Looking to photograph your own artwork, artwork at a museum, or artwork at a gallery?
Capturing artwork may seem simple, but it’s hard to do well. There are technical hurdles to overcome; for instance, you must achieve an even exposure, avoid reflections, focus accurately, and choose the perfect aperture to keep the art sharp.
I love to document artwork. And in this article, I share the tips and tricks I’ve learned over the years, which cover lighting, settings, gear choice, and more.
Note that the techniques I give are geared toward two-dimensional art: paintings, drawings, and prints. But many of the tips I offer also apply to three-dimensional art – so if you’re hoping to capture installations and/or sculptures, I’d still encourage you to keep reading!
1. Carefully adjust the white balance
When photographing artwork, white balance is not objective – there’s a creative decision that must be made. Do you want to preserve the color of the art as you see it? Or should you neutralize any color casts and make the whites white? Will you be a historian? Or will you be a restorer?
Paper and paint tend to discolor with age. You have to decide if you want to copy what you see or turn back the clock – assuming you’re correct in your assumptions about the original color.
To correct the white balance on a piece of art, you have two main options:
- If you want to make the whites appear white, take the photo using your camera’s Auto White Balance setting, then open the image in a photo-editing program. Choose an area within the artwork that should be neutral in tone – preferably a mid-gray spot. Click on this area with a white balance tool to equalize the RGB values and correct color throughout the piece. Problems arise when the artwork has aged more in some places than others, and you may end up with ugly yellow blotches in certain areas.
- If you want to preserve signs of aging, take a shot using a gray card, then use it to set the white balance when processing the file. It’ll keep the existing color of the artwork, including signs of aging. And if you want to emphasize an antique look, you can always warm the photo up a bit.
A third option – if you have no neutral tones in the image and you didn’t use a gray card – is to fiddle with the color temperature and tint sliders until you think the white balance is correct. Correcting color by eye is hit and miss, however, and it’s never as accurate as the options discussed above.
By the way, the light source will dramatically affect the white balancing process. Avoid mixed lighting if you can! In museums, you won’t often find paintings under mixed light sources, but the same is not true of sculptures. A mixture of warm artificial light and window light can cause strong orange or blue color casts in parts of the final image, which can be hard to deal with in post-processing:
2. Be careful when using window light
Daylight is great at displaying the colors of the visible spectrum with little bias. It’s an ideal light source for art. The only problem? You can’t control it very well. If you use window light to photograph a piece of art, the exposure will likely be uneven from side to side. In fact, you may see a difference of a stop or more! (By using a reflector, you can get this down to about half a stop or less.)
Of course, you can balance the exposure in post-processing. It can help to photograph a blank card or piece of white paper under the same light; the result will make the uneven exposure obvious when viewed on the computer. You can then use what you see to correct your other photos from the same location.
Once you identify exposure inconsistencies, use adjustment brushes or a graduated filter tool to correct the issues. A graduated filter tool is perfect for this, but you can just as easily use brushes with lots of feathering.
3. Correctly position the art and your camera
When photographing a 2D piece of art, you’ll need to position it flat against a wall or table. You should then align the camera sensor perfectly with the art’s 2D plane. Otherwise, you’ll see the same “keystone” effect you get with architecture where vertical lines converge. In other words, the art will be slightly distorted if you take your photo at an angle (though not always to a noticeable degree).
One way you can align a camera with 2D art is to use a spirit level. Test the surface that the art lies against, then make adjustments with props if necessary (much as you would fix a table leg on an uneven floor). Do the same thing with your camera, using a spirit level on the hot shoe to ensure that it’s perfectly level.
Spirit levels vary in their accuracy, but you’ll soon determine if your method works. If it does, the horizontal and vertical edges of the artwork will align at 90-degree angles. If your setup is off-kilter, you’ll see the slight keystone effect discussed above.
If you don’t shoot with a perfectly level camera toward a perfectly level piece of art, all is not lost; you can correct the perspective in editing software, but you’ll lose some sharpness along the way. So it’s best to do the best you can while working in the field and only make minor corrections later.
Note: If all you’re doing is sharing a photo of a painting on Facebook, you don’t need to be fussy about aligning the artwork and your camera. Using a sufficiently narrow aperture will compensate for minor focusing errors, and nobody’s going to notice imperfect verticals! On the other hand, if you’re selling art online, you want the images to look as perfect as possible.
4. Use the right lens and aperture
You can photograph artwork with any camera, but it’s important to choose a lens with minimal distortion and excellent optics. You also want a lens that you can use at close range without issue.
I’d recommend a 50mm or 100mm prime lens with decent close-focusing capabilities. Many people use macro lenses, not least because they create very little distortion at close range. A high-quality zoom – such as a 24-70mm lens – will also suffice.
