Techniques and Tips

How to Photograph a Painting, Step by Step

How to Photograph a Painting, Step by Step

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Professional art photographers Ric Deliantoni and Al Parrish shoot paintings, craft and woodworking projects for F+W Media’s book lines and magazines. Here they guide you on how to photograph your own painting, step by step. Read more about taking professional-quality photographs of your paintings and the equipment you need in the October 2011 issue of Magazine.

Take Your Best Shot: How to Photograph a Painting
By Ric Deliantoni and Al Parrish

1. Prepare your art. Take the painting out of the frame and remove any matting before photographing to prevent any shadows. Never photograph a picture under glass.


2. Position the painting on a wall. Hang your art on an empty wall or on a corkboard mounted on the wall. Use tape or flat-headed tacks (not pushpins) to secure your work. For ease in positioning your art, especially if it varies in size, draw lines on your wall or board as shown above (A) and center your work in the middle. To avoid stooping while looking at the camera’s viewfinder, center your art at eye level. Tape or pin your color guide along the edge of the art.

Or place a board on an easel and lean your art against it. Lean your color guide along the edge of the art. Tilt the camera to match the tilt of the easel.

Tip: Position both vertical and horizontal pieces with the longer side on the bottom so you don’t have to change the camera’s position to fill the viewfinder.


3. Block the windows and set up your lights. For evenly lit shots, position your two 500-watt floodlights on either side of the art as shown above (B).

4. Choose the following camera settings. Consult your manual if you need further instructions.

  • Color mode: Adobe RGB (not sRGB)
  • Image size: Set to the largest size your camera can produce
  • Image format: Use RAW or TIFF. JPEG format is best used for the Web.
  • ISO (which corresponds to the film speed setting on a film camera): 100
  • White balance: Set the white balance to match the type of bulbs you’re using in your floodlights. (As we said, we recommend daylight-balanced—5,000 K—bulbs.)
  • Exposure control: Manual mode
  • Flash: Make sure the camera-mounted flash, if any, is disabled.
  • Aperture and f-stops: The aperture is the opening through which light passes into a camera. Aperture is described with numbers such as 1.4, 2, 2.8, 4, 5.6, 8, 11, 16 and 22. These numbers are called f-stops, and each number represents a halving or doubling of the size of the aperture. Note that the f-stop numbers are inversely related to the size of the aperture (C and D). This means that to increase the amount of light entering the camera, you would choose a smaller aperture number (C). To maximize the sharpness and quality of your photographs, set your aperture in the center of the lens range. For most lenses, f8 will be the proper setting, but if you have a faster lens, a wider aperture and smaller f-stop number will produce better images.Shutter speed: Another way besides aperture to control how much light enters the camera is the shutter speed; if you’re using a tripod, this is the best way to control the light. The shutter opens for a fraction of a second. The shutter speed is usually expressed as numbers such as 8, 15, 30, 60, 125, 500 and 1000. In this system, 60 means one-sixtieth of a second and 1000 means one-one-thousandth of a second. The faster the shutter speed, the better you’ll be able to freeze motion. If the camera isn’t on a tripod, don’t use a shutter speed below 60, or the motion of your body will result in blurry photos. Even with a tripod, don’t go below 30.

5. Attach the cable release to the camera, then mount the camera on the tripod securely and place it in front of the artwork. The camera should face the artwork squarely, pointed straight ahead to the center of the art. The face of the camera should be parallel to the art—not tilted up, down or to either side.


6. Aim the camera. Move the entire tripod and camera around until the art and the color bar fill as much of the viewfinder as possible without cropping the image (E). For vertical art, rotate the tripod head, if your tripod provides this adjustment, or simply hang the art vertically on the wall so that it can fill the frame.

To ensure that the artwork isn’t distorted in the photo, the camera’s line of sight needs to be perfectly perpendicular to the art. If your painting is attached to a vertical wall, the camera should be vertical. If the artwork is leaning against a wall or on an easel, the camera must be tilted as well (F). Make sure the edges of the painting are perfectly square in the viewfinder, a task that can be frustrating, but it’s vital to get it right; otherwise, your art will look like a trapezoid in the photo rather than a rectangle—a problem called parallax. Once you have your tripod in the right spot, you might want to mark the position of the legs on the floor with masking tape.

7. Adjust the floodlights. Estimate the distance from the camera to the artwork, then place one floodlight twice that distance to the left of the artwork and the other one the same distance to the right. Aim them at a 45-degree angle to the art. The lights should be as far back as your camera. If they’re too far forward, light may strike the camera lens and cause flare, a fogging or veiling of the image.


8. Check the lighting. Turn on the floodlights and turn off the room lights; extra light will upset the color balance of your pictures. Adjust the floods as needed (wear heavy gloves when touching the reflectors; they get very hot) until the light is evenly distributed on the art (G). Look for hot spots, places that are brighter than the rest.

Look through the camera’s viewfinder. If there’s harsh glare on the art after you’ve followed these instructions, carefully try decreasing the angle of the lights from 45 degrees to 35 degrees; then see if the glare is gone. You can continue to reduce the angle if needed, but don’t make it any smaller than about 15 degrees. It’s not always desirable to eliminate all glare, especially if the work has heavy brushstrokes or other texture.

9. Meter the light. Allow 10 minutes after turning your lights on for the bulbs to warm up fully. Then take meter readings as follows:
Using an incident light meter: Set the light meter to f8. For artwork 12×16 or smaller, hold the light meter at the center of the artwork. If the art is larger than 12×6, take readings at all four corners and the center and average the results. Take the reading(s), note the recommended shutter speed and set your camera’s shutter speed accordingly.
Using the camera’s built-in meter: Place a gray card in front of your art. With the camera’s exposure control set to manual, remove the camera from the tripod, look through the viewfinder and move closer to the gray card until the card fills the viewfinder. Make sure your body isn’t blocking any of the light falling on the card. Get the meter reading (on many cameras, you do this by depressing the shutter button part-way). Set the shutter speed indicated by the meter, and then return the camera to the tripod.

10. Take your first shot at aperture f8: Make sure the art is still aligned in the viewfinder. Focus on the subject and press the cable release.

11. Bracket your shot with two other exposures to ensure that you’ll get at least one good shot. Do this by changing the aperture to f5.6. Change the aperture only; don’t change the shutter speed or anything else. Recheck the alignment and focus; then shoot. Now change the aperture—nothing else—to f11. Now you have shot light, middle and dark versions of the image, improving the chances that at least one of them will be a good exposure.

Read more about taking professional-quality photographs of your paintings and the equipment you need in the October 2011 issue of Magazine.

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