How to photograph art that is behind glass, is glass or is glossy like glass includes new info including some step-by-step instructions.
All Contents Copyright 2007-2014 by J R Compton. Do Not Reproduce this page, just email the link. This page is updated and/or corrected often. A copy won't be.
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Story + Photographs by J R Compton
Kathy Boortz Exacting Fiddler approximately life size
We photographed Kathy's meticulous crab on a white board. Later, using Photoshop I filled every space and deleted every mark that's not crab and lightened the background till the shadows looked right. Then I inverted the selection to set the crab's Levels.
If your art involves color, shape, dimension or texture. direct sunlight is the best light source, and it is widely available on this planet. Not talking about full — or open — shade (illuminated by the overly blue sky above), not dappled light (like from a tree's varying shadows), not overcast sky light (when the sun goes behind a cloud), but direct light beamed down 93 million miles from our local star.
Direct sunlight, however, is not always available, and other natural and unnatural light sources have their qualities, too. (See Other Light, below.) They're just not as good nor cheap nor easy to deal with as the light from the sun.
Whatever size your camera's sensor or film is, if you fill the frame with your art — get close enough so the art nearly fills the viewfinder/LCD — you'll make the best use of whatever resolution your camera has. That's true whether you use one of the dinky Point+Shoot cameras with a pinky-fingernail-sized sensor or one of the much larger sensors on an expensive full-frame digital Single Lens Reflex or any other camera.
All other conditions being equal — and they never are — the bigger the sensor, the better the quality of the image. See Comparative Sensor Sizes below.
Julia McLain Howdy Do Ma'am acrylic 24 x 24 inches
Photographed hand-held under tungsten lights on a wall in a gallery with a Canon S90 after setting the precise white balance.
N othing can save it if you don't get the image in focus. Check and double-check apparent sharpness. If your camera will let you, magnify the image on your LCD at least 5 times (5x). Some amateur cameras may not zoom that far, but if it's sharp blown up 3 - 5 times, it'll be probably be sharp enough.
Also realize that some cameras will allow you to magnify (zoom into) images so much that everything looks out of focus, even when they are sharp. Experience should be your guide; it helps to know your camera. My dSLR (digital Single Lens Reflex) lets me blow images up to 20 times their size, and at that size, it can be very confusing. If I tap the enlarge-image button only 5, not the full 8 times, I get a better idea of what's actually sharp. Your camera may vary.
Sharpening images at the end of post-production — after you've adjusted everything else — is often helpful, but it's a tricky game best applied when you make images smaller. I usually sharpen photographic images just before I publish them online. Different cameras and different lenses all change how much an image needs to be sharpened.
Also be aware that the LCDs on the back of most cameras show much higher contrast than the image file really has. The unmagnified image usually looks sharp, and that can mislead you. Magnify the image to be sure.
Depth of Field
On their Depth of Field page, Wikipedia defines Depth of Field (DOF): "In optics, particularly as it relates to film and photography, the depth of field is the portion of a scene that appears acceptably sharp in the image. Although a lens can precisely focus at only one distance, the decrease in sharpness is gradual on each side of the focused distance, so that within the DOF, the unsharpness is imperceptible under normal viewing conditions."
On the bottom of this Photozone page. there's an interactive image similar to the illustration above, that lets you mouse-over four subsequent f-stops arranged horizontally above the image to show what happens when you "stop the lens down." It's the best interactive image I've found that directly shows depth of field.
Wikipedia also says:
Many photographers believe that 1/3 of the DOF [depth of field] is in front of the subject, and 2/3 is beyond, but this is not strictly true, except at the hyperfocal distance. which is too complicated to go into here. It is true that "the DOF beyond the subject in sharp focus is [almost] always greater than the DOF in front of the subject."
Photographing most two-dimensional art does not require much depth unless there are large protrusions from the plane of art, but three-dimensional art usually needs more. So just focusing on the front edge of a sculpture may not render the whole piece acceptably sharp. Instead, focus maybe 1/3 into the full depth of the piece.
If you are photographing two or more different artworks in the same shot, be sure the important portions are the same distance from the camera — that usually means lining them up so faces, torsos or the most important parts or details are aligned, so they'll be in the best focus, even if other, less important parts, are not.
