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How to Photograph Artwork: From Settings to Lighting Setups

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Related course: Wow Factor Photography

Here are some essential tips for photography artwork with more professional results. You can use these for paintings, prints, drawings, textiles, etc.

Studio lighting setup for photographing artwork
You can mimic a professional setup like this using equipment you currently have. Notice the 45 degree lines of tape on the floor and centre line, which help with camera and lighting setup. The black card facing the work eliminates any glass reflections.

Camera Choice and Settings

A digital SLR with a fixed lens is the ultimate choice for quality. Compact cameras with manual controls are also useful. Even a high-end smartphone can do the job if large file sizes are not required.
Here are some very important camera settings to consider:

Turn Off Your Digital Zoom

If your camera has a digital zoom the first thing to do is turn this off. Digital zoom enlarges a section of the image in-camera. This results in lower quality, noisy images.
Optical zoom relates to the actual lens magnification. An ideal focal length setting for photographing medium size art is 80 or 100 mm.
Fixed lenses are sharper than zooms generally. But shooting techniques and other camera settings can have a big influence.
Don’t run out to buy the newest camera. Try altering some of the settings on the camera you currently own.

Stick to ISO 100

For sharpest results pick the lowest ISO, usually 100 and never use the Auto Setting.
A higher setting like 1600 is great for shooting in dim lighting but will give grainy results. That’s not suitable for reproducing artwork.

Use Adobe RGB as the Working Colour Space

Adobe RGB is capable of reproducing more colours then sRGB. It’s especially useful if you are planning to use your photo in printed publications. You can always convert the file later to an sRGB colour space for internet or website use.
Converting from sRGB to Adobe RGB in an image editor is not the same as shooting Adobe RGB. Computer programs can only interpolate from existing information.  Some professionals shoot ProPhoto RGB. This is an even bigger space but some of its colours cannot be reproduced.

Which File Quality Should You Use

Select the largest file quality setting even if it seems far bigger than your current requirements. A larger file will be even sharper when downsized. And larger files (300 dpi) are needed for printing and reproduction and needs will change.
If your camera can shoot RAW, you will get the best sharpness and tonal range. But raw files need skilful processing choices in the editing stage. If you are unsure about raw processing but like the benefits, try setting the quality to RAW PLUS LARGE JPG.
Your camera software will automatically process the JPG, compressing and reducing its file size. This will yield a fairly accurate picture of the artwork.

Diptych of a watercolour painting of pink flowers showing Raw versus high quality JPG
Raw versus high quality JPG

You can archive the RAW file for development later when you’ve refined your skill set. The large JPG can also provide a useful visual reference to consult while processing the raw file.
Compared to JPEG, a RAW file is not compressed. It preserves more detail in your subject such as the fine brush strokes in a painting. This difference would be most noticeable on a large print, less so on a website or smaller print.
TIFF is also a useful quality setting if available. The camera software will automatically process the TIFF file. It will not compress and resize it as it does with JPGS.

Set Saturation Settings to Neutral

Picture style or saturation settings, if available on your camera, should be set to normal or neutral. This will accurately render the colours in your work.
You can apply more saturation and contrast later in your image editor. Using boosted or enhanced modes while shooting may not give full detailing in the lighter and darker areas of your image.

Triptych showing the Effect of picture style or saturation setting in camera
Effect of picture style or saturation setting in camera

White Balance and Colour Management

Most digital cameras have a white balance control (WB) on the camera body or within its menu. The user selects cloudy, sunny, flash, tungsten, fluorescent, auto or custom to match the lighting being used to take the photo.
You shoot a neutral white or grey subject and the custom white balance setting compensates for any colour cast. This yields a truer colour representation of your artwork.

A collection of images showing a colour checker and the before and after images using Custom White Balance
Before (yellowish) and after using Custom White Balance

Many variables affect colour balance in every step of the process. Using custom white balance while shooting is an easy first step to manage image colour.
Color Checker is a very useful tool for managing colour if you are looking for an even more accurate result.  A color checker is used is used to check standard known colour values including neutral colours. You can even create a camera profile for use with your raw converter.
You should also calibrate your monitor. Check your monitor’s colour quality, contrast and brightness for free on this site.

Lighting

The standard lighting setup for photographing flat art uses two identical lights positioned at 45° to each side in front of the art. These two lights need to match in wattage or output and be the same distance from the centre of the artwork.
This provides an even wash of shadow-less light. One light cancels out the shadows cast by the other light. It will also reduce texture
A setup like this requires quite a large room to get the lights far away from the artwork. If they are too close, you might see glare on the edges of your painting. Try moving the lights farther away to reduce glare or use a longer focal length lens (80 – 100 mm). This puts the camera farther from the subject and helps to eliminate glare.
You can bounce lights off neutral side walls or very large pieces of white foam core. Or you can diffuse them through white material for a softer look and to reduce glare.
If your artwork is behind glass you can eliminate reflections by using black material positioned all around the camera lens.

A diagram showing the standand light setting for photographing artwork
Standard Lighting for Copy Work

The colour temperature of the light source is not as critical with digital photography. You can change the white balance to correct for any colour cast in your lighting. Try not to mix sources. If shooting indoors with artificial lights, block off the windows. If using natural window light, turn off any room lights.
Be conscious that some artificial lights get very hot and could cause burns or a fire. Handle them carefully.
Using artificial lighting can give consistent results. Natural light, however, is constantly changing in quality, brightness and colour temperature.
Still, many artists get great results photographing their work using natural light. This works best indoors in a bright room with windows or skylights, neutral coloured walls and enough space to set up a tripod several feet back from the artwork.
Outdoors in open shade or on an overcast day gives diffuse soft light. This quality of light mimics a photographer’s softbox. But it is possible to diffuse direct sun or artificial lights. Use a large piece of white nylon, polyester. Even a white sheet or a white tarp works.
Obviously one must avoid windy days and direct sun if shooting outdoors.

