Thursday, January 13, 2011

Photographing Works of Art: Light (Part II)

Guest Author: Carl Shortt, Jr.
Part II
The Color of light bulbs varies a great deal. Using daylight balanced bulbs in a darkened space is the least expensive way to insure that your camera faithfully captures the colors in the art work. Trying to get to the same place using the computer to correct for multiple colors of light in your work space is difficult at best!

The Quality of light is the most important of the four light elements discussed here. Quality is expressed as either “hard” or “soft” light. A hard light causes very defined shadows. Examples are a flash light held at one’s chin and pointed up at the face resulting in a Halloween look. Another example is the bright sun on a cloudless day. This type of sun light casts hard shadows behind everything it hits. Not attractive.

If hard light is unattractive, then soft light must be the opposite. Soft light casts very soft shadows if any at all. Soft light is created when the relative size of the light is very large compared to the photographic subject. A cloudy day produces soft light and if there are any shadows they are not well defined. The reason for this is that clouds take a single point of bright sunlight from above the clouds and spreads it across the entire sky before releasing it to the ground below. The clouds become one giant “soft box” in photography speak. A shady area also produces soft light even on a clear bright day.

The Direction from which the light strikes the work of art is also important. Side light is almost always more attractive than light from straight on. Side light helps control reflections and gives shape to three dimensional objects. Light from straight on is flat and mostly unattractive......explaining why the flash on your camera doesn’t produce very interesting photos!

Next time we will discuss how you can modify light to make it softer and thus better for photographing most anything including works of art. Until then, I hope that these photographs demonstrate the points above.
This photo of an oil painting was taken on a cloudy day. The cloudy sky was producing a  big soft light but it was coming from the wrong direction, straight on. The glossy surface of the painting just reflected all the light right back into the camera lens. The background is most distractive as well. I will address both of these issues in a later post.
Placing the painting so that it faces into in the shade actually produces a much better result but this photo suffers from having anything more than the painting shown.

Here is a pretty good final result achieved by understanding and controlling the light.

3D examples: 

Examples of inappropriate backgrounds and light direction
Cropping helps a little but the composition is just wrong and the hard light is evident by the distinct shadow.

Ah...much better now. Two very soft studio lights help bring out the shape and texture and a lower camera position improves the composition.

Next time we will talk about ways to soften the light and how to position it for the best results. Stay tuned.

Shortt 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 here:

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