PHOTOGRAPHING WORKS OF ART

As a service to the art community, we have produced this beginner's guide to photographing art. At Hawkinson Photography understand that you may not always need professional services. While we would not recommend you doing your own medical or dental work (unless you are a doctor or dentist) many people are experienced with a camera and can produce acceptable results with minimal personal risk. If you decide to shoot your own artwork we hope this guide will assist you in getting the type of images you need. If you find that the imaging you require is beyond what you can produce please feel free to come into our studio and allow us to assist you with your photographic needs.

GETTING STARTED

If you are not comfortable with a camera, see if you can find someone who is. The photographic images you create will represent your artwork; make them as good as your original art. Yearbook advisors, photography instructors or photo clubs are good places to start.

Getting Started | Equipment | Film | Background | Setup | Techniques

EQUIPMENT

The minimum equipment needed is a 35mm camera. However, a tripod and a cable release will make the job easier. If the camera does not have through-the-lens metering you will also need a handheld light meter. Of course, some sort of light source (daylight or artificial) will also be needed. Listed below is some basic equipment we recommend to make photographing your work easier.

  1. Camera
    A 35mm camera; ideally a SLR camera, but a rangefinder can work. You will want a lens that allows you to focus close enough to your object to fill the frame.
  2. Cable Release or Self Timer
    Using a cable release or the self timer on the camera reduces the risk of camera movement during the exposure. Reducing camera movement will improve image sharpness.
  3. Tripod
    Using a tripod holds the camera steady during the exposure. Also, by making the camera stationary it is easier to compose and focus on your artwork. As with the cable release, using a tripod greatly reduces the risk of camera motion or movement and thus improves image sharpness and clarity.
  4. Light Meter
    A. In Camera: Follow the instructions for your particular camera. This meter is a "reflective" meter and reads the light reflecting from your scene.
    B. Incident: Follow the instructions for your particular meter. This is a hand-held meter and reads the light falling onto your scene.
    C. Reflective meter: Follow the instructions for your particular meter. This meter is also a handheld meter but reads the light reflected from your scene. These meters can be more precise than an in-camera meter. It could be a "spot meter" reading only a small spot or degree angle of the scene. The best use of this meter is with an 18% gray card. (see setup)
  5. Lights
    A. Daylight: Use north light in the shadow of a building or most anywhere on an overcast day. Natural daylight is not the most predictable but it is the cheapest.
    B. Daylight Bulbs: B2 bulbs can be purchased at most photo supply stores. They closely match the color temperature of daylight. These bulbs are good if you mix daylight and studio light. CAUTION: These bulbs burn extremely hot. Be sure to follow instructions with these bulbs so you don't burn yourself or your art. Do not use these bulbs in standard household lamp fixtures.
    C. Tungsten Bulbs: ECT bulbs are longer lasting and more stable than daylight bulbs. You must use tungsten balance film for proper color balance. CAUTION: These bulbs also burn hot. Use the same precautions as with B2 bulbs.
  6. Light Stands
    If you are going to use artificial light sources you will need a way for them to be held in place during the exposure. Since you will be operating the camera, you probably don't have enough hands to also hold your lights. You could employ some friends to become light stands but they too may move during exposure. Use whatever you can (clamps, duct tape, light stands) to safely hold your lights stationary and shining on your artwork. Inexpensive light stands can be purchased an most photographic supply stores.
  7. Reflectors & Light Modifiers
    When shooting 3D work foamcore or matboard reflectors can enhance the light quality by reflecting or shading the light on your art. More about this in techniques.

Getting Started | Equipment | Film | Background | Setup | Techniques

FILM

There are two major factors in deciding which film to use. First, you need to know what your desired end product will be. If you will need slides, start with slide (transparency) film. If you will need prints, start with print (negative) film. If you will need both, it is easiest to use slide film and then have prints made from the slides. Second, you must match film type with light source. For example, tungsten film requires the use of tungsten lights for correct color balance; while daylight film can be used with sunlight or standard flash units.

