While it may seem that scanning a piece of art is a more convenient option than photographing it, the latter is often an overlooked way to capture the essence of a real-life artwork that can at times be just as good as the scan of the same artwork, now read how to photograph artwork.
Even though the scanning process is certainly more straightforward, photographing artwork gives you many more possibilities to work with to create a unique result.
For example, if you’re using a camera to capture a piece of art, you can add customized backgrounds, fiddle with the lighting, as well as add plenty of filters and experiment with editing after you’ve created the digital version of the image.
Not to mention how much you can achieve with simply shooting the artwork at different angles!
In this article, we’re going to talk about how to photograph artwork. As you will see, the additional benefits of using a camera rather than a scanner can make a lot of difference when it comes to the result.
A well-executed camera shot of a piece of art can add even more artistic value to the original, so it certainly makes sense to invest some time and effort to make the best of your photographing session, so to speak.
Here’s the deal.
How To Photograph Artwork
1. Prepare Your Background
As we said in the introduction to this article, one of the great advantages of how to photograph artwork instead of scanning it is that you can customize its surroundings to help you present the piece of art in question in the best possible light.
The way you can approach this will vary depending on where this piece of art is and to what extent you are free to handle it and move it around, so to speak.
For example, if this artwork is hanging n a wall of a gallery, you probably won’t have that much choice in terms of shooting it against a background of your choice because the gallery wall behind it is all you get. (Unless, of course, you strike some sort of agreement with the gallery staff, and they are willing to take the art off the wall to allow you to take a picture of it.)
That said, if you can arrange this, you will have to work with whatever background the gallery has for the artwork – typically a wall or perhaps some special platform behind the artwork. (Some galleries add special glass panels that can make the how to photograph artwork look different if you look at it from different angles.)
Now, if you do have the artwork at your disposal, so you can move and position it any way you desire, you’ll have plenty of options to choose from, as the only limitation would be your imagination.
The general rule of thumb when it comes to painting backgrounds would be to make them relatively neutral in terms of the color palette. If you don’t do this, you run the risk of the color of the surroundings looking brighter than the artwork itself, which will avert the attention from the painting to the background.
Of course, this would be a general guideline that you may want to follow if you’re a complete rookie, but if you already have experience with how to photograph artwork, you can add more complex backgrounds according to your taste and sense of aesthetics so to speak.
2. Mind The Lighting
Once you’ve figured out the position of the artwork you’re about to photograph, it’s time you set up the lighting parameters so that you can ensure the artwork will be visible in its full glory.
The thing is, what often happens with inexperienced photographers is that the light can be either too strong or too weak against the painting so that the resulting image may look either too bright (to the point where the light flashes over some pieces of the painting), or too dim, so some parts of the painting aren’t as visible as the others.
To prevent this, you have to balance out the intensity of the light in the room you’re taking the picture.
There are different ways to do this, but one of the most common and easy to follow would be to position light sources at 45° against the painting itself.
Optimally, you should have two different sources of light that are of the same intensity.
The idea then is to place them both facing the painting at 45° so that the light hits them evenly from two sides.
Now, if one of your light sources is stronger than the other, you can place a plastic bag over it to reduce the light intensity.
Alternatively, you can also use natural light as a source of light.
In this method, you position the painting so that the light hits it at the aforementioned optimal 45° angle.
Next, you can place a piece of white Styrofoam or some other light-reflecting material at the same angle toward the painting – but on the opposite side.
This way, the artwork will be evenly lit on both sides, and you can take a clear photo of it without worrying about problems with too much light or too little of it in some portions of your photo.
3. Hang Your Artwork on the Wall
… or on some sort of a flat platform where the aforementioned light settings you’ve arranged can take effect on the painting itself. (An easel, for example, can be a great option for this purpose.)
The reason behind hanging your artwork on the wall (or a similar vertical structure) is that the lighting can illuminate it in just the right way.
For example, you may feel tempted to lay the artwork horizontally, so you can take a picture of it from above to achieve roughly the same effect as you would by scanning it.
While this may seem like an interesting approach, again – the lighting can be tough to manage unless you happen to have perfect lighting conditions for this purpose. Also, the very fact that you’re going to take a picture of the artwork from above means you will be in the way, thus blocking some of the light.
