Take Your Best Shot: Digital Photography Tips for Photographing Art

How to Photograph Artwork

DSLR camera

Equipment Essentials: All the essential items for photographing your paintings can be easily stored and transported and—most important—they’re easy to use. Today, a good-quality digital SLR camera is a must. A cable release lets you take a picture without touching the camera, eliminating the possibility of jiggling it; buy one that works with the brand and model of your camera. A handheld incident light meter measures the amount of light falling on your painting.

Are you planning to enter your art in a competition or apply for a booth in a juried art fair? Both are great ways to promote your artwork, and both require high-quality photographs of your art. You don’t want to lose a competition or get rejected from a fair because your photographs didn’t show your art to its best advantage. In their article “Take Your Best Shot” professional art photographers Al Parrish and Ric Deliantoni offer 19 tips for taking professional-quality photos of your art. Read the complete article below. Once you’ve learned how to photograph artwork, check out our contest and art fair listings on Artist’s Market Online or in the 2014 Artist’s & Graphic Designer’s Market.

Keep creating and good luck!


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Take Your Best Shot: 19 Tips for Taking Professional-Quality Digital Photographs of Your Paintings.

With fewer photo labs processing slide film these days and more and more competitions and exhibitions requiring digital entries, it’s crucial to get up to speed on digital photography. Just as with slide photography, the main concern is quality. If your needs are fairly limited, you may find it best to hire a professional photographer to shoot your paintings as needed. If, however, your needs are more extensive, you may decide it’s a better investment to buy your own equipment and learn to take professional-caliber photos yourself for your portfolio, shows, magazine article and book proposals, as well as other promotional purposes. Follow the guidelines, tips and techniques outlined here; in no time you’ll find that your newfound skills will save you a lot of time and money.


photo shoot setup

Photo Shoot: Taking your own high-quality digital photographs of paintings is easy if you have the right equipment and know how to use it properly. Here’s a basic setup.

When you’re shopping for a camera, do your research and befriend your local dealer. Since camera brands vary, specific functions and capabilities can be different. It’s worth paying a little extra for the advice and support competitions and exhibitions requiring digital entries, it’s crucial to get up to speed on digital photography. Just as with slide photography, the main concern is quality. If your needs are fairly limited, you may find it best to hire a professional photographer to shooyou’ll get at your neighborhood camera shop versus a large electronics store.

Look for these specifications in the camera you choose:
• SLR (single-lens reflex).
• Interchangeable lens.
• Manual exposure mode (which gives you the ability to override the settings determined by the built-in light meter).
• Adobe RGB capability. This refers to how the camera records color information. Most lower-end cameras use the sRGB system for storing color information. Adobe RGB translates better to the CMYK color system used for reproducing color art on a press.
• Minimum 9 or (preferably) 10 megapixel image size. A 7-megapixel camera would be sufficient for some needs, but its images will be printable no larger than 8×10 inches. This works for competition entry, but not for all high-quality publishing needs.

Be aware that when camera sales literature refers to the image size you can get from the camera, this information generally assumes a coarser image resolution than that used for high-quality printing. Base your choice of camera on the megapixel figure, not on the advertised dimensions of the finished image.


Here are some other important items to consider and how to use them:

Storage Card

A digital camera doesn’t require film, of course; it uses a storage card instead to capture images. The card that comes with your camera may not be very high in capacity. Print-worthy digital image files are large, and the less often you have to remove and empty the camera’s storage card, the faster you can work. Buy the largest card you can afford. Some cards are billed as high-speed, which means they store information and let you get on to the next shot faster. For photographing still subjects, it probably isn’t necessary to pay extra for a high-speed card, but if your camera will see other uses, you might like a faster card.

Note: Many digital cameras come with software and cords that will allow you to connect your camera to your computer. If you can do this, it’s highly recommended, as it will allow you to save your images directly to your hard drive and give you a much better and bigger view of the images you capture.

50mm Fixed Macro Lens

The 50mm interchangeable lens often supplied with a camera may be adequate, but you’ll get better results with a more expensive 50mm macro lens. Macro lenses are designed for photographing close-ups and two-dimensional objects without distortion. If you can afford it, upgrade to the 100mm macro lens instead. Usually it’s not a huge price difference and the 100mm lens will give you an even greater depth of field and more working distance from the painting, which will decrease the chances of parallax problems.

