you as much manual control as possible. Many point and shoots only have auto and semi-auto shooting modes and this can be limiting for shooting artwork. A camera which lacks manual controls also almost certainly does not allow you to record files in RAW format, another concern for getting high quality reproductions (particularly if you need to print your images large). The third concern is to find a camera which has at least a 10-12 megapixel sensor. Megapixels are counted by multiplying the number of pixels across an image by how many pixels tall it is and then dividing by one million. A ten megapixel image is literally made up of roughly ten million pixels. The more pixels, the higher the resolution (and therefore print size) of the images it records. If your camera records in RAW, there is no compression on the image which means more latitude if you must upscale final resolution, though it is always best to start with the most pixels possible. Because megapixels are really just a measure of area using pixels (like measuring space using square feet), the benefits become less dramatic as the number increases. 10 mega pixels is maybe just enough to get a print quality image with at magazine size, though obviously more is better.
My point and shoot samples in this article is a Canon Powershot S90 (circa 2009).
|Canon Powershot s90, old and cheap
DSLR and Mirrorless:
DSLR, or Digital Single Lens Reflex, and Mirrorless are the option for those looking for higher quality and control. These are also called system cameras and feature changeable lenses. One of the most obvious differences between pocket cameras and system cameras is that, due to the larger sensor size, system cameras potentially delivers significantly higher resolution. I recommend going the DSLR route. Even the most basic entry model DSLR should cover all of the features mentioned above, though you should always double check to be sure (particularly if buying older model used equipment). While the differences between entry level and professional level DSLRs can be quite pronounced, any of them used properly will do just fine for reproducing art. While I do advise investing in a good lens, artwork will be shot at middle apertures which usually is a place where even budget lenses produce excellent results. Expensive lenses put most of that extra money into faster apertures and better performance at those apertures. None of which matters for our purposes here. For general photography you’ll likely want something in the standard zoom range (24-70), though I like shooting telephoto for paintings. My go-to lens for shooting art at the time I wrote this piece was a high end 70-200 and I typically shot in the middle of that where distortion is lowest and image quality is sharpest. More on this in a bit.
For my method of shooting artwork, a tripod is essential. It doesn’t have to be anything fancy, but I recommend something reasonably stable. Budget options are typically just fine. Of course there are cheaper choices as well as much much more expensive ones, but the important thing is something which isn‘t going to wobble.
This is always the sticky issue for artwork. I used to work with expensive and bulky photo strobes, but they are really a pain to deal with if you don’t have a dedicated photo studio. Some people also recommend the outdoor method shooting in shade or on an overcast day, though I find that to be even more inconvenient (especially considering how often I’m shooting a painting late at night to make a deadline). In the end, I’ve found I get fantastic results using a couple cheap tree style floor lamps from target (each fitted with three 100w bulbs). As a bonus, they also do a nice job keeping my studio well lit. An alternative to those could be $12 clamp lights from the hardware store fitted with as bright of natural spectrum bulbs as the will safely accept. I highly recommend natural spectrum bulbs over regular incandescents. My set-up is 2 daylight bulbs and one standard bulb on each three bulb tree.
|$20 from your local Target
You will also need photo editing software and a RAW conversion program. I use Adobe Photoshop and use their built in RAW converter.
Why Shoot RAW?
For those unfamiliar with RAW, this is any file type (DNG, CR2, etc) which saves all data pertaining to an image without any compression added. If you are not shooting in RAW, your camera is disposing of data and compressing the image into a jpeg file when it writes the file to the camera card. This can limit your options in later editing. Among other things, RAW gives you extremely accurate color as well as the ability to correct a poor exposure. Uncompressed images also upscale much better if necessary.
The Three Elements of Exposure:
Before getting into camera settings and lighting set-up, I want to give a brief explanation of the three key components which will affect your exposure. These are ISO, Aperture, and Shutter Speed. For this tutorial, two of these are very important and one is not important at all, but all three should be understood.
