In modern years, tattoos have become more prominent in society. This is likely due to tattoos becoming much more accepted and tattoo artists becoming more experimental. Different artists are now experimenting with different art forms. As a result, a niche for photographers has opened up – tattoo photography.
Tattoo photography is a fun and statement-making facet of portrait photography. And we’ve put together the ultimate guide to photographing ink to make it easier!
How Is Tattoo Photography Different From Portrait Photography
You might think that photographing a person with tattoos is just like any other portrait photography session. It’s not. Not if you want those beautiful tattoos to stand out.
Upon first try, you’ll likely find that proper lighting for tattoo photography is quite hard to achieve.
This is because skin is a very reflective surface! When ink finds its way into the skin, the reflective properties become more prominent. This is due to contrast.
Direct light impacts some of the tattoo itself. You need diffused light to highlight the art in the best possible way. The key is to make sure that your lighting of choice is coming from an angle that will not produce any reflections.
Remember that the human body is a three dimensional object. It has many curves, grooves, and shapes. Each one of those planes could potentially reflect light back to your camera. You need to keep that in mind when dealing with light.
The best lighting, I find, is any type of filtered light. Whether it be from a window with curtains or a diffuser on a studio lamp.
And how you position the tattoo in relation to the light source will make all the difference.
You might think that front lighting is the best way to illuminate ink. But my honest advice would be to make the light a bit off centered or angled.
This will give some more depth rather than keeping the image flat.
When transferring the images to your photo editing software such as Photoshop or Lightroom, you’ll likely run into a secondary issue. If you want to smooth out the model’s skin… what do you do about the tattoo?
The skin smoothing editing process can mess up the details in the tattoos. You’ll likely have to be working with layers and masks so apply the smoothing selectively.
It is also a good idea to apply some sharpening around the tattoo. This will enhance the edges, making the tattoo clearly visible.
When playing with color, pay close attention to the tones. Similar to product photography, you want the colors to be accurate representations.
Tattoos often can get discolored with lights hitting them. Be prepared to color-correct. Only do this to the extent necessary to restore the tattoos back to the original tone and shape.
If black and white is more your style, ensure there is plenty of contrast to differentiate the various parts of the tattoo. Ink line work becomes very important with black and whites. You want to make sure your blacks really pack a punch!
What Camera and Lens Should You Use for Tattoo Photography
With so many options on the market, it can be a bit difficult to navigate the purchasing waters. Let’s make it easier.
The kind of tattoo photography you do, or want to do, will impact how finicky you are about your camera’s tech. You might find yourself focusing on releasing the images digitally or being a shoot-and-burn photographer. If so, you might get away with a less expensive camera body.
If your client base is print-oriented, then the quality of your photos is important. This affects the type of camera you’ll want to use. Any imperfection will show in a print because of its sheer size.
With digital, you can shrink an image down and hide many of the issues with it.
If you do a lot of indoor or studio photography, look for camera bodies with great low light abilities. Indoor sessions are likely to result in darker images than outdoor ones. This is regardless of whether you use artificial lighting or available light.
Look for camera models that have less noise at higher ISO levels and more sensitive sensors. The ideal camera body will have the lowest amount of noise at high ISO numbers.
In general, higher megapixel counts pick up much more detail than lower megapixel ones. The more megapixels, the more controllable detail is in an image. In post processing, this allows you to fine tune your edits even better. Another perk is the ability to crop very tight and still print very big.
The more megapixels, the more detail, and the less compression. This means you can crop more and fiddle with composition without risking anything.
But higher megapixel count mean a larger file size. Make sure you stock up on a large SD or compact flash cards.
As for the lens, this is arguably the most important aspect of photography. The lens(es) you choose will help you develop and mould your photography style.
All lenses have different focal lengths and f/stops. The focal length is the distance between the lens and its focus. It affects the perspective (for example, a focal length for a 16mm lens will show a much wider frame than a 200mm lens).
The f/stop, also known as the aperture, tells you how wide the lens can open. The wider the aperture (smaller number), the more light it lets in and the shallower the depth of field. The smaller the aperture (larger number), the less light it lets in and the deeper the depth of field.
