Photographing Artwork Digitally; Setting, Shooting, And Post-Processing

Capturing the beauty of artwork with a camera has always been a challenge. Sure, it's easy to take a picture of a picture, but to reproduce the full range of colors, textures, and tones that will carry the power of the original, that is a challenge. There is a growing demand for high-quality digital files for juried shows, portfolios, and even for limited edition inkjet prints. In many cases the artists themselves may have a digital camera, but may not have the skill to get the quality image they need for the task at hand, and that's where you come in.

Painting by Jane Petitjean.
All Photos © 2007, The Jane Petitjean Studio, All Rights Reserved

Digital cameras offer many features that can make your job easier, so let's begin by reviewing the right way to set your camera up. First, take your camera out of any Auto mode it may be in. Program and Scene modes are great for average scenes, but can give inconsistent results under the controlled environment you will be shooting in. Set the ISO to its lowest setting, and the image size to the largest that the camera is capable of shooting. The higher ISO speeds will have more noise (similar to film grain) and capturing the most pixels will give you flexibility when you post-process the image later. Even if your end result will not be a large image, starting with a large amount of information will help you get the best image you can.

Next, choose if you will shoot in a raw, TIFF, or JPEG file format. Raw files will contain the most information and allow you to choose sharpening, color balance, contrast, and saturation after you have made the shot with no degradation. TIFF files are lossless, which is good, but don't contain all the information that allows raw files to have so much latitude. Cameras capable of creating TIFF files are not common, but every digital camera made can shoot in the JPEG format. It yields files that are smaller, but by shooting optimally you can still get excellent results from them. Ultimately, your choice of capture format will come down to what your camera is capable of and how comfortable you are with processing raw files.

You should shoot artwork with your camera mounted on a sturdy tripod. Camera movement is the number one killer of image clarity, and even a slight handheld jiggle will degrade your image. A tripod will also help with aligning your framing to eliminate any keystoning of flat artwork.

Angle the lights so each points to the far side of the artwork.

Unless you are using a D-SLR, you will undoubtedly be shooting with a zoom lens. Check to see what part of the zoom range is least likely to introduce barrel or pincushion distortion and keep it set there when you shoot. The quick way to test is to point your camera at a wall, keeping the top of the wall and a bit of the ceiling at the very edge of your frame as you slowly zoom from wide angle to telephoto. As you do this you will see if distortion is introduced at any focal length setting. Of course, you never want to use digital zoom, which simply crops your image in camera.

Good lighting is critical to showing all the detail and quality of the artwork. For flat art such as paintings, prints, and large photographs, two lights will work well. Some digital cameras cannot sync with external flash units, but will work well with halogen or standard incandescent lights. Make sure your built-in flash is turned off--it will only introduce glare and harsh shadows. Hang your art on a wall and position your lights at a 45Þ angle from the piece, aiming each light at the edge of the artwork farthest from it. Step back and look for reflections or sheen. Glossy art can be a real challenge, so try moving the lights closer, reducing their angle relative to the art. If the art is under glass you will probably need to take it out. A large black cloth, ideally black velvet, can work miracles, as no light will be reflected back from it. Hang it between the camera and the artwork, cut a small hole for the lens and shoot away.