“Dang it, I’m an artist, not a photographer!” How many of us have said that before?
Photography can be so technical and demanding. . . and expensive! Nevertheless, if you call yourself a fine artist, you must have a good digital image file of all your masterpieces. But it is so darned hard, you say. Ah, but think again. Getting a good shot of your painting could mean the difference between selling and NOT selling.
Maybe you prefer to use a professional photographer. . . and that’s okay, but it could lead to spending thousands of dollars per year, if you’re not careful. So let’s look into shooting ‘em yourself, alright?
Here’s how I recommend going about it:
1. Get an SLR camera
You will need a fairly good camera (new or used) anywhere from a good point-and-shoot to an SLR camera like one of these on Amazon. It is best to have a lens which has a bit of zoom capability since you will want to be able to zoom in slightly on your painting after you had the camera positioned.
I personally use a Canon EOS Rebel SLR, and it works great for me. Don’t even think of trying to use your cell phone camera. Even though some of actually take a better picture than an SLR, they just won’t work here. How are you ever going to hold it steady enough? It’s quite impossible to get a cell phone camera attached to a tripod. No hand-holding while taking your photos, okay? Point-and-shoot cameras and SLR’s work best because they can easily be attached to a tripod.
2. That’s right. . . you’ll need a tripod
Holding a camera steady is probably the most important thing you can do to get a good shot, and the best way to do that is to use a tripod. Tripods don’t have to be expensive, but they must be stable.
3. Next, take your art outside
You will almost always find outdoor lighting to be superior to indoor lighting. . . good old sunlight. The best outdoor condition is a cloudy, overcast day where the light is steady and defused throughout your shooting op.
And on a bright sunny day with no clouds, you still want to put your artwork in the shade. Never let the sun fall on it. Pick the shady side of your home or building. Partial cloudy days are the worst for shooting because the sun is continually peeking in and out causing endless adjustments to your camera settings. If you must shoot indoors, I will cover that a bit later.
4. Get your artwork square and level
Now for the placement of your artwork. . . you could mount it on an outside wall (in the shade, of course) as long as you keep the painting perpendicular, square, and not leaning forward or backward—not even one iota. Use a level to make certain.
Using a strong, sturdy easel is really best for mounting your painting—an easel that could be moved about slightly in one direction or another if needed. You can secure your painting safely on the easel by clamping down top and bottom.
It is very important to keep your painting as perpendicular to the pavement or ground as possible. . . that means STRAIGHT-UP-AND-DOWN, not leaning forward or backward. The objective is to keep both your painting and your camera lens perpendicular and parallel to each other, on the same plane. Make sure the easel is heavy enough to withstand sudden gusts of wind at that angle. Sandbags could be used for weight, if necessary.
5. Place your camera directly in front of your art
Now let’s turn our attention to the camera and tripod. I assume you have become familiar on how to attach your camera to the tripod. Some tripods have a bubble level built in to help you get the camera level with the ground. If yours does not have a level, then do the best you can by eye or use a small hand level.
Move the camera and tripod in close toward the painting so you can just barely see all of your painting in the viewfinder. If you have a zoom lens, try zooming in and out while trying to get the entire painting image to fill the viewfinder. You may even have to move the tripod forward or backwards a little.
Once you get that established, the next thing to do is find the exact center of your painting (don’t move the painting or the camera at this point). Finding the center is as easy as putting a straight-edge diagonally from corner to corner, then do the same for the other two corners. You will find the exact center of your painting is where the two diagonal lines cross in the middle. I usually put a small piece of tape on the painting to mark where the center is.
Now, go back to your viewfinder to see your piece of tape. You may need further positioning of the tripod or camera, but do not minimize this step. It is critical to get the lens centered directly on the middle of the painting! If you don’t, your image will be distorted. . . narrow at the top, fat at the bottom, or just the opposite.
You want your image to have parallel sides, right and left. . . top and bottom. Some SLR lens may give you a barrel effect in the viewfinder, where all the sides appear to bulge outward slightly. It this happens to you, it means you have gotten the camera lens too close to the painting. Simply back your tripod away a bit, then reset your camera to the piece of tape in the center.