Be sure to use the depth of field you actually have. Stopping the lens down — making the aperture smaller (the f-number higher) does increase the depth of field. But it only works to a point. Especially with digital cameras, smaller apertures — after f11 or f16 — render lower image quality. See the Lenstip lens test below. Photozone — see their test of the same lens [also below] — often doesn't even test past f11, because tiny-aperture shots usually have much less quality than wider apertures. When photographing flat work that doesn't need much depth of field, use the optimal aperture.
Dylan Bennett has a really informative and helpful (but math-filled) video explaining f/stops and aperture. He also has what he calls "a simple" explanation of the related subjects of Depth of Field and ISO. but all of his "simple explanations" can get a lot complicated, and I bet there are many professional photographers who don't know all of this information, but who still have a working understanding of what the aperture, ISO and depth-of-field variables do. But he's very thorough and good at what he's doing. I'd suggest you watch all ten or so minutes of each of these for a sound background of information, much of which will soak through and be of importance as you progress in your photography.
How many images?
Kathy Boortz Starry Night Peacock full profile view
A full, front or side view gives the viewer a fair idea about what the piece is about. But some important details may not be visible in the full view. This sculpture is called Starry Night Peacock, and from this angle we only get a glimpse of its Starry aspect. This photograph was made in diffused daylight filtering through trees, on the artist's deck.
The purpose of allowing 3-D artists to enter up to three images of their work into art competitions and only allowing 2-D artists one, is so 3-D artists can show more sides and details. Detail images need not render the entire piece in sharp focus, and one of the better ways to show which detail is important, is to concentrate focus there.
Kathy Boortz Starry Night Peacock (detail) rear quarter view
Sculptors do not give the whole story away from just one view. To fully enjoy sculpture, we need to see it from different angles. The same goes for photographing it. This back view shows the business end of this piece, in all its colorful Van Gogh-like glory.
Kathy Boortz Starry Night Peacock feet and neck and head details
And there's still more to know about the piece, so why not throw in a few more details. I usually shoot more than three, then the artist can choose which to use for different purposes. When I shoot Kathy Boortz' work, I know she will send them to clients and galleries, too, of course. But she also keeps images of her special details to help her remember how she did parts of the work, like feet, faces and long, elegant necks.
When artists enter images for competitions, they are usually allowed one image for flat work or three for three-dimensional art. Anytime you photograph sculpture, you should shoot each piece from a variety of angles and distances — even if you are not entering a competition.
The first image should be an overall front or front quarter view (if you can figure out what that is) showing the full height, width and as much of the depth as possible. Choose the piece's best angle, and light it so it genuinely looks three-dimensional. [See lighting suggestion below]. You could simply shoot more full shots from different angles, but that's visually boring, and many sculptors opt instead for detail views.
Details show important parts or detailed textures or give more of a sense of the quality throughout the work. When I shoot Kathy Boortz art, I shoot full shots from various angles, then close-ups of feet, face and other noticeable details. At Joel Cooner Gallery, I look for details that show condition, patina, figuration or texture. If someone important has signed or stamped it, the signature will be important. Except for my use in a DallasArtsRevue.com review, I rarely limit myself to just three or four or five shots of a piece.
W e think of sunlight as yellow. because we think the sun is yellow. But it isn't. The light it shines is blue, because our local star burns blue hot (about 6,000 kelvin.) Kelvin is usually expressed as a number in hundreds or thousands. We usually do not notice the color of sunlight because it is the light we expect. Our brains automatically adjust for the differences from one light source color to another, but film and digital cameras do not.
The purpose of color balance is to render the same colors under a variety of light sources, so what you are photographing looks very nearly the same whether the object was photographed in Daylight, under tungsten or fluorescent or other lamps. As usual, perfection is unlikely, but it is possible to get the colors under differing illumination, to render almost the same.
If you use light other than the mid-day (approximately 10 am till 4 pm) sun, accurately rendered colors are less likely. Early morning, late afternoon and evening sunlight appears redder, and as lovely and "romantic" as that can look, it is not much good for photographing art.
Under midday direct sunlight, colors are easy. Most film and nearly all digital cameras (unless set otherwise) expect and assume sunlight. If you use any other color of light, getting accurate colors is guesswork. Anything but sunlight tends to be confusing to both users and cameras/film, although much can be done to "balance" the colors.
