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.
Best camera for photographing artwork?
The short answer is: ‘It depends how much is your budget:
Hasselblad for photographing 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.
How to photograph paintings professionally
A decent camera body does not only produces high-quality images but also will last for a long time. I recommend buying a full-frame camera if your budget allows, especially if you need to make fine art prints. A decade ago, my go-to camera would be the legendary DSLR – the Canon 5D Mark II that most photographers and filmmakers used. Today, there are so many more options to choose from.
Now you can find many new mirrorless camera systems, such as the new Canon full-frame series Canon EOS R, the flagship Panasonic S5, the newly released Sony A7 Mark IV, and many other brands and models. They are just like the good old DSLR but without mirrors. You can also record 4K videos with those newer cameras too.
- PRICE: A full-frame camera body itself may cost slightly under $2,000 but with a lens, it can easily go over $2K. Of course, a professional body could cost tens of thousands of dollars, but it is not necessary to invest so much money in a camera when you could use it elsewhere in your art business.
- GOOD: Full-frame flagship cameras are the most popular among professional digital photographers. Thanks to their popularity, you can rent lenses and find spare parts quite easily. Larger sensors capture more data each time you take a photo. They will give you enough leeway to edit and color-correct for fine art prints.
- BAD: You will need time to master this camera. There is a steep learning curve. It took me a couple of months to fully manage all the settings and features for photos and videos.
Prosumer level cameras
Prosumer cameras are between professional and consumer levels. Personally, I like to use an APS-C camera such as Canon EOS 90D to capture personal moments because I have a big collection of older Canon lenses from the past. It works just like a full-frame DSLR but is cheaper and smaller. In 2022 I am slowly switching to mirrorless. If you are starting from scratch, it’s better to choose a newer mirrorless system that gives you more features.
One of the best of its kind is the Micro Four Thirds system (sometimes written as MFT or M43). It was created by Olympus and Panasonic in 2008. Those cameras fulfill most hobby photographers’ needs and budgets and have been thriving in the market. Within this MFT system, you can mix and match camera bodies and lenses freely without having to worry about compatibility.
In this MFT system, you can buy the Olympus EM10 Mark IV body for under $700, or the newly updated Panasonic Lumix GH5 Mark 2 for under $1700. In 2021, I bought a Panasonic Lumix G100 to cover art events, and I am generally happy with it.
- PRICE: The price can vary from $400 to $2,000 depending on the brand, features, and lens in the pack.
- GOOD: Prosumer cameras are capable of professional quality and functionality at the price of a consumer-level camera. They are the best bang for your buck. More and more third-party brands are making amazing lenses for the MFT system.
- BAD: There is a huge crop factor. It means a 25mm lens on an MFT camera looks like 50mm on a full-frame body. It’s extremely hard to get wide-angle shots with a kit lens. If your art studio is small, you might struggle to frame your shots. Also, the lenses are not compatible with larger camera bodies in case you want to upgrade them. However, full-frame lenses could be used on a smaller body using adaptors.
Compact camera for art photography
If you don’t have any experience using a digital camera with interchangeable lenses, you might want to opt for a compact camera to get a fast start in photography. Typically those modern compact cameras are marketed as ‘vlogging’ cameras because they are easy to use and travel with. One of the most popular cameras in this category is the Sony ZV-1 released in 2020 for about $750.
- PRICE: Compact cameras usually cost under $1,000. But there are exceptions such as the Sony RX100M7, at a whopping price of $1300.
- GOOD: Compact cameras are extremely easy to use. You can hold it for long hours without feeling sore in your arms and slip it into your pocket when you are done.
- BAD: They lack many features such as interchangeable lenses, the ability to plug in some accessories. Most of them can’t give you clear HDMI output for live streaming.
Phone Camera for art photography
Using your phone to take photographs of your art becomes common practice these days. It wasn’t that viable a few years ago, because of the low resolution and small sensor size. Now, most new phones like the iPhone 13, Samsung Galaxy S21, and Oneplus 9 Pro can take decent art photos to share on social media.
- PRICE: It can range from $300 to $1200. You can pay monthly from your mobile phone service provider.
- GOOD: Likely your phone is always with you, so you can take photos at any time. Then you can publish directly to social media to promote your art.
- BAD: It just doesn’t have the same sturdy grip as a proper camera. You need to carry a phone holder to mount on a tripod. Sometimes a photo session can be interrupted by a notification or a call. Most important, it has very limited options in terms of working with speedlites/flashlights/strobes. It works only using natural light or continuous lighting.
