Photographing your Artwork

Photographing your Artwork, by Alfredo Tofanelli

You have just put the finishing touches on your latest painting and now want to shoot a great photo of it to send off to a competition or just to post to Facebook.

Let’s cover a couple options on how to improve photographing your artwork. There’s the low tech way of shooting your art outdoors out of direct sunlight, and then there’s shooting your artwork in the studio under controlled lighting using filters and lights. Both can work well depending on your budget and how much space you have in your studio to shoot your artwork.

Before we go into the two different options lets go over what is common between them. Obviously a decent camera is necessary but you do not need a top-notch, $1000+ camera either. One of the most important things in photography is the lens so don’t be fooled by how many megabytes the camera has, that won’t do you much good if the lens can’t produce sharp images. I’ve used inexpensive pocket cameras to produce quality results as well as 35mm SLRs and Digital SLRs. Probably, if you have a relatively new camera it will work fine. The main thing is to get a sharp focus and to be able to adjust the white balance. Also, I recommend using a tripod as a lot of times a blurry image is due to low light and a shaky hand. The tripod can compensate for that.

For us plein air artists shooting good photos of our work at plein air events is a must as we may never see our paintings again (assuming they sell at the plein air event or auction). Even if we decide to shoot most of our work indoors we still need to be able to shoot a decent photo of our “Quickdraw” paintings as we don’t have the luxury of running to the studio to shoot them. When shooting outdoors we want to find a spot that is out of direct sunlight. Besides weather conditions one of the major issues with shooting outdoors is glare. Find a spot where your painting can be placed in shadow. You also want to have a dark shadow behind you so that light does not reflect back into the painting as glare. The trick here is to have enough ambient light from the sky to cover your painting but not have anything bright that can reflect back in to your painting to produce glare. Even under the best conditions you will probably have a little glare unless your painting is dry and not shiny to begin with.

To help eliminate glare you can get a polarizing filter for your camera and then rotate it until it eliminates much of the glare. Polarizing filters are available even for many of the small pocket cameras. If you are unable to find one by your camera company or by a third party lens company then you can always buy a polarizing filter for a larger SLR and just hold it in front of your camera’s lens and rotate it until you remove much of the glare. If you have a digital SLR or plan to buy one then check that camera’s specific filter size before you purchase a polarizing filter as they are not inexpensive. Once I even used a pair of polarized sunglasses in front of my small lens when I forgot my filter at a plein air event; I don’t recommend it but when one is desperate…

This leads us to shooting in the studio, which is my preferred method for getting the best results. Ideally you will have a dedicated spot in your studio, garage or spare room.  See illustration to see the layout of camera placement to art and lights. Preferably you would have a black wall or backdrop and an independent mechanism mounted to the wall to allow for the vertical adjustment of your painting. If you’re not using a backdrop, I recommend painting the wall flat black so it disappears in your photo. The painting should be perpendicular to your camera and lights. I often use a French easel when at a plein air event just to shoot my paintings. Adjust the main vertical post of the easel so that the painting is straight up and down when it is placed on the horizontal cross bar. Sometimes the easel may have to have a slight tilt in order for the painting itself to be able to stand straight up and down. Don’t be afraid to use a level if necessary.  Ideally you want to be able to quickly pop one painting out and another one in so that you can quickly shoot a bunch of paintings with the most ease. On the French easel I try to shoot my largest paintings first and aim the lens at the top of the open lid which is between the bottom horizontal cross bar that the painting sits on and the top bar that holds the top of the painting. When I need to shoot another painting that’s a different size, I only lower the bottom bar as needed--this, keeps the center of the painting aligned to the top lid of the easel while maintaining the correct angle of the painting to the viewfinder every time.

