How to Photograph Artwork, Paintings, and Sculptures

There are numerous reasons that a work of art's owner might require a photograph of the painting, drawing or object in question. Aside from having the ability to email one's entire address book a digital image of a cool new (expensive) etching, a visual record may also be required for homeowner insurance purposes.

Perhaps you've recently inherited a painting or seized upon a potential "find" at a flea market, now need help in identifying the thing and want to send a picture of it to an appraiser or some other interested party. Conversely, you may know what you've got, wish to sell it and need some attractive shots to generate maximum buyer interest.

In any of these cases, everyone involved is going to be happiest looking at the best images you can shoot. Assuming you do not own a high-end SLR or DSLR camera, or professional lighting equipment, release cables and tripods, there remain at least four steps anyone can take to ensure reasonably good pictures of art.

    1. Think Like a Carpenter

    How you compose your shot matters, and here you want to be "square, plumb and level."

    Get your camera at a right angle to the piece being photographed. If it is hanging on the wall, center *yourself* in order to point the lens squarely -- not a degree clockwise or counter-clockwise of square. It's also important that the lens and the work of art are on parallel planes ("plumb") when you shoot. Canting your viewfinder up, down or sideways is not going to achieve the best result.

    If the work is a large painting or drawing, lay it flat on the floor and shoot from above looking down (use a chair or step-ladder to obtain ample distance if it's really large). Tilting it against the wall from the baseboard or the edge of a table -- however slightly -- will distort the view.

    Additionally, if you are taking a picture of a three-dimensional object that is sitting on a flat surface, position yourself at eye level with the object. This may mean kneeling.

    2. Indirect Lighting is Good

    And natural indirect lighting is even better. A room with windows can offer indirect sunlight, even on an overcast day. You do, however, want to avoid sunlight striking your object directly, as this will cause glare. (It's also an absolutely horrible idea to put most works of art in direct sunlight, but that's another story.)

    Now, if you haven't got windows or are stuck in the gloom of monsoon season, artificial lighting will work. In this scenario, two or more light sources -- preferably of similar wattage strengths -- should be set at about 45º angles to the piece, off to either side. "Off" as in: out of the peripheral vision of both you and the camera lens. Your goal here is to light semi-naturally but not, I repeat not to cast shadows. Manipulate wisely with an eye toward even lighting.

    3. No Tripod? No Problem.

    Yes, well. It really is something of a problem, because still photography is best done with a tripod. Lacking this piece of equipment, however, you can do the following to minimize any motion: 
    • Use both hands to hold the camera.

    • Draw both elbows in to your midpoint until they're close to touching one another, then firmly hold elbows and as much of your forearms as possible to your torso/chest. Your hands will be free to aim and shoot, but your arms won't be moving. Much.

    • Hold your breath just before and while hitting the shutter.

    4. Turn OFF the Flash!

    Paraphrasing the words of Frankenstein's monster, "Flash BAD." Please, unless you know how to "bounce" flash from the camera to a middle surface and then to your object, turn this function off.

    In all seriousness, a flash aimed directly at the piece is, 99 times out of 100, your enemy when photographing art. If there is a highlight or shiny area to be found, your flash will find it, spotlight it brilliantly and render it nearly unrecognizable in the resultant image. The glaring spot will bear little resemblance to that which a person actually sees with the naked eye.

    The flash function also has an amazing talent for leveling tones, evening out contrasts and wiping away shadows. While this may prove a blessing in select pictures from family reunions, it is not one bit helpful in faithfully representing your work of art. You -- and anyone else who's looking -- want to see the piece the way the artist composed and executed it, not as your flash decides is optimum.

    To illustrate this point, here are two pictures of a drawing of my shoe. The piece was lying on the floor, I was standing on a chair shooting down, and natural light was coming in windows to the top and either side of my drawing. Here are the shots with flash (top view) and without (bottom view):

    © Shelley Esaak; licensed to

    © Shelley Esaak; licensed to
    Shelley Esaak (American, b. 20th Century)
    Shoe, 1981
    Graphite on heavy paper
    13 x 16 1/4 in.
    © Shelley Esaak; licensed to

In summary, to take the best possible shot of your work of art you need to:

  • Make sure your view is square, plumb and level.
  • Use indirect lighting.
  • Keep your hands steady.
  • Turn off your flash.
Yes, it's really just that simple. For those about to shoot, we (who will be viewing the results) salute you. 


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