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I Need a Good Photo of my Artwork

by Keith Alway on 9/5/2014 7:37:17 AM

This post is by guest author, Keith Alway.  This article has been edited and published with the author's permission. You should submit an article and share your views as a guest author by clicking here. We've promoted this post to feature status because it provides great value to the FineArtViews community.  If you want your blog posts listed in the FineArtViews newsletter with the possibility of being republished to our 25,000+ subscribers, consider blogging with FASO Artist Websites.  This author's views are entirely his own and may not always reflect the views of BoldBrush, Inc.



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 arts painter, 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.


This blog is intended for artists who are unfamiliar with photographing their own artwork.


Many of you don’t want to bother with shooting your own pics and probably like hiring a professional photographer… and that’s okay, but it could lead to spending thousands of dollars per year, if you’re not careful. You also have to live by the pro’s schedule. So let’s look into shooting ‘em yourself, alright? 


Naturally, you will need a fairly good camera (new or used), anywhere from a good point-and-shoot to an SLR (single lens reflex). 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 get 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 actually take a better picture than an SLR, they just won’t work here. How are you ever going to hold it steady enough? Yes, and it’s quite impossible to get a cell phone camera attached to a tripod. No hand holding, okay? Point-and-shoot cameras and SLR’s can easily be attached to a tripod.




 And that’s my next item… 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.


Now… let’s go outside. I think you will find outdoor lighting to be superior to that of 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. Even on bright sunny days 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 to set up your shot. 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 it is snowing or raining and you must shoot indoors, I will cover that a bit later.


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. The use of 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. An easel allows you to move your painting up and down also. Make sure the easel is heavy enough to withstand sudden gusts of wind. Sandbags could be used for weight, if necessary. It is very important to keep your painting as perpendicular to the pavement or ground … 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 also on the same parallel plane.


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 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 don’t want to see a lot of dead space around your painting. 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 from the other two corners. 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 center 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 lenses 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 the camera lens too close to the painting. Simply back away a bit, then reset your camera to the piece of tape in the center.


When I was just a rookie, an old photographer friend of mine, Harry Merrick, attached a tiny mirror to the exact center of his shots. I asked 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.


What camera setting should you use? First, turn off your flash. There are settings that go from fully automatic to multiple manual settings. The professionals like the manual settings because it gives them more control over 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 varied choice of 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. These digital files are huge. All SLR cameras have this RAW 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. Never use a wide-angle lens. Also, polarizing filters can be a great asset if your painting is shiny and reflective.


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.


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 release cables fit almost all cameras and are inexpensive, and they certainly help avoid camera-jerk when pressing the shutter button with your finger.


Now, let’s try some shots. Remember to remove your piece of tape before shooting. With digital photography you can shoot tons of photos and can simply delete those 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 move in closer and closer again 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 obtain super sharp focus. After double checking all my camera settings, I press my Release Cable button half way down to allow the camera to perform further automatic focusing. Then I press it all the way down and hear the click of the shutter. Ah, no vibrations! You should take several photos and experiment with various camera settings or white balances, but write down your settings with each shot so when you view your images you will know what the settings were. Delete the shots you don’t like. Import your shots into your computer.


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.


Getting back to those of you who would rather shoot indoors if it snowing outside, all of the pre-setup steps are the same as outdoors, except you 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 in this post… let’s take the cheap way out. In my early days, I went to Home Depot and bought 2 of those cheap, clamp-on lights. I bought 2 blue 1000 watt photo bulbs for $3.00 at a local photo shop, and I was in business. But it took me hours and hours of trial and error because I would clamp my lights on stepladders, book cases, ceiling fans, 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 come 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.    



The key to using indoor lighting is symmetrical placement. You should position one light on each side of your camera at 45 degrees from the center of 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 blog brief, but there is so much to cover when learning how to shoot artwork. I could easily go into a deeper level on all aspects, but enough for now. If you have further questions, send me an email, and I will try to help. Happy shooting and thanks for looking in!




Editor's Note:  You can view Keith's original post here.

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Topics: Art Business | art marketing | FineArtViews | Guest Posts | inspiration | selling art online | selling fine art online 

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Kerry Dexter
Keith, you've given lots of good, practical, useful information here.
I 'd offer one reservation: though I know the distinction you were making of practical from creative, I wonder if you'd think of another way to do it than by saying "Dang it, I'm an artist”¦ not a photographer! How many of us have said that before? "

There are those of us who, as photographers, consider many of the same questions and philosophies of artistic practice, have much of the same training, show our work in galleries, often the same ones which exhibit the paintings of artists here. I know it was not your intent to disparage, just that you wanted to make a quick point. Nevertheless... words have power.

Keith Alway
Sorry Kerry, please accept my regret. I did not mean to slight photographers in any way.

Susan Holland
Keith, this one paragraph is enough to make everyone a better photographer with whatever camera they use. Perfect!
QUOTE FROM YOUR ARTICLE: "...When I was just a rookie, an old photographer friend of mine, Harry Merrick, attached a tiny mirror to the exact center of his shots. I asked 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."

Wiley Purkey
Thank you for the informative article about taking photos of your pictures. I need clarification on one thing though... You suggest shooting in RAW format, but when I do, even though the size of the picture may be larger, the resolution is only 240 dots per inch. When I shoot in Jpeg mode , it captures in 350 dpi, then I convert to tiff. What am I missing, or what should I do differently?
Thank you in advance for taking the time to respond.

jack white

I'm thrilled you wrote this thoughtful piece. So many artists don't know how to take images of their art.

