Friday, January 28, 2011

Photographing Works of Art: Controlling the Light (1)

Author: Carl Shortt, Jr.
This is part three of Carl Shortt’s tips for artists taking good images of their own artwork.  See previous posts about the quality of light in Part 1 and Part 2

The list of items needed to photograph two-dimensional art varies a little from that needed to take quality photos of three-dimensional work, which will be in a following blog post:

Lighting can be accomplished with either natural or artificial light. In either case, all other light sources should be eliminated or reduced as much as possible in order to avoid the introduction of unwanted color distortion. In either case, always turn off the camera’s internal flash unit.

Natural light is free but much more difficult to control (time of day, direction, cloudy or bright, raining or night). Therefore, this presentation is limited to the use of artificial light sources.

It is my opinion that a continuous light source is easier to master by the amateur photographer and also less expensive than is a flash set up. Among the least expensive of these is a standard photoflood reflector fixture with a 250-watt 3200k medium screw-base quartz halogen lamp installed. A clip on work light fixtures and standard halogen bulb can also be used. Two lights are necessary and an investment in telescoping light stands will make set up quite easy and flexible.

2D Work
The use of a neutral background is necessary when photographing 2D work with 35MM film as the work being photographed is rarely the same rectangle shape as the 35MM film frame.

Digital editing now makes it quite easy to eliminate all but the image of the featured art work. Thus all that is really needed is a steady support (a wall or easel) that can hold the art level and at a convenient height. 
Reflections, difficult to avoid even with careful lighting
Flash glare, hard to avoid
2D work should be photographed unframed and without a mat, if possible, as both may cast a shadow on the work. Glass over a water color painting, for example, will reflect objects in front of it (including the camera person!) and it has a tendency to cast a colored haze that will distort the true colors of the work.

If you must shoot work already under glass, use a polarizing filter to reduce glare and reflection. Reflections may also be reduced by the use of a large black card, which has a hole in the center the size of the camera’s lens. Place the card over the lens so that all is hidden from reflective view except for the lens itself. In this way, only the black card will be reflected in the glass.  NOTE the use of a polarizing filter will reduce the amount of light reaching the camera’s image capture devise and, therefore, increased exposure compensation must be made.
Lori Oden's work on paper, photographed without glass
Position lights at 45 degrees on either side and at the same level as the art work. If reflections are an issue, move as far away from the art work as possible and zoom in with your lens. But remember, it is far better to photograph the work before it is put behind glass!!

2D lighting location.
Lighting 2D work requires a light (diffused is best) falling evenly across the picture’s plane. This is accomplished with two artificial lights by arranging them at 45 degrees to the work (one left side, one right side) to points equal distant from the work. The arrangement is not quite that simple as the art work should not be illuminated by shining the lights directly on them, rather, each light should diffused in some way such as being aimed away from the art work and into a reflective surface such as a 2” X 2” white foam core board. The white board is then arranged such that the reflected (diffused) light then illuminates the art to be photographed. (the light bulbs get hot, don’t touch them or allow the foam board to get to close to them either!)

As an alternative, a tent of translucent material could be used or the lights could be aimed through a large panel of translucent material. See resource material at the end for DYI Light Tent ideas.

Check whether the light falls evenly over the whole object by touching the end of a pencil to the object. The resulting two shadows indicate even lighting if they are equal in both shape and intensity. 

Taking the picture.
Once the lighting is set up, make a manual white balance reading with your camera (follow the unique instructions that came with your camera).

Select a low ISO setting of 100 or 200 for increased quality and lower noise.  Exposure times may be 1 second or longer, so mount the camera on a steady tripod.

Position the camera/tripod a comfortable distance from the art work such that the lens is level with, square to and in the middle of the art to be photographed. Easels hold art work at a slight angle so match the camera angle to the easel’s angle to achieve the “square to’ camera attitude.

With the zoom set at about midway, position the camera/tripod as close to the art work as practical and then adjust the zoom to completely fill the camera’s frame with the image to be photographed.

Triggering the camera to take a long exposure is best accomplished with a remote cable release or by use of the cameras built in self-timer. Merely triggering the camera by pushing the “take” button could easily introduce camera shake and result in a poor picture.

Take several shots. Digital images are captured for free so take several shots of each piece, bracketing exposure on both sides of the camera’s automatic selection. Darker toned art will usually require increased exposure; more reflective subjects require less.

You can see Shortt's demonstration in action since he is leading the next Artist Survival Kit workshop, "Oh, Snap! Documenting Your Work in Photos," on February 5 at the Oklahoma City Community College Art Department. Prior to the workshop, time slots will be available for artists to sign up to have their work photographed. More details can be found

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