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)