If you’re a painter or visual artist working in any traditional media, capturing digital images of your work is practically a requirement nowadays, and has been for a while. I don’t know any artist who could survive without getting images of their work onto the internet, submitted to publications, made into prints, or a variety of other applications that require a quality reproduction. And quality is the key word here: representing yourself with a poor version of your work will hurt your chances of success.
You wouldn’t think that capturing quality images of a completely still, flat object in a controlled indoor setting would be one of the most challenging photography jobs, but it is. I’ve actually paid pro photographers to shoot images of my paintings, and gotten a disc full of yellow-tinted garbage and flat-out unusable files, because those photographers weren’t well versed in the highly specific nuances of this photography application.
The details matter here, and skipping any of the major or sometimes even minor steps will usually compromise the end result, to varying degrees. With so many factors that can go wrong, it’s wise when possible to devote an area of your studio to this, with dedicated lighting, equipment, and pre-measured distances and angles.
Depending on the level of compromise or imprecision in your studio setup, the more editing of your raw files you’ll need to do on your computer. But even the best photography results will still require basic cropping and picky stuff like smoothing over a blown pixel from your camera’s sensor, or eliminating a small cat hair that somehow floated and stuck to the painting (cats are thoughtful like that, always trying to help…).
So here’s the equipment you’ll need (with what I currently use in parentheses), followed by the process, which was taught to me by the talented and wonderfully kind British painter Edward Povey and his wife Donna Tolar. I’ve added some of my own Adobe Photoshop expertise to their process for correcting photography shortcomings, and that’s included as well, but you’ll need a fairly good understanding of the program to follow my brief notes (or else this would be book length, not blog post length, sorry).
Camera: full-frame sensor DSLR (Canon EOS 5D Mark III)
Lens: anything in the 50mm range, without a zoom (Canon EF 50mm 1:1.2 L)
Tripod: sturdy, with fully adjustable ball joint mount (Manfrotto 290 and 496RC2)
Remote shutter cord (Canon RS-80N3)
Circular Polarizer Filter to fit lens (Promaster)
2 adjustable freestanding studio lights with daylight balanced bulbs
2 Polarizer filters for the studio lights (Visual Pursuits Glare-Stop 8M Filter)
Easel or flat wall space for mounting artwork 90º perpendicular to floor.
Tape measure and/or ruler
Level (the straight/flat tool with the little air bubble vials)
White, neutral gray, or black sheet or walls
Enclosed, light-proof studio space (for best results, it should be on par with a film processing darkroom, or shoot at night with all curtains/blinds drawn)
Computer (Imac, 4.2 GHz Intel Core i7, Radeon Pro 580 8 GB)
Photoshop CS4 or newer (CC 2019)
- Set up photo area with everything at right angles where necessary, and parallel where necessary. 90º angles and parallel planes are crucial for minimizing lens distortion. Your artwork needs to be perpendicular to the floor, as does your camera lens. The front glass edge of the lens needs to be parallel to the artwork. Use your level to check artwork angle and other things, and use the level sensor on your camera to make sure it is both vertically and horizontally balanced, and pointed precisely to the exact center of the painting. Use a tape measure to calculate any measurements needed or to check straight alignments.
- Set up 2 studio lights at 45º angles to your artwork, halfway between your camera and the artwork. Each light should point towards the opposite vertical edge of the artwork, at the halfway point of the artwork’s vertical measurement.
- Set up a black, gray, or white sheet behind your artwork, if your studio wall isn’t already white, gray, or black. The background that your camera sees around the artwork will influence how it processes color and adjusts its white balance. For really dark artworks, I like a black background, and for really light ones, a white background.
- Attach polarizing filters to the front of each studio light, as flush as possible to the light hood without touching the bulb (which could melt the filter gel). I rigged my own attachment system for the lights I have out of wire and masking tape.
- Adjust camera speed to 100 ISO, and match its white balance to the type of bulbs you’re using in your studio lights (if tungsten, choose tungsten setting, etc)
- Set image quality to the highest setting (camera RAW)
- Set lens to whatever its midpoint aperture is, usually F8-11 for your typical F16 or F22 capable lens.
- Attach remote switch, and use screen view instead of eyepiece viewing so that you don’t risk bumping or shaking your camera.
- With all overhead and ambient lights off, and only the two filtered 45º angle studio lights on, spin the circular polarizer filter on your lens until all glare highlights on the artwork disappear (when viewed through the camera lens). If some glare or highlights remain, you may need to rotate the 2 filters on the lights a bit. There should be no other light entering the room or hitting the artwork.
- Focus the lens as tightly as you can on the artwork.
- Adjust camera shutter speed according to these final calibrations. For me it’s usually in the 20-30 seconds range. With such a long exposure there can be absolutely no movement or shaking of the artwork, the camera setup, the floor, or the room you’re in, or else you’ll get a slightly blurry or hazy image.
- Bracket your shot, meaning find what appears to be the most accurate shutter speed as indicated by the camera sensor, then also shoot one or two speeds slower and faster than that, just to ensure you have the proper exposure. Cameras can be fooled by paintings with a high degree of contrast between their lightest light areas and darkest dark areas. You can use the compensation settings on your camera to help with this as well.
- On your computer, make sure your monitor is calibrated and you’re working with the proper display brightness. Make sure the lighting in your computer area is balanced daylight bulbs or natural daylight from windows.
- Place the artwork next to or near the computer monitor, in the same balanced/neutral lighting.
- Open your raw files in Photoshop and select the most accurate exposure by comparing to the original artwork.
- Edit as needed to crop, straighten, or correct lens distortion. Just about all lenses will distort or warp the picture plane as it gets closer to the edges of the lens’s viewing area. If your artwork is a perfect rectangle but is no longer geometrically perfect in the photo, drag horizontal and vertical guidelines onto the image and use EDIT > TRANSFORM > DISTORT and/or WARP functions to correct the artwork’s shape.
- Edit any inaccuracies in color with adjustment layers and layer masks as needed, comparing against the actual artwork next to your hopefully decently calibrated monitor, in the same balanced lighting. The most effective adjustment layers for these minor tweaks are HUE/SATURATION, COLOR BALANCE, LEVELS, and SELECTIVE COLOR. Since my studio setups at the various places I’ve lived over the years have almost never been ideal, I usually need a combination of all of these adjustment layers on every image to get it 95-100% accurate. In rare cases I’ve used multiple of each, with parts of each erased in order to let parts of the other layers show, to match what was happening in each area of the painting. As noted above, these last 2 steps can get very technical and require a good working knowledge of Photoshop, which can be gained by tutorials or books of course, or simply from hours of controlled experimenting on a sample image.
- Edit any blown pixels, dust, hairs, or other minor imperfections with CLONE STAMP tool.
- If you plan to turn the digital file into a physical print, you’ll likely have a second round of color editing to do on the file, once you see a proof from whatever printer you’re using. Printer ink on paper is a much different process and effect than a backlit digital screen, and every print format is a little bit different in how it needs to be prepped.
- Wow, being a professional artist is a lot of work. This isn’t really a step, I just wanted an even 20 steps because it looks better and makes me feel good.
So that’s it! Just a really quick and simple process (just kidding) for getting guaranteed amazing, coffee table book, professional-ass website, or giclee print quality artwork reproductions every time. Enjoy!