Two-dimensional art doesn’t require much depth of field, so don’t feel compelled to choose a small aperture if you don’t have the necessary light. On the other hand, closing the lens down two or three stops will often give you maximum sharpness and will compensate for slight focusing errors or a failure to properly align your camera with the artwork, so if you can, shoot at f/8.
5. Focus using Live View
Without question, the most accurate way to focus on art is to set your camera up on a tripod and use its Live View mode while focusing manually.
So if sharpness is critical, it pays to switch your lens to its manual focus mode, turn on Live View, then zoom in and focus carefully using the LCD.
Note that for three-dimensional subjects like statues, Live View is invaluable. It’ll help you overcome problems like field curvature, inaccurate focusing screens or focusing points, and misaligned mirrors and sensors. When in doubt, Live View is the way to go!
Of course, if you’re just taking casual shots, feel free to focus (manually or automatically) through the viewfinder and let a deep depth of field take care of any minor errors.
6. Take steps to avoid reflections
When you’re capturing a photo of two-dimensional art behind glass, you’ll often run into reflections that distract the viewer and ruin image clarity. If you’re not set on photographing that particular piece of artwork, it might be better to just move on to another subject. That said, there are ways of avoiding or minimizing reflections in your artwork photos:
- Do not use direct on-camera flash. It’ll create a hideous hotspot on the glass that will be impossible to remove in post-processing.
- Use directional light sources that come from the side, preferably two at equal distance (one on either side of the art). Non-directional light is softer but will create reflections of other items in the room.
- Wear black clothes; they’ll show up less in reflections and absorb light from other sources.
- Get friends or relatives in dark clothing to stand near the art and block reflections.
- Use a large black scrim/screen and push your lens through it to photograph the art. This is similar to the black-clothing approach, but it’s more effective.
- Use a polarizing filter to cut out much of the glare. Unfortunately, a polarizer forces you to increase your shutter speed or boost your ISO, so it’s not ideal for capturing handheld shots in dim museums.
- Shoot at a slight angle to cut out reflections, then adjust the perspective in post-processing. As discussed in a previous tip, if you overdo this, you’ll see a decrease in edge-to-edge sharpness.
- Examine the artwork carefully for reflections that may not be immediately obvious. In my experience, reflections have a habit of being more noticeable on a computer monitor!
7. Use the right lighting to capture artwork texture
If you want to capture texture on a piece of art (e.g., an oil painting), the last thing you want is a diffuse light source like a fluorescent bulb. What you need is a directional light source that’s positioned off to one side.
In oil paintings, revealing texture usually means that some light will reflect into the lens, which can be distracting. It’s a question of controlling the effect so that spectral highlights don’t ruin the picture. A polarizing filter will help as long as it doesn’t increase the exposure time too much.
Note that LED lighting is directional by nature. You can improvise at home by setting up LED narrow-beam G50 spotlights or similar. Otherwise, you can control diffuse artificial lighting or flash lighting with modifiers (such as snoots).
8. Consider purchasing advanced equipment
If you’re photographing fairly small artworks, you can be ultra-professional by using equipment designed specifically for art photography.
For instance, consider purchasing a copy stand, which includes a base, two lights, a column, and an arm to hold your camera. A copy stand is ideal for photographing large volumes of flat art; it’ll keep you set up and prepared to shoot, whereas setting up a tripod, a camera, and lighting takes time. Copy stands cost around $200, but you can pick one up secondhand for $100 or less.
I’d also recommend looking into light tables; these are often used to create product photos with a clear, smooth white background, but you can just as easily use one to photograph small artworks and ornaments. (That said, if you want to record flat artworks without a background, a copy stand is a better bet.)
Finally, consider purchasing or making a light tent: a five-sided cube held together by wire or plastic. Light tent sides are made from a translucent material that diffuses the light, and many tents come with various backgrounds. Some tents even have a hole in the top that lets you point the lens downward, which is ideal for photographing small, flat artworks.
You need an even exposure for flat art, so it’s a good idea to position lights of equal strength at an equal distance on either side of the tent.
Light tents are often cheap to buy, unlike light tables and copy stands. They’re often flimsy, but since they’re only a few bucks, they’re generally worth trying. If the gear works, no viewer is ever going to question how much you spent on your gear!
How to photograph art: final words
Now that you’ve finished this article, you’re ready to capture top-quality photos of art – whether you’re shooting at home or at a museum.
Just remember to keep your audience in mind. You don’t need to spend long minutes taking each shot if you only plan to share your images on Facebook. Conversely, if you’re after highly faithful record images, then make sure you spend extra time getting everything right.
What art do you plan to photograph? Share your thoughts in the comments below!