We do not use one particular brand of film exclusively. We use Kodak, Fuji, Polaroid & Ilford because each brand has different characteristics and is best for particular situations. Test some different brands and use the type you like best.

  1. E-6 film
    Generally this film can be processed and returned to you in three hours or overnight. Good results can be obtained from the slow speed films. ASA/ISO 50, 100
  2. Kodachrome film
    Traditionally the finest grain structure for color and most accurate for color reproduction. Must be processed by Kodak, one to two weeks processing time is normal.
  3. Daylight film
    With daylight balanced film your art can be shot with the correct color balance using daylight or daylight balanced bulbs. Filtration can be used to get acceptable color balance using tungsten balanced lights. However, this is not recommended. To get the best color results match the film with the correct color lights. ASA/ISO 50, 100, 200, 400.
  4. Tungsten film
    Using tungsten film is a good film choice if shooting in galleries. Many galleries use tungsten balanced lights. However, test shots should be viewed before an exhibit comes down or cannot be reshot.

Getting Started | Equipment | Film | Background | Setup | Techniques

BACKGROUND

For two dimensional artwork a black background is usually preferred. This way when the slide is projected only the artwork will be seen. There are different ways to produce the black background. Painting a wall black is one. Another not so permanent method is to purchase from a fabric store some black felt or black velvet. This can be hung on a wall or over an easel to produce a black background. Another method is to paint a 4x8 foot sheet of plywood. With nails at various locations on the plywood sheet artwork can be hung at various heights. Works on paper can also be taped (be sure to test & use tape that will not harm the paper) to the board. The board can be transported outside and propped against a wall easily.

Another method is to shoot on a light colored background to simulate a gallery wall. This method is fine however, it shows any imperfections in image framing (ie: not keeping the camera square to the art and the film plane parallel) and can give a distracting bright light on the screen when projected.

For three dimensional pieces, a neutral color of medium density is usually best and can be used for most situations. The idea is to present the art without distraction or competition. Unlike 2D most 3D work benefits from the object casting a shadow on the background. If black is used for a background color the shadow will be lost. Most people can sense when a shadow is missing or is not "correct." A black background may be fine for in special cases but a medium toned background is generally preferred.

Getting Started | Equipment | Film | Background | Setup | Techniques

SETUP

In a standard 2D setup, be sure your artwork is "squared up" in the camera. That is, the film plane should be set up parallel with the art in order to avoid the "keystone effect." Also, the lighting should be even. This can be achieved by placing lights equidistant on either side of the piece at a 30 to 40 degree angle to the artwork. (Figure 1, Figure 2) As an inexpensive lighting alternative, the shade of the north side of a building or an overcast day can provide broad, even illumination.

With the camera on the tripod, using the in-camera meter, meter off an 18% gray card and expose the film. If using a hand-held meter, meter the four corners of the painting and the center to make sure the light is even over the entire surface of the painting. Expose the film.

In setting up for 3D work, the background should be plain and curved. (A large piece of paper placed under the object and suspended behind it works well.) A single light source from above and to the side is a standard setup that adequately lights most objects. (Figure 3)

Getting Started | Equipment | Film | Background | Setup | Techniques

TECHNIQUES

Focus, FOCUS, FOCUS!

Use a lens that will allow you to get close enough to the artwork to "fill the frame" without distorting the image.

To soften the shadow side of a 3D object place a reflector fill near the object opposite the light source. (A large piece of white foamcore or mat boardmakes a great reflector.)

Bracket your exposures. A 3-step bracket (normal exposure, underexposure and overexposure) is usually sufficient. Remember -- film is cheap (you know, an ounce of prevention...)

Getting Started | Equipment | Film | Background | Setup | Techniques


All images copyright by Hawkinson Photography
Last Update: 2/14/2003