A Guide for Artists: Photographing Your Artwork



With so many artists and makers alike now making the move to selling, or at least exhibiting their work online, the need to take high-quality photographs which best reflect your artwork in all respects is increasingly becoming an important skill for artists to possess. When browsing the web images are all your audience really have to help them pass judgement on your work, so getting this part right is as essential as any other first impression, and makes for a powerful tool in your branding repertoire. Shoddy images can not only be misleading, misrepresenting the colours or finer details of a piece, but are quite capable of making an astounding painting, sculpture, or whatever it may be, appear somewhat mediocre or unappealing in the brevity of the moment.

The good news is that with a little planning, care, and consideration, producing clean, professional looking photos is within anyone’s grasp, and no, it doesn't have to cost a fortune. Furthermore, lots of the tips given here are just as well applied to photographing furniture, sculpture, installations, and other 3D pieces.

Choosing the Right Camera and Camera Settings

- Choosing a camera can be incredibly tricky and technical business. For the best results in terms of manually controlling your shot and achieving the best overall image quality, a digital SLR is most certainly the best option. If however, you are working to a tight budget, or cannot temporarily find an SLR to use, there is nothing wrong with using a decent point and shoot; just try and aim to use one with the highest megapixel count you can.

- For the crispest possible shots set your camera’s ISO setting to either 100 or 200; which value you are able to choose really all depends on your camera model, and some of the better SLRs will allow you to go lower than this. In digital photography the ISO simply measures the sensitivity of your camera’s image sensor; the lower the number the lower the sensitivity of the the camera’s sensor, leading to a finer grain in your shots.

- Make sure you image size is large enough, obviously exactly how big will depend on your intended use for the image, but to give yourself the most flexibility try and use the largest image size settings your camera/available memory space will allow. It always easier to make the image smaller and reduce the file size using software later on.

- Always take your images at the highest resolution possible, certainly no less than 300dpi - the minimum resolution required for print. Again, if you have to, it’s always easier to reduce the resolution later on in post production. And remember, whilst an image can be shrunk and still maintain its clarity, it is not possible to make an image bigger without sacrificing some of the original quality.

- Get your hands on a tripod, or if not, any stable flat surface will do. Obviously this reduces the amount of shake present when taking the picture, but, when using a camera with good manual settings, has the added benefit of allowing you to focus solely on your ISO and aperture settings without having to worry about shutter speed (the Aperture priority setting is normally represented by and A or Av on the camera’s mode dial). The shutter speed is normally only important when shooting a moving subject or when taking a picture free-hand, and we are doing neither of these. If however you can’t find a way to mount your camera steadily and do have to take your photos by hand, then make sure you take your images in a well lit area with a suitably fast shutter speed in order to avoid blurred images.

- If you are using a point and shoot or compact camera (don’t worry if you are using an SLR, this next tip doesn't apply to you), never use and if possible always remember to disable the digital zoom. For closer shots of your subject the best results will always be achieved by simply moving your camera closer to the subject. If needed however, you should only ever use the optical zoom function on your camera. If you have no way of telling whether your zoom is optical or digital then check its specifications, but a good tip is that the zoom will often start in optical before finishing the last leg digitally; you may notice the motor stop when it switches to digital, and your camera will likely indicate that it is magnifying beyond the optical zoom range.

- If your camera allows you to specify, always shoot in the ‘RAW’ image format as oppose to JPEG. Shooting in RAW preserves the most data and will give you more options in way of improving your pictures later on.

- Lastly, remember to use the white balance function on your camera. The goal is to adjust the white in your image so that it matches the white that your eyes see. If the white balance is tinting the image yellow or blue, simply try using a preset for your lighting conditions - the ‘daylight’ setting for example.

Preparing the Shot

- First of all you are going to want to choose a setting with bright, soft, indirect lighting; direct lighting has a tendency to cast shadows, distort colours, form overly bright spots, and create reflections. Shooting outdoors on an overcast day is perfect, as the clouds will suffuse the light evenly over your subject. Natural, bright sunlight coming through a large window on an unclouded day forms the ideal set-up for indoor shoots. If inside, make sure any artificial lights in the room are turned off; they will conflict with the tone of the natural sunlight, and for the same reason ensure your camera’s flash is disabled.

