Saturday, December 3, 2011

Photographing Paintings

Yesterday, a blog reader asked: “How you take photos of your paintings that can't be scanned (too large or wet...) to publish on websites or to print. Do you have special equipment?”


The answer is no, I don’t have unusual equipment, and I almost never use a scanner, but I have improvised the following arrangement when I photograph artwork myself.

I set up an easel outdoors in the direct sunlight as close to noon as possible, since early morning or late afternoon light gets warmly colored. (Note that in the photo above, you can tell from the shadows that the sun has just passed behind a cloud, so I’m waiting for it to come out again.) The artwork is placed on the easel against a neutral gray background. A Kodak color reference bar is placed alongside the painting.

The angle of the sun to the work is about 45%, maybe less (more raking) if I want more texture, but not too much more, or the work will pick up glare in the darks. The main sunlight should come down from the relative top or side of the work, to simulate the direction of light under which we normally see paintings.

The camera is a digital single lens reflex camera (a Canon Digital Rebel) on a tripod, shooting on a timer to avoid vibration. The camera’s color balance mode is set to sunlight. ASA or ISO is set as low as possible to get fine grain. The aperture setting is between f11 and f16 to present a good curvature of the lens for maximum sharpness. If the painting is very light or very dark, I might shift the exposure setting a little lighter or darker. Sometimes I use autofocus, or if that gets glitchy I manually focus to get it as sharp as possible.

I arrange things until the camera is squared up to the work. Behind me is the blackness of the open garage door, which cuts down on glare in the dark areas.

The big panel balanced on the garbage can is a 2’x4’ piece of silver-coated insulation foam. The purpose is to bounce fill light back into the painting at the same relative angle as the sun, but from the opposite side, so as to lessen the harsh texture that you would get from the direct raking sunlight on its own. This arrangement does reveal some impasto texture, which I generally want. Copy lights tend to flatten things out unless they're artfully arranged.

This method depends on sunny weather, which doesn’t always prevail here. Many of the sketches reproduced in this blog (for example, here) are not photographed under such controlled conditions, and are sometimes shot under the worst light possible, which is a hotel’s fluorescent lamp. 

If I need larger digital files, or if I have a big batch of artwork that needs to be reproduced in a book, I usually take a bunch of art to a professional photographer, who shoots it in controlled studio conditions.

I'm sure everyone will have other methods, suggestions, and questions, and I welcome them in the comments.

Related post: Paint Texture (and shooting art)

18 comments:

Jason de Graaf said...

I've been taking photos of my work in the shade, so as not to have glare off of my acrylic paint. I also sometimes set the camera to "mirror lock-up" and use a remote to avoid vibration. I take a few shots at different settings, different speeds mostly, and then pick the best one.

Tom Hart said...

Thanks so much for this post, James. It's chock full of information that I'll use (or at least adapt). My camera is lower tech than yours, but I can still use much of what you cover here.

Michael Dooney said...

I'm surprised that you shoot in full noon sun. I have always heard folks preferring to shoot in overcast conditions or use a defuser to filter the direct sun. With all of your McGyver-esque contraptions, your shooting set up is remarkably simple too ;)

Greg Newbold said...

I shoot in full sun too. It seems to make color correction very minimal as my Nikon seems to capture color most accurately in this sort of light.

Adrien Bernard-Reymond said...

Thanks very much for this post James.
Now I'll try to simulate a full noon sun in my apartment ;) I guess a carefully balanced white should make it with indoor lights. And maybe a halogen floor lamp which is more powerful than a regular bulb will be fine. I got to make some tests...
Thanks again for your very fast answer!

Keith Parker said...

This is very interesting, and good stuff. I hope if/when you decide to make a third book this post makes it in.

Daroo said...

Thanks so much for this. I need to get a Kodak color ref card.

I use a gray card to get a manual exposure, using my camera's meter and then bracket it 1 or 2 stops on either side. I usually shoot in overcast, because the diffused light cuts down on glare and shadows (too much impasto?) and it seems like when ever I need to shoot it is overcast. But I agree this might not be helping the color. I don't set the white balance but I shoot it with a pure white piece of tape, then take it in to PS and use the white dropper under "curves" to correct it back.

I think I'll try your method.

Gardenart said...