Beware of zoom lenses; inexpensive models probably have lesser quality optics than a good fixed macro lens. Even high-quality zoom lenses will introduce curvature and distortion into an image. Such distortion may not be noticeable in snapshots, but when you’re photographing a rectangular painting, it can become a problem.

The most important thing to remember is that the quality of your lens will directly affect the quality of the images you get, and faster is better. Fastness is determined by the “f” number. The lower the minimum “f” number, the faster the lens is considered, so an f1.8 lens is better than an f3.5. The relationship between speed factor and quality is especially true for digital photography. For the most part, a faster lens will cost more.

Work Space

The room in which you photograph your work must provide:
1. Enough electricity. You’ll need to be able to plug in two 500-watt bulbs without blowing a fuse or tripping your circuit breakers.
2. Enough space. As a rule of thumb, whatever the distance from the camera to the artwork, you need twice that amount of space to the left and right of the artwork in order to set up lights. This may sound excessive, but if the lights aren’t far enough away from the work, you’ll end up with harsh shadows and unevenly lit photos.
3. The ability to block out light. Other than your floodlights (explained below), there should be no other light sources in the room. That includes sunlight from windows as well as light from lamps or overhead fixtures. If you can’t block the windows with thick black curtains, you must wait until it’s dark outside to photograph.



Positioning the Tripod: Move the tripod and camera backward or forward until the art fills the frame as much as possible.

A sturdy tripod is absolutely necessary to avoid blurred photos due to camera movement during the exposure. A good tripod will allow you to position the camera both horizontally and vertically, as well as tilt the camera up and down and rotate it left and right. When you’re shooting flat art, the surface of the camera lens must be parallel to the art surface, so the ability to adjust the tilt of the camera is important. When shopping for a tripod, try it with your camera to make sure it’s easy to use and that it extends high enough to fit your needs.


Cable Release

A cable release lets you trip the camera’s shutter without touching (and thus possibly jiggling) the camera. The prices of cable releases vary. If you don’t have one, you can use your camera’s built-in timer to achieve the same goal of vibration-free exposure.


Buy a pair of 500-watt photo floodlights with daylight-balanced (approximately 5,000° K) bulbs. One source for this type of bulb is B&H Photo (www.bhphotovideo.com; 800/606-6969. Ask for product number GEEBW, the General Electric EBW Lamp, 500 watts/115 to 120 volts.).

The specification 5,000° K refers to the color of the light, which, in this case, represents noonday sunlight. Your digital camera must also be daylight balanced, or your images will be off-color. Set the white balance setting to “daylight.”

Keep extra floodlight bulbs handy. When a bulb begins to darken on top, it will quickly lose its correct color temperature. When one bulb goes out, the other will go out soon after, so replace the pair to ensure that your setup remains evenly lit.

Note: Don’t handle the glass shell of a bulb with your fingers. Skin oils can cause the glass to heat unevenly, shortening the bulb’s life. Use a clean cloth to screw and unscrew the bulb. Handle a cool bulb by its threaded socket only.

Other Lighting Equipment

• A pair of 10-inch aluminum reflectors (cup-shaped metal shields that surround the bulbs and direct the light).
• A pair of foldable, adjustable (telescoping) floodlight stands.
• A pair of clamps containing a socket for screwing in the bulb, a device to attach the clamp to the stand, and an electric cord that plugs into a heavy-duty extension cord.
• Two heavy-duty extension cords to connect the lamps to the nearest socket. Don’t use thin extension cords meant for small household lamps; they could overheat and cause a fire. Use the shortest cord you need, and compare the amperage rating of your lamps to that of the cord to make sure the cord can handle the load.
• Thick canvas gardening gloves are helpful for avoiding burns when you have to move hot lights.

Note: You may want to consider buying a lighting kit. Generally speaking, this will save you money and set you up with everything you should need to get started out of the box. Photoflex has recently created several inexpensive beginner kits called the First Studio line of products. These kits include two lights, two stands, two bulbs and two umbrellas for around $250.

photography positioning guide

Positioning Guide: To simplify the task of aligning your art for photographing, draw lines like these on your wall and center your work in the middle.