Nancy Cole - Trinity Turtles - earthenware - MAC Member Show 2006
Left. I photographed the turtles under incandescent lights at the McKinney Avenue Contemporary in Dallas, Texas, USA — too red. Right: as I Photoshopped it using masking, levels and other techniques. The base and background should be neutral, so I kept tweaking it. It might be that I made it too green, and not yellow enough. My color memory is less than ideal. At Joel Cooner Gallery and when I photograph art for clients, I often have the work right there in front of me when I adjust color. If a camera offers a way to make a white balance reading directly, just point it at the white base, then push the right buttons, and your camera would be set for this lighting condition. If it doesn't, you're out of luck and would have to do it in Photoshop or an alternate program.
Photographed with a Nikon D200 camera.
Adjusting what we see as white
T hank goodness for digital cameras with adjustable White Balance settings. [ The word " settings " refers to manipulations cameras and lenses allow. White Balance settings change the way a camera renders color in different colors of light.
Vimeo has a brutally simple video that explains white balance visually. They show many photographic settings in 90-second videos that, though they teach videography, also apply to photography.
Other important camera or lens settings include shutter-speed, aperture (f-stop), focus, Exposure Value (EV) and ISO. some of which will be explored on this page. There are also flash and many other settings. Basically, anything you can change on a camera is a setting, because we "set" them.
Some digital cameras have manual White Balance, and most automatic White Balance features on digital cameras (including expensive ones) don't work well under all colors of light. Many Canon and Nikon cameras, even the most expensive ones, provide notoriously bad White Balance under tungsten lights (Or else they believe consumers want to render light bulb light as orange). You have to check feature lists and read camera reviews carefully to determine if your chosen camera will do what you want it to do.
My Nikon DX (APS-C) cameras allow me to click a dial to set differing color balance adjustments for a variety of light sources, so I can dial the exact color in kelvin for almost any light source (halogen, fluorescent, tungsten, candle or sunlight under differing circumstances), but it's still iffy with mixed light sources — like daylight plus the dreaded fluorescent, or other light source combinations, and its automatic white balance fares poorly (renders them as orange) with ordinary light bulbs (the kinds you can buy in the grocery or hardware stories — I usually prefer 60 - 100 watts.
Nikon's White Balance procedure is difficult to remember. On my much smaller and less expensive Panasonic G5 I usually use to photograph art for DallasArtsRevue.com. I click a menu option, push two buttons while filling a smaller frame with something I know is white or gray or all colors, push another button, and the color balance is immediately adjusted. It's simple, and it's effective.
Mixed light sources — like galleries with big windows and light bulbs — can vary color by the inch from warm to cool. And homes with mixed lighting can be a nightmare to adjust. It's often best to turn off all the lights, then turn on only the ones you are sure of. Sometimes I can set the camera before I shoot. Sometimes, when I shoot Raw, I can change the color in Photoshop later. Sometimes I can't do either.
In general though, once you get the white parts of an image to render as white, the other colors will render correctly.
Shannon Brunskill Staying to live, dying to escape April 7-8 2012 wood box ncorrected version with Daylight Blue showing
Note the blue light (not visible when I shot it) on the legs of the stool, the left-most plane of the box and the wall behind. With the camera set to Tungsten for the bulbs in 500X Gallery, light coming in from nearby windows and a freight door opened for the breeze, renders blue and bluish.
Shannon Brunskill Staying to live, dying to escape April 7-8 2012 wood box correct version
Not a problem to get rid of in this situation, since there's no other blue in the picture (lucky me.), but when removing daylight blue from a full-spectrum painting or sculpture illuminated by tungsten lighting, the color shift might be more of a challenge. I could have desaturated the blues and cyans or dialed those colors back to yellowish — the real Photoshop usually offers several ways to do anything. This image is from a series of stories about performance art .
Mixing light sources can be a hassle, as only hinted about in these images. If you are shooting "indoor" film or digital with indoor lights, and there is an unblocked window letting in outside light (which is probably brighter and more blue than anything indoors), so it shines on or reflects in your art, your art may be rendered blue instead of the color you expect — as happened above.
If you shoot art inside or near color objects. those objects' color(s) can reflect in the art. I loved my Parrot Green living room, but I knew better than to photograph art there, because when I did, the green walls turned art a sickly shade. Our brains adjust. Cameras don't.
Colored walls and ceilings are prime suspects for color shifts, but if you have a big red couch where it can reflect in your art, it can make your art pink. Even outside, a big green tree, a bright yellow garage or red bricks can subtly or substantially alter color. The blue paint on the ceiling of your porch can ruin warm hues. Mine used to, till I had the ceiling painted white.
