Photographing Art – On the Cheap

Knowing how to photograph art is a necessary skill for artists today.  With many online art communities, you need to know how to create digital images in order to share your work.  Most competitions now require digital images of your portfolio or your proposal.  Learning how to photograph your work can be intimidating because photography can be a very technical skill.  The good news is that most artists only need ‘good enough’.  My advice is to take the best pictures you can with the best equipment you can afford.  However, unless you are pursuing a career as a professional product photographer, there will always be equipment and techniques that are more than what you need.  The other advantage to the artist is that once you find out what works for you, write it down and just keep doing it.

When to scan versus photograph
HP PhotoSmart PSC 2610 All-in-One PrinterWhenever possible, I scan images rather than photograph them.  It is is just so much faster not having to set up lights and dealing with the camera.  Some artists avoid scanners completely as they can wash out colors,  but I’ve found that for getting images from sketchbooks,  small drawings and watercolors it is the least hassle.  I have a very basic multi-function printer/scanner/fax HP 2610xi.

The biggest limitation of a scanner is that work must be flat, the medium dry, and has to fit within the dimensions of the scanner.  That said, for beginners it is perfect.  Just constrain your artwork to the dimensions of the equipment you have available.

The starving artist setup
Setting up to take pictures of your artwork does not need to be an expensive or cumbersome process.  You’ll need some basic equipment to get started.

  • Clamp lights.  You can pick these up at most hardware stores.  For years I clamped these to a ladder, a bookshelf, or a spare 2×4.  You’ll want to use the brightest, whitest bulbs that the clamps can safely operate.  You’ll want 100W or higher.
  • Digital camera.  You’ll want one that can attach to a tripod, whether you have one or not.  It should also have a basic zoom lens.  It’s good to have a camera that you can grow with.
  • Basic photo editing software.  Whatever your camera comes with will probably be adequate.  You just need to be able to crop images and resize them to specific dimensions.
  • A black bed sheet for a backdrop.  I picked one up at the local Goodwill for a few dollars.  Make sure to iron it and keep it clean so you don’t pick up dirt and folds in your background.
Slik U8000 Video/Photo Tripod

  • Do not use the flash.  It tends to flatten the image, wash out colors, and cause glare.
  • When photographing, keep the work perpendicular to the camera.  Otherwise, the image will be foreshortened, with the nearer edge wider than the far edge.
  • Take pictures in as high of resolution as your camera supports.  You may not think you need it, but storage is cheap, and you will want the best quality original as you adjust and crop your image in software later.
  • Take your pictures at night or in a room with no ambient light.
  • Use a tripod if you can afford one.  You can get one for less that $50 USD.  Otherwise, put the camera on a shelf, table or chair to keep it shaking.  I used a work bench for many years.  Most cameras have a timer which you can use as well, to keep the camera absolutely still when you take the picture.

My current setup

I think of my current setup as one step above hack and several below professional.  It is good enough.  I have two lights on tripods, a tripod for my camera, and I use the light meter in my camera to make sure that there is a even distribution of values.  I take my shot and clean it up in photo editing software later.

    • Olympus SP-500 UZ digital camera.  This camera is several years old now.  I only share the model to show that your needs do have to be sophisticated.
RPS Studio 1000 Watt Continuous 2 Light Kit for Olympus Digital SLR
  • Slik U-8000 tripod.  Just a basic tripod.
  • RPS Studio Continuous 2 Light Kit This kit comes with (2) 1000W bulbs.  The best part about having lights on tripods is being able to quickly set up and tear down for a shoot.  You can also use much brighter bulbs.
  • Seamless background paper for backdrops.  I use black and neutral gray.
  • Shutter speed: As high as possible
  • F Stop: As low as possible
  • Adobe Photoshop.  This is still the tool of choice for amateurs and professionals alike.  The nice thing about photoshop is that although it can do much more, editing photos is what this software was made for.  it does it quickly and easily.  There is a bit of a ramp up on this software because it now has so many features, but the time will be well invested.

The ‘Pro’ version.
My disclaimer: I’m not a professional photographer.  However, these are tips that I have received from other artists, that I am aware of, but haven’t taken to applying to my regular shooting practice yet.

Canon Digital Rebel XSi 12.2 MP Digital SLR Camera with EF-S 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 IS Lens (Black)– Use a DSLR camera. One popular model: Canon Rebel Xsi
– Strobe lights.  Calumet Travellite 375. These will allow you to use much brighter bulbs.
Bracket your exposures.  I do this more when I am photographing sculpture as it is more challenging getting the exposure right.
– Take a white balance shot, and set your camera to a custom white balance based on this.  Remember that you will need to reshoot your white balance if you move your lights during a shoot.
– F Stop: 8:0
– ISO: 100

General Tips:

  • Make friends at your local photography supply store.  A good store will be happy to answer your questions without pressuring you to buy equipment you don’t need or afford.
  • Talk to other artists.  Find out how they set up to photograph their work and what equipment they use.
  • Hire a professional photographer at least once. Listen to them about the choices they are making in determining how to make your work the best. Watch them while they work. How are they measuring light? How are they arranging your work? A professional photographer will not be threatened if you have lots of questions. You aren’t going to steal their business because you picked up a few tips from them. That said, when image quality is most important, such as preparing images for print or catalogs, either be a professional photographer or hire one.  You want your work to look its best, and you get what you pay for.

I will update this post as I continue to learn more myself.  As my setup has become more advanced over the years, I expect it will continue to do so, while still remaining below ‘professional’.

Coming up next: Part 2: Lighting for Photographing 2D Art

If you have tips or suggestions on photographing your art work, leave a comment below!

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