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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Resolution and DPI explained

“Resolution” or “DPI” (dots per inch) is a concept in digital photography that is very often misunderstood, even by experienced photographers.

In this article, Aaron Bieber, of Single Serving Photo does a *great* job of breaking down the myths and misunderstandings of digital image resolution. A great read!

Single Serving Photo – Resolution is a myth

For all us off-camera speedlighters…

From Rob Galbraith

This guy (David Honl) makes and sells several useful light-modifiers for speedlights (snoots/gobos/barndoors) (LINK)

this is great for folks doing “strobist style” off camera lighting using speedlights… and the prices aren’t bad!

the strap that the attachments hold on to is also great for attaching gels to the flash – just stick 2 pieces of Velcro onto the gel (cut to fit) and bam…

Definitely worth looking at for someone looking to build a portable/light “lighting on location” kit.

Powered by ScribeFire.

The iPhone as portable portfolio?

So I think I may be the only guy on the planet who hasn’t been particularly obsessed with the iPhone. Yeah it’s definitely a cool toy, but I have a nice treo already, and plus the iPhone doesn’t connect to MS Exchange, AFAIK…

what I realized after reading some of the reviews/articles about it is that it might just make an incredible photography accessory.

The huge, high rez screen combined with iPhoto integration means you can use it to store/show images. I imagine you could make it into a virtual portfolio, segmented by “gallery” – set up a few albums in iPhoto, sync them to the phone and now when you are talking to a potential client interested in your work -BAM- you can pull up the appropriate album (wedding/product/modeling/stock/landscape/ whatever…) and show them on the spot.

Kinda like the epson p-2000 only better (since you can separate out galleries/albums and it is a phone/pda/portable computer in addition to a sideshow viewer!)

Definitely a step up from just handing a business card and hoping they visit your website!

But is it worth 600 bucks just for that? That remains to be seen…
Oh yeah, and being as this is apple, I’m definitely going to wait for the 2nd gen. 🙂

Stupid, Stupid, Stupid…

It seems that for the past few days everyone in the photo-blogo-sphere has been in a tizzy (don’t you love that expression?)  about the newly proposed legislation in NYC to require photographers/videographers to get a permit and 1,000,000 of insurance to shoot *in public places*

I’m sure you’ve read the news by now, but if you haven’t here’s the article.
(LINK-opens in new window)

Now I’m not one to run down the “oh noes tehy are taking our RIGHTS” path but this bugs me, so I’m going to throw my .02 in.

There have been numerous court cases brought against “public photography” and *every time* the courts (up to the supreme court) have ruled that photography in a public place is protected speech under the first amendment.  Putting arbitrary restrictions on photography in public, is essentially just an excuse to get around that pesky “free speech” thing when it is inconvenient.  (i.e. – we can’t say that “taking the picture” is illegal, so we’ll say that “standing in one place with the camera for too long” is illegal)

Now you say this legislation is not intended to restrict or censor private photographers, it’s just intended to prevent congestion/disruption by large film crews?  Fine.  that’s how it’s *intended* (you know, road to hell and all…)  But I ask when a law that is so easily abusable *has not* been abused???

consider:  the proposed law seems to be worded so vaguely that if you and your buddy are standing there with a pair of cameras chatting for too long, bam, you are in violation.  Set up a tripod to take some night shots or architecture?  BAM – violation.

It essentially gives law enforcement (and by extension, politicians) carte blanche to disallow any kind of photography/videography *that they don’t like* – effectively silencing any kind of independent media that is “undesirable”.

Consider, hypothetically: the city of NY doesn’t want Michael Moore exposing some of their “not-so-above-the-table” dealings on… <something>.  Under the proposed regulations, they can simply confiscate his cameras, and arrest him and his crew.  Now don’t get me wrong, I don’t agree with Moore’s views, and I think his films are blatant propaganda and intentional distortions of the truth *at best*.  HOWEVER – I ALSO believe that the government/city of NY has NO RIGHT to prevent him from filming them.  Pesky free speech and all… unfortunately applies even to opinions that you don’t like.

