An inevitable part of being an artist is having to take pictures of what you create, whether in order to digitally submit it for exhibitions or for promotional purposes. Unfortunately, people tend to be too sloppy when photographing artwork, and they often end up with photos that do no justice to the piece itself. This can easily cost the artist a potentially important step in their career as the piece can be overlooked simply because its photo was not up to par with its creative quality.
On the other hand, a good photograph of your art can severely increase your chances of getting into an exhibition or making that important sale, so it's of vital importance to take good shots that will offer a mind-blowing first impression as well as display your overall professionalism.
So, although it may seem more like a chore of some kind, photographing artwork is necessary for both entering exhibits and selling work. However, since the process of photographing works of art is far from being straightforward and simple, we're here to help you avoid all the common pitfalls preventing you from getting the absolute most out of your creation's images.
By every account and measurement, modern digital cameras are a miracle of technology. However, their practicality is precisely what makes them problematic when you use them to photograph artwork - the simple point and shoot method which automatically focuses, sets the exposure and easily zooms in and out makes those of us taking images lazy and this ultimately ends up costing us in terms of image quality.
No matter how good of a camera you've got, halfhearted sessions lead to a number of issues like uneven lighting, incorrect colors, glares and undesired shadows. The trick to photographing artwork with success is to avoid these problems while also making sure all the benefits of digital cameras are working in your favor.
More often than not, we see artwork photographed leaned up against a wall and shot from a downward angle. Do not do that. When photographing artwork, always find a neutral colored wall (white, black, gray will all do the job here) and hang your work at a height where the very center of it will be parallel to where your camera shall be placed.
You want to position your camera so that the frame is filled with the artwork either horizontally or vertically, leaving a bit of background that you can potentially crop out later if necessary. Keep in mind that it is important for many juries to see the edges of the paintings to get a sense of scale, so these mustn't under any circumstance be out of focus.
Needless to say, the camera you're using should always be resting sturdily on a table or other surface if you do not have a tripod available.
The golden rule of photographing artwork is waiting until it’s overcast outside. Why? Well, clouds will essentially act as a giant diffuser that will make it seem like the light is coming from everywhere - just like those umbrellas professional photographers use. Such a setting will make your subject evenly lit, which is precisely what you're looking for.
If there's not a cloudy day in sight and you're facing some kind of a deadline, your best bet would probably be taking the image indoors. Rearrange the furniture so that you make a lot of free space, get two lights of the same power and light bulb color, and use a translucent plastic bag as a poor man's diffuser. Do the shooting in a room with plenty of windows and natural light, but be aware that the ideal results of photographing artwork usually come from working outdoors where indirect natural lighting can do its thing.
By the way, here's a quick and crucial tip - make it easy on yourself and photograph your work before you put it inside a frame. That way, the glass won’t cause reflections.
So, you've prepared everything and the shooting session is about to begin? Good. Now you need to get your camera set up the way you want it. First and foremost, you do not want to use a smart phone for photographing artwork - while more than adequate for quick shots to post on Facebook, such a camera is not suitable for submission-quality photos, so don't be making this beginner mistake. You want to be using a digital camera with better resolution and more control over the settings.
Find your white balance setting and set it to cloudy, which is in all probability represented by a cloud icon. White balance is how the camera determines what color white is, which depends on the temperature of the ambient light. Your camera's ability to auto adjust is all well and nice, but you do not want to be relying on it too much so avoid using auto-mode while shooting artwork. And also make sure your flash is turned off as there's absolutely no reason for it to do any kind of additional lighting.
The ISO and aperture of your camera are also very important in getting clear, crisp and bright images of your artwork. ISO references what film speed used to measure - in the case of photographing artwork, chances are you are looking for a low ISO (studio shots are generally shot at ISO 100). The aperture of your camera adjusts how much light is being let through the lens by making the opening bigger or smaller.
As is the case with many if not all nice things in life, the moment you've been building to all this time will last only for a very short while. Take a deep breath, press the button and let the camera do its magic.
You'll probably want to use a timer of about four or five seconds in order to make sure you do not engage with the camera while it's shooting. Furthermore, taking as many photos as possible is definitely the way to go - you'll easily make your choice from a rich selection at a later date.
Just like all the big budget films coming out of Hollywood, a lot of magic happens in post production when it comes to photographing artwork, as all the professionals doing this for a living know very well. Don't worry, you won't need an expensive photo editor on your computer - you can always download one for free and there's a lot of them that'll do the job in a pinch. While Photoshop still reigns supreme, software like Gimp allow all the basic functions you might require, such as color correction, cropping and other minor adjustments.
The first thing you should be looking at in post production is color - correct it if necessary. The goal here is, to put it simply, to get your whites white and your blacks black. You may also want to manually adjust the contrast as this is usually the sore thumb of photographing artwork.
Secondly, you will probably see that the shots you made would look a lot better if you crop them a bit - just be sure not to overdo it.
Since professional photos of art do not have anything distracting in the background, neither should you. Just be careful you leave enough room for the photographed artwork to "breath."
Hopefully, by now you're aware of just how important properly photographing your work can be. It can mean the difference between being accepted to a show, or winning the favors of an important client or gallery director.
We didn't even mention yet how vital photos of works are in the online art market - with online galleries and social media becoming major sources for artists to promote and sell their art today, contemporary artists need quality photography more than ever.
Luckily, despite all the issues photographing artwork can present you with, the time we live in provided us with a limitless range of tools that can help in getting the absolute most out of every single photograph. As you've seen throughout this text, the depth of your pocket is not the ultimate factor in determining the quality of your photos. So, do not despair and simply embrace the challenge - mastering the way you photograph artwork is a crucial step of getting noticed and it's a vital process every single noteworthy name in contemporary art had to learn, so there's no reason why you can't do the same.
Editors’ Tip: Photographing Arts, Crafts & Collectibles
The long-anticipated update of Steve Meltzer’s Photographing Your Craftwork is here - and finally artists have a guide that helps them produce high-quality images of their work. Cutting through the jargon and hype around digital photography, Meltzer explains in plain language how digital cameras operate, and explores specific techniques for lighting and photographing jewelry, pottery, glass, installed art, stamps, coins, dolls, and other collectibles.
Featured image: A Sketch of Photographing Artwork, via photographyfirm.co.uk. All images used for illustrative purposes only.