Alongside my professional photography work, I also coordinate Birmingham Open Studios and promote local art in Birmingham. Every year I receive fantastic submissions of truly wonderful artworks. The problem is, sometimes the images I receive do not do the original artwork justice. Images I receive can be wonky, blurry, off-colour, low resolution or poorly lit.

I photograph art works professionally for reproduction, insurance and promotion purposes. In this tutorial I am going to tell you how I photograph artworks professionally, and what you can do to improve your artwork photography yourself, even if you are on a tight budget – or have no budget at all.

At the bottom of this page I have included a slide show of how I photograph artwork, from set-up to the final edit.

Before we begin, it is important to understand that every piece of artwork will react differently to light. Materials can have totally different textures, and some will reflect light and the surroundings very differently to others. Sculptures and jewellery can be particularly tricky to get right. Each piece will shine its best when lit at a certain angle, against a certain backdrop, and with a different lighting setup, so this first tutorial is focusing on ‘flat art’ – paintings, photographs, drawings and wall hangings. This is the easiest form of artwork to photograph to an extent, but still holds significant challenges.

Please note that taking the best photo reproductions of your artworks with high-quality camera equipment and lights requires more space than you may think. A 4-metre square empty space or larger is ideal to do things properly (an empty garage is about right).
The first setup will be time consuming. Setting up a professional artwork shoot from scratch still takes me about an hour – and I am experienced at this. So it makes sense to photograph as many artworks in one session to save time, and to achieve consistent results.

Bad Framing

An example of bad framing and background

Bad White Balance

An example of bad lighting and white balance

So let’s begin…

Firstly, there are 3 standard tools to create reproductions of your art. The cameraphone, a scanner and a ‘proper’ camera (DSLR/mirrorless). So what are the differences?

Cameraphone

Modern phones now have incredible cameras built into them, and you probably already have one in your pocket.

Advantages: They are easy to use, give decent results for web use, have tonnes of processing power, and photos can be easily uploaded without the need for a computer. Point, click and upload.

Disadvantages: The sensors in these cameras are so small, that they actually don’t pick up that much light. This results in the lightest & darkest areas of your photos ‘snapping’ to white or black, and lacking the same subtle tonality as a professional camera. They are not generally as high resolution as professional cameras, and do not have as many settings. It is also hard to use with a good camera flash system, or to mount them on to a tripod securely.

These are certainly not up to the job of a full reproduction, but will often suffice for web-photo use – if you follow some basic photography principles.
Most importantly for photography professionals: cameraphones rarely shoot in RAW format. This means that whatever photo you take, you cannot alter the colour balance, tonality, shadows or highlights nearly as capably afterwards. All most cameraphone users do after taking a photo is crop, maybe add a filter and upload. This is fine for a quick Instagram pic, but not for making accurate reproductions of work.

If you only have a cameraphone or compact camera (and no easel, tripod or lights) then lay your artwork down near a large window, but out of direct sunlight. Shoot directly from above, making sure lines are as straight as possible, and then crop out your image afterwards.

Scanner

Flatbed scanners have been around for years. Used mostly for documents, some scanners can actually give pretty impressive results for some art mediums

Advantages: You may already have one, they are easy to use and lining up and lighting your work couldn’t be easier

Disadvantages: Scanners use a fairly harsh light that does not capture textures well. It results in high-contrast images that look flat. Also, most home scanners only scan up to A4 paper size, so if you need to scan something larger you will then need to stitch images together afterwards which can be tricky.

Scanners are worth considering for simple black and white sketches drawn in pen

DSLR / Mirrorless

Digital Single Lens Reflex cameras have been around for around 20 years. They allow different lenses and accessories to be attached, and photographers can change a myriad of settings dependent on how – and what – they are shooting.
Recently mirrorless cameras have come on leaps and bounds, with even more advantages. Essentially the same as DSLR cameras (but without the mirror), mirrorless cameras can shoot in silence, and can preview the amendment of settings in the viewfinder before the photographer even presses the shutter button.

I have recently moved from DSLR to mirrorless after 15 years, and I will never go back.

Advantages: You can achieve anything with these cameras, if you only know how to use them. Users can change how long a photo lasts, how much is in focus, how the camera sees colour and many more settings. Different lenses allow for close ups, or can zoom into an area without losing quality. Studio flashes can also be linked to the camera to build your own perfect lighting set up (more on that later). Master the tool and you will never have to hire a photographer again. You may even be able to start charging fellow artists for your services.

Disadvantages: A new, decent camera can be expensive, as can all the lenses and accessories. Then, you really need to learn how to actually use it, or your photos can end up looking rather terrible or weird

If you want to take photography without compromise, DSLR/mirrorless is the only way to go. They are built from the ground up to take the very best photos.