- Choose a clean, simple background for your subject. A clean white ironed sheet or white foam board is good for most things, especially paintings and wall-hangings (although if you are going to crop the image later this really doesn't matter). When it comes to sculpture and furniture, a clean white background will also work very well, but you may wish to be a little more experimental with your choice of backdrop; perhaps using a pleasant landscape or even your own studio for example. Just make sure there is a good amount of uncluttered space around the piece with no distracting items in frame, and use your own artistic judgement to decide whether the background is in keeping with and flatters your work.

- If photographing a painting or illustration that isn’t on canvas you are going to want to attach it to something which allows you to hang or prop your piece flat up against a wall. If the piece is exceptionally large lying it on the floor and shooting it from above is your next best bet. Always ensure the lens of your camera is parallel to the surface of the painting, and that the edges of your artwork sit parallel/squarely to the edges of your viewfinder; you don’t want your painting to look like it sat crookedly on the wall. Also, without zooming, try and have you piece fill as much of the frame as possible; this will make sure you are maximising the potential of your camera’s resolution.

- One good tip is to set the self timer on your camera, creating a short delay between when you hit the shutter button and when the photo is taken. This will prevent the camera capturing any shake as the button is pressed.

- No matter what kind of work you are photographing don’t forget to take a good range of close-ups. These are what helps people appreciate the finer details in your work, so remember to make sure your camera is sharply focused on the areas you want to draw attention to; this is your chance to accentuate the splendid textures, finishes, and finer embellishments of a piece.

- When reviewing your images as you’ve taken them, look carefully to make sure your images are as close a representation of the real piece as possible - this is indeed what this whole process is about. You should primarily be checking the quality and accuracy of the colours, and whether or not the image is too dark or too bright. More subtle things to look out for are harsh lighting across areas of the subject, and reflections in glass - only if it is there of course.

- Check your images on a computer before packing up. This gives you a chance to view the images on a larger screen, making any obvious problems easier to notice.

- Taking some nice lifestyle shots is highly recommended. Not only do they give your audience a clear idea of what a piece may look like in their home, but, and arguably more importantly, a good lifestyle shot can help to visually demonstrate the scale of your work; keeping a few objects in frame is good for this reason, but remember to keep the room uncluttered, clean, and free of any other artworks. Thinking minimalistically will normally produce the best results here.

Post Production

- There is plenty of free and paid for photo editing software out there. Photoshop will definitely offer you the widest range of editing tools, but this does cost money. In terms of image editing programs you can get your hand on for free, Picasa is great choice for those using a PC, and likewise iPhoto is a good option for Mac users. And, if you really don’t want to go through the rigmarole of downloading and installing any software, then www.pixlr.com is not only free, but allows you to use a very extensive range of picture editing tools right from your web browser.

- You may be wondering why, if your images should be as true to life as possible, any digital editing is necessary. The simple answer is that any editing should only serve to make your photos more accurate in terms of how well they represent you actual piece. If your pictures were taken correctly to begin with, the only real adjustments you might need to make are to the brightness and contrast, but be very careful to not go overboard when applying these changes, a perfectly good picture can quickly be ruined by doing so.

- If it was a painting or illustration you were photographing you may wish to crop the image down so no bits of wall or background are visible in the shot. Just make sure this step is done neatly, with no stray areas of wall jutting into the picture, and remember to trim as little of the actual painting as possible.

- Whenever you edit a photo, always remember to save it under a new file name, and preferably in a different folder to where your original images are kept; you should always keep unedited master copies of your  original photographs.

To Finish

If you’d like to do any further reading on any of the points mentioned here, or on photography in general for that matter, we highly recommended taking a look at www.cambridgeincolour.com. There are a huge number photography based forums, articles and learning guides available on the site, with everything presented in a clear, easy to follow way. A great resource for beginners to the subject.

Thank you for taking the time to read our guide on photographing artwork. We hope it helped.

Author: Luke Matheson