The different types/colors of light some cameras can adjust to
and the icons many cameras use to indicate them
Most cameras can be adjusted to render different colors of light so they appear normal. This adjustment is called White Balance [See Color and White Balance above].
Household / tungsten bulbs — including those used extensively outside at night — are usually symbolized by a light bulb in your camera's menus. Daylight - sunshine icon, or fluorescent - usually a tube-like icon. I stick with low wattages (100 or less), so they don't heat up the room. If you're not sure about all this light color business, use blue Daylight fluorescent or Daylight tungsten bulbs and set the camera to daylight (sunshine icon). Avoid using photoflood (with built-in reflector to concentrate light in one direction). They're hot and expensive. All bulbs break easily, some explode upon impact. Sometimes a drop of water or sweat explodes them.
The difference between the colors we see and what a digital camera sees
S omething else you need to be aware of is the difference between what digital cameras "see" and what humans without color blindness see. (Men have colorblindness much more often than women do.) This image is from an ad for FullSpectrumRGB, software that supposedly made digital images more color correct. (I suspect it didn't work well, or they poorly marketed the product, because the site is gone.) There's an elderly discussion of the product on Luminous Landscape.
What's missing in most digital images are subtle variations in red, orange, purple and violet. I didn't try the software, but I'm curious about it, because some artists complain that digital photographs do not accurately reproduce all the colors in their art. On some occasions, I have had them look over my shoulder as I adjusted their precise colors in Photoshop.
Of course, serious painters probably already know that the same piece of art looks different in different qualities of light. Cloudy skies render color differently than bright sunlight. Daylight is blue. Shade is bluer. Tungsten is red. Fluorescents are green and sometimes blue. If you shoot the same piece in differing light without adjusting your camera — or if a mix of light types illuminate the same piece of art, the resulting images will not match the colors as we usually perceive them as in the original — it won't look right.
Sometimes I have the piece I've shot right there for reference when I work the images up. When I work up most artist's work later, I have to guess — or have them check the colors. When used correctly, Photoshop's control/command l (That's a lowercase, not capital L.) shows very nearly exactly what the original tonal range looks like.
See The Correct Way to Adjust Levels in Photoshop [below] .
Painters tend to have better color memories than I do. Again, women are better at it than men.
Dayak Dragon wood carving with natural pigment by the Dayak people of Borneo
This shot was illuminated with one 100-watt household bulb in a reflector on a stand, using one large white foam packing board to reflect some of that light back into the shadows. The main light is almost directly above and slightly to the left. The background was darkened in Photoshop, so the piece looked more dramatic.
Photographed with a Canon Powershot S5-IS on a tripod for Joel Cooner Gallery back when I produced that site and shot most of its images — until 2012.
S unlight is not a perfect lighting solution. Sometimes it rains or snows or is mostly cloudy. Sometimes the sky turns green and the sun disappears into tornado-like clouds. Often it's more comfortable or convenient to photograph art indoors.
O ne light on a 6' or taller stand can be barely sufficient to illuminate flat art, like paintings and drawings on textured canvas or paper — and almost anything else. Use a light stand so you can easily adjust its height, angle and distance, and parabolic-shaped metal reflectors so the light can be concentrated in one direction and precisely aimed. Many camera stores will sell you a set of two or three reflector lights on stands for under $200, often with cute little white umbrellas that look spiffy, but really don't help much — unless you really know what you're doing.
Umbrellas are good for diffusing or softening light, especially for portraits, but the ones in inexpensive lighting sets are translucent, meaning much of the light goes through them instead of being reflected back, and they don't always work the way you expect. So, like almost everything else in photography, they need experimentation. See a quick introduction to How to Use Umbrellas on YouTube or read Photography Tips and Tricks.
B&H has a page-full of inexpensive light kits. the low-cost kit you may need is two for $109. This single-stand light with diffusion umbrella from Amazon is probably all you really need, for $90.
Avoid using clip-on lights. They are very difficult to raise high or position correctly, and they love to jump off things they're supposedly clipped to at inopportune moments, although they sometimes make a lovely sploosh sound and shatter tiny shards of glass everywhere.
If you buy a "kit" with high-wattage bulbs, replace them with much lower wattage bulbs — I like 100150-watt household bulbs that are cooler, cheaper to buy and use, easier to find and much less dangerous — the higher the wattage, the hotter the bulb and the room. And don't forget to use them at night or with all other [colors of] illumination eliminated.