If you are wondering what lens to use for your camera, it really depends on what camera you own. Prime lenses (lenses that do not zoom) generally give the best sharpness, but they need to be the right focal length for the space you are working in, and the artwork you are photographing. A 35mm lens is generally a good focal length, as it is usually wide enough to get the entire artwork in one shot, without distorting the edges, but even a kit lens can give decent results

If you are unsure which camera/lens to use for your requirements, please leave me a comment underneath.

What Do I Use?

I currently shoot with a Canon EOS-R 30 megapixel full frame mirrorless camera, and usually use a Canon 28-70mm L f2 zoom lens for most artwork, with a dedicated 100mm L macro lens for the close ups. I shoot in RAW format, which allows me to post-process my photos afterwards for perfect colour reproduction (more on that later).

I also carry other lenses in my kit bag just in case, but tend not to use them for artwork.

Easel and Tripod

To support the work I photograph, I use an easel wherever possible. This means the artwork is straight, balanced and steady. An easel also looks acceptable when shown in photos, where other support systems may not.
Keeping the art on your wall in situ limits you in terms of lighting, placement and background, and may result in unwanted shadows on the wall from your lights.

Then to line up the camera I use a tripod. These are essential for keeping lines straight, and your camera steady. But it also allows me to change my lighting set up without having to realign my camera to the artwork for each shot.

Take your time in making sure the easel and camera are completely aligned. Most DSLR/mirrorless cameras have a grid system you can display on the LCD screen to help you match up straight lines. Make sure all lines (horizontal and vertical) are straight. Then be sure you do not move or knock the easel or tripod during your shoot.

Using a tripod means you can keep taking essentially the same photograph, but tweaking minor parts of it each time – like changing the power on a flashlight, or covering up a window from an unwanted reflection. Using a tripod means you can improve the image slightly more each shot until it is perfect.

Background

Backdrops come in different shapes, sizes and colours. The reason to use a backdrop is to limit unwanted shadows, and to separate the art from the surroundings. I usually shoot on black as it is neutral and colours tend to pop more. However make a judgement yourself here depending on the palette of your artwork. White and grey are also very useful tones.

Backdrops usually come in 2 materials: Fabric or paper.

Large fabric sheets are easy to store, but often show creases in the photos if not lit well, and should ideally be stretched and ironed before use.

Paper backdrops are much easier to eradicate unwanted creases, and can be hung into a curved shape onto the floor, so the backdrop essentially disappears subtly into the background. Both materials need to be hung from a background support kit (a bar supported by 2 stands), so you need ample room for this (hence the 4m sq space I mentioned earlier).

Allow for some distance between the artwork and background, to eliminate harsh shadows and to make the artwork pop.

Light

Light is more complicated than you may realise. Your eyes and brain do a fantastic job of telling you that a red teapot is indeed red, whether it is lit by a yellowish desk lamp bulb, or the blue hue of a cloudy sky. Your camera may not be quite as clever.

Light has a colour temperature and items will look either too warm or cold if lit incorrectly, or if you are using the wrong camera setting. On your camera, make sure the white balance matches the light source you are shooting with, or things can look weird. Below are the different sorts of lighting options you can use:

Natural Light

Free, abundant, bright.

When lighting artwork, light should be as even as possible. This is why sunny days are actually terrible for photographing art! The sun leaves long shadows, and creates ‘hot spots’ on your images.

Instead, cloudy days are commonplace in the UK, and are a much more manageable source of light (please don’t drag your artwork out in the rain or wind though!). Clouds diffuse the sun, and gives the impression that light is coming from everywhere, meaning no harsh shadows or hot spots. Make sure your camera’s white balance is set to cloudy though, or the image will appear too blue.

Shooting in RAW format means you can change and tweak colour temperature afterwards in programs like Photoshop and Lightroom. Please note that not all cloudy days are exactly the same temperature, so giving yourself the option of adjusting this later by shooting in RAW allows for greater colour reproduction if you are happy with a few worthwhile additional steps on the computer afterwards.

Constant Lights

Constant lighting kits have come on leap and bounds recently. Constant lights are essentially lights that stay on until you turn them off. These are usually tungsten or halogen bulbs, with some kind of softbox in front of them to soften the light. LED options are also available, but tend to be smaller and do not spread the light so well.

When it comes to lighting artwork, the larger the light source the better (preferably using a light source at least as large as the artwork itself) so the light is far more evenly distributed.

