How To Photograph Paintings

Photographing Artwork For Reproduction

One of my most enjoyable tasks as a photographer is photographing oil and watercolor paintings for artists. It is a real treat to work with amazing art, and talented painters are a true source of inspiration.

Artists need photographs of their work for reproduction, show entries, and for promotional efforts both in print and online.

There are a few tricks to photographing artwork. You must light paintings evenly, correct color is an absolute necessity, and distortion is a big no-no.

Art Photography Set

Here is a quick look at my art photography set-up.

  • Artwork is hung on a 4×8 foot sheet of white peg board that is attached to a floor joist in my basement.
  • I use two Smith Victor light fixtures with 85W daylight fluorescent bulbs (300w tungsten equivalent) as my continuous light sources. The lights are aimed through 44-inch white umbrellas placed at approximately 45-degrees on either side of the camera. (See accompanying photo.)
  • With the lights in place I use a handheld incident-light meter to take multiple readings across the area the artwork will occupy on the board. Feathering the umbrellas left or right allows me to adjust the coverage of each light until the area is evenly lit. You can also use the spot meter on your camera to take multiple readings across the pegboard. The goal here is for the light to fall evenly across the artwork.
  • I usually shoot at ISO 100, f/8, and at a shutter speed in the 1-2 second range as confirmed by the meter. These long shutter speeds require a completely dark studio where the only light comes from my two fixtures.
  • Once exposure is set, it’s time to white balance the camera. This is a very important step! Artists rightfully insist on accurate color reproduction. I custom white balance my camera using a gray card, and I shoot in the Adobe RGB color space capturing 14-bit raw files. These settings reproduce extremely accurate colors right out of the camera—anything else produces color-matching nightmares. (See your camera’s manual for instructions on using custom white balance.)
  • On to the camera… I use a 50mm macro lens to guarantee edge-to-edge sharpness. I mount the camera on a sturdy tripod and level it using a bubble level in the hot shoe. A macro lens and a level camera are imperative to capturing distortion free images of artwork. (Camera hot-shoe bubble levels are available at most camera stores, and online at B&H.)
  • Finally, I attach a shutter release cable to the camera and use mirror lockup when releasing the shutter. This final step guarantees no loss of sharpness caused by a camera vibration created when I push the shutter release. As an alternative, you can use the camera’s self timer.

While this setup may sound somewhat complicated, I guarantee it’s much easier to capture distortion free, accurate color images in the camera, then to try to fix them later at the computer with software.

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One Response to “How To Photograph Paintings”

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