How to photograph artwork

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Photographing artwork

If you're an amateur photographer, at some point you may want to photograph a piece of artwork, such as a painting or a piece of graphic art. Perhaps for using on a website or in a printed publication. And you want to know the best way to achieve this. Or if you're an artist and new to photography, you may be reading this article to find out what type of equipment you need to photograph your drawings or paintings. Hopefully, we can answer those questions and give you a few more tips besides.

Using film or digital?

The first consideration is whether to use a digital camera or a film based camera. Both have some advantages and disadvantages over each other, but in either case you can get good results. The advantage of using a digital camera is that you can check the results instantly. With film you will have to wait for it to be developed. Obviously, this is inconvenient if you need the pictures in a hurry.

If you're an amateur and you don't have any experience of taking photographs of art, it can be even more frustrating having to wait for development. Especially if you find that the pictures turn out to be less than perfect. But once you have learned the best copying method to use, you should be able to get consistently good pictures nearly every time.

If you already have a film camera, using film is probably your preferred choice. Depending on how much, and how often you will be photographing artwork, you may also want to invest in a high quality scanner that enables you to scan negatives and slides. Very useful for archiving purposes. You can often find these sensibly priced on ebay.

Most SLR cameras have a 50mm lens as standard. This is fine if youíre taking pictures of large pieces of artwork, but for photographing small pieces you will be limited with their focal range. For small artwork you will need a good macro lens. But a zoom lens can also be used by setting the camera further away and zooming in on the subject. In fact it helps flatten the image, so you will reduce any distortion that may occur using a lens of 50mm or less. Never use a wide angle lens as this will severely distort the image (unless that is your intention) Also, donít even think about using a film camera that is not an SLR (Single Lens Reflex) An SLR is essential for framing your pictures accurately through the viewfinder. With a digital camera the lcd monitor can be used instead, with reasonable accuracy.

One of the most important considerations, particularly when shooting digital, is the resolution capability of your camera. For best results we recommend an 8 megapixel camera or higher. This is especially important if you intend to make large prints from your photos.
The larger the print, the higher the resolution required. If possible, obtain a 10 or 12 megapixel camera to cover all likely situations.

With a film camera you should use a film with the slowest film speed available to reduce any graininess. A film camera will give you more control over exposure than a digital camera, but there are a lot of good digital cameras available now that will also have manual exposure features, as well as autoexposure, which will give you that little bit extra control for better results.

Automatic white balancing is also commonly found on digital cameras. Unfortunately, under certain lighting conditions this feature is easily fooled. But with the correct lighting set-up this wonít be a problem. Some digital cameras offer fine-tuning of the white balance, which is great if you want to make small adjustments to the camera's white balance preset modes.

Setting up the shot

Setting up the camera for shooting the artwork squarely is the most important first step for taking a good photo. The camera, specifically the camera lens, should be carefully positioned in perfect horizontal and vertical alignment to the artwork. For this purpose a copying stand is a very useful piece of equipment. Some good ones are made by Kaiser. Alternatively, you can use a strong sturdy tripod.

In some cases, the artwork may be too large to photograph using a copying stand, so a tripod may be your only option. It may be a little bit trickier to set up than a copying stand, but itís certainly the next best thing. Also use a cable release to minimise any movement of the camera during the shot.

If youíre not using a copying stand then you can either place your artwork flat against a wall or lying flat on an even ground. If using a wall then the artwork should be supported underneath with a wood baton or on a table. You might consider using black velvet material, which absorbs light extremely well, as a backdrop and for covering any unwanted support structures. Alternatively, you could use a white background such as a piece of white foamcore. If either appear in the edges of the photograph they can easily be removed in post production. To reduce this happening, the artwork should fill the camera viewfinder or lcd monitor as much as possible. Though itís better to have a little background showing than cutting off parts of the artwork at the shooting stage.

If using a camera on a tripod placed above artwork placed on the ground it will be harder to set up as you are likely to need to extend the tripod legs to get everything in frame, particularly with medium to large pieces of art.

Lighting the subject

If shooting outside or inside near a large window you can use available daylight instead of artificial light. The best conditions for this is on an overcast day when sunlight is not too strong and evenly spread. With film you may need to use a warming filter to avoid a bluish tinge, depending on the time of day. Itís important to remember that even lighting is essential for photographing drawings or paintings. Their must also be sufficient lighting to get a good exposure. Using lighting equipment, although requiring more effort to set up, will give you more control over exposure.

My advice is to use a pair of photographic quality tungsten lights on stands, carefully positined on either side of the artwork at a suitable height and positioned at a 45 degree angle to evenly light the subject. Another option is to use a pair of soft boxes which will also evenly disperse the light. Avoid using photoflood bulbs because their colour temperature degrades over a relatively short period of time and they can be fairly expensive. Also, avoid using a flash without a reflector since this can be a major problem in causing glare to appear on your picture. If youíre really strapped for cash, and you need to purchase some lights, you might consider buying construction grade tungsten lights with 1000 Watt bulbs, preferably with stands that come with the fittings for attaching the lights. Itís important that no glare or Ďhotíspotsí appear, reflecting from the artwork. Or even reflections of the camera, lights or surroundings if the artwork is behind glass. For this reason, whenever possible remove the glass covering the artwork, it makes things so much simpler. If this is not possible then it may be necessary to fit a black card in front of the camera and shoot in a darkened room to eliminate the camera and other objects reflecting in the glass. If youíre still having problems with reflections, try using a polarizing filter.

One more piece of advice. If shooting on film itís adviseable to use a seperate light meter to get accurate readings for best results. If shooting digitally, remember to use the highest quality settings and resolution that your camera provides. You can use the LCD monitor to assess the colours and lighting. If something doesnít quite turn out right, at least with digital you can quickly correct any problems and re-take the shot. And as a last resort, you can usually correct any colour and contrast problems in post production.

Post production

One of the big advantages in shooting digitally is the ease and speed at which you can crop your pictures to remove any parts of unwanted background, as well being able to adjust the colours and contrast of the final image, using a computer and software such as Adobe Photohop. If you have used film for taking pictures, you want to have your negatives scanned so you can work on the image as a digital file to correct any problems this way. Use a professional company to do this when possible. Or use a good high quality scanner if you prefer to do this yourself. Scans should preferable provide images in a CMYK format with a 200 to 300 dpi resolution if the images are to be used for printing. For this reason, avoid using your local photo processing shop unlesss they have the capabilities to provide image files with these specifications.

Once you have your image files transferred to your hard drive, open the file you want to work on in your chosen software program. You can then work on the image and carry out any adjustments you want to make. This may involve cropping the image, removing unwanted parts of the background, resizing the image to your needs, and making fine adjustments to the colours and contrast levels.

After adjustments have been made you can re-save your work (keep the original file safe just in case you need it again) and use it how you wish. If producing images for the web you can reduce the resolution and image size and make a jpg copy for displaying on a web page. This will reduce the file size considerably which speeds the download process when viewing the image online.
 

 
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