For smaller artworks of up to 2ft across (60cm) finding suitable constant lighting can be relatively cheap and fairly easy to set up. If you are buying a lighting kit, make sure it includes softboxes (or umbrellas) to distribute and soften the light evenly.

Point 2 lights at the artwork at the height of the artwork, each at an angle greater than 45 degrees from the left and the right. The lights should be as close to the artwork as possible, without being actually seen in the photo themselves, or causing unwanted reflections or glare. This set up means the light ‘wraps around’ the art as much as possible, and becomes softer. Try to keep the angle of light from the softboxes to artwork at greater than 45 degrees, or light will reflect back into the camera lens harshly. Depending on the material(s) of your artwork you may need to move the lights around considerably to get the best balance.

A start-up lighting kit can be purchased for around £100-150, and will usually include softboxes/umbrellas and stands.

For larger artworks (say 4ft or 1.2m across) constant light set ups can become less effective, as the softboxes are not usually big enough to light the entire artwork evenly corner-to-corner. This is why I use off-camera flash lighting.

Off-camera Flash Lights

Off-camera flash lights use the same principle as constant lights, but emit all their power in one short flash burst. The advantage of this is the power is so great that a flash can fill a huge softbox with light (something a constant light struggles to do). This means that I can use softboxes that are 5ft across, lighting larger artworks evenly. There are also more modifiers (light-shaping tools) available like grids that fit over the softbox to focus light at a certain angle, creating higher contrast images, with less unwanted glare.

Flash is also pure white. This means that there is no colour cast and colours should look correct straight away, as long as your white balance is set to ‘flash’ of course.

However, all this comes at a cost, as powerful flashes, modifiers, heavy-duty stands and triggers will cost far more than constant lights.

I actually use 3 lights for most artworks (sometimes more). One very large softbox over the artwork on a large boom stand (angled so it doesn’t reflect back into the camera), and 2 smaller softboxes that I move around depending on the artwork I am shooting. I might alter the power accordingly for each artwork. See my slideshow at the bottom of this page for images.

Whatever light source you use, make sure you don’t mix light sources. Never use a mix of cloud cover light from a large window and tungsten light for example, as the colour temperature will be different from both sources, meaning some areas of your artwork will appear warmer/colder than other areas.

DSLR/Mirrorless Settings

The settings of your camera will often depend on the light source you are shooting with and what power you have them set on. However, there are some fundamentals that can help you out.

Firstly, stick your camera on ‘Aperture’ or ‘Manual’ mode, on a tripod of course. Then set your white balance to match the light source you are shooting with (ie: cloudy, flash, or fluorescent light)

Aperture

Every camera lens has a different aperture range, measured in f-stops, which indicates how much light is let through the lens at the moment your camera takes a photo. The smaller the f-number (say f2.8 or f3.5) the wider the aperture, so the more light is allowed in, and the brighter the image becomes, BUT the amount of the photo that is in focus is reduced.

Going the other way, a larger number (like f28) means the lens hole the light travels through is tiny. This means that theoretically everything will be in focus, but the camera will take much longer to gather enough light for each image through its narrow aperture. Using your smallest aperture also has a negative side effect as light doesn’t actually travel very well through very small holes, and tends to bend and distort the image – in a phenomenon called diffraction.

So the best setting for flat artworks is generally somewhere in the middle of your lens aperture range. An aperture around f9 or f11 means that a flat image like a painting will be fully in focus from corner to corner, but it won’t take an age to gather enough light for a correct exposure, and will not suffer from diffraction.

Please note: On Canon cameras, the aperture dial is usually indicated by ‘Av’ on the top dial. On some older cameras and modern Fujifilm lenses, the aperture ring is actually on the base of the lens.

ISO

ISO relates to film speeds from yesteryear. The higher the ISO number, the more sensitive the film is to light, and the better it will capture images in darker environments. These numbers have now been carried over to digital cameras too. So, the higher the ISO, the more sensitive your camera sensor is to light. But don’t whack this setting up to the highest setting. In fact, do the opposite.

The higher the ISO sensitivity, the more ‘noise’ and grain will appear in your photos. Camera sensors work best at ISO 200. Anything above this, and more and more electricity is pumped through the sensor, which can lead to some really nasty results on the top few ISO settings. Most cameras can comfortably manage ISO 800 now (and some can manage much higher) but usually at a reduction of the ‘dynamic range’, which is the overall tonal range, resulting in washy, low-contrast images the higher you push the ISO. This might be ok for a grainy black and white street scene, but not for making reproductions of your artwork.