(Even if you do this with the help of a selfie stick, still, this stick will cast a shadow on the artwork, which will surely diminish the quality of the photo.)
Also, once you’ve positioned the artwork on the wall or a similar flat surface, you may want to get a tripod or a similar contraption where you can place your phone, camera, or whatever picture-taking device you’re using.
While many of these contraptions have stabilization features in their cameras, using a tripod or a similar stabilizing structure will make the shot clearer and better-centered.
4. Adjust Camera Settings
If you’re using a high-tech camera, you probably already know that there’s a sea of settings that you can fiddle with to create just the right environment for a perfect photo in pretty much any surrounding.
That said, as awesome as this sounds for a professional photographer, you may find yourself overwhelmed by the sheer number of features and settings you can choose from if you’re a rookie.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that you can come up with a decent photo by using stock settings, but if you want to truly capture the piece of art you’re photographing in its full glory, you might be better off to do change some of the default settings.
So as not to get lost in the sea of options, here are the three most important ones to look into before taking the picture:
i) ISO setting
A camera’s ISO setting reflects how quickly it ‘takes a shot.’ The range most cameras are working with would be between 100, and it goes all the way up to 1,600. What you’re looking for when it comes to this ISO setting is for this value to be as low as possible.
The reason behind this is that high ISO values also mean that the camera will take longer to take a shot, which also means more sensitivity to light and other surrounding circumstances, so to speak.
ii) Aperture settings
Speaking of your camera letting in light from various sources, the aperture setting (also known as the ‘f-stop’ setting) is a value that ranges from f-2.8 to f-22 on most cameras. (Of course, various models may have a different range than this.)
Typically, the rule is that the lower the value of this f-stop, the more light your camera will take in when taking the shot. What this means in practice is that if you’re in a well-lit environment, a low aperture will make the picture too bright, which can reduce the quality of the result.
Now, assuming you’ve set up the lighting in the room, you’re taking the photo to an optimal 45° angle, you may want to set the aperture to a higher value. Usually, you may want to try setting between f-8 and f-16.
It may also be a good idea to make several different shots and try out the values in between, so you can see which one gives you the best results.
iii) White balance
Last but not least, the white balance setting on your camera plays a role in adjusting the colors of the thing you’re photographing (in this case, a piece of art) so that it looks as close to its real-life version as possible.
Many modern-day cameras or even phones with advanced camera settings already have an automatic white balance feature, but for best results, you may want to try out different values within this setting (by switching from automatic to manual), so you can see what arrangement of colors and their intensity works best for the art you’re photographing.
5. Set the Focus
Although most modern-day cameras have high-quality displays that allow you to see the photo you’re about to make, these displays are still fairly small compared to the size and resolution of the image you’re going to transfer to your computer.
For this reason, it’s always a good idea to connect your camera (or some other device you’re using) to your computer. This way, you can see in more detail how the resulting image will look like when you take a picture.
At this point, you can also make final adjustments to your camera settings and check if the art you’re photographing is in focus or not. Also, you can fix finer details, such as any remaining imperfections in your lighting arrangements or if you need to zoom in or out slightly to get a clearer shot.
6. Finish by Editing Your Images
The magic of modern photographing technologies is that you have a myriad of options in terms of coming up with a perfect image at the post-editing stage, so to speak.
Still, this doesn’t mean that you should rely too heavily on this.
The more preparatory work you do when it comes to lighting and all the other parameters we talked about, the less time you will have to spend editing the images after you’ve taken the shots.
That said, this post-shot editing can be a great additional tool to fix any remaining imperfections.
There are many excellent photo-editing programs nowadays, such as Photoshop, Adobe’s Lightroom, Skylum Luminar, and many others.
Using these programs, you can tweak the contrast of the image, additionally fix the aforementioned white balance (which is not that easy to get just right with the camera for beginners), as well as resize and otherwise readjust your photographs.
Finally, all you need to do is save different versions of the same photo, so you can always have multiple copies to work with if you need to change something in the future.
All in all, photographing artwork can be quite a simple process and quite a difficult process, depending on your skill level and dedication to detail.
The great thing about using cutting-edge cameras and post-editing software is that you can edit the photos you make until you’re satisfied with the results.
We hope you found how to photograph artwork in this article helpful, and we wish you plenty of success in your photography ventures.