Photographing Paintings For Artists Records

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Photographing Paintings For Artists Records
 Photo by Arty Smokes
So the paintings are finished and ready to go to new homes and you want to record your work for posterity. How to do this professionally at home without needing studio lights.

What you will need

  • Your dry artwork, unvarnished
  • A bright overcast day - yes outdoors in diffuse sunlight is actually the best solution to photographing shiny oil paintings if you don't have a studio setup
  • A camera, preferably digital (does anyone even use film cameras any more?) and even better, DSLR - check that the megapixel capability of your camera is sufficient for the size of print that you may want for your records. Here is a useful megapixel to print size chart
  • A good camera lens without any distortion or vignetting
  • A polarizing filter for your camera lens - this is to cut out glare from highlights
  • A tripod
  • A grey card - this will make your colour correcting a breeze (yes this is an affiliate link)
  • A sturdy support for your painting
  • A dark piece of cloth or paper - this is to minimise or prevent a colour cast from the surroundings

The photography setup

Wait until your painting dries.
You will get the best photos of dry or nearly dry oil paintings. If the oil is still wet, it will shine in areas and the oil remaining in the painting will reflect light differently than the dry areas of the painting.

Go outside on a bright overcast day.
This is crucial. I've tried bright sun. I've tried shade. I've tried bright days and dull days and I swear every combination in between. I can say from experience that the best conditions to get beautiful rich colour and no glare on your painting is a bright overcast day. What's that? Basically a sunny day with lots of clouds. Colours around you should appear normal, not dull. Shadows should not exist or if they do they have soft edges. Once the edges of the shadows turn hard, it's too bright and you will get glare spots on your paintings.

Position the painting at 45 degrees to the sky, facing the sun (ie north here in Australia, or south for most everyone else).
I think both perfectly upright and laying flat on the ground also work too, but this is the setup I found was ideal for me. Place a sturdy support (helps eliminate shake from small and not so small breezes) at 45 degrees to the sky, cover with a black cloth to reduce color interference, and put the painting on this.

Point the camera straight at the painting.
Fill the camera view with the painting as much as possible. Use every pixel possible! Remember to tilt the camera slightly down to match the angle that the artwork is leaning - this will help minimize distortion. Check in the viewfinder to see if all the sides of your painting are parallel to the viewing edge. If not, your camera is at a different angle than the painting. Fiddle until you get this right. Also, remember to set the tripod up so that your shadow is not on the painting as you stand over it!

Trouble with your artwork looking like a big bulge?
That’s to do with the lens. Use the zoom on your camera to zoom in until the bulge effect disappears and the painting edges are parallel with the viewing edges, while simultaneously backing away from your artwork so it fits the viewing space. Or use a standard 50mm lens.

Camera tips

  • Use the largest image setting possible for your camera to get the highest resolution images
  • Set your camera's ISO to its lowest native setting to ensure the least amount of image 'noise' - aim for 50 ISO
  • If you can, lock the SLR mirror up as this will reduce camera shake as the shutter fires
  • Use a self timer if you can to eliminate any camera shake as you press the shutter button
  • Always bracket exposures - huh? Take shots slightly on either side of what your camera says is the ideal exposure as it's not always right for each picture
  • Don't rely on auto focus to get it right, sometimes a small manual tweak does the trick


Shoot the grey card first.
This is to get a standard for the lighting and will make your colour correcting easy peasy. Then shoot your paintings. Try and have some of the grey card in the shot, to the side of the painting too.

Post processing in your digital darkroom, aka Photoshop

Once your shots are off your camera and on your computer, compare them at full size for colour, focus/blur, contrast etc to choose the best one.

If none of the images are quite right, take the time to re-shoot your painting. This is your archive. It's worth getting right. Once the paintings have gone to their new homes it's next to impossible to borrow them back to re-shoot them.

With editing, often you will find that a small increase in contrast is all they need. Sometimes a small amount of colour correcting can go a long way, too. This is where that grey card shot comes in extremely handy. I'm not going to reinvent the wheel - download this free and super helpful kick ass pdf by one Michael King on how to use a grey card to colour correct artwork.

Always save your images as tiff or psd for maximum information retention. Only save them as a jpeg for emailing once all edits have been done as the jpg format is so small because it throws out fine detail information. Always keep a tiff or psd version somewhere so you can archive your image without any loss of information and re-edit in the future.

Useful links to peruse

More art technique articles

This article is one in an ongoing series of technical articles for artists, all archived together and accessible from here. The topics range from details on materials, to the business of art, to specific art techniques. Please make use of this resource.

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