How to Photograph Artwork, Paintings, and Sculptures

Since digital photography became popular in the 1990s, taking photos of your artwork for publicity, announcements, websites, marketing, and your own records has become much easier.  All you need is a good quality camera. There are many good digital SLR (Single Lens Reflex) cameras.  I have used the Nikon D3000 series, but the most important thing is to learn to use the camera you have. This is the best way to get good photographs.
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There's no one right way to photograph your paintings, but here are some suggestions:
  1. Remember that photography, like painting, is all about light. In fact the word photography actually means "drawing with light" in Greek. When photographing your artwork you are concerned with how much light the camera lets in as well as the quality of light that hits the painting. 
  2. The key variables affecting how much light the camera lets in are f-stop (aperture size); shutter speed (how long the shutter stays open); and ISO (how sensitive the digital image sensor is to light). Together these variables are called the Exposure Triangle; changing one of these variables will require changing one of the other two in order to get the proper exposure.
  3. Set your ISO to 100 for the clearest image. Higher ISO numbers can make the image noisy and grainy.
  4. Don’t be confused by optical vs. digital zoom. Digital zoom essentially enlarges a section of the image, cropping and permanently removing the remaining pixels. This changes the resolution of the final image, giving you a pixelated image. Look for a camera with good optical zoom - like 12x optical zoom; disregard digital zoom.
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  1. It’s best to take your photos outside on a hazy overcast day if you can. The sky acts like a photography soft box this way, diffusing and softening the light so there is not glare or hot spots.
  2. If it is not a hazy overcast day, make sure to find a spot where there is even lighting and no cast shadows, including your own. You may want to play with the orientation of your painting to the sun in order to avoid glare and unwanted shadows. Best to shoot mid-morning or mid-afternoon.
  3. Or try shooting in full shade, although you may need to adjust the color due to a bluish cast. You can set your camera’s White Balance for this setting.
  4. I like to lay the painting on a piece of black mat board or other clean surface on the ground, and take the picture standing over the painting with the camera centered over it and the painting image filling the camera viewfinder as much as possible (without blocking the light or creating a shadow). For a larger painting, you can stand on a chair or step stool.
  5. You can also hang the painting on a vertical wall or place it on an easel so that the painting is as vertical as possible. This helps to align the sides of the camera viewfinder with the sides of the painting and avoid distortion, or parallax. In any case make sure to angle the camera so that the face of the lens is parallel to the painting.
  6. Take your picture in Program Mode. This is a semi-automatic mode that lets you adjust some of the exposure variables to get a certain effect while the camera automatically sets the other variables to give you the proper exposure.
  7. Try using the Exposure Compensation control to lighten and darken the image.
  8. Hang the painting at eye level so you do not have to angle the camera up or down, or have to stretch or stoop to take the picture.
  9. Hang paintings done in both portrait (vertical) and landscape (horizontal) format so that the longest side is on the bottom. This way the image will fill the camera viewfinder without having to change positions.
  10. If taking the photos indoors, it is best to have two floodlights placed at 45 degree angles from each side of the painting about 8-10 feet away.  This helps to create even lighting on the surface.  
  11. Do not use the flash on your camera. This will create a hot spot on your painting.
  12. Set your camera to the highest resolution and largest image size. This will give you the greatest flexibility should you decide to make prints from your photograph.
  13. You can shoot in different file types: JPEG, TIFF, or RAW. A good quality JPEG, given the right exposure and white balance, will give you an excellent image.
  14. If the painting is hanging on a wall or easel, stand about 6-10 feet away from it and zoom in slightly to fill the viewfinder frame. It is best not to stand too close to the painting, for using  the wide-angle range of the lens can distort the size of things near the edges.
  15. If your grip is not steady, use a tripod to make sure you don't get camera shake.
  16. When you are done photographing, you can make any minor edits and crop the image in a photo processing software such as Photoshop. 
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