How to photograph your artwork
For your paintings or sculptures, small to large, glossy to matt, the important steps of photographing your art.
Since just a small amount of people will be able to see your art directly, how to photograph your artwork plays a key role in your art business.
What is the best camera to photograph my artwork?
My short answer is: ‘It depends how much is your budget:
Do you need a Hasselblad to photograph your art?
A digital-back Hasselblad cost over $45,000. Besides the camera cost, there are also other associated costs, such as accessories, insurance, maintenance and computer for photo retouch. Do you need a Hasselblad to photograph your art? Not at all. I’m going to show you 9 cameras in 3 different categories, so you can choose the best camera for you according to your budget.
A full-frame digital DSLR is the best option when it comes to taking quality photos of your art. A few years ago I was using the legendary Canon 5D Mark II. Now you have newer cameras, such as Canon 5D Mark IV, and 6D Mark II and more expensive Canon 1DX (personally I think this one is too expensive). I use Canon myself, but other brands (such as Nikon) also make decent cameras.
- PRICE: The cheaper body itself may cost under $2K but with a lens, it can go over $2K. Of course, it can climb to the tens of thousands of dollars, but you don’t need them.
- GOOD: It’s the most used camera among professional digital photographers. Because it’s popular, you can rent or borrow spare parts quite easily, such as lenses. It is full-frame, means the image quality is good enough to make art prints or other reproductions.
- BAD: You will need time to master this camera. It took me a couple of months to fully manage all the settings and features for photo and video.
“While there is perhaps a province in which the photograph can tell us nothing more than what we see with our own eyes, there is another in which it proves to us how little our eyes permit us to see.”
As the name suggests, prosumer cameras are between professional and consumer level. The most popular in the prosumer range is the so-called ‘EVIL’ cameras (electronic viewfinder, interchangeable lens). One of the best of its kind is the Olympus EM10 Mark III, sold under $800. Also smaller DSLR cameras with APS-C sensor such as Canon 77D and Canon 80D are also considered prosumer.
- PRICE: It’s anything from $400 to $1K, depending on the brand, sensor type, and lens.
- GOOD: I love prosumer cameras. A few years ago, I bought Olympus EM5 and PL5, which are very easy to use. You can take good photos with eyes closed. Now I’m using a Canon 70D to make this video. It’s easy to use, portable, fairly priced.
- Two suggested lenses: Also, the prosumer is better than point-and-shoot compact cameras. It allows you to change the lenses. You want two lenses to start with: the kit lens that comes with the camera and a prime lens such as Olympus 45mm or Canon 50mm fixed focal lens. At the same price point, prime lenses are significantly sharper and ‘faster’.
- BAD: You might grow out of it sooner than expected. When you started selling more art, you might want to upgrade your gears. Most of the prosumer level equipment is not compatible with professional gears. Even from the same brand, the lenses are different for full frame cameras or APS-C cameras. Here I can show you how it looks when you use a prosumer lens on a full frame body, it has this ugly dark edges. It won’t work when you are taking photos of artwork.
Using a photo camera to take photographs of your art becomes a good option these days. It wasn’t that much viable few years ago, because of the low resolution and small sensor size. Now iPhone XR, Samsung Galaxy Note 9 and Huawei P20 Pro are great phones with great cameras, enough to capture your art.
- PRICE: It can range from $200 to $1200. But the fact it comes with a phone, so you are spending on several features at once.
- GOOD: It’s always with you, so you can take photos at any time. You can upload photos of your art directly from your phone to Instagram and promote your art.
- BAD: (1) Form factor. It just doesn’t have the same sturdy grip like a proper camera. (2) Working with a tripod. You need extra pieces to work with a tripod. (3) Interruption. Sometimes a photo session can be interrupted by a notification or a call. (4) Flash. It has very limited options in terms of working with speedlites/flashlights/strobes. It works only use natural light or continuous lighting.
Your constraints, your choice
Overall, the cheapest way to take reasonable photos of your art is using your smartphone. Perhaps you already have one that takes fair photos. The best way is purchasing a full frame DSLR, which takes a proper photo. If you want to be serious with your art, but don’t have a lot of money, the prosumer is your friend.
How to photograph paintings without glare
When you are in the museum or gallery, you might find it hard to avoid the glare. You are not allowed to touch or move the artwork. The best solution would be using a polarizing filter. There are two types Linear and Circular Polarizers, both reduces the glare on glass surfaces.
The right filter
Make sure you get the right size and right filter, by asking the store owner to help you. It can be easily confused with ND filter just by the look of it.
Out of the frame
If you are taking photos of your own art, then things become simple. Just take it out of the frame. If you really want a photo of the framed artwork, use an American Box without glass.
Painting on canvas
If your painting has a glossy finish, then you might have a reflection problem too. Avoid using on-camera flash and go away from direct sunlight. On camera flash often is next to the lens, so the light travels back to the lens in a very unflattering way. Avoid using on-camera flash whenever you can! The trick is using continuous lighting such as a set of softbox lights. It’s less powerful than strobes, but you see what you get and you get what you see.
No problem. Just put a nice white curtain on your window, then you have this nicely diffused light that looks expensive and professional.
When taking photos of a mural outdoor, the best time to take the photo is on a cloudy day. Direct sunlight can give you a strong glare, or cast uneven lighting. In the post-production, you can add some warmth to the photo so it doesn’t look so grey.
If the artwork is inside a tunnel or a cave, you want to bring your tripod to take it with long exposure (bulb mode). Don’t press the camera! Use a timer or wireless trigger to avoid shaking the camera while the image is being exposed.
