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How to Photograph a Painting Like a Pro

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Sometimes it is necessary to photograph a painting or a canvas. Once they have finished their work, the artist generally wishes to create a photo replica intended for various applications: press release, press book, catalog, monograph, etc. For smaller works, it is possible to use a scanner. But in many cases, this is not possible, most often because the size of this solution is simply unacceptable. Plus, having to make a long assembly is sometimes tedious. Not everyone has a large scanner, though. All that remains is a photograph. But painters, although artists – are not necessarily always good photographers, so they will call for help.

Professional Photographer or Do it Yourself?

Although it is preferable to call in a specialist for quality work, certain tips can allow anxious painters to quickly learn how to take a quality photo of their work. Whether for a web display or prints, it is important not to “sabotage” your work and do it right. Therefore everything should be put in place in order to take accurate photos. This will take some patience and sometimes a little touch-up or a bit of post-processing. But don’t worry, whether you are a photographer or not, this is quite doable.

Without going into the description of a job done in a professionally equipped photo studio, we offer some basic principles that will allow you to photograph a painting and obtain a correct and faithful reproduction of the original without investing in expensive equipment. This operation is not complicated if you know a few basic principles and, above all, if you apply them.

How to Photograph a Painting

Positioning

1. Position the Canvas

The painter usually has an easel. He will use it to keep his painting supported and fixed vertically. A painting will be placed on the easel so that the base is not hidden by the wood of the support to further enhance the painting. Then, with a plumb line, he will check the vertical position of the painting.

2. Position the Lighting Set

Two well-placed light sources will prevent unsightly reflections. They will be located on the sides of the painting, a few meters and at an equal distance so that the painting’s surface is illuminated in a regular manner. The light sources will form an angle of approximately 45° with the surface of the painting. Grazing lighting from angles will reveal the details of the painted surface without any reflections, while lighting from the front will most likely fail to avoid such reflections.

To avoid reflections, remember that the angle of incidence is equal to the angle of refraction, therefore you will place the two light sources at the same height as the painting, or slightly coming from above. The importance of step number 1 is obvious here.

3. Position the Device

The device with which you will photograph will be located directly in front of the middle of the painting. To do this, you can stick strips of masking tape on the ground, one of them will be in line with the painting, the other will be glued perpendicularly, forming a “T” with the first, to locate the axis above. where the device will be placed.

Again, to avoid any “deformation” of the painting, the base of the device (the device itself, usually placed on a tripod, or simply in the photographer’s hands, in case tripods are not an option) will be fixed at the same height as the painting. Check the horizontality with a plumb line or any adequate object.

The Lighting

The lighting is essential to take a quality photo. If the light keeps changing, the photo or series of photos will be quite more difficult to post-process. So those who have many challenges with taking a well-lit photograph will be better off to invest in a flash or a light kit, or at least rent them for a day. For a canvas photo, only a large window with a white veil will do. When using the natural light, make sure you don’t block it, particularly not with your positioning.

Lighting kits are available both to buy or rent. They are most often tripods each with a modulator and a light source. Just light bulbs are much more affordable, while the flash lights are more expensive. The flashes will produce less heat and provide better light quality, but continuous lighting with bulbs allows you to better see the effect of the light on the painting and adjust it accordingly. It is a question of budget and practice here.

Modelers are essential to soften the lighting of the canvas and reduce the differences in brightness in the painting. In the case of reflections, the use of a polarizing filter can help to make them disappear. But by correctly positioning the light sources, this should not be a problem. Ideally, around the canvas, a lightbox allows uniform lighting but this is not always possible, depending on the canvas to be photographed.

Artificial Light vs Daylight

If you work just with a camera, the device will generally select by itself the type of light that illuminates the painting, but if it does not happen, it will have to be set manually to avoid a yellowish or reddish cast-on. In case you have both the bulb and the flash lighting set, test them both out to find the best result.

When artificial lighting is used, we should avoid having a window facing the painting, but also objects or a light wall that would be reflected in the gloss or satin of the painted surface. Likewise, it goes without saying that for this same reason, you should never use the flash from close up.

Choosing a Neutral Background

In the absence of a lightbox, the canvas must be surrounded by a neutral background. It can be white, gray, or black. The background should not add color to the canvas. It would be a shame to have a colorimetric problem due to walls painted in another non-neutral color.

It should also be checked that no stray light source illuminates the painting during the shooting. A bulb of a different temperature than the one used for the photograph could cause problems. This is why it is recommended to take pictures with controlled lighting.