Color Guides

You’ll need one of the following:
• Kodak color separation guide or a gray-and-white card. A color guide is a known reference point for color that helps a printer evaluate your images. It’s vital that you include a color guide in EVERY image you shoot, whether it’s indoors or out-of-doors, flat art or a three-dimensional object.
• Incident light meter. A camera’s built-in light meter measures reflected light. The amount of light reflected from a piece of art can vary greatly depending on the colors used in the art. A light painting, for example, will reflect more light than a darker one.
One way to work around this is to use a gray card. But for greater convenience and the most accurate light reading, purchase a handheld incident light meter. An incident light meter reads the light falling on a subject rather than the light bouncing off it so that the color of the subject has no effect on the reading.
• Gray card. If you use your camera’s built-in light meter instead of an incident light meter, you must meter off of a gray card—a letter-sized sheet of smooth, 18-percent gray cardboard. You can buy gray cards in packs for less than $20 at most photography stores.

Equipment to Review Your Photos

To store and process your digital photos, you’ll need:
• A computer with enough RAM and processing speed to handle large image files.
• Sufficient hard disk space to store many high-resolution digital images.
• The ability to burn CDs or DVDs so that you can send your images.
• A monitor in good repair, calibrated to give you an accurate idea of how your images will look when printed. You can use the monitor calibration options within your computer’s display preferences or control panel.
• Adobe Photoshop Elements, a software program that will allow you to view and edit your digital images.

aperture guide

Aperture: One way to control the amount of light entering the camera is to change the size of the aperture. A smaller number means a larger opening, as shown here.


1. Prepare your art. Take the painting out of the frame and remove any matting before photographing, as the frame and mat can cast a shadow. Never photograph a picture under glass.

2. Position the painting on a wall. Hang your art on an empty wall or on a corkboard mounted on the wall. Use tape or tacks (not pushpins; they cast shadows) to secure your work. For ease in positioning your art, especially if it varies in size, draw lines in the center of your wall or board as shown on previous page. To avoid having to stoop while looking at the camera’s viewfinder, center your art at eye level. Tape or pin your color guide along the edge of the art.

Or place a board on an easel and lean your art against it. Lean your color guide along the edge of the art. Tilt the camera to match the tilt of the easel.

Tip: Position both vertical and horizontal pieces with the longer side oriented horizontally so that you don’t have to change the camera’s position to fill the viewfinder.

3. Block the windows and set up your lights. For evenly lit shots, position your two 500-watt floodlights on either side of the art.

DSLR settings

Aperture and Shutter Speed Settings: On traditional film cameras, you use a ring on the lens barrel to set the aperture. On newer digital cameras, you set the f-stop and shutter speed with dials on the camera body.

4. Choose the following camera settings. Consult your manual if you need further instructions.
Color mode: Adobe RGB (not sRGB).
Image size: Set to the largest size your camera can produce.
Image format: Use RAW or TIFF. JPEG format is best used for the Web.
ISO (which corresponds to the film speed setting on a film camera): 100
• White balance: Set the white balance to match the type of bulbs you’re using in your floodlights. (As we said, we recommend daylight-balanced [5,000°K] bulbs.)
Exposure control: Manual mode
Flash: Make sure the camera-mounted flash, if any, is disabled.
• Aperture and f-stops: The aperture is the opening through which light passes into a camera. Aperture is described with numbers such as 1.4, 2, 2.8, 4, 5.6, 8, 11, 16 and 22. These numbers are called f-stops, and each number represents a halving or doubling of the size of the aperture. Note that the f-stop numbers are inversely related to the size of the aperture. This means that to increase the amount of light entering the camera, you would choose a smaller aperture number. To maximize the sharpness and quality of your photographs, set your aperture in the center of the lens’ range. For most lenses, f8 will be the proper setting, but if you have a faster lens, a wider aperture and smaller f-stop number will produce better images.
• Shutter speed: Another way besides aperture to control how much light enters the camera is the shutter speed; if you’re using a tripod, this is the best way to control the light. The shutter opens for a fraction of a second. The shutter speed is usually expressed as numbers such as 8, 15, 30, 60, 125, 500 and 1000. In this system, 60 means one-sixtieth of a second and 1000 means one-one-thousandth of a second. The faster the shutter speed, the better you’ll be able to freeze motion. If the camera isn’t on a tripod, don’t use a shutter speed below 60, or the motion of your body will result in blurry photos. Even with a tripod, don’t go below 30.

5. Attach the cable release to the camera, then mount the camera on the tripod securely and place it in front of the artwork. The camera should face the artwork squarely, pointed straight ahead to the center of the art. The face of the camera should be parallel to the art—not tilted up, down or to either side.

aiming the camera

Aiming the Camera to Avoid Parallax: The camera’s line of sight must be perfectly perpendicular to the artwork. If the art is tilted (as when you lean art against an easel or wall), the tripod head must be tilted as well.