Thank you so much. That is really helpful! I have the same camera and I'm eager to try your technique.

Kirk Witmer said...

That's all very good advice but whaddaya do when your forecast calls for several days of rain? I shoot with my Canon 40D on a tripod and the painting in my easel in the studio. But the key element is that I'm using 5000K spiral florescent bulbs. The 5000K rating is critical! Lower or higher K ratings will distort to warmer or cooler colors. I've found this method is as close to natural daylight as you can get for the price and you won't have to worry about weather .. or worse .. bugs landing in your wet paint!!! Avoiding glare is all about where you position your light in the triangular relationship between the light, the painting and the camera.

sfox said...

I either shoot my work indoors in at least some natural light to supplement my full color spectrum fixtures or outdoors in light shade, weather permitting.

My camera is a Nikon D80. I'll vary the white balance to see what setting gives me the most accurate color.

I use a tripod and also shoot at F11 or F16 with slow shutter speed, which seems to give me the best color fidelity.

I don't use a color card, but I suppose I should. I dump all my images into Aperture, pick the best image and do my cropping and basic corrections there. If necessary I'll then load it into Photoshop CS4 for whatever further tweaking is needed.

I photograph the piece before varnishing (I work in oil) to avoid "pinholes" as much as possible.

Mark Tedin said...

Thanks for the information! I have to say that the digital age has freed me up from having to shoot my art with tungsten light bulbs and tungsten film. A gray scale and/or a color card, whatever light is available, a digital camera, and Photoshop has really allowed artists to shoot wherever they want. Even if the light is really color-cast, as long as you have enough information in the blacks and lights, you can use PS to bring back the balance in the white, black, and gray to restore all that color.
The only thing that a grayscale adjustment can't predict is the intensity of the color saturation. I'd like to know how you use the color swatches and Photoshop to re-adjust color instead of a grayscale bar.

James Gurney said...

Mark, I try to use the gray scale as well as the color bars, mostly to just have in the shot for printer and engravers. I'm not much of an expert with Photoshop. I just do a bit with Levels (sometimes Autolevels when I'm in a rush) and adjust Curves once in a while, maybe a bit of sharpening if it seems to help it.

My Digital Rebel if anything seems to increase the chroma more than I see in the original, so I often have to dial that down or adjust the color balance if it looks tilted in one direction or another.

But you're right: I've saved quite a few shots that were done in really lousy light with a few basic adjustments.

Don Ketchek said...

I'm surprised, too, that you take your pics in full sun. I have always had the best results on overcast - but still fairly bright days. The white clouds seem to give me the truest colors with no glare or unwanted texture.

Many folks like to shoot in the shade on a sunny day, but the blue sky usually creates a lot of blue cast under these conditions, in my experience.

I have the original digital rebel which definitely exaggerates the reds. I suppose each camera brand, or sensor type has its own characteristics. So some manipulation on the computer is always necessary.

James Gurney said...

Don, for me the key to shooting in full sun is the reflector. The fill light reduces the texture to a perfect level. The problem I usually have in shooting in open shade is that no matter how I set it up there's a lot of light behind me, which puts glare into the darks.

lunavalse said...

Great information. I was going to ask what you do when it is rainy, but I see you just make do. :) I was wondering because it rained here (Seattle) for nearly 6 months straight last fall/winter. Tough time for photos.

Brandon Miltgen said...

Thanks for this article. The way you wrote it shows your caring for the process involved. I just started a blog—about art and faith—and this article reminded me, when I include the process portions to each of my posts, that I need to care about what I include so that it's sufficiently detailed and relevant.

drawingfaith.blogspot.com

Curious Sam said...

This is an older post, so I'm not sure you'll see this. I'm wondering if you could speak to resizing and otherwise optimizing images of artwork for the web. I've done a fair amount of research on the topic, and the amount of misinformation out there is astonishing. Since you're fast becoming my art-guru-on-the-web, I'd love to hear your own rules of thumb for balancing load-up times with file sizes and image quality, as well as what software you use. Art appreciators like to be able to access the details of images, but how does one make the necessary compromises on the web? Thanks so much for everything.

James Gurney said...

Curious: quick answer is that I just resize to about 500-700px across in jpeg, and vignette to white sometimes. Don't know if there's a better way. I always save a larger version of the shot for print uses.