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How To Photograph Artwork

September 22, 2017

Art reproduction is studio-based, and often highly technical, photographic process. As a result, it comes at a price which can be a barrier to emerging or amateur artists producing prints of their own work. However, it is possible to achieve acceptable reproductions for most pieces with a fairly basic photographic set-up at home. I can't guarantee that you will achieve a perfectly accurate reproduction of a piece of art by following the guidelines below. Viewed side by side, subtle differences may be apparent between the original work and the print. Then again, some subtle differences are inevitable simply by virtue of the printing process. The process described here should be sufficient to create a quality reproduction suitable for a portfolio or as prints for commercial sale by the emerging artist. Although written with the novice photographer in mind, this guide presupposes that the reader has some familiarity with the basic workings of a DSLR camera and Adobe Camera Raw or equivalent raw file processor.

 

First, make sure your camera is set to shoot RAW files. This is important when it comes to adjusting the white balance later in your image processing software. It is virtually impossible to make an accurate white balance adjustment to a JPEG. 

 

It is essential that you use a tripod. This will ensure the camera sensor remains parallel to the plane of the artwork. The method of photographing artwork described below will also require shooting with a slow shutter speed. Attempting to hand-hold the camera in such circumstances is likely to result in a blurred image.

 

A 50mm focal length is ideal as this roughly corresponds to the field of vision and perspective of the human eye. A longer lens can be used with confidence but try to avoid using wide angle lenses (35mm and below) as this will invariably result in some distortion of the image.

 

Shoot two stops down from widest aperture your lens allows. This is generally where your lens will be at its sharpest. Place your camera in manual or aperture priority mode and set the ISO to the lowest possible setting.

 

Even lighting is essential. In a studio situation, the artwork would be generally be lit from either side using large, soft light sources such as soft-boxes. This is obviously impossible for those who have not invested in a studio lighting set up. You might be tempted to try lighting the piece with a single lamp or perhaps the light from a nearby window but light from a single source will rarely fall evenly across the surface of the artwork, resulting in noticeable differences in tone across the picture. Outside of a studio environment, the best way to ensure the artwork is evenly lit is to avoid direct light sources and to place the artwork in an area where it is lit by ambient room light alone. A blank wall at the opposite end of the room from a window is suitable. Do not be concerned if the area in question appears at first glance to be too dim to photograph; we are more concerned with finding light that is even in quality than having enough brightness to photograph under normal conditions. Mounting the camera on a tripod and shooting with a slow shutter speed will be enough to achieve accurate exposure.

 

When positioning the camera, try to resist the temptation to tightly frame the artwork. Camera lenses are invariably less sharp at the corners – often noticeably so. It is better to leave some space around the artwork in the frame and crop the image later when preparing the file.

 

If the artwork is photographed against a coloured wall and the white balance on your camera is set to auto it is almost certain that some sort of colour cast will be present in the final image. A cast affects not only the colours but also the perceived contrast in an image, resulting in a print which looks muddy and drab. Even an off-white wall can introduce a colour cast, so it is always best to adjust the white balance later in Camera RAW or an equivalent RAW file processor. To aid this, once the artwork has been positioned, take a reference picture whilst holding a piece of white paper against the surface of the artwork. Make sure the paper is thick enough that none of the colour from the artwork behind it shows through. Later you can use the white of the paper as a reference for the white balance tool in Camera RAW. Once you've set the white balance on the reference image, you can simply copy the settings across to your final photograph.

 

Other adjustments to brightness, contrast and saturation can be made as required. Try to avoid the temptation to make localised adjustments to the image though. Looking at your image on the screen, you might feel that one colour in particular looks dull or perhaps inaccurate and requires adjustment. However, if you have followed the guidelines above and your image was shot in even light, this is more likely the result of a colour cast which is affecting the entire image. Try fine tuning the white balance a little more. You'll know you have it right when suddenly there is a subtle but noticeable boost to the colour and contrast of the whole image.

 

Sharpening can be applied as required. Reproductions of visual art are nearly always printed on matte paper, which requires a higher amount of sharpening than usual.

 

Most commercial print services will request 300ppi TIFF files for optimal print quality.

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