- Polarizing filter,
- frame it without glass,
- move away from the window,
- diffuse whenever you can,
- don’t use flash and use long exposure instead.
I hope these tips will help you take better photos of your art.
How to photograph art portfolio
‘how to photograph my art portfolio? Should I hire a photographer or do it myself?’
My answer is: ‘It depends. How often you need to repeat a photo session?’ It depends on the recurrence. In this video, I am going to compare the costs so you can weigh your options.
Digital photographers usually charged by the hour. Depending on where you are, the price varies. Do research on your region. For the sake of this calculation, let’s say you pay 100$ for an hour session. If you need to take photos of 10 artworks every 3 months. Without complication, it can be done under an hour. That’s 400$ you will be spending in a year.
How many photos
If you want new photos taken every month, hiring a photographer becomes more expensive. He or she will have to travel to your studio every month for just one picture, and bill you for the hour. You will get charged 1200$ a year! That’s 3 times more.
“There are many teachers who could ruin you. Before you know it you could be a pale copy of this teacher or that teacher. You have to evolve on your own.”
-Photo: Man Ray 1922
More artist’s quotes in our article
Before the shoot, you need all your gears ready. The first thing you will need is a camera! Earlier this week I made a video on what is the best camera to photograph your art. There are so many choices, but for this video, we will take a prosumer level DSLR, like the Canon Rebel T7 (800D) at the price of $500.
Besides your camera, you will need a few more things such as a tripod, a backdrop, and some lights. A tripod costs under 100$. The backdrop can be just a white sheet of paper or cloths, that costs 20$. Alternatively, you can always hang your art on a white wall using a nail. However, if you don’t want to damage your wall, you need to buy the 3M strips that are more expensive. In any case, it will be under 20$. The very basic lighting kit costs $50.
That’s $670 total for your gears.
#2: During the shoot
The photo shoot itself is quite straightforward. For example, taking a photo of this small canvas takes me 20 mins from setting up to cleaning up. If you are new to this, it may take you 1h. You can calculate your time as a cost unless you are new. An amateur photographer doesn’t get paid.
You don’t need a lot of editing but you do need some adjustments to make sure the colors are right. Before your editing work, you need to calibrate your screen. That’s 150$ to buy a ColorMunki or a ‘Spyder’ (how did they come up with these names?!). I have a ColorMunki myself but it stopped working after 2 years. Now I need to buy a new one.
If you don’t want to calibrate your screen, you need to use a ‘color checker’ or ‘color passport’. It works as a reference when you are color grading. That’s around $80. But the best? You buy both products for more professional results.
Photo editing software
You will need a photo editing software. I recommend Adobe Photoshop but I also used other softwares such as Aperture. You can pay a $120 subscription fee for a year. Alternatively, you can spend $5 on Fiverr and outsource this task. However, now we are talking about how to do it yourself, so I will talk about Fiverr another day.
It adds up to $350.
Let’s do the maths
It will cost you for the first year: $670+$350 =$1020 for the first year. We are not calculating your time as a cost, but you can add that too if you wish. From the second year, you only need to pay for $120 Photoshop subscription. If you do this for 3 years, you will be spending 1020+120+120)/3=420 a year. This is calculated based on using the same gears for 3 years. It is significantly cheaper than having your photographer visit you every month, but more expensive than having a photographer come every season.
- Photographer 4 times/year $400
- DIY Your own equipment $420
- Photographer 12 times/year $1200
On your own?
Now we have done the analysis, it is totally up to you if you want to do this yourself. I decided to learn photography because it gives me the freedom of not relying on anyone else. It’s a good skill to have.
How to photograph your painting, step by step
Prepare your studio
Before the shoot, you need to prepare your studio. Find a flawless white wall. Don’t use textured walls. Hang your artwork, using nails or adhesives.
It’s during the day, so we need to cut the sunlight. Because strong sunlight can cast shadows and reflections on the camera LCD screen. If you don’t want the room to be too dark, use translucent curtains.
Now bring at least 2 lights. Ideally, you have a set of umbrellas or softboxes. If not, you can use your desk lamps. Just make sure the light bulbs are neutral, not yellow. Set one on the left, one on the right at 45-degree angle. Set your tripod as flat as possible. You can see this bubble here indicating if it is level. Make sure you extend the tripod legs first, before extending the central column. Extending the central column will compromise the camera’s stability.
Set your camera
- First, check the lens. Ideally, you have a prime lens. I’m using my usual travel lens a 17-55mm on my Canon 70D. Make sure your lens is clean, and set to autofocus.
- Switch on your camera and enter the M mode. The next thing you need to set the ISO the lowest possible for the optimal image quality. Mine is set to 100, you can go up to 200. Higher ISOs will result in grainy image noise.
- The next step is to set the aperture from f5.6 to f11. I usually set it to f8 and go from there. I also like to bracket my shot by intentionally taking one shot underexposed and one shot overexposed, just in case if I didn’t get it right on the small camera screen.
- Because you have a sturdy tripod, you can play with shutter speed. It can be anything 30 to 125. This is the part you have more leeway. Before the shot, check your file setting. For art portfolio, I usually use small a JPG for preview with a large RAW file for editing. The RAW format allows you to pull more details from your painting in the post-production.
- If you are more advanced, then you can go to other settings, such as White Balance and Picture Style. For this shoot, I will leave the WB to auto. I like to set my picture style to Neutral.
- Last but not least, set the 2-second timer so you don’t interfere with camera stability. I also take photos of some details, like the side or the back, to show the framing.