Your constraints, your choice
Overall, the cheapest and fastest way to take photos of your art is using the smartphone you already have. If you are working in low-light situations, you need to upgrade your gears. Compact cameras are best for traveling or vlogging artists, while prosumer cameras are a better fit for photography enthusiasts searching for the best deal. Of course, if your budget allows, the best cameras are full-frame cameras that offer stunning clarity, accuracy, and resolution for large fine art reproduction.
When you are really not sure, you can rent or borrow a camera and try it yourself.
“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.”
– Dorothea Lange
How to photograph paintings without glare
Having reflection when taking photos of framed artwork is a very common problem. Sometimes even without a glass in front of the work, there is still this glare reflecting a window or a flash.
- Use a polarising filter
- Frame your art without glass
- Move away from the window
- Diffuse the light 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. Let’s develop them:
How to take pictures of framed art 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 polarising filter. There are two types of Linear and Circular Polarisers, both reduce the glare on glass surfaces.
Use 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 the ND filter just by the look of it.
Take your art 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.
Taking photos of glossy paintings
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 soft-box lights. It’s less powerful than strobes, but you see what you get and you get what you see.
You don’t have any lighting equipment
No problem. Just put a nice white curtain on your window, then you have this nicely diffused light that looks expensive and professional.
Street art photos without glare
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 post-production, you can add some warmth to the photo so it doesn’t look so grey.
Bring your tripod
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.
How to photograph art for a portfolio
Should you hire a photographer or do it yourself?
My answer is: ‘It depends. How often do you need to repeat a photo session?’ It depends on the recurrence.
Hiring a photographer: Price study
Digital photographers are 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 in under an hour. That’s 400$ you will be spending in a year.
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.
Photographing artwork for portfolio
Let’s have a look at how much you would be spending if you take the photos yourself. I will walk you through different steps and show you how much the basic gears would cost:
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 cloth, which 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 $670 total for your gears.
2. During the shoot
The photoshoot itself is quite straightforward. For example, taking a photo of this small canvas takes me 20 mins from setting up to cleaning up. If you are new to this, it may take you 1h. You can calculate your time as a cost unless you are new. An amateur photographer doesn’t get paid.
You don’t need a lot of editing but you do need some adjustments to make sure the colors are right. Before your editing work, you need to calibrate your screen. That’s 150$ 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 a $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
Photographing art 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 art with digital camera
I am going to show you exactly how to take photos of artwork, step by step. This tutorial is made for beginners, you don’t need any experience at all, just a DSLR, a tripod, two lights, and your painting.
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.
Cut the sunlight
If it’s during the day, 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.
You need two lights
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 a 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.
Camera setting for photographing artwork
1. Choose the lens
If you are using an interchangeable lens camera, selecting the right lens is your first step. The best lens depends on what kind of art you make. If I have to guess, a 50mm prime lens is your best bet. It’s the most commonly found and most affordable lens for any brand. Using a kit lens (typically 18-55mm) that comes with your camera? No problem. Simply go close to 50mm and adjust from there. Set it to autofocus (AF) if you don’t have a tripod.
2. Switch on and enter the M mode
Many new users of digital cameras get intimidated by the M mode. It’s easier than you think! I will show you my recommended settings below.
3. Set the ISO to the lowest possible
Lower ISO gives you less image noise. My Canon camera goes to ISO 100. Higher ISOs give you this grainy look in the dark areas. Some newer models offer excellent noise reductions and allow you to take noise-free images at ISO1600 or higher. However, just to be safe, it’s best to keep the ISO under 400.
4. Set the Aperture
What’s the best aperture setting to make your photos look sharp? It depends on your lens. Every lens is slightly different. I usually set it from f/8 to f/11. I also like to bracket my shot by intentionally taking one shot underexposed and one-shot overexposed, just in case I didn’t get it right on the small camera screen.
5. Set the Shutter Speed
There is a saying in the photography world – Your shutter speed should be faster than your focal length. That is to say, if you are using a 50mm lens, your shutter speed needs to be faster than 1/50th of a second. This rule applies to taking photos handhelds. If you have a tripod, you have more leeway. Keep the ISO low, keep the Aperture around f/11, and experiment with shutter speed to get the correct exposure.
6. Check your file setting
For an art portfolio, I usually use a small JPG for preview with a large RAW file for editing. The RAW format allows you to pull more details from your painting in post-production.
If you are more advanced, then you can go to other settings, such as White Balance and Picture Style. I like to set my picture style to Neutral so I can leave some room for editing.
7. Set the timer
Now you are ready to snap a shot – but just wait a second. Pressing the shutter button might cause the camera to shake. Even the slight movement could be caught on camera. A remote trigger (or cable trigger) comes in handy. Alternatively, you can simply set the timer, as if you are taking a selfie. Actually, it’s not a bad idea to get in front of your artwork for a behind-the-scenes photo.