6. Aim the camera. Move the entire tripod and camera around until the art and the color bar fill as much of the viewfinder as possible without cropping the image. For vertical art, rotate the tripod head if your tripod provides this adjustment, or simply hang the art vertically on the wall so that it can fill the frame. To ensure that the artwork isn’t distorted in the photo, the camera’s line of sight needs to be perfectly perpendicular to the art. If your painting is attached to a vertical wall, the camera should be vertical. If the artwork is leaning against a wall or on an easel, the camera must be tilted as well. Make sure the edges of the painting are perfectly square in the viewfinder. This can be frustrating, but it’s vital to get it right; otherwise, your art will look like a trapezoid in the photo rather than a rectangle—a problem called parallax. For trouble-shooting help, see the guide on the opposite page. Once you have your tripod in the right spot, you might want to mark the position of the legs on the floor with masking tape.

parallax error

If the artwork converges toward the top, tilt the camera forward until the sides are parallel. Then raise the tripod column to center the work.

parallax error

If the artwork converges toward the bottom, tilt the camera backward until the sides are parallel. Then lower the tripod column to center the work.

parallax error

If the artwork converges toward the right, rotate the camera to the left until the top and bottom are parallel. Then move the tripod to the right to center the work.

parallax error

If the artwork converges toward the left, rotate the camera to the right until the top and bottom are parallel. Then move the tripod to the left to center the work.

aiming lights for photography

Aiming the Lights: Aim each light at a 45-degree angle to the artwork.

7. Adjust the floodlights. Estimate the distance from the camera to the artwork, then place one floodlight twice that distance to the left of the artwork and the other one the same distance to the right. Aim them at a 45-degree angle to the art. The lights should be as far back as your camera. If they’re too far forward, light may strike the camera lens and cause flare, a fogging or veiling of the image.



positioning lights for photography

Positioning the Lights: Turn on one light and move it back and forth along the imaginary 45-degree line until its beam covers the entire surface of the art. Then turn off this light, turn on the other light and repeat.

8. Check the lighting. Turn on the floodlights and turn off the room lights; the extra light will upset the color balance of your pictures. Adjust the floods as needed (wear heavy gloves when touching the reflectors; they get very hot) until the light is evenly distributed on the art. Look for hot spots, places that are brighter than the rest.

Look through the camera’s viewfinder. If there’s harsh glare on the art after you’ve followed these instructions, carefully try decreasing the angle of the lights to 35 degrees from 45 degrees, then see if the glare is gone. You can continue to reduce the angle if needed, but don’t make it any smaller than about 15 degrees. It’s not always desirable to eliminate all glare, especially if the work has heavy brushstrokes or other texture.

9. Meter the light. Allow 10 minutes after turning your lights on for the bulbs to warm up fully, then meter as follows:

Using an incident light meter: Set the light meter to f8. For artwork 12×16 or smaller, hold the light meter at the center of the artwork. If the art is larger than 12×16, meter at all four corners and the center and average the results. Take the reading(s), note the recommended shutter speed, and set your camera’s shutter speed accordingly.

Using the camera’s built-in meter: Place a gray card in front of your art. With the camera’s exposure control set to manual, remove the camera from the tripod, look through the viewfinder, and move closer to the gray card until the card fills the viewfinder. Make sure your body isn’t blocking any of the light falling on the card. Get the meter reading (on many cameras, you do this by depressing the shutter button part-way). Set the shutter speed indicated by the meter, then return the camera to the tripod.

10. Take your first shot at aperture f8. Make sure the art is still aligned in the viewfinder. Focus on the subject and press the cable release.

11. Bracket your shot with two other exposures to ensure that you’ll get at least one good shot. Do this by changing the aperture to f5.6. Change the aperture only; don’t change the shutter speed or anything else. Recheck the alignment and focus, then shoot. Now change the aperture—nothing else—to f11. Recheck the alignment and focus, then shoot. Now you have shot light, middle and dark versions of the image, improving the chances that at least one of them will be a good exposure.

Professional art photographers Al Parrish and Ric Deliantoni shoot artists’ paintings and projects for F+W Media’s fine art book lines and magazines.

Excerpted from the December 2009 issue of Watercolor Artist magazine. Used with the kind permission of Watercolor Artist magazine, a publication of F+W Media Inc. Visit www.artistsnetwork.com or call (386) 246-3371 to subscribe.


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