Also check out our other article with resources & tips for photographing art.
Consider this situation: You’ve spent all sorts of time and effort creating a gorgeous painting. I mean they’re going to empty the Louvre just to show this masterpiece. You decide to put it online, grab your camera, and the photo looks like a monkey on two pots of coffee took it with a pinhole camera he made from an oatmeal box.
What went wrong? How can you get a photo that shows your art on screen as it looks in real life? This guide offers lots of useful tips, and will really help you get good results. Also, if you plan on selling prints, then you should definitely read on.
Use a scanner
Using a scanner can alleviate many of the problems caused by cameras. Scanning obviously works best when the art can fit entirely on the flatbed. Otherwise you have to scan the art in sections and assemble them in a graphic program. In case of the latter, you’re better off taking a photo.
Before you scan, make sure that the flatbed surface is free of dust, and the piece that you’re scanning is not in a frame and is laying flat on the scanner surface. If the surface of your art has warped at all, use a good sized book to push it flat. You can simply crop out any of the book that gets scanned.
After you’ve scanned your art, take it into an image editing program like Photoshop, straighten out the edges (see this tutorial), and crop out unnecessary bits.
Take a photo
Most people will find it easier to photograph their work. It’s quick and easy, and produces great results.
With a film camera
If you don’t have a digital camera and aren’t ready to join the 21st century (just kidding), you’re going to want to spend extra time setting up your shot so it comes out right the first time. Follow the same instructions for the digital camera, and read the section on scanning above if you’re going to be scanning your prints. Also, if you have an inexpensive point-and-click, be sure to stand at least four feet away from your piece. These cameras often have fixed focal lengths, and trying to get the whole piece in the frame will result in a blurred shot. After you’ve gotten your image in the computer, you can blow it up a bit without harming the picture. Make sure you convert the prints to digital (scanning or through your friendly photo processing shop) using as high resolution as possible. You can always shrink it later.
With a digital camera
Digital is definitely the way to go if you plan on putting lots of your art on the computer. The cameras are cheap, you can redo the shot as many times as you want until you get it right, and the transfer from camera to computer is quick.
Below are shots of a piece of art showing common mistakes made in this process.
Are you kidding me? Nobody can see what this is. Most people use resolutions of 1024×768, and in a few years that size will increase. What that means is more pixels crammed into the same screen size, which in turn shrinks your image.
Try and keep your image 600 pixels or more on its shortest side.
Not good. You’ve taken the small image and blown it up, either with an image editor or by messing with the width and height attributes in the IMG tag. Remember, garbage in, garbage out. Start with a very high resolution image and work your way down to a reasonable web size.
Bad angle, bad light, bad frame, and carpet
The resolution on this image is fine, but the angle of the photograph is horrible. Take a look at this:
Those red lines represent the actual lengths of the top of the inner matting in the photo and the bottom, respectively. In real life, the painting is a rectangle. The top and bottom are the same length. This photo misrepresents the way the art appears in the real world.
Also, there’s no need to show the frame on your art unless it’s included in the piece if you’re selling, or it’s an artistic part of the piece. Usually though, it distracts from what people want to see – the art itself.
The lighting in this is also terrible. It’s lit from a flash, with no natural light. This creates uneven spots that are brighter than others, and can dramatically change the colors on your piece in the photo.
Finally, get that carpet out of there! Crop extra stuff like this away in an image editing program.
Bad lighting – flash highlight
This time the angle is fairly good and we’ve cropped the frame out, but the piece is still too dark (the matte color is actually white), and there’s a bright annoying highlight where the flash reflected off the glass. Even outside of the frame, the lighting wouldn’t be good enough.
All of the above and out of focus
Make sure your camera is focused directly on the art! It should look as sharp in the photo as it does to your eye. If your vision is bad, get someone with good vision to help you.
OK, enough of the bad. Here’s how to take a good photo of your art. Read the tips carefully and you’ll be a happy camper.
Use bright, indirect natural lighting
You most likely wouldn’t show your friend your art in a dark room using a flashlight, so when you take a photo of your art, bring it and your camera to a spot that’s full of bright light. Natural light is best. If the sun is too bright directly, bring your piece to a slightly shady area that’s still quite bright.
If you’re forced to use artificial lights, get them as bright as possible, and reflect the light off of a white wall, poster board or another light surface to avoid over exposed parts in your photo. Look out for shadows, as well. If you use a flash, try taping a single sheet of toilet paper over it so it’s not so harsh.
Take it out of the frame
Unless the frame is an integral part of your work, leave it out. If your frame has glass, it helps to completely remove the art from the frame, to avoid reflections.
Shoot straight on
When you’re taking your photo, look at it directly from the front, so that the edges of the piece are parallel with the edges of the viewfinder. This keeps everything correctly proportioned.
It helps to use a tripod. With a tripod you don’t have to worry about hand shake or instability, and you can take time to frame your shot perfectly.
It also helps sometimes if you take your art off the wall and put it flat on the ground, and then shoot straight down on top of it. If your shot isn’t exactly straight, don’t fret. When you crop your image you can also rotate it so that it’s straight (see this tutorial).
Use sRGB mode
If you’re using Photoshop or another image editing program, they often have a "Color profile" section that allows you to adjust the colors of your image to fit a particular need. sRGB mode (or sRGB IEC61966-2.1) is supported by most computers, and makes your image look the best across most monitors.
Before you make any changes, try saving an image how you usually do, then upload it to the web. If it looks OK, then don’t worry about it, you’re good to go.
In Photoshop, you can check what color profile you’re currently using (and switch) by going to EDIT > COLOR SETTINGS > WORKING SPACES. If you change modes, you’ll still need to convert any open images that you want saved for the web to sRGB. Alternatively, if you’re using another color mode, you should convert your image to sRGB before saving for the web. To do this on an image-by-image basis (if you’re not already in sRGB mode), go to EDIT > CONVERT TO PROFILE.
If you use a program other than Photoshop, read the manual or ask the support team for help.
Take the highest resolution possible
It’s impossible to blow up a small image without losing some quality, but it’s easy to shrink an image and maintain the quality. For that reason, always take your photos at the highest resolution possible, then resize them down for the web.
When posting to the web, keep your image resolution at 72 DPI to balance size with quality. Most monitors can’t "see" better than that, anyway.
Crop out the extras
Nobody wants to see your studio in the background of the photo, or your carpet. Crop into the piece so that’s all we see.
A good example
The above example is closest to representing the actual piece, and people can appreciate the details in your art without worrying about the photo itself.
Share your work!
Hopefully this guide has helped you. Once you’ve gotten the process down, you’ll find that it’s quick and easy to get winning shots of your art. The type where every single internet using individual can come and appreciate your masterpiece.
Thanks to Lorna for letting us use her painting!
Discuss this in the art Forum.