Bonus tip! When I was just a rookie, an old photographer friend of mine, Harry Merrick, attached a tiny mirror instead of tape to the exact center of his shots. I asked him why he did that, and he said, “When I look through the viewfinder and see my own eye in that mirror, I know I’m dead-center.” His shots were never, ever distorted.
6. Use the following camera settings. . .
Turn off your flash. You never want to use it when photographing artwork.
Use your automatic settings. There are multiple settings that go from fully automatic to a range of manual settings. The professionals like the manual settings because it gives them more control with the shot. I mostly use the automatic setting and let my SLR camera do the work. I may use some manual settings just to get a choice of different shots.
Most pros also shoot in RAW. . . no, they don’t shoot in the nude! RAW is a file format, an internal setting in your camera which allows you to capture the most digital information possible—equal to film. These digital files are huge. All SLR cameras have this capability, and most of the later model point-and-shoot cameras do also. The RAW format stores data in a raw, unprocessed state and gives the photographer almost unlimited editing capability.
I personally shoot all my artwork in the RAW format with an automatic camera setting. You should too if your camera allows it. The only disadvantage is that RAW images take up huge amounts of room on your memory card. This may sound like overkill, but RAW gives you 4 trillion different colors which enable you to make serious alterations to color balance, exposure, and contrast during editing.
In summarizing your camera settings, go for the automatic mode until you garner more photography experience; and shoot your pics in RAW format with the flash turned off.
7. Add stability with a shutter release cable
Now that your camera is secure on your tripod, you can further enhance stability and reduce any lasting vibrations by using a shutter release cable. These cables fit almost all cameras and are inexpensive, and they certainly help avoid camera-jerk when pressing the shutter button by hand.
8. Focus (using zoom) and take lots of shots
Remember, with digital photography you can shoot tons of photos and delete any you don’t like. Focus your lens on your painting and get the sharpest focus possible by hand. After hand-focusing, most SLR cameras have a button that will zoom in for superfine focusing. I hit my button once, then twice, and it takes me into a very tiny section on my painting where I can further refine my hand focus. Now I know it is really focused.
After double checking all my camera settings, I press my shutter release cable button half way down to allow the camera to perform further automatic focusing. Then I press it all the way and hear the click of the shutter. You should take several photos and experiment with various settings or white balances, but write down your settings with each shot. Delete the shots you don’t like. Import your shots into your computer.
9. Keep your photos organized
Save all your good shots in a RAW Folder in your computer. Each photo will be approximately 40 megabytes in size, so make sure you delete the ones that are not satisfactory. This becomes your master file folder for RAW images. If I plan to edit or crop one of these images, I make a copy first, then I do my editing on the copy. . . always keeping the master RAW file intact.
10. And if you’re shooting indoors. . .
All of the pre-setup steps are the same as outdoors, except we will simply substitute sunshine for artificial, man-made lighting. Your expenses just went up a bit. . . how much? Depends on what you are willing to spend, but let’s take the cheap way out. In my early days, I went to Home Depot and bought 2 of those inexpensive, clamp-on lights. I bought two blue, 1000 watt photo bulbs for $3.00 at a local photo shop, and I was in business.
HOWEVER—it took me hours and hours of trial and error because I would clamp my lights on stepladders, book cases, and anything else I could find nearby. I was always fighting “hot spots”, but I eventually got the job done.
Then I bought a lighting kit, and things got easier immediately. Photo lighting kits comes with everything you need for good lighting techniques including stands, umbrellas, reflectors, and bulbs. Prices start around $50 and can go as high as $300-$500. Some professional spend as high as $10,000 with synchronized strobes and all.
No matter how expensive you go, the key to using indoor lighting is symmetrical placement. You should position one light on each side of your camera at 45 degrees from your painting. They should also be at the same height as your camera lens. Guard against uneven lighting and “hot spots.” You will probably go through an “experimental” stage until you learn how close or how far away to place your lights. You may even want to use a measuring tape to maintain symmetrical placement.
I was hoping to keep this article brief, but there’s just so much to cover when learning how to shoot artwork. I could easily go into a deeper level in all aspects. If you have further questions, send me an email and I will try to help. Happy shooting!
Special thanks to Keith Alway for these excellent photography tips! For more from Keith, please visit his website at www.keithalway.design.
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