Photographing your Artwork, by Alfredo Tofanelli
Click to zoom in on illustration

Which leads us to the set up of the camera: the camera lens should be perfectly perpendicular to the painting and easel. Put a strip of tape, or paint, in a "+" layout on the floor where you want the painting to be in relation to the camera. The plane of the painting should be centered and parallel with the horizontal line of the "+" and at the bottom of the line perpendicular to it, the camera should stand on its tripod. Your camera may move along that line getting closer and farther to the painting, but it always needs to stay perpendicular to the front plane of the painting. This applies to 3D space as well. Be sure to make the center of the lens the same height off the ground as the center of the painting. The lights should be adjusted to this height as well.

Photographing your Artwork, by Alfredo Tofanelli
Click to zoom in on illustration

The reason for this is so that the edges of your painting in the photo are parallel to the edges of the photo for easy cropping later. If you don’t take the time to do this then you will have to spend more time in a program like Photoshop correcting the error and also you’ll be degrading the image itself. One thing to keep in mind in photo processing is “garbage in-garbage out” meaning if you start with a sub-quality image there is no way to recover it later. We can do some tricks in Photoshop to improve an image but no matter what we do we can’t add quality if it isn’t there to begin with. If you try to straighten images in an image-processing program you are actually distorting the image and the program is blurring pixels in order to approximate what you are after in the process. Now, for a small image on a web site that may be fine but if down the road you need a quality image for a book you may have to re-shoot the piece and the painting may be sold and unavailable. Also, if we take the little extra time in the beginning in our set-up then we need to do that only once versus having to correct bunches of photos later in Photoshop.

Okay, the painting is set on the easel straight up and down, and the camera is located perpendicular with the lens center at the same height as the painting center. I recommend using something like an 80mm lens in standard format. If you use a 50mm or lower it may distort the image where the edges of the painting instead of being straight may actually be curved in the viewfinder and photo. Longer then 80MM and you will need to be farther away and need more powerful lights. If you have a zoom lens on either a compact camera or SLR than try to get it in a range of 80mm. I currently use the inexpensive zoom lens that came with my Canon digital SLR. On many of these inexpensive lenses its best to not use the two extremes of the lens as they may introduce extra distortions. I set my camera on the tripod and adjust the zoom so it is close to 80mm but has room on either side on the 80mm so that I have a little leeway to zoom in and out to better crop my image. Inexpensive lenses do not let in as much light as higher quality lenses. Also the polarizing filter on the camera will let less light into the camera. For these reasons I recommend using a tripod. 

Now let’s talk about lights--there are several options. The main thing is you’ll want two lights, one on either side of the painting and aimed at approximately a 45-degree angle to the center of the painting. So if we put the center of the light 3 feet away from the wall then it needs to be 3 feet away from the center line between the camera and painting. I use two Tota-Lights attached to two "Impact Air-Cushioned Heavy Duty Light Stands" with 600 watt bulbs that each put out the equivalent of a 1000 watt bulb. I mount 12" x 12" polarizing filters in front of the lights quite a ways away from the bulbs as they tend to melt from the heat of the bulb after a short while. (Always keep an eye on your filters for this reason and do not leave your lights on when not in use.) You can purchase Tota-Lights, light stands, polarizing filters and their gel frames at  The filters are rotated perpendicular to the filter on the camera and the combination removes almost all the glare from the paintings even if they are fresh, glossy paintings. The main downside to the filters is that they tend to increase the contrast in the paintings, which in some instance improves the image of the painting but is not always an honest representation. You can adjust contrast in an image-processing program without much degradation to the image. I find this set up works the best for me and gives the most consistent results. You could use different lights from two inexpensive clip-on light fixtures with 150-watt bulb to a pair of camera flash units mounted on tripods to a set of strobes depending on your budget.

The key to this is the polarizing filters; one on each light and also one on the camera and then rotating the filter on the camera until it is perpendicular to the ones on the light fixtures. If you are looking through the viewfinder while rotating the filter it will appear as though there is magic going on while you see your painting obliterated by glare go to no sign of glare at all.