When taking photos in the shadow, make sure both the camera and art are in the same shade

We photograph our work on the easel with a tripod. We also paint under daylight corrected lamps.We get perfect color.

Since we make giclees from our images we use a 26 MP Nikon. We can make huge prints from these files.


Keith, I'm not trying to bring the pitchforks out here, but I have to agree with Kerry. I am a photographer, and our biggest challenge in selling our work, is convincing people that it isn't just a matter of buying a better camera, tripod and lighting. To be fair, your article was very well written and concise. Would it also be fair to say that money spent on a professional photographer might be worth the investment? You've proven, by the length of your article, that it may be more complicated and involved than one might think, to set up a photo shoot. Yes, you will have to invest some money for a professional. But isn't that why we also invest in artists who paint? Because we appreciate their talent enough to hand over the dough :) I do follow your articles and love your insight, just touched a nerve on this one. Keep up the great work!

Keith Alway
Your point is well taken Nancy. As I told Kerry, I did not mean to slight photographers in any way. Please accept my apologies. I will be more careful next time.

Keith Alway
You're thrilled? Jack, I am thrilled to hear from such a giant as you! Thanks for your kind words.

Brian Sherwin
Keith -- This is an extremely informative post. I view art online throughout the day... I doubt you would be surprised by the number of low quality images I observe on a consistent basis -- it is like a plague! Ha, ha.

A lot of the mistakes I view go against the grain of common sense. For example, yesterday I observed an image of a painting with a thumb in the shot -- clearly that is a no-no... but I see examples like that more often than I should.

I suppose it would be best for some artists to hire a photographer. But as you suggested... that can get pricey fast. One alternative -- if the artist chooses to hire someone -- is to seek out photography students at a local college. It will likely still have a price tag attached... but far less than what it would be to hire a pro.

In some cases a student will take photos for free if the instructor accepts it as an assignment for class. Granted, the artist is still at the mercy of the photographers schedule.

John Patrick Weiss

Well dang, now I know why my iPhone shots are so blurry! Seriously, great info and very useful.

Keith Alway
Thanks John.... yeah, those cell phone shots just won't cut it if you plan to reproduce your great art pieces.

Marian Fortunati
Interesting post. --- Thank you.
I've been shooting my own photos for years, but you've pointed out a couple of things I hadn't thought of that I might try. -- thanks!

Donald Fox
What about the bulbs for indoor shooting? Photolamps have different color temperatures that can affect the outcome. What do you recommend?

Keith Alway
Aw, thank you Marian. Glad I helped a little!

Keith Alway
Donald... Its probably too much, but I have been using 1000 watt blue photo bulbs for years. Works OK. Can be obtained at any camera shop.

Keith Alway
Hmmm... some of my return/comments are getting blocked because they came from a no-reply site, at least two of them. But Donald, in reply to your comment... I have been using 1000 watt BLUE photo bulbs for years, and they have worked well for me. You may not need that much wattage. They can be purchased at any camera/photo shop. Good luck!

Keith Alway
Marian... your artwork is fabulous!

Sharon Hall
Good information and helpful. We've been struggling with photography for years. My husband's artwork is smooth and shiny, and causes even professional photographers some grief. We hire a professional photographer to shoot the artwork in RAW and I do all of the processing and editing.

While you are absolutely right, the photos should be in RAW, very few artists I know (other than photographers) are capable of doing the processing from RAW files. RAW is powerful and complicated, requiring some pretty expensive photo editing software, lots of training and practice.

Most artists I know use a basic photo editing software like Photoshop Elements, and generally just for cropping, resizing, and other simple editing tasks. Not sure shooting in RAW is for most artists.

Keith Alway
Thanks Sharon. Your husband's work is fabulous, and he is so productive! I can see why the photographic process is so important to you. Yes, I agree... artists should be shooting their work in RAW mode, and you are correct it does take editing skills.

C Nelson Kellar
Great article! I've struggled to get good shots of my work. I've come a long way from my early beginnings, but I believe you have given me some great tools to take it to the next level. I am grateful to you.

Keith Alway
Thank you for looking in on my article. I hope I have helped a little.

Brian Sherwin
Keith -- Do you have any tips on how to negotiate with a photographer? I imagine it may be easier for some artists to simply hire someone with more knowledge in this department. Any suggestions? Or do you feel that the development of photography skills should be high on the business-minded artists list of goals?

Keith Alway
That's a tough one Brian. Photography can be so technical. One must ask if their photographer charges by the hour or by the piece. Try to establish a lower rate by offering a long-term relationship. However, it is always best in the long run to invest in the equipment and learn the process yourself. Then you will have the capability the rest of your life. What if your photographer is out of town on assignment or off on a 3-week shooting vacation... and you have a deadline? An artist can learn a lot by asking if he/she can watch the photographer's shooting process. Observe and learn.

jack white

So many small towns don't have a professional photographer. When we lived on N. Padre Island, would have had to ship the art to San Antonio. We ship all of Mikki's work while it's wet. No photographer wants to handle a wet oil painting.
We have lived in several areas with no photographer. At our last home we were an hour from San Antonio. The cost was too great and it took too much time.

With our setup we take great images.

With a tripod most can get good images. Keith did a good job telling how.



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