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Photographing Artwork

August 7, 2008

Getting an accurate photograph of a flat work of art can often be a challenge even for professionally skilled photographers. An analog SLR camera can give you much higher resolution, but the processing of the image will be more involved. These are some of the things I fuss with when using a digital camera to photograph my artwork.

Proper lighting is the biggest issue to deal with. You may get color shifts that are too red or blue, or reflective surfaces causing highlight problems. I’ve found that the hallway outside my studio generally gives me the best ambient lighting as the daylight reflects off the white stucco walls, ceiling and concrete floor rather evenly. I also have plenty of room to move the camera forward or back as necessary. Portable tungsten lights on stands give me even more flexibility, but are seldom necessary and require more space. I prefer to optically zoom the lens at least halfway to avoid distortions, and give me as large file resolution as possible. Two small L-Squares at opposite corners of the art can help with viewfinder alignments. I always want be sure the camera and artwork are centered and squared up with each other. Distortions in the image could be tweaked later, but its best to get it correct in the camera first. Use the timer button instead of touching the shutter to avoid camera jitter.

A camera with a manual white balance setting is very important, outside of resolution. Minimum resolution I would recommend for prints is at least 8 mega-pixels, but the higher the better. The lens should be 50-55mm, and a macro lens will help with closeups. Be sure you have plenty of file space available since those uncompressed files are very large. An external hard drive for backups is a good thing to have. An incident meter can help adjust to the overall lighting setup in the scene, which I resort to using if I’m having lighting issues.

Color adjustments are where you’ll likely spend most of your time. It’s going to be hard to tell from the small camera LCD how accurate a shot you have until you transfer it, so you might want to shoot a few at different light settings or apertures. Darker artwork will need to be underexposed, lighter pictures overexposed.

Something that can help at the time of the shoot is to use a grayscale value print and a color bar. You can make simple ones with a graphic program. The grayscale print can be just a series of solid gray values between white and black, and the card a series of primary and secondary colors. Mine are 3×12” prints. Place these at the outside edges of your picture and include them in the photo. When you load the file in your image software program you can compare it to the original cards, and then make your adjustments more accurately.

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