Daylight blue ones with all the non-Daylight blue lights off.
NOTE: A few years ago, on a quick whim, I bought a set of three very high intensity bulbs in reflectors on sturdy light stands from a friend. I didn't know then how difficult it would be to find replacement bulbs, but they weren't expensive, at all, but once I found them online at B&H Photo (because they have or have access to an incredible array of photo-related equipment, including thosevery specialized bulbs). I bought several times what I thought I might need in the coming years, and now I wish I'd bought even more.
But it is amazing to be able to use that much light. I'm sure the light kit's original price was in excess of the $100 I paid, and I suspect the difficulty — I had to wait five months for the bulbs to come through — was why it was offered to me at that bargain rate. But having that much light that I can mostly control, is stunning.
I just didn't want you to think I only ever use household bulbs, even though they're great for most uses.
It's the control that matters, not the wattage.
J R's Great Light Tent Experiment
Kathy Boortz Giocometti 2012 carved and painted found wood and painted found metal
Photographed using a Panasonic Lumix G2 camera with a 14-42mm zoom kit lens
It's a lot of sculpture with a smallish, life-sized, sculptured bird, and although the tent itself usually shows white, I made it gray in Photoshop to set off those bright colors and especially the bright white eyes.
F or a couple years I experimented with a light tent [The linked Amazon page offers specifics and instructions. I don't earn money by linking Amazon stuff here.] Essentially, it is a white, translucent, thin-metal-framed cube with an opening to poke your camera through, which then can be Velcroed over with more white translucent material that is included in the purchase. Although once the lighting was set, I sometimes left the "door" open to shoot through it from anywhere in the room in front of it, depending upon on the kind of effect I wanted.
The white material that covers the cube frame diffuses (spreads out or softens) otherwise direct light, so the dimensionality of objects can be obvious without harsh shadows. It can be a very pleasing light.
Tents come in various sizes. My 40-inch tent was too big for small objects, but a good fit for larger pieces like this one, although I probably should get a smaller one for smaller pieces, too. The tents are not expensive, and they fold flat — like flexible metal-framed car sun shades. I pose smaller pieces on white Styrofoam boxes, and Kathy Boortz welded and painted white a simple frame that fits inside the tent, so I can hang her tall, hanging pieces.
There's also pyramid-shaped light "boxes" for shooting jewelry so the tent reflects white into almost all its reflective surfaces. Amazon has one, although the one person there who reviewed it, obviously hadn't figured out how to use it, and I haven't checked back.
Lights are arranged around the outside and top. Putting lights where I'd put them without the tent seems to work well. Failing to think outside the cube, I at first neglected to point light down into the top or into the back of the box (with a boom light or tall stand), so don't park it against a wall like I did at first. Smaller tents make top-down or back-lighting easier.
• Working with a light cube is never simple. One needs many more sources of light than my simple, one- or two-bulb setups,
When the object is lighted perfectly, the tent interior often is not, so I maske everything in Photoshop that is not object and make it an even white or gray, as in the image above.
Using a light tent was an experiment. and in the end, I folded it up and stored it. Now I just set up small objects on a table using white cardboard sheets for base and background. That way, I don't lose so much light bouncing through the tent, I can more precisely aim however many lamps to shine where I need the light, and it's a lot cooler.
The more lights you use, the hotter it gets. I live in Texas, and that room isn't air-conditioned, so I couldn't use it in late spring, summer or early fall, which greatly limited its usefulness, and it obliterated valuable space in my dining room. Maybe I should have got more lights but I prefer to keep it simple and cool.
Over the years, I've learned to appreciate having one light behind, usually at an angle, so it doesn't shine into the lens, and some sort of fill from the front. [See the second image down for an example.] That shows medium and small sculpture well by defining it with the shadows that back-light creates, then filling in some (not all) the shadows with a large white sheet of cardboard, foamcore or something similar. I've learned that using lamp(s) for fill makes it too easy to destroy that delicate balance.
Larger sculptures are a different issue. For very large ones, I check the light on it at different times of day till I find a sun angle that gives me the sense of dimension I want while providing enough fill to see the colors and design.
If I set up a studio somewhere I didn't also have to live in, I might break out the tent again, or get a smaller one to match the sculpture sizes I usually photograph, and leave up.