How to Photograph Artwork

Start by hanging your 2-D art on a wall with a neutral white, grey or black colour. Shooting in a room with bright coloured walls can skew the colour balance of your photo.
Positioning the art in a vertical orientation  will make it easier to have evenly balanced lighting across the work. Especially if your main source is coming from one side.
You can rotate your photo later for correct orientation.
A diptych of blue textile artwork from different perspectives
If the work has a framing wire, hang it at a comfortable height and check that it is flat against the wall. If necessary, use spacers made of cardboard or foam core behind each corner. This way the artwork hangs parallel to the wall.
Use a level to check that your art is vertical then set up your camera so it’s lens height matches the centre of the artwork. Use a measuring tape, don’t eyeball it.
A sturdy tripod is essential for sharp photos and accurate squaring up of the artwork. Use a cable release, mirror lock up setting, or the self timer to eliminate all camera movement.
Use the level on the back of your camera again to check that the camera back is also parallel to the shooting wall. When both the camera back and artwork are parallel to each other the perspective should be close to correct. Distortion will also be minimal.
Get as close as possible leaving only a small amount of space around the edges of your artwork. You can crop this out later.
You can hold prints in place by attaching a large thin sheet of metal to your wall. Then use small earth magnets on the corners of the print. Remove the earth magnets later in post-processing.
You could also lean them up on a stiff board slanted against the wall then parallel the camera back to this board. This works if the prints are all the same size. If size varies a lot then it is much easier to square up the work keeping everything is in a vertical plane.

Consider Direction as Well as Quality of Light

If using window light as your main source, position a large white piece of foam core or other white material on the side opposite the window close to your art, just out of frame. This white board will bounce some of the window light back to balance out the darker side of the work.
You can control texture by varying the distance of the white board away from the work and the closeness of your work to the window.
Check out the diagram and samples below for a lighting setup to show more texture in a painting. Notice where the shadows in the image on the right are falling. This will tell you where the light is coming from (in this case the top).
In fact the painting was rotated on its side and the stronger lighting came from the left side. The photo was rotated later for correct orientation.
I think that the shadows look most natural on this subject if lighting appears to come from above.
Diagrams showing the correct lighting setup for photographing artwork

Turn Off In-Camera Flash

Before you shoot any photos make sure you have turned OFF your in-camera flash. Also check all your settings and clean your camera lens. Hold a pure white or neutral grey card in front of your art. Take a photo filling your entire camera frame with the card.
Use this photo to set a custom white balance. This should clean up any colour cast you might see on the whites or neutral colours. It will also help render other colours more accurately. Take a second photo with this new setting to make sure it now looks pure white or neutral grey.
If you don’t have a Custom White Balance option, select Cloudy or Daylight for window light. Or whichever is the appropriate setting for your type of illumination.

Use a Grey Card to Find the Right Exposure

For years photographers have used a grey card for setting exposure. This is grey on one side, white on the other and is a standard known colour/exposure reference.
Including a white or grey card in one of your photos gives you a known reference point. You can use this in your image editor to clean up any colour cast present.
If you use an ‘eyedropper’ to read various tones in your photo editor, the perfectly neutral ones without any colour cast will have equal RGB numerical readouts. For example, pure white is 255 255 255 , neutral mid grey is about 120 120 120 while a very dark grey might read 50 50 50.
Point being that they are close to the same value indicating no colour cast is present.  In theory when neutral colours are neutral, other colours will be more accurate as well.
Aperture priority is a good choice for shooting art and f/8 is a reasonable aperture for dSLRs. Take a photo of the entire artwork and check that the exposure is correct. The best way to do this is to use your in-camera histogram. Usually pressing Display in Review mode will bring up a histogram.
The histogram is a display of the tonal range in your photo. It should be roughly centred for a normal toned subject. You can use the histogram in your image editing program to check exposure and contrast while working.

A triptych showing the difference between overexposed, Normal and Underexposed images and their resulting histograms
Overexposed, Normal and Underexposed images and their resulting histograms

Check Focus and Shoot Details

Zoom up the photo to 100% on your camera or computer screen. Check the focus at the centre and in all four corners. Re-shoot if necessary adjusting focus. Check your framing is as square as possible. You can use the crop or perspective tool for slight adjustments and squaring.
Consider moving in closer for a detail shot rather than cropping or enlarging the overall shot. This will give much better sharpness, and showcase the fine details of your work. It is also often a requirement for entering gallery exhibitions or contests.

Image Editing

Use an image editing program to crop, remove distortion, retouch, colour correct and size up your files. Photoshop is the industry standard and GIMP is the best free editor available. Most image editors like iPhoto will work with TIFF or JPEG. (For RAW files you will need to use a RAW converter to process.)
Be sure to archive your original camera files and work on a duplicate. Do all your retouching on this master file at 50 or 100% magnification. When finished, make a copy, then resize this copy to the exact pixel size needed for your usage. Save it as a high quality JPEG.
The JPEG is much smaller due to compression but still the most accepted format. Remember to save your image with the appropriate profile, sRGB or Adobe RGB.
Avoid re-saving a JPEG and resetting the quality level more than once as this affects sharpness. You may need to add a little sharpening if you have resized the file.
Be sure to check sharpening effects at 100% and 50% and don’t over do it. You can always add more sharpening later but too much will make the image look jagged.
Hopefully these shooting tips will make photographing artwork a little easier, more accurate and more fun.
We have a great tutorial on how to create a DIY Lightbox you should check out too!

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