Photographing Artwork

As a traditional artist I struggle with showing my art via the web and in print because a scan or photograph of my art never looks as good as the original. For quite a while now I have been scanning my originals and then tweaking them in Photoshop in hopes of making them look something like the original. At the Illustration Master Class I made sure to ask around about how other traditional artists handled this problem. This led to a very interesting conversation with Dan Dos Santos.

Dan explained to me that for oil painting scanning was all wrong, and that photography was the way to go. Now this is paraphrasing but here is what I understood about Dan’s explanation of why scanning doesn’t yield the best results for oil paintings. For the lay folks out there oil paintings are often made up of numerous transparent layers using a technique called glazing. When you scan an oil painting the light from the scanner pierces all the layers and records the information of the bottom most layer and then picks up the other layers. This is the opposite of how the human eye sees an oil painting and can cause a scanned oil painting to look flat. A photographed oil painting under the correct lighting conditions works much closer to the human eye and can therefore get better results.

The catch of course is, what exactly are the correct lighting conditions for an oil painting? Well thanks to fellow IMC student Les Yocum, and his diligent note taking in a talk with Donato Giancola I can share his method with you!


Photographing Your Artwork

From a brief description by Donato Giancola

Thursday 16 June 2011

Illustration Master Class

Basic Gear

Good digital camera. Donato has a Canon Rebel T1i 15.1 megapixel camera.

Lens: Preferred: 50mm f/1.4 or 80mm f/1.8 portrait lens. He also uses his defalut18-135mm zoom lens, but beware of the distortion that can occur as you zoom in.

Lights: Two 500 watt tungsten 3200K bulbs in cheap, hardware store metal reflectors on tripods. He doesn’t use diffusers or polarizing filters, although he says they can sometimes help. Total cost for this lighting setup: about $20. He adds that the bulbs can become very hot, and over time may fuse themselves to the ceramic parts of the reflectors. This may require you to replace the bulb and reflector, but shouldn’t occur more than once a year and still only costs about $10.

Room: A dark room. Donato usually shoots his artwork at night, with a black cloth behind the camera. The point is to minimize light being reflected onto the artwork, which causes specular highlights and glare.

Setup: Place the lights on tripods 5-6 feet away from the edges of the artwork at about a 30-degree angle from the surface. Shooting further away reduces spotlighting (“hot spots”) on the art.

Place the artwork on a wall, easel, or other vertical surface with the longest surface upward (a vertical or “portrait” orientation). The point is to minimize the horizontal area for the lights to fill.

Set your camera to allow the maximum amount of light input, about f/ 13-16 with a 1/2- to 1-second exposure. This slow exposure will make the shot susceptible to camera shake, so don’t hold the camera don’t push the button to take the exposure. Use a tripod and a timer or remote control to take the picture.

Use the highest resolution setting your camera has.

JPEG adds a red bias to the shot, so preferably shoot in RAW or TIF formats.

Most European publishers prefer 350dpi for your final image

Most American publishers are okay with 300dpi.

Larger reproductions do not require a larger resolution because they are not meant to be viewed up close like a book cover or a 12” print.

Higher-resolution images can be made by shooting your artwork in sections and stitching them together in Photoshop.

Using the above procedures lessens the time Donato spends retouching the image in Photoshop. For artwork that has been photographed, Donato uses Photoshop to stitch photos together (if necessary), remove specks, correct color, correct distortion, crop, and resize images as needed.


After talking with Dan, and reading Les’s notes from Donato I ordered some 500 watt tungsten 3200K bulbs from B&H. After they arrived I grabbed an older painting that had been scanned and shot some photographs using the above tecnique. The results were great!

Here is a comparison:

Warpriest by Sam Flegal

You can really see the difference in the shadow areas.

Here is a close up on the shoulder shadows. The dark areas look flat and make a weird color shift on the scanned version.

I can also say that the clean up of the scan took several hours, but the clean up for the photograph only took about one.

I know this is nerdy art stuff, but trust me, it drives artists nuts to see bad reproductions of their work. So to all you traditional artist’s out there, I hope this helps!

3 thoughts on “Photographing Artwork

  1. Great summary, Sam!
    To expand on / add a couple points here:
    * Lens choice is very important. The recommendations of a 50mm or 80mm lens are very accurate. However, I don’t believe there would be any harm in using a slightly longer focal length, e.g., 120mm. Mainly, stay away from extremes–they result in barrel distortion or “pincushion” distortion (depending on lens focal length). If you’re able to shoot the whole work in one shot and use quality software, e.g., Photoshop, you can often correct for slight distortion, but moderate to severe will cause problems.

    * Try some different apertures with each lens you consider using. Every lens I’ve used has a “sweet spot” where it is sharpest. With most lenses that is somewhere around f5.6 – f8. (Of course, shutter speed must be adjusted to compensate.) You’ll get the best image quality when shooting in that range. When you stop down to f16 you’ll have a much deeper depth of field (i.e., more in-focus area), but you usually lose some fine detail.

    * Use the best quality lens you can afford and be aware of problems with your chosen equipment. Many lenses (especially cheaper ones) have less sharpness, less color accuracy and sometimes color “fringing” in areas outside an imaginary “center circle” of the frame. What this means to artists is that your carefully-selected colors and carefully-articulated details rendered in the outer third of the photos may not be as well preserved.

    * Softboxes and light diffusers are your friend. Bare bulbs generate harsh, direct light. Use softboxes or diffusers to bounce/scatter the light and you’re much less likely to have “hot spots” on your painting. Plus, the light is far more flattering to any subject. To see the difference in a real-world setting, take a look at shadows on a bright, cloudless day and compare them to a bright, overcast day. Edges are far less defined on the overcast day because the clouds act like a natural softbox.
    Tip for doing it on the cheap: hang a WHITE sheet (or sheer curtain) in front of your light. If you’re using “hot” lights (like the 500 watt bulbs mentioned above), make sure you leave enough room to avoid causing a fire. You’ll lose some brightness, but the light will be much easier to work with.

    * Do your best to keep the painting perpendicular to the camera (i.e., if the lens was placed against the art the lens barrel and art would form a T shape). Other angles (such as the piece being leaned slightly back on an easel and not shot from slightly above, tilted down) will cause trapezoidal distortion. In other words, straight lines may not appear perfectly straight and some parts of your work (elements in the portion of the canvas farther from the camera) will look smaller than others.

    * Shoot one or more additional images of your work with a WHITE or (preferably) PERFECTLY NEUTRAL GREY item in the image. The additional item does not need to be in focus, but it does need to be lit the same way as your art. You can then use this additional image to determine proper white balance and then apply the same settings which balance it to your real image. This technique will allow you to more closely match the in-person colors to the captured colors. Contrary to how it may seem, most digital cameras are not especially good at accurately determining color — most, by default, try to make colors pleasing. Combine that inaccuracy with the compression artifacts in the color red Sam mentioned above and you can have an unpleasant editing experience.

    Hope that helps!

  2. Pingback: How I Photograph my Oil Paintings | An Artist's Journey

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