O n-camera or built-in electronic flash is a problematic light source. especially when used too close to the subject, because it tends to over-expose highlight areas and create under-exposed shadows under noses and chins on people and any protrusions in art — including frames, mat boards and textures.
Sunlight outside or continuous lights on stands inside are easier to use, because you can see the immediate effect, and you can easily change them by changing the art's position toward the sun or re-aiming the lights or using a fill. Fill can be used with flash, too. But it is more difficult to aim a flash, because you can't see what it does, and as I keep mentioning, LCDs are too contrasty to show subtle lighting.
Unless you really know what you are doing, don't get involved with multiple flash units as light sources. They are complex electronic devices and can either put you in the poor house or confuse you indefinitely. Simpler is better; light you can see is easier to adjust than light that's only there for a thousandth of a second, and I've only rarely used multiple flash units (mostly when I used to photograph jazz musicians in dark clubs).
Big strobes are good for throwing tons of light in professional studios, but all you need is enough light to expose your art at low ISO. Long exposures and smallish apertures (down to f11) are not a problem if you have your camera on a sturdy tripod. It is not uncommon to use exposures of many seconds. If my camera shoots at a fraction of a second, I know I left the ISO set too high.
Once you get your lights arranged so they produce decent photographs, it might be helpful if you either keep them up or stick bits of tape where they go, so next time, setup will be quicker and easier.
A lmost any room can serve as a studio. although the more clear floor space there is around the subject, the better. All-white walls may be a temptation, but if the one or central part of that wall facing flat art is black, or non-reflective black (like velvet or felt), you'll get fewer reflections or less glare. Opaque curtained windows make it easier to only have one light source illuminating the subject.
Pierre-Auguste Renoir Onions detail 1881 oil on canvas 15.38 x 23.88 inches
photographed during a Press Opening at the Kimbell Art Museum
L arge paintings illuminated with overhead light (like in most museums and galleries) tend to be too bright at the top, where one corner often gets more light than the other, and the bottom of the art tend to be too dark. Art in galleries is often lighted in an over-brightened swath across the middle that you may not notice, but your camera will. On-camera flash can even out some of those variations out, but flash [above] brings its own issues. Among those issues is that most museums and galleries prohibit their use except when they're paying you to photograph the work.
Sometimes apparently over-bright light on a textured surface helps make those exquisite textures more obvious, as in my photograph of Renoir's Onions above. (I did not use a flash. The the Kimbel's lights provided the glare.)
Art illuminated by two or more types of lighting — tungsten, daylight and/or fluorescent, like what happens in many commercial galleries, can change color casts by the inch, so we either have to make several white balance readings and average them out, or come back at night and turn on just the tungsten lights — or bring our own, but that gets too complex to describe in any detail here.
When reflections show in art behind glass photographed close, it sometimes helps to back up across the space and use a telephoto lens's shallower depth of field and differing angle of view to help hide or obliterate reflections.
I'd recommend always using a t ripod when photographing art in galleries, except that I usually use a small, hand-held camera that I don't put on a tripod — especially for opening reception art events, where I'd become a hazard. But I rarely shoot whole gallery shows.
When I do, I find it helpful to use a good tripod and movable lights on stands. Unfortunately, using multiple light sources for multiple planes of light (paintings, drawings, etc.) tends to create visually confusing shadows. Gallery scenes are okay for showing what a whole show looks like, but those photographs are no substitute for photographs of the individual images.
Sculpture & Three-dimensional Art
J R Compton Daisy Open Book October 24 2011 digital photograph
One light shining from the back (top) and only slightly left, and one 8 x 9-inch Styrofoam packing sheet just out of view at the bottom (front, looking down at the box), bounces some light back into the shadows, so there are plenty of details, gives this piece (The art is the photograph of this collection of objects.) plenty of light, color and a strong sense of depth. This photo was made informally on a small portion of the desk in my office, looking down on the flower box.
Photographed using a Panasonic Lumix G2.
L arge or small, for three-dimensional art I usually use one light and a white foam board reflector (commonly used for packing) angled so it reflects some of the main light back into the subject ("fill") instead of two lights. You could use another light to fill in some of the shadows, so they don't photograph as black pits. But the reflector is easier to get the light right, and it significantly diffuses it so it looks softer.
When I'm photographing very small items, I sometimes use a hand-held piece of typing paper to provide fill, while using the camera's self-timer to fire the shutter. That habit started when I knocked over a light stand and bent the reflector nearly off (so the electric parts never worked again), but one light and one reflector worked so well, I kept at it, except when dealing with multiple, very large or multiple very large objects.
