Photographing 2d artwork (part 1 of 2)

Every visual artist faces a similar problem at one point or another. While they may not necessarily be a photographer, photographs are a necessity in the art world. Websites, portfolios, slide, prints – all require high quality, accurate photos of the artist’s paintings/drawings/whatever. Any artist who has just thrown up a painting on the wall and snapped it with a camera knows that getting a good image of a painting *isn’t as easy as it sounds*

but fear not! with a little know-how and a few simple tools, anyone can take a portfolio-worthy photo of their artwork!

note: I started writing this as a single-piece article, but it began getting so long that I decided to split it into 2 installments. Part 1 (this) will deal with, equipment, setup and using natural light. Part 2 will deal with studio or artificial light.

First off,

While photographing artwork does not require a huge amount of gear, there are a few things that are necessities if you want the best results.

– a camera (obviously!) a dslr will give you more flexibility, especially in terms of lens selection, but a point-and-shoot is usable in a pinch
– a tripod. Photographing artwork is all about maximum detail, and camera shake will destroy any fine detail. a tripod will hold the camera steady, to avoid camera shake
– polarizing filter – especially when using artificial light, a polarizer will cut down on glare and reflections from the pice – the bane of photographing artwork!
– a cable release (optional) like the tripod, this will help cut down on camera shake. if your camer does “mirror lock up” when using the 2s timer, that is an acceptable substitute (check your camera manual for “mirror lock up”)
– optional – a tripod bubble level. This will help “square up” your image. it’s not necessary, especially with the vast amount of correction tools available in photoshop etc… but it will help avoid perspective skew when photographing what is essentially a flat plane.

For the rest of the article, I will assume you are using a dslr, but the techniques are equally applicable to a P&S.

lens selection:
Selecting a lens for photographing artwork is not as straightforward as for some other applications (eg. sports = fast telepohto, street=wide angle to normal etc…) what focal length is appropriate – do you use a telepohoto and back up from the piece? do you use a wide angle and get close in?

before even deciding on focal length, let us consider the 2 main criteria (in my opinion) to look for in an “art” lens:
1. sharp throughout the frame
2. low distortion

we need a sharp lens, because no one wants their painting to look blurry on the edges, and we need low distortion since we don’t want to warp the perspective of the artwork.

To me both of those criteria point to a singly type of lens: the macro lens. Macro lenses are *known* for their sharpness and low distortion, perfect for photographing art (who said macro lenses are only useful for super-close-ups!) Now when it comes to focal length, a lot depends on the size of the art, but the standard 50mm macro (which becomes appx 75mm on a cropped slr sensor) works for most applications. I have used a 50mm macro for everything from a 2″x3″ miniature all the way up to a 6’x6′ monster piece. Just back up as needed 🙂

now if you don’t have a dedicated macro lens, and don’t want to spend the money on one, just pick your lens with the lowest distortion and field curvature (probably a standard zoom in the middle of it’s range or prime, and stop it down until the edges are sharp throughout. If you are using a P&S, set the zoom to wherever the image is the sharpest (probably somewhere in the middle of the range) and stop the aperture down to a mid-aperture (something like f/5.6 or f/8. “Stopping down” a lens usually increases it’s performance, as few lenses are at their best at max aperture.)

Now that we’ve got our camera and gear, lets get set up!

The primary concern when photographing artwork is to eliminate/minimize glare. 2d artworks, especially paintings are essentially flat, reflective surfaces (moreso if varnished!) When light hits them they tend to just reflect it back, causing ugly “hot spots” and blown out areas in the photo. NOT conducive to good reproductions!

To avoid glare, we need “soft” light – something diffuse and indirect that will not create “hotspots” (or “specular highlights” if you want to get technical!) There are many approaches to this, and vary depending on whether you are using natural or artificial light. Both methods (natural and artificial) have pros and cons, lets examine them separately.

natural light:
The good thing about natural light is that it requires no special equipment or tools. It’s cheap and easily available. It also requires very little modification to make it nice and soft. The downside, of course is that it is not always available, and it can change rapidly – altering your exposure. Still, in terms of bang for your buck it’s hard to beat!

Now in terms of natural light, the softest light you can get (more or less) is from a northern exposure, preferably on a bright but overcast day. I *love* this light, it actually makes photographing paintings quite easy since it is so soft and even. Other artists have had good luck using natural light outside, in the shade (to avoid direct sunlight), but since I live in an apartment with a northern exposure and big windows, that’s usually the way I go!

I have also found the easiest (and most effective) way to photography small-to mid size pieces using natural light is to lay them flat on the ground, with the camera pointing straight down from above (obviously this won’t work for really big pieces, since you can’t practically get the camera high enough to get the whole thing in frame 🙂 This is good for 2 reasons 1) it provides an even more diffuse light and 2)it makes sure the piece is “flat” to the camera.

set up the camera on the tripod, use the level to make sure it is straight vertical and you are ready to go. Usually aperture priority works the best – set a medium aperture for optimal lens sharpness and to ensure the whole piece is in focus. zoom to fill the frame as much as possible with the artwork (without cutting off the edges, you can crop in PP) I usually use manual focus, as autofocus often has trouble locking on to a flat artwork. Set your cable release and timer, and you are good to go!

but wait! there is one more consideration before you begin snapping away – Assuming you are photographing something other than monochrome charcoal drawings, color balance is an issue. We need to make sure the white balance on the camera is set correctly, else there will be ugly color casts on the final product. Now you may rely on the camera’s auto setting for “daylight” or “shade” but for best results, it is good to set the white balance manually. There are 2 ways to do this:

1. if you camera has a “custom white balance” setting, turn it on. Put an 18% grey card (or a plain white piece of paper) in place of your artwork and photograph it using the same setup and lighting that you will use for the final piece. This will give the camera a “reference” point to base WB on for the rest of the shoot. Note: if you are using rapidly changing natural light, you may need to do this more than once, and option 2 might be better:

2. if you are shooting raw (and/or your camera does not have an custom-wb feature) simply include the edge of a greycard or pice of paper in the actual frame when you photograph the artwork (it is unlikely that the piece will fill up the entire frame of the camera). that way you can use your post-processors white balance feature to select the grey/white area of the picture and base white balance off that.

So now we’re set up, got our artwork flat and framed, got our natural diffuse light, set our white balance, focus, zoom. now grab your cable release and click away! Presto – professional quality slide results in your own home 🙂

Personally I like natural light, and If I’m not in a rush to get my work repro’ed, I’ll save up a bunch of pieces waiting for a good day and photograph them all together. However, sometimes using natural light is just not an option (slide deadline, or at night or whatever), in which case we must resort to using artifical light which will be covered in part 2 of this article.

Click here for part 2 – using artificial light!

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4 thoughts on “Photographing 2d artwork (part 1 of 2)”

  1. thank you very much Ed,love your “photographing 2d”info.Love everything,from page design……………… the clear and simple technical info.Greatttte stuff!!!!

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