Photographing Art Work

Here is how to photograph flat and rectilinear art work with a digital camera.

Note: You will need a tripod!

Photographing your work is as simple as 1-2-3. First make your work square, then light it evenly with natural or artificial light. Finally, bracket with several exposures.

1. Making your work square:

Place your art work against something flat and try to have the art work as flat as possible . Easier said then done. If you lean the art work on the wall it will not be perfectly flat.

You will have to angle the camera so that the back of the camera mimics the same angle as the art work. If you put the art work on the ground you will have to straddle the piece. Pay attention that you do not cast a shadow on to it. And watch out for wind!

Most point and shoot cameras have multi focal length lens. When you open the camera its default lens is wide angle. This will make the top and the bottom of your work curve. You must zoom in somewhat to square the image.

OK, now you have zoomed in you must have the lens of your camera in the middle of the work. In other words, if you would draw an “X” from corner to corner, the lens of the camera would be facing the middle of the “X”. The entire camera must be parallel to the art piece, not tilting in any direction.

Look to see that width of the top of the piece is not wider or slimmer then the bottom.

(Professional photographers have an easier time controlling parallax problems with a large format camera that has a bellows—the accordion shaped thing between the lens of the camera and the black of the camera.)

2. Lighting your work:

Natural light: When lighting the art work the best light for a flat piece of art work is flat light, that is, light with no contrast. An easy way to accomplish this is to use flat light during a cloudy day or in the shadows on a sunny day. If you have the option on your camera to set the color balance for “cloudy” do so. Even so, the color of the above described light might cause a color shift on the art work that will have to be corrected with photo software later on.

Artificial light: You can buy lamp fixtures to accept bulbs that are colored balanced for 3200 degrees Kelvin temperature. The bulbs are called quartz-halogen lamps or photofloods (photofloods change their color temperature as they get older so they are less dependable). Do not use ordinary household bulbs, tungsten or CFL, because the color balance is not 3200 degrees K. Professional lamps accept a variety of add-ons to direct the light as you would like. Soft boxes are useful because they do as they say, they soften the light the same as a cloudy day. So wah-la! No hot spots!

The light setting on your digital camera will have a light bulb icon.

Set the lamps up on light stands. The beams of the light should be at a 45 degree angle to the art work. Look for “hot spots.” That is an area of the art work that is bleached, due to the lights.

I have found that another good way to angle the light is directly across the front of the art work, parallel to the art work but not onto the art work. This seems to mitigate the hot spot problem.

3. Bracket your photographs!

In other words take several different exposures of the same piece.

By the way, most point and shoot cameras have a light meter inside that reads reflected light, or the light that bounces back to the camera. A reflected light reading is not as accurate as a reading of the light falling on the subject. So if you have an ambient light meter ( it reads the light falling on the art work not the light that is reflected back) and a camera that will let you set the aperture and shutter speed you will be two steps ahead of the game. Another way to accomplish this task is to hold a Neutral gray test card in front of the piece and have your point and shoot read the light reflecting off of the gray card.

Photographing 3-D work.

When photographing 3-D art objects you do not want flat light. You need a key light (strong light) to make the work look 3-dimensional. You also need a fill light (any number of lights) to fill in the shadows that you don’t like on the piece.

Place the 3-D piece on seamless paper. The paper stand needs to be far behind the art work, and the top of the paper needs to be much higher then the art work. The object here is to achieve a smooth blending between the floor and the wall.

The rest is the same!

— Marjorie Masel
Copyright ©2011