- Make sure the camera is perpendicular to the art work. Otherwise, your image can become trapezoidal due to foreshortening, with the nearest edge being wider than the back edge.
- Crop your images. Remove the background, torn paper edges.
- Avoid ambient light. Photograph at night or in a completely closed room. The most common mistake I see in artists photographing their work is doing so in daylight.
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
Whenever 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.
- 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.
- 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.
– 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
- 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
I thought some people would be interested in seeing how I prepare a clay model for firing. Here are two sculptures that I recently completed.
Above is a life-size half-torso. It’s 25″ tall, made of clay, which means that it weighed a lot when completed. I didn’t put it on a scale, but it probably weighed ~80 pounds and took two people to move it. The crack at the top of the head is due to ‘slumping’. The clay compressed, and the armature pipe inside did not, causing the top of the head to pop off while drying. This was easily fixed during the reassembly process below.
In general, the process is simple:
1. Cut the piece into manageable chunks,
2. Hollow out each piece
3. Reassemble the model, obfuscating any evidence of the repair(s).
As in most things, the devil is in the details.
These are the tools I used:
– Medium loop tool
– Large loop tool
– Modeling tool
– Butter knife (my favorite modeling tool)
– Clay wire
Beth Cavener Stichter mentioned that she spends 1/8 her time modeling and the remaining 7/8 trying to preserve it. That has certainly been my experience. And through the process of preservation, there are plenty of opportunities for the model to be destroyed. Clay teaches detachment. I started this post because there was no guarantee that these pieces would survive the process, and I thought it would be useful to share the process.
For those unfamiliar with working with water-based clay, some important points:
– By design, clay is soft which means that to build a large piece you need to build an armature to support your model and/or build slowly, letting the inner core dry and become more substantial as you build. Otherwise it will ‘slump’ causing the model to compress and collapse. For instance, Rodin did most of his sculpting in clay, and built on top of a cone of clay for support. In Rodin’s “Balzac”, the structural pyramid is clearly visible in the finished piece. Armatures for water-based clay need to be as simple as possible, in contrast to armatures for oil-based clays, because you have to figure out how you are going to remove it from the model later. For oil-based clays, you don’t have to worry about that, so you make the armature as detailed as possible to minimize the amount of clay you need to use, and have the entire piece be as structurally strong as possible. For this clay model, I used a 24″ 3/4″ threaded rod into a pipe flange, with a 3/4″ “T” pipe fitting on top. It’s simple, works great, and is easy to remove. If you aren’t paying attention though, slumping can be a minor issue, as I’ll share later.
– If you are going to make a mold of a piece and cast it later, you can make your mold right on the clay as-is and be done with it. Often the clay model is destroyed in the process of molding. However, if you plan on the final product being the clay version, you will have to take some preparatory steps for firing it. Most important: hollowing. Clay must be reduced so that no part of it is greater than 3/4″ thick. Thicker than that, and it has a tendency to crack during the firing process. It is also more likely that there will be trapped air in the clay, which can cause the piece to explode during firing. Yes–explode.
– Clay can shrink by as much as 20% as it dries. If it dries unevenly, this can lead to cracks. These cracks can be superficial or structural. A piece can be completely destroyed during the drying process. This is rare though if you are paying attention and monitoring the drying process closely. You can affect the rate a piece dries by covering it with plastic, ventilating the plastic with progressively larger holes, eventually exposing it completely. To slow the drying down, you can spray the piece with water. This is particularly important if the piece has thin sections like arms and legs as those will dry faster than the thicker torso. Again, the entire model needs to dry at a consistent rate, or cracks will occur.
The first cut is the hardest. I spend several minutes planning how many sections I am going to cut the piece into and where I will make the cuts. The goal is to minimize the number of sections (and resulting repairs) and make cuts that are easy to repair. Broad surfaces are easier to repair than complex detail. The joins also need to be structurally solid, so you need to consider whether or not the lower joins will be able to bear the weight of the upper joins. Below you can see that I’ve performed a lobotomy, and cut just below the chin. You can also see the newspaper that I’ve wrapped around the “T” fitting, to add mass to the interior. Both the newspaper and the fitting will be removed.
When I’m hollowing a portrait, I can usually get away with a single vertical slice either in front of, or behind, the ears. Notice that I’ve laid the pieces onto a large foam pad to protect the modeling.
My detailed description of how to reassemble:
1. Hollow the each section so that no section is more than 3/4″ thick.
2. Use a fork to pierce the interior surface. I cover the interior with piercings approx. 1/2″ apart to roughly to 1/2 the depth of the wall. This reduces the likelihood of trapped air and creates more surface area for the interior of the model to dry with.
3. Score both sides of join. I use cuts ~1/8″ apart and ~1/16″ deep. They are just random scores, but my intent in sharing is the measurements is to show that the more scoring the better. The purpose of scoring is to maximize the surface area of the join, allowing the repair to be structurally sound.
4. Paint both scored sides with clay slip. Use either a brush or sponge.
5. Join the two pieces. Press firmly, making sure that the slip presses into the scores and the pieces are joined as tightly together as possible.
6. ‘Stitch’ the join together, pulling clay from one edge to another. This may be an unnecessary step, but I’m not taking any chances.
7. With a small loop tool, carve out a channel across the entire seam.
8. Using coiled clay, fill in the the stitches and the channel, across the seam.
9. Using the same modeling tools that you created the final surface prior to hollowing, redo your finish, blending with the other modeling, so that the seam is invisible.
Voila! Now the piece was ready to finish drying. This usually takes a couple of weeks. Once it is completely dried, you can fire it for the first time.