In the days of film, ISO was the “speed” of the film that you put in your camera. The higher the ISO number was, the more sensitive to light and the coarser the film grain. An ISO of 100 was recommended for bright sunny days and an ISO of 400 or 800 was better for dimmer indoor shooting. As the number increased, the image quality decreased. The same is true in digital photography. The camera has a native ISO and any increase is like turning up the volume, which boosts the signal but also boosts the noise. The ideal is to use the native ISO, which is the cleanest. This is generally 100.
The aperture, or f-Stop, is the adjustable opening inside the lens which regulates how much light passes through to the shutter. As you change the f-stop, the opening gets larger or smaller. Some lenses are capable of allowing in significantly more light than others, thus allowing for faster exposures. This is what people are referring to when they talk about a lens being “fast” or “slow.” The lower the f-stop number, the more light is being allowed to pass through. Typically, shooting with the aperture fully open will give a softer image and darker, even softer corners, so it is not the ideal setting for reproducing artwork. Likewise, shooting with a very tiny aperture will cause diffraction which will also result in a soft image (similar to the effect of squinting your eyes). Though it varies from lens to lens, all have an ideal setting for optimal sharpness which tends to be in the middle of the range. You’re usually safe between f8 and f11, but a few comparison shots will tell you for sure. Compact cameras tend to have much more variety to the aperture ranges which they allow so it is hard to give a standard go-to, but your safest bet is to avoid the extremes. Zooming may also limit the range available. It never hurts to shoot controlled tests at each f-stop to determine the optimal sharpness for any piece of equipment.
The amount of time which the shutter is open when taking a photo is, you guessed it, shutter speed. Typically shutter speed is tremendously important if you are either shooting hand-held and/or shooting pictures of moving subjects. Since we are doing neither of these things, shutter speed is not a major concern using this method. In fact, we will use that to our advantage by sacrificing fast shutter speeds to allow for ideal ISO and Aperture settings.
If shooting at slow speeds, I recommend using the self timer function so that you don’t shake the camera when you press the button. Also, for DSLR users, placing the camera in live-view mode (where the rear screen is being used as viewfinder) will also help because the mirror is locked out of the way and will not cause any vibrations.
Your camera settings:
Mode: Aperture Priority
Aperture: f8 (DSLR) or middle of the range (point and shoot)
Shutter Speed: the camera will decide when shooting in aperture priority
File Type: RAW
Lighting and Artwork Position:
You should have your lighting set up so that it falls evenly across the surface of your artwork with an equal amount of light coming from both sides. If your room has an overhead light source, you probably want to turn it off. Position your artwork on its easel so that it is somewhat low to the floor and as close to vertical as you feel safe with and position the lamps to either side so that the light rakes across at about a 20 degree angle. You don’t want to have the angle too shallow as this will accentuate any surface texture and inconsistencies, though if you have it too deep it will bounce light into the camera and cause glare. When at an appropriately shallow angle, the light will bounce across usually without causing glare. You want, if possible, to have the artwork facing a dark wall. Anything bright in the room, such as white walls, floor, ceiling, or your t-shirt, may reflect in the surface of your artwork, especially if the image is dark and/or shiny. If need be, you might even buy a black sheet to hold up behind the camera to reduce room reflections (I do this often on problematic paintings.) To aid in color-correction, you may also want to place a white sheet of paper (or more sophisticated color correction materials) above or next to your artwork so that it is receiving the same amount of light. Additionally, I like to shoot paintings while still wet or with a coat of retouch varnish to bring out the richness of the color and contrast, though this may make the image more reflective and problematic if it is large and/or dark.
For those working on textured surfaces like canvas, specular highlights may still occur. If so, there are articles and videos out there on using polarizing filters to control this. I don’t run into this problem, but recommend looking them up if you do.
