Photographing artwork for artists: The easy way

Photographing artwork for artists: The easy way

Artists can be picky when you photograph their work for reproduction. And who can blame them? Color is their world and any deviation from the vision can change the emotion of the art.

I’ve been working with a way to shoot flat art that really simplifies setup and gets you better color and lighting than many other ways. No longer is there a need for polarizing filters and busting butt trying to get even light across the field of the artwork by trying to use 45-degree angles … See the diagram for the set up here’s how it works for me …

Lighting set directions

Lighting flat art — the easy way

Take a measurement of the art. The lights should be at a distance as an equilateral triangle that is longer than the diagonal dimension of the art to be photographed. If you have extremely large art you can stack another umbrella light over the first to get taller coverage. If you are photographing art of varying size set up for the largest piece and work your way down. You won’t need to change the set.

Lights on umbrellas should be facing the CAMERA. We are lighting the flat art with the spill from each umbrella. This makes it extremely easy to get the light falling on the art to 1/10 of a stop over the entire suffice with virtually no effort. If you have set the lights at the same power and height according to the diagram you will get even lighting.

Set up flags so that the light doesn’t flare the lens since the lights are pointing toward the camera.

Color and white balance

coates photofocus color check wb | Theedgesm
Color and white balance tools

Very necessary for correct color is to use the proper tools. Take a set of flash meter readings to ensure the light is within even across the art. Use that reading on your camera. One possible way to attain a solid white balance is to make an exposure with the expo disk in place in front of your lens with the metered settings from the artwork’s position. Use that exposure to set a custom white balance on your camera. I’ve linked here to the largest disc as you can hold the disc over your lens. If your largest lens is smaller you can order a different size.

If you want to be very accurate (and show the artist) You can work to a color standard such as the xRite ColorChecker Passport Photo 2 (latest version) If I had to have only one of these color tools in my box this would be it. Place the Color checker in the frame of the first image capture. You can use this frame to set your color in post-production. Once you have tweaked any settings they can be applied to all the other images from the session. Make sure you are capturing images in RAW for the best results.

Also from xRite is the original version of the Gratag Macbeth ColorChecker Card, now called the ColorChecker Classic Card. This is quite a bit larger than the Passport model.

If you only photograph art occasionally, at the bare minimum you will need to white balance properly. The Expo Disc has been mentioned but there are color-correct gray devices to put in your scene such as the Kodak Gray Card or WhiBal Pocket card.

Additional concerns and solutions

If you are shooting artwork with glass or with highly specular highlights from the paint or glazes set up a black background behind the camera and cover the tripod with black velvet. Make sure there is no spill from the lights on the black background to keep it dark. Get out of the way and trigger the camera with a remote. There will be no reflections or any light for the artwork to “see” hence no glare or specular hot spots to deal with. The color will be spot on since you are using a custom white balance. If you are shooting through glass you will have to clone out the reflection of the camera lens. Make sure you look for it.

Since I have been using this system I no longer have issues with shifts in color from hot spots or polarizing filters. And, most important no more fighting with artists about getting the ‘right’ color. Before there were always problems, but no more. Try it you’ll like it! Any questions give me a shout in the comments below.

Yours in Creative Photography, Bob