If you think you just have to use two lights, one should be — as in this photo — above and behind the art, to cast shadows that show the work's depth. Then set up the other light with the same or lower wattage so it partially fills the shadows cast by that first light. This creates the kind of lighting our eyes expect, so your art will look normal and correct — with slight internal shadows.
Setups with more lights quickly gets challenging. Lots of books will show you how to set up multiple lights for various specific purposes. I like to keep it simple, so I usually don't even think about using more than one light.
Digital Vs. Analog
F or making lots of slides, film is always quicker and cheaper.
But if you want to save your images in their true colors for a long, long time. forget film. Film fades. Film colors change according to temperature, humidity, storage methods and materials, time and the type of light used to view them. Slides or other film copies can be made from digital images at any time in their long life cycle and still be great (but not cheap).
Fluorescent lights are especially dangerous to photographic prints as well as offset (printing press) ink and ink jet prints. Beware of storing or exhibiting your art in rooms illuminated by fluorescent lights.
Properly stored digital images can last centuries. A full-sized digital copy of a full-sized copy of a copy of a copy of a digital image file is identical to its original. The first and every subsequent copy of a digital file remains the same. Here, we are talking about the full-resolution original image file. JPEGs lose quality almost every time they are saved or copied.
The first and every subsequent analog copy of a color slide or print or negative will be different. Slightly at first, but after generations of analog copies of copies, your image can become unrecognizable.
See JPEG Myths & Facts for the full story behind copying JPEGs. Always save the full-size, uncompressed original digital file: I usually do all my post production on the original, save that, then make it smaller for online uses, and don't save that, so I keep the adjusted image file.
The importance of shadows
Janet Chaffee Underneath and In-Between paper cut-outs
on front wall at MFA Gallery in Dallas, Texas, USA
Photographed in subdued sunlight streaming in through a big front gallery window. I like this piece because it has no lines, no real form. Only shapes and shadows. Photographed using a handheld Canon S90 (glorified Point & Shoot).
S hadows are important to our perception of art. and not just for sculpture. Two or three or more lights illuminating artwork tends to either multiply or eliminate the shadows, including shadows that show us brush strokes, subtle and overt texture, crinkles and creases, tears, cuts, protrusions, layers, etchings and other dimensional aspects.
Orient your art so sunlight falls on the top, at an angle well above straight-on, especially from the left, and your art will likely look like it should and show the textures and colors you put into it, and more closely approximate the actual piece than any other lighting can.
If you use two or more light sources of equal intensity (and distance), texture is more difficult, and all those shadows can confuse viewers, who expect them only under bumps.
For three-dimensional art, use a stronger light (neither of them has to be very bright if you use longer exposures and keep the camera steady) to illuminate your art and a less intense bulb (or an equal bulb at more distance, or a white reflector) to fill in some of the shadows.
Hundreds of books explain the basics of multi-light setups for three-dimensional objects, but I attempt a quick once-over on basic art lighting just below. I learned commercial lighting at East Texas State University (back when it was still called that) in the 1970s, but I usually wing it at Joel Cooner Gallery, moving the one light I have not yet knocked over and destroyed until the shadows look right on the camera's LCD, then add a big, white foam-board reflector on the opposite side to fill in some of the shadows, make several photographs from differing angles and exposures, then adjust the image more in Photoshop later.
If you are new to this, don't try to judge the light with your eyes. Look at the camera's LCD, which shows much higher contrast. LCDs make judging light evenness easier.
Bali, Indonesia Buffalo Mask circa 1900 wood and paint 16 inches wide
I photographed this on Dallas' Valley House Gallery wall during an opening reception using available gallery lighting. I had photographed this same mask at Joel Cooner Gallery and had an affection for this vivid, perhaps demonic animal sculpture with rotting wooden teeth.
I used my inexpensive pocket camera, then the Canon SD780, clicked it once to use in a review, then shot the ID, so I could correctly identify it. Later, in Photoshop I lightened the shadow and background, so the piece visually popped off the wall, without losing the shadows.
Note: The shadow on the wall is only one of the important shadows. The shadows formed by the protruding parts are more important, though subtler. Move the lights around if you can, so you see just how three-dimensional you are rendering the art.
