As a working artist, you know that creating and perfecting pieces of art takes countless exhausting hours. You also know that, when it comes to making a sale, landing an exhibition, or winning an open call, you often neglect the most important part of the process: photographing your artwork.
The average working artist is typically required to digitally submit or upload their work for galleries, exhibits, personal profiles, and the like. Learning how to properly photograph your artwork is extremely important when it comes to presenting your artwork in a professional format, in an effort to increase your chances of making a sale. Photographing your artwork properly can be the difference between gaining the favor of a client or gallery, or being passed over because your work wasn’t accurately represented. Therefore, it’s imperative that the working artist learn how to professionally photograph artwork, in a manner that both shows off its beauty and quality while keeping production costs low.
Photographing Your Artwork: Mastering Camera Principles
To begin, the three basic requirements for a great photo of your artwork are a camera, a studio, and lighting.
When purchasing a camera it is important to look into and compare the features of different types of cameras to get exactly what’s needed when photographing your artwork. It is preferred that a camera has manual or assisted controls (i.e. shutter speed, aperture, etc.), a mid-range or wide angle lens, RAW file format, and image processing software. It is not required that a camera has multi-point or phase detection autofocus, low light, performance or high ISO sensitivity, built-in-flash, or a high megapixel count. It’s also worth noting that it isn’t necessary to purchase a camera if you’re on a budget: You can borrow, buy, or rent various types of cameras for photographing your artwork. For example, we recommend looking into the following options:
- Buy a Nikon camera on Amazon for $399 or rent it for three days for $47.
- Purchase a Sony Alpha a5000 at Amazon for $369 with a three-day rental price of $38.
- A Canon EOS Rebel T5 at Amazon for $399 or renting it for three days at the cost of $44.
In order to master specific images, you need to know what each control does and where each control is; these considerations usually revolve around the three most important concepts in photography: aperture, shutter speed, and ISO.
While mastering these principles often takes a great deal of practice, there are basic tips to follow when photographing your artwork. First of all, it’s important to shoot in RAW format, so that you have greater flexibility when editing your photographs. In addition, remember that aperture, shutter speed, and ISO work together when using a camera. For example, smaller aperture creates a higher focal range (depth of field), and lets in less light requiring more exposure (shutter speed). A slower shutter speed means movement can cause blur, while a higher ISO means less light and less exposure is required but the images will be more grainy. In an effort to make photographing your artwork easier, a tripod and good lighting will make setting these controls less important.
On most cameras, the camera controls are found and labeled on a round dial on the top of the camera. The “P” stands for Program where the camera handles aperture, shutter speed, and ISO. The “A or AV” stands for Aperture Priority where you choose aperture and the camera handles shutter speed and ISO. The “S or TV” stand for Shutter Priority where you chooses aperture, and the camera handles shutter speed and ISO, and the “M” stands for Manual, where you choose aperture, shutter speed, and ISO. Once you’ve taken your photograph, you can adjust almost all of these issues in the RAW file except depth of field, and you cannot fix out of focus shots due to a shallow depth of field.
Photographing Your Artwork: Setting Up the Shot
After you have borrowed, rented, or bought a camera, it is time to go to your studio location and focus on the art. When background framing your work, you should limit distractions and use a uniform background or one with a continuous tone. Make sure you are not using a color that competes with the art, and note that light objects should use a dark background and dark objects should use a light background.
It’s also very important that you minimize shadows. You can create an easy DIY background set up or you can purchase one. Two background set-ups you can purchase that are within a good price range include the LimoStudio Photography Photo Video Studio for $64.99 and the Shutter Starz 3086 Light Cube Photo Tent for $47.13. The LimoStudio kit includes a very comprehensive set of equipment for this particular use, including both a black and white muslin backdrop and background support structure. The Shutter Starz 3086 Light Cube Photo Tent comes with four color backgrounds (white, black, blue, and red) and filters the light to prevent shadows and reflections. This gives a clean professional backdrop to all items being photographed, which can be lit by flash, fluorescent, quartz, tungsten, and floodlights.
After setting up your studio and preparing for photographing your artwork, it is important to keep in mind what affects lighting and color. Color management on the camera’s sensor attempts to ensure accurate color of your work, however, it becomes more and more difficult to maintain as your images are sent to different media. To help mitigate this effect, turn-off any camera processing, like auto sharpening, HDR, gamma settings, or film types. Keep in mind that computer monitors can look slightly different depending on the computer’s operating system, and different types of light sources will give off color that affects all colors in a scene which can affect your white balance settings.
To fix white balance, you can use daylight bulbs to light your work and adjust in your RAW workflow. For your artwork lighting setup, first place the camera on a tripod behind the light, slightly pointing down at the artwork. Next, place two diffused lights about 3ft to each side of the artwork, turned inward at a 45-degree angle (height will depend upon type of work and potential shadows).
As another option, you can include a light behind and above the artwork, shining down onto the background to diffuse shadows, and then use a roll of seamless paper or cloth behind the artwork and curve the material under the work to create a seamless background. Finally, use support stands to hold it up or attach the back to a wall.
If purchasing additional lighting equipment for photographing your artwork is out of reach, you can create DIY lights and a diffuser by making an aluminum clamp light and using a Rosco Cinegel sheet of diffusing material. Creating a DIY aluminum clamp light will cost $7.99 and consist of a 5.5-inch adjustable aluminum reflector, a 6-foot cord and rugged molded-on plug, and an up to a 60-Watt lightbulb. A Rosco Cinegel 20″ x 24″ (50 cm x 61) cm sheet of diffusing material will cost $8.98 and will create a smooth field of soft shadow and less light. This sheet is excellent for frames and overheads. If you would rather buy lights and a diffuser, you can purchase an Emart photography umbrella lighting kit for $39.49, or the Shutter Starz 3086 Light Cube Photo Tent for $47.13.
Photographing Your Artwork: Editing the File
The last thing to do after photographing your artwork is to use a raw processing software. Software options that we recommend include Adobe Lightroom, Affinity Photo, Darktable, and Xrite Color Checker Passport. Adobe Lightroom has a complete RAW Workflow, streamlines common editing processes, has excellent library management along with a Mobile Companion App, and is only $9.99 per month. The Affinity Photo software is extremely fast and reliable, easy to use for non-photographers, a little basic for hardcore photographers, and costs $49.00. The Darktable software is free and is an open source with a database of images. Darktable has advanced functionality, but can be considered a little clunky. Lastly, Xrite Color Checker Passport costs $85 and has automated color correction and a Lightroom plug-in.
Photographing your artwork is equally as important as the beautiful artwork you have created and generally requires the same amount of work. When photographing your artwork, the resulting images need to look their absolute best to make sure that anyone looking at those can get an up-close, in-depth and quality experience – almost like they’re seeing it in person. If you’re able to achieve such a polished photograph of your work, the likelihood that you’ll make a sale can only increase.