Photographing Art

Posted by on Apr 15, 2014 in Blog, Image Editing, Photography

For this post I’m going to outline photographing artwork, specifically flat art, though much of the thinking can be applied to 3 dimensional art. If you’d like to photograph your own work there are pointers at the end of the post.

I’m using a painting from the fine artist Roger Martin as a case study.

First I inspect the work. Is the artwork in a frame and/or matted with glass, or mounted to a substrate? Is the paint applied thinly as in a water color or is it thickly applied with dimension? Has it been varnished and is that varnish uniform across the surface? Has it been rolled or creased, needing special attention to try to flatten?

In this example the painting was not varnished and the surface has a low luster. However, the paint was applied with a knife and then incised, lending the surface a lot of variation. Furthermore it has a simple frame that protrudes 3/4 of an inch from the surface. All this will determine how we light the artwork.

First rule of thumb: No direct light. Diffuse the light.


In the studio I use 2 large panels with translucent fabric positioned around 45 degrees on each side of the work and in front of lights. I also use a light meter to measure and adjust  how even the light is so I don’t end up with one side of the work being lighter than the other.

I use a tripod and a level to make sure the lens of the camera is perpendicular to the art. I further adjust to make sure the lens is centered and parallel to the art. I generally use a 70mm lens. All this is to make sure that the final photograph is straight and undistorted. Lights were placed to faithfully reproduce the surface. However, the frame creates a shadow.


When I move the lights closer to the center of the image the shadow is gone but the surface now has harsh reflections and some of the lines appear to be above the surface.


Here’s another adjustment moving the lights still closer to the center. Some of the glare is diminished but the work is now flatter. Note the left side with all the pastels.


Here I have a series of enlargements of the painting. The left panel is the first light adjustment (too much glare). The center panel is the second adjustment (too flat). The right panel is the optimum placement with the shadows.

In this particular case the only way to get the full image with the most faithful reproduction was to edit the file. Using tools found in Photoshop we were able to remove the shadow.


Finally a note on file quality. I always photograph at the highest resolution, trying to capture the artwork as large as possible without cropping it. You can always downsize an image for the web or email, but upsizing it for reproduction will give you mushy mess.

Cellphone cameras are great but they will give you a relatively low resolution image. It looks good on the screen but it doesn’t have enough information to deliver a high quality reproduction. They also save the image in a compressed form which adds noise. To deal with noise I set my camera to the lowest ISO amount. Take it from me you don’t want noise.

Some tips if you are considering photographing your own work:

  • You can shoot outdoors with available light but not in bright direct sun light. Better to shoot on a cloudy day or in even shade. You can always adjust your exposure to get enough light onto the work. The key is to diffuse the light and make it even across the piece.
  • Use a tripod.
  • If you are using lights you could use bedsheets in front of them to get the illumination even and diffused.
  • Mount your art to a wall or make sure it is 90 degrees to the ground. Set your camera the same (use a level) and make it parallel to the art.
  • Keep your camera ISO low to reduce introducing noise.


  1. ann
    April 21, 2014

    I was wondering how you use the level to get the camera straight to the artwork. Could you explain that more?

    • Al Mallette
      April 22, 2014

      Good question. There are 2 dimensions to deal with.
      For perpendicular I use a pitch and angle locater that you can purchase in a hardware store for cheap. It looks like a 4 inch square plastic dish with a round clock like dial with degree markings. I lay that on the top of my lens and adjust the camera from the tripod so my reading is at 90 degrees.
      For side to side it’s a little trickier. I shoot tethered to a computer. First I eyeball the camera to the artwork and shoot. Then I am able to use guide lines on a preview of the image (in Lightroom) to make see how I’m doing and if I need to adjust. Another method would be to drop a plumb line from the front of the camera and measure from that point to the art. Mark that same distance about a foot to each side of the center of the camera and draw a line connecting all 3 marks. line up a panel (of wood?) to the marks and raise so that it is perpendicular to the ground. Essentially, you are making this panel act as if the art work were touching the front of the lens.Lots of work. That’s why I use the eyeball method in my workflow.