If you are doing traditional tattoo photography in which the ink is the focus, you will need a lens free of distortion. Your key objective should be keeping the tattoo as true to the life version as possible. Usually, you’ll want to go for a standard lens.
Standard lenses produce an image that roughly matches what the human eye sees. The image looks natural to the viewer. Standard lenses have an angle of view of around 50 to 55 degrees diagonally.
They are some of the easiest lenses to use, because you do not have to factor in any form of distortion. When you can take a picture of something exactly as your eye sees it, composition becomes easier as well.
I suggest using a fixed millimeter lens for standard tattoo photography. A fixed lens is known to be much sharper and generally higher quality than a zoom lens. A 50mm is a great choice.
Fast lenses with shallow depths of field are great for isolating the tattoo as the sole subject. However, keep in mind that you don’t want the image to be so shallow that key details of the tattoo melt in a bokeh.
If you’re looking to get into something a bit more creative that features tattoos as more of a personality accessory, you have more options.
Wide angle lenses, as the name implies, have a much wider view than normal lenses. You can get super creative and play with angles and compositions. Wide angle lenses distort perspective, which makes for a cool effect.
However, wide angle lenses can be more difficult to use because of the amount of distortion. To capture such a wide view, the glass of the lens is curved or rounded. This creates an unusual look when the subject is not at the correct angle.
Common wide angle lens focal length is the 16 -35mm.
Tips for Tattoo Photography
5. Making Tattoos Look Good
If it’s your first time or you don’t have your own tattoos to practise on, you may not know these photography tips for making ink look great. If your model is sporting relatively old tattoos, put a small amount of lotion over them. Rub it in thoroughly to bring out the colors.
One of the biggest challenges is to minimize any reflection. Make sure to remove any excess lotion to prevent any glare from appearing on the photos. You also don’t want makeup on the tattoo.
Also, fresh tattoos don’t look too grand in photographs. You’ll likely want to ask your subjects to wait for a few days before scheduling a photo session.
Body ink that is seeping with blood or covered with ointment will not look great in any picture.
4. Take a Variety of Photos
Like any kind of photography, it is better to have more than less. With digital, taking a large amount of images is quite simple. The only limitation is the size of your SD or compact flash card.
Move around, try different angles, different light sources, with flash or without flash. The more photos you take, the better your odds are of getting an amazing shot.
3. How to Pose for Tattoo Photography
I think the primary aspect of tattoo photography that makes photographers hesitant is posing. How do you pose the subject in a way that is flattering to both them and the tattoo?
The best way to figure this out is to watch how the tattoo moves when your subject moves. What poses highlight the artwork in the most flattering way and what movements distort it into something unflattering.
Some common poses include crossing arms, three quarter views, or stretching the back.
A good example is if your subject has a large back piece. You can have them cross their arms and lower their head, so that their back alone draws the viewer’s attention.
Tattoos on backs are in general a lot simpler to photograph than tattoos on extremities, for the simple reason that a person’s back is a nearly-flat canvas.
To photograph a tattoo that covers an entire arm, you may need to take pictures of it in sections.
2. Use a Simple Background to Make the Tattoos Stand Out
If the tattoos are to be the centrepiece, use a simpler background.
You may have a regular background that you use for portraits often. But add a tattoo, and the distraction can be too much for the shot. Keep the background a tad cleaner than you would for regular portraiture.
If the tattoo is an accessory to an image, then you can use a more complex background.
1. Use a Wide Aperture for More Depth of Field
It’s important that you know how to use the right aperture for the right kind of image. I know that’s a bit obvious, but it’s amazing how often photographers don’t do this!
Keep in mind that a shallow depth of field will give the impression that you are hiding the model’s tattoo.
A good trick to shooting with wide open apertures without losing what you need in focus is getting closer to the subject. When you focus your camera on a subject, it establishes a focal plane.
To get your subject in focus, it has to be on the focal plane. Focal planes happen on an x (horizontal) and y (vertical) axis. This means anything along either of those axes will be in focus, and anything not on them will be out of focus.
The concern with wide open aperture settings is that your focal plane is quite small. But the farther away you are from the subject, the easier it is to get the subject in focus. You can get the subject in focus and still maintain that creamy depth of field.
Now that you have all of this information in your photography tool belt, go out and shoot some awesome tattoo photographs!