Another unforeseen ramification: this would prevent any independent media from covering any kind of political protest (too many people gathered with cameras for too long…)- ensuring the only coverage that reaches the masses is pre-sanitized, and approved by the “mainstream” outlets.

the potential for abuse is enormous, if the legislation is, in fact, as I understand it.

now this rant is straying dangerously close to a political diatribe so I’ll quit, but I think we can all agree:

If a law is vague enough to be abuseable it WILL BE ABUSED. no matter how noble the intentions are. 

I has a bukket! (an analogy for the basics of aperture, shutter speed and exposure)

As I frequently find myself in the position of advising friends/folks getting their first dslr, I am often trying to come up with good ways to explain the basics of photographic exposure.

Here’s a good analogy that I’ve come up with (yeah, I’m sure others have come up with the same idea- sue me.) I know this may be basic for some of you but here goes anyway.

First off: some basic concepts – aperture and shutter speed. Pretty much everything in photography comes down to these two things.

Most everyone understands shutter speed- it is simply the length of time the camera “opens up” to let light in to the sensor/film. It is represented in fractions of a second (1/10th of a second, 1/20th, 1/40th, 1/80th and so on).

Aperture is also fairly straightforward: it is simply the size of the “hole” in the lens that lets light through – the wider the whole, the more light gets through to the sensor, the smaller the hole, the less gets through. Aperture is also represented by a number, often called the “f-number” or “f-stop”. These don’t seem to be as logical as shutter speed, you will generally see apertures of 2.8, 3.5, 4, 5.6 etc… (there is a mathematical reason for these though, although it is beyond the scope of this article). Generally all you have to remember is that the smaller the number, the bigger the hole – i.e. an aperture of f/2.8 means the hole in the lens is wide open to let as much light as possible in, whereas an aperture of f/22 is practically a pinhole – a tiny dot of opening. I know it’s counter-intuitive, but just remember it 🙂

Ok, now concept #3 which is also slightly counter-intuitive: there is only one “amount” of light that will give a “correct” exposure. Just hold that thought.

On to the analogy:

Imagine the camera is one of those 5gal Rubbermaid buckets, and the light that exposes the sensor is water from a hose.

Now there are 2 ways you can fill the bucket – you can either do it with a small garden hose or with a fire hose.

The garden hose has a small opening (think: aperture) so less water come through, ergo it takes more time (shutter speed) to fill the bucket.

the fire hose is a huge diameter opening, (aperture) so a lot of water comes through very quickly (shutter speed) and it fills the bucket in no time at all.

In both cases though, you still get 5 gallons in the bucket – the only difference is that in one case you are using less water over a longer period of time and in the other, you are giving it a huge blast of water very quickly. However, it is still the same amount in both cases.

This is essentially the basics of exposure – you are “filling up” your camera’s sensor with light. There is a set amount that you camera needs, and you control that by determining how long you will let it “fill up” and how big the hole is that the light gets through. The smaller the hole, the longer needed to fill up the bucket, the larger the whole, the less time needed.

That’s it – that wasn’t so bad, huh?

Now if you think about the above relationship – it is an *inverse* relationship – i.e. as the diameter of the aperture increases the length of time needed (shutter speed) decreases, and vice versa.

Further, it is a linear inverse relationship – i.e. if you let twice as much light in (double the size of the aperture) you need half as much time (shutter speed) and vice versa.

In other words, if you adjust your shutter speed from 1/10th of a second to 1/20th of a second you are halving the exposure time, therefore you must double the aperture to get the same exposure.

Now of course, you are asking – so what? Why is this important? The answer is, plenty of time it’s not. A great deal of the time, you can simply leave the camera on “fully auto” mode and let it determine the correct shutter speed and aperture for you. However much of the creative control in making a photo comes from manipulating these two variables, and they both have effects on how the final picture will look. As one progresses in skill and *wants* to have more direct control over the end product, it becomes critical not only to understand the concepts of exposure, but also to understand how they affect the image.


P.S. Yes, I know some of my definitions/explanations are not *technically* precise, but this is simply trying to be a basic explanation. there is plenty of time for esoteric nuances down the road…