Cropped painting

If you are going to photograph your artwork, remember this: get a good shot to begin with. All the Photoshop in the world cannot help a poorly captured photograph. You don’t need an expensive DSLR camera to take good photos. A point-and-shoot digital camera in the $120 - $300 price range should do the trick. Cell phone cameras have improved greatly in the past few years and some models may be capable of taking high quality photos, but not all. While you may be able to take passable photos of your art with a phone or a tablet, it’s still best to use a camera and set the quality settings high. The following tips will help you make your art look its best, whether it’s for an email submission, a grant application or your website. The painting photographed in this post was painted by Robert Gamblin.

1. Use Good Lighting

The most important element in photography is lighting. If you photograph your art in poor lighting, it won’t to look true to life. You will capture the best photos with indirect, natural light. The indirect light of an overcast day is said to be the best kind of light to photograph artwork in. A shaded area on a sunny day also offers excellent natural light for shooting artwork. The photo of the painting above was taken in the shadow of the Plaza office on a sunny day. The danger of shooting indoors is that while it may make the colors in your artwork appear more vibrant, the colors may not be true to reality. You want to represent your work accurately, especially if you are photographing your art to sell.

While photographing your work outdoors is ideal, it isn’t always realistic. Maybe it’s raining outside and you have a deadline to meet, or there’s no convenient place outside your home where you can shoot your photos. When shooting indoors, you do not need to use expensive photo strobes. Tree-style floor lamps or clamp lights from the hardware store will help you illuminate your work on the cheap. A couple of desk lamps with bendable arms can also do the trick. 100 watt, natural spectrum light bulbs are the best bulbs to use to achieve a natural looking light. These bulbs are available online and at most hardware and big box stores.

Flash has the potential to distort your artwork, especially if your medium contains glossy or reflective materials. For example, the graphite in a pencil drawing can reflect back the flash and really distort your image. Likewise, if your art is framed with glass, a flash might create flare or glare in your photos. If your artwork is framed you should remove it from the frame before snapping photos.

Here are some examples of how lighting can dramatically change the way your art looks:

comparison - lighting

2. Keep it Steady

If you are photographing 2-D art, you should hang it on the wall in order to get the most level, steady shot. If you do not own a tripod, you must take great care to steady your shots. It’s best to use a tripod to hold your camera still, but you can improvise without one. One solution is to rest the camera on a stack of books, on a table. If you do this, you can adjust the height of the shot by inserting or subtracting books. Using the camera’s self-timer is the best way to ensure a perfectly steady shot if you do not have a cable release button. You can also carefully take hand-held shots.

If you are using your fingers directly on the shutter release button, hold very still when capturing each shot. It helps to hold your elbows in towards your torso, so they sort of rest on your stomach or chest to further steady your hands. The closer you are to your piece, the more textural glare you will get in the photo, so step back a bit. Do not stand so far back that you have use digital zooming; digital zoom greatly degrades the quality of an image. Most digital cameras start out with an optical zoom (you can see the lens unfurling and retracting), and resort to digital zoom if you zoom in for an extreme close up.

3. Use Neutral Backdrops

Always photograph 3-D art or pieces with irregular edges against a white, black or neutral backdrop. This is especially important for sculptures, since you won’t be cropping the background out as you would for 2-D work, but it’s also a good idea to shoot any work against a neutral background.

Backdrops are especially important when photographing three dimensional work. Pick a backdrop that will contrast with your piece and make it pop! If you have a white or light-colored sculpture, use a black backdrop and vice-versa. You can use cloth or paper as a backdrop. Some people use opaque paper rolls in black, white or gray tones. No matter which material you use, make sure there are no seams or unsightly wrinkles appearing in your viewfinder as you prepare to capture your image.

It might be difficult to decide which angle to shoot from when photographing 3-D work like sculptures. You should take several photos from different angles and select the one that you feel best represents the piece. Always remember to use a neutral backdrop when photographing 3-D work. If you have video work or a recording of site-specific work and you are not permitted to submit a video file, or you simply want to represent a time-based piece without using the entire file, you should carefully select still-frames.

In the photo below, you can see that while this painting really pops against the orange wall, it does not give an neutral representation of the artwork. Not only does the background affect the way the painting reads visually, the photo is also not cropped properly, slightly tilted, and the lighting is coming in from the top right of the frame at an angle. If you are trying to put your work online to sell it, you want to accurately represent the colors by having proper lighting and avoiding busy or intense backgrounds by cropping properly:

orange wall with painting 

4. Crop Correctly

One mistake to avoid when photographing your work is forgetting to crop 2-D work. No one wants to see your studio, kitchen floor or backyard around the perimeter of the photograph. Even if you center the photo well, a snippet of your background is bound to sneak in, so you will most likely need to crop. The cropping feature in most computer editing software is usually quite easy to use. Some cameras have in-device editing capabilities as well. You should also crop out all picture frames, unless they are integral to the work. 

Some lenses distort at the edges and make squared work appear slightly curved, especially if you are shooting at close range. The other solution to this problem, besides cropping, is to step back and zoom in. Sometimes it helps to lay 2-D work flat on the ground and shoot from straight above. If you do this without a special tripod and camera platform like some professionals do, you must take care to hold the camera very steady when you’re capturing your shot.

The shot below is the same photo at the begining of the post, but with the frame included. This atwork is a good example of an instance where you might want to include the frame: the painting is composed of two oil panels, displayed side by side. Here the framing is integral to the effect of the piece on the viewer, however, for most paintings it is a good idea to exclude the frame when photographing for the web.

 Painting with frame cropped

5. Give Yourself Several Options

The beauty of digital photography is that there is no wasting film—you can always delete bad shots. Not only should you focus on taking high quality photos to begin with, you also want to get several shots and pick the best one. It’s better to get several shots ranging in quality than to only take one and have it turn out poorly. A good rule of thumb is to take 6 photos of each piece and pick the best one.

Whether you are a beginning artist or a seasoned one, you want to show your work at its best!