ISO 200 will get you the cleanest, sharpest images with the most tonal range

Shutter Speed

Setting the above aperture and ISO parameters will determine your shutter speed. The shutter speed is essentially the duration of your photo, usually in fractions of a second (like 1/125th). If you are outside on a cloudy day this will probably be around 1/100th second, but if you are using constant light it will be longer (1/15th or so). Flash can be a little faster, depending on the flash power. Shutter speed should be the last parameter you set of the 3 to get correct exposure.

At the end of the day, this is where you can use your eyes. If the image is too bright whilst using constant or natural light, shorten the shutter speed. If it is too dark, increase it. Make sure to keep an eye on the brightest and darkest parts of your image, so they don’t get lost.
If I am using flash I will usually set the shutter speed to 1/160th first, and then change the flash power accordingly to achieve perfect brightness. This will always take some trial and error. There are no standard ‘perfect’ numbers for these settings, as your surroundings, studio space, ambient light and artwork will always be different to the next person. It is all about learning and modifying.
If you want to be sure the light levels are perfect, most professional cameras have a histogram, if you can find it. This will indicate whether the image is too bright or too dark in graph form.

Please note: On Canon cameras, the shutter speed dial is often indicated by an ‘Tv’ sign, which indicates ‘time value’

JPG vs RAW

When you email, print, or post a photo online it is almost always in JPG (sometimes called JPEG) format. This is the final, compressed image designed to be shared easily. It is accepted everywhere and is relatively small in size.

However, it is not a good idea to actually shoot in JPG format – although camera phone users won’t usually have a choice here. JPG files are the finished product, and are not set up for further processing. If you try to make the image brighter/darker afterwards, the results can be really terrible. Essentially, if a light area has become white and overexposed in your photo, you can’t do much about that in JPG. If you try to reduce the brightness, you won’t retrieve any missing detail. It will just become kind of grey.

However, with RAW you can manipulate the properties of light in your image afterwards. You can make an image lighter/darker to quite a large degree without major detrimental impact. And you can change and tweak the colour temperature to exacting standards. This is so important for quality reproductions of art and product photography. For this you will need some kind of RAW processing programme (I use Adobe Lightroom for this).

Perfect Colour Balance Using Grey Card or Colorchecker

GREY CARD: This is a simple pocket-size piece of grey card that you photograph on your artwork first, once you are happy with the overall lighting setup (but remember to remove it for shots afterwards). This is the first image you process, and tells your software that this grey is a neutral tone, regardless of the environment you are shooting in. You can then apply the exact right white balance for the image at the click of a button using RAW processing software, even if you shot it wrong in camera. Then simply apply this correct white balance to all the photos you take subsequently, and presto! They all have correct white balance.

COLORCHECKER: This is a step up from the simple white balance grey-card, as it looks at every colour individually. I use a large 48-panel colour swatch that then tells Colorchecker software on my computer exactly how these 48 tones should be displayed, meaning perfect colour reproduction under almost any lighting set up. The software can be a bit fiddly at first, and you will need to plug this in to Lightroom/Photoshop, but if artworks and products are something you are going to be shooting regularly, this can really help your final products look perfect.

A grey card is a completely neutral tone

A Colorchecker reads and corrects dozens of colours for perfect colour reproduction

Editing

If you get everything right in camera, you shouldn’t actually have to do any heavy editing at all. However, sometimes you may need to crop/cut out part of the photo – like the easel if you don’t want to see it in your photo. You may also need to stitch photos together, like when photographing a triptych in separate shots. Sometimes edges and corners of the artwork may appear slightly lighter than in the centre, no matter how hard you tried to get the lighting right whilst shooting. Minor editing can help normalise this, altering the exposure in parts of your image.

Other heavier editing my clients ask me to do includes fixing damage to artworks, like rips, fingerprints or creases. This requires a certain level of skill. I use Adobe Photoshop for this.

Please see my slideshow at the bottom of this page for a full breakdown of the standard artwork editing I carry out.

Other Useful Tips:

TIMER: Use a timer on your camera (2 seconds is sufficient) to eradicate camera movement from you pushing the shutter button, maintaining straight edges and reducing blur. Wired triggers and apps are also available to set your camera off remotely.

USE YOUR EYES: Don’t simply input the numbers and methodology from my points above. Each artwork is different, and will react differently to light. Metal frames can be particularly tricky to shoot with, and glass-covered works have their own problems with reflection. Keep looking at your shot and make sure the light is even, but isn’t actually visibly bouncing back off the artwork and into the camera. This is where you need to use your eyes and take the initiative moving lights around to get the best shot for the chosen artwork. Practice makes perfect!

Of course, if you have read all this and you would rather hire a professional, please just contact me

Use arrow buttons below to see my artwork photography steps

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