Mount your camera to your tripod and set it a comfortable distance from your artwork. There is a balance to reach here and it will be different with different cameras, lenses, and surfaces. The further back you are, the less textural glare will reach you. On the other hand, the image should almost fill the frame without resorting to any digital zooming (optical zooming is fine). Point and shoot cameras often have digital zoom features in addition to the optical zoom, but they will degrade the image quality. If you can’t tell whether your zoom is optical or digital, the zoom always starts in optical and will finish the last leg digitally. You may feel the motor stop when it switches and it will likely indicate on the status screen that it is magnifying beyond the optical zoom range. You will likely also notice the image become grainier. Some cameras will allow you to disable the digital zoom which I would recommend doing.
If using a camera or lens with some type of anti-shake or image stabilizing feature, be sure to turn this feature off. When mounted on a stable tripod, the anti-shake may create feedback which will result in a soft image. Some cameras and lenses are designed to correct this automatically, but many do not.
Using the view screen (and the grid overlay if available), set your tripod height and angle to be as square as possible with your artwork. You want for your camera to be parallel and centered with the surface of your artwork. Another reason that I like shooting with a telephoto is that it tends to give far less distortion than wider lenses, though this can be easily corrected later in processing. Squaring up the image with the camera is possibly the trickiest part of this whole process.
I then place a greycard above my painting which will make white balancing very quick and easy. These are cheap and you should be using one. Once you have the artwork correctly in your frame, focus and shoot. I prefer to manually focus, but usually the auto focus is dead on. When you shoot, set the self timer so that there is a delay between pressing the shutter and capturing the photo. This will prevent your pressing the shutter from adding any shake to the camera. As mentioned above in the camera settings, we are shooting in Av mode, which means that the camera will automatically assign the shutter speed based on your aperture and how much light the camera is reading. This might result in some very long exposures during which, obviously, you don’t want to touch or disturb anything. If the image looks too bright or dark, you can fine-tune it in the RAW conversion or (preferably) you can set the exposure level on the camera. Your histogram will show if you are losing any information in the highlights or shadows (if the graph extends beyond either edge) and that you need to reshoot the image with an adjusted exposure. I typically shoot paintings at a -1/3 exposure adjustment.
If shooting RAW, the next step will be to convert the image into a .tif file so that you can work with it in Photoshop. I’m doing this here using Adobe Lightroom, though the tools that Adobe Camera Raw provides with Photoshop are the same. In the process of converting, I also automatically do two things on every image. The first is to correct my color. To do this, I simply select the White balance tool and click the eyedropper on my white card. Lightroom will auto adjust temperature and tint and, though occasionally I might tweak it further, it usually dose a very good job. The next thing I do is correct lens distortion, which is done by clicking “Enable Profile Corrections” under the “Lens Correction” menu. Lightroom reads what lens/camera you were using and applies the appropriate template to counteract distortion and vignetting. Additionally, you should set your camera profile in your raw conversion program to match your camera. The default on Adobe programs are set to an Adobe profile, which is pretty good for Canon and Nikon but funky for some others. This is in the Camera Calibration tab. Once you set this, it should remain that way for future imports.
Once the image has converted to a .tif file, I do whatever final adjustments are needed in Photoshop. For me, this usually means cropping the image to just inside the edges of the artwork. If it was not quite squared up, I will “select all” and transform/distort to pull the corners into place, recrop if needed and then resize to make sure that it is the correct proportions. Add sharpening if needed and then tweak the curves to get it nice and punchy. Finally, if needed, I will spot heal any specks of dust or cat hair that are visible. This only tends to be needed on darker paintings.
And that is all there is to it! Save your file and drop in into the client’s FTP and you’re good to go!
Above: The final image taken with the Canon Powershot S90, and a detail. I would be perfectly comfortable delivering this to a client.
Below: The final image as shot with the 5d Mk2, and a detail. Cleaner color, higher native resolution (about double), and slightly more subtleties in tonal range, though still the results are near identical when reduced and converted to web images.