The Device

Digital devices are ideal for this type of work. They have the big advantage of allowing work in artificial light without the colors being invaded by this unbearable yellowish or reddish dominant lighting, which is inevitable with film cameras unless you are equipped with suitable and semi-professional lighting equipment.

Most digital cameras have a good lens and have a number of pixels that allow for appreciable magnification. Currently, many devices, even at affordable prices, have ten, twelve, twenty million pixels, but with five or seven million, we can already reproduce a painting to enlarge in A4 format.

A good reflex camera or a good bridge is obviously among the best ones for taking quality photos.

Using a Tripod and a Remote Control

Work with a tripod or, failing that, place the device on a stable surface. And, to avoid camera shake, use the self-timer or, if your device is compatible, remote control or remote shutter release.

To have the right position to be perfectly parallel to the canvas, you must use a tripod. For more convenience, a remote control can be used. It will be essential if the shooting speed is reduced.

Some Essential Details

Before specifying the shooting technique for a painting, you must know the resolution parameters necessary for good print quality depending on the size of the reproduction.

Contrary to popular belief, a resolution of 300 dpi is not essential given the evolution of plotters. A resolution of 150 dpi for full-size printing will be sufficient. The resolution of 300 dpi will only be necessary for printing enlargements. On the other hand, when capturing the painting, make sure to have the highest possible resolution, even if it means reducing it for printing.

Considering the size of the image to obtain (height x width), with a resolution of 150 dpi of the file, the resolution of your camera will be for the following examples:

  • 7677 x 5728 pixels for an image 130 x 97 cm
  • 5906 x 4783 pixels for a 100 x 81 cm image
  • 4783 x 3874 pixels for an 81 x 65 cm image
  • 3602 x 2917 pixels for a 61 x 50 cm image

Avoid Optics That Distort Perspectives

In the bag of all photographers, optics distort perspectives. That is, the lines in a photo are no longer quite straight. Some lenses, even of good quality, have “barrel” (outward curves) or “pincushion” (inward curves) deformation. Wide angles often have this flaw. Even if it is corrected in post-processing, certain lenses require long corrections. The solution is to crop. Just crop part of the pattern or install software on your computer that corrects this unpleasant distortion.

We will use a small telephoto lens or we will set the zoom to a magnification of three times or more, depending on the distance available. It is advisable to take a step back with the painting to avoid convex deformation of the contours, the “wide-angle” effect.

To avoid distortions due to perspective, the painting should be parallel with the lens glass, which is why care should be taken with the position of the canvas and that of the camera.

Optics that are 50mm longer and longer distort the outlook less. However, it is possible to check if the straight lines remain the same by squaring the support of the painting to be photographed.

Moreover, this facilitates the correction of the perspectives in post-processing if that is necessary.

The Shooting

Set the “ISO” of the device (= sensitivity of the sensors, the equivalent of the ASA of the film). To avoid the unpleasant effect of “noise”, adjust the ISO sensitivity by selecting a small number. The smaller the ISOs, the less “noise” there will be. An ISO of 200 is indicated for the photography of paintings.

The snapshot can be cropped using various software, some of which sometimes come in the package with the device. The very powerful Photoshop is obviously suitable for this operation. It also makes it possible to correct certain color casts and of course, to perform a multitude of more or less justified manipulations.

Have the Right Colorimetry

In order not to influence the lighting, the white balance must be perfect. There are accessories on the market that allow you to have the right white balance.

In the same way, in the most demanding jobs, colorimetry must be perfect. In this case, there are color charts that make it possible to check and adjust the colorimetry if necessary.

It is best to use the optics whenever possible with the opening which guarantees the best sharpness, that is to say with the sharpest possible rendering.

Post-Processing

Almost essential, the post-processing of this type of photography must remain discreet.

Most often it consists of correcting the small defects of the shooting. Sometimes this allows giving a little relief to the photographed painting.

As mentioned above, newer cameras possess their own processing software, and in case your camera does not have such commodities, you can always opt for PC image processing software.

A Final Word From Run Gun Shoot

The quality of a work of art is determined by the amount of sensory stimulation that the work evokes. Likewise, photography is a work that must evoke certain feelings in us. Photography can make any moment eternal.

Therefore, taking a good photograph is as much of an art as a painting. As could be seen from the text, there are various aspects to pay close attention to when taking a photo of a painting. It takes some time to prepare, shoot, and process a good photo, but all this is necessary when striving for the best quality.

Article by:

RunGunShoot Team

Our detailed review has been contributed to by multiple members of the Run Gun Shoot Review Team to ensure the best research and highest standard of quality. Have a good or a bad experience with one of the products? Please let us know, we love the feedback!

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