Next we need to set the white balance of the camera to the proper setting. You may need to go to manual settings to set this but most cameras allow you to set for incandescent, cloudy day, tungsten and more. Your camera may also be able to set custom white balance as well and depending on how well they’ve implemented their custom white balance this may be the best setting. I have found that the Tungsten setting works best for my set-up and the custom white balance is just not quite correct. On the digital SLR I have ways to tweak these settings, yet your camera may or may not allow that. Try the different settings and then look at them on your computer, as they may appear different on the camera in the studio or outdoors. Also, realize that your computer monitor may not be color corrected and probably needs to be adjusted. It is way beyond the scope of this article to get into monitor calibration but do realize if your monitor isn’t set correctly and you start adjusting your photos of your paintings accordingly then you could be making color adjustment worse rather than better.

I prefer to shoot with a manual setting as it gives me the greatest control. Let’s briefly talk about some of the settings on your camera that you may have control of in manual mode, like an older 35mm SLR. You have focus, ISO or ASA (setting for the amount of light), aperture setting and shutter speed.

Hopefully your camera has a good auto focus, and this simplifies getting the sharpest image. If your images are not coming out sharp then there may be a way to force your camera to focus on an area on the painting with a sharp edge, probably higher contrast which aids the auto-focus device and then re point the camera for the correct cropping. Better cameras also have zones for auto-focus and you may be able to just change the quadrant the device is trying to focus on instead of moving the camera. Cameras have an easier time, as do us humans when focusing on something with sharp distinct edges versus subtle areas.

We want the highest quality image possible for our painting so we want a low ISO. The ISO was used in film to set how fast or slow a film you had. On a super bright day you may have chosen a film speed of 64 ASA and for indoor low light situations an ASA of 400. For the film to compensate for low light it has to use a grainier film for the same shutter speed. This has transferred over to digital cameras as ISO settings. The lower the number the more light is available. The higher the number the less light is available. For our purposes I suggest the lowest ISO setting you have; 100, 64 or less so that we do not introduce grain into our photos.

If all the photography settings scare you a little then remember that the aperture and shutter speed are directly connected. If we need to shut the camera aperture down one setting, which reduces the amount of light entering the camera, then we need to also reduce the shutter speed one setting to let in twice as much light, really the shutter is open twice as long, to compensate. In this way we balance all our parameters to get the optimal photo. First we set the ISO, and then we set the aperture, then the shutter speed. Now because we have polarizing filters on the lights and cameras, and we have closed our aperture down to increase the sharpness of our image the shutter speed may be really slow even with 2000 watts of light. If we are using a tripod then we’re fine. If we are holding the camera by hand then we ideally want the shutter speed to be 120 or higher or we may introduce blur. Many of today’s cameras have Image Stabilization built in which usually gains us a couple clicks on our shutter speed settings so we may be able to shoot as low as 15.

For shooting artwork I like to close down the aperture, which cuts down on depth-of-field which helps keep everything sharp. This by its nature reduces the amount of light entering the camera, which means a slower shutter speed is needed.

Some of the newer and high-end cameras will also let you shoot in Raw format versus JPEG alone. Raw is a larger file format but is much more preferable for any sort of image processing. A JPEG image is a compressed file format and as such is usually a degraded image so when you start doing any sort of image processing you will start to notice distasteful artifacts. Many of the Raw formats will also be at a higher bit depth meaning a higher range of colors. A 24 bit image has 8bits per color, 256 levels of red, green and blue each. Something like Canon’s Digital Rebel SLR can capture at 14bit per color in Raw format so instead of getting 256 levels of each of the RGB colors you get 16,384 levels per color. If you adjust the contrast or levels on an 8 bit per color image you’ll see some degradation pretty quickly but in a 14bit Raw file you can make some fine adjustments that just aren’t possible in a JPEG file format. Also, cameras that shoot 14bit raw files usually come with special software that helps you tweak your photos for color correction and alike. Bottom line is to shoot in Raw format if your camera has that capability. Also, if it shoots raw there is usually a setting to have it shoot both in raw and jpg so that you get the best of both worlds.

Alfredo Tofanelli
Alfredo Tofanelli
Painter and Instructor, Alfredo is passionate about painting the portrait and figure. He's a regular instructor and advisor with Plein Air Liaison.
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