I f your work is in a frame or mat. be careful. Those protrusions may create shadows down and into your art. If your work is already framed or matted, tilt it back toward the sun and shoot down on it from an angle, so that the back of the camera parallels the artwork to render it rectilinearly correct. A little mat or frame shadow can be helpful (to show that it is matted or framed), but a lot can obliterate the upper edge of your art. When I can't tilt it because it's on somebody's wall, I crop out the shadow and the frame.
If you take your art to a Service Provider, they will probably use more than one light — maybe four — to evenly illuminate it. Very nice for art that is high-contrast and physically flat, but problematic for creating a precise likeness of art that involves shape, dimension or texture .
Here on Earth we have one local star (the sun), so we are used to seeing things with only one set of shadows. Our brains expect it that way. We accept as realistic, objects that cast their shadows down and slightly to the right. Slightly to the left doesn't thwart that expectation much and may be unavoidable. But shadows cast to the right (not down), left or (shudder) upward, confuses our sense of depth.
Shadows and subtle tonalities are especially important when photographing sculpture, which needs to be immediately seen as three-dimensional. You do not have to use direct sunlight to show shadows and ranges of tonalities, but it helps. Trying to fake sunlight is usually a pain.
Alex Troup Zooamorph 1988 mixed media with butterfly, beetle,
wasp nest, cork, feathers and dictionary pages 10 x 32 x 4 inches
Photographed by the author with a Nikon D300
Glass is not clear.
P hotographing art behind glass can be a challenge. Glass reflects light like a mirror. Sunlight outdoors or gallery lights indoors or your own cockamamie lighting setup anywhere in between, may well reflect in the glass you put over your art to protect it. I have often accidentally included me in photographs of art — especially photographs — behind glass or art that is glass.
Glass flattens. If you take glass off thin or flimsy art, and you don't secure the art to something to flatten it, the piece can bend or warp or ripple. Warped base mediums show shadows that probably should not be visible.
W e'll leave this section to these warnings, since now there is a whole new page devoted to much more specific instructions for photographing art still behind glass. See the new How to Photograph Art that is behind glass, is glass or is glossy like glass page for more information about this tricky issue.
Gordon Young Memento Mori 1, 2 and 3 collage 2010
I shot this wall of art for my own reference to write about it and paid no attention to the lighting or that I shot it at full wide-angle, thus netting these curving "straight" lines. It can be corrected later in Photoshop, but it's better to shoot it right if you are seriously photographing art. Photographed using a Canon S90.
Y ou should not fill the frame if your lens is or is zoomed to wide-angle. From the 35mm-film-equivalent of 50mm ("normal") to the medium telephoto equivalent of 100mm is usually the better zoom range for copying flat art, although longer zooms or lenses wouldn't hurt, but that requires a greater distance from the camera. Wide-angle lenses can be very effective for sculpture, but in most cases, it's best to stick with "normal" or medium telephoto — or zoom — for two-dimensional art.
Most single focal length (nonzoom) lenses render higher resolution images than most zoom lenses.
But zoom lenses are usually more versatile.
Wide-angle lenses tend to distort images, especially visible at the outer edges and corners. If all you have is a wide-angle lens, fill the frame, then back off, so there's space around the art on the LCD. (It is on a tripod, right?) If you look at your viewfinder or LCD very carefully, you can see just when your flat, rectangular art is rendered flat and rectangular, and is not spherized with rounded corners. When I do distort paintings this way, I usually crop off the frame to render the image rectangular, even if the photograph isn't completely.
Zoom lenses tend to distort at both the wide-angle and telephoto ends of their zoom range. Wide-angle lenses distort rectangles by bulging their middles out (barrel distortion — as in the illustration above), and some telephotos tend to bulge them in (pincushion — on the right of the images just below). Minimal distortion is usually obtained by using zoom lenses in the middles of their zoom ranges. High quality (usually expensive) zoom lenses tend to render less distortion.
Probably the worst part of using zoom lenses is that most (not all) of them close down the maximum aperture as we zoom toward telephoto, meaning we have to let in more light by slowing the shutter speed, and that resulting camera movement, which happens more with small apertures, causes more soft images than any other cause. Another zoom issue is that, because of diffraction. smaller apertures render lower image quality.
Some lenses only distort parts of the image. I had one lens that tended to distort images by 'pulling' the bottom left corner out from rectangles, like framed paintings. Every lens is different. All expensive lenses are not necessarily better, but most are.