How to Photograph your Paintings

by John Rundle

John Rundle spent 23 years as professional photographer, mainly in the commercial and industrial field. In recent decades he has been a professional painter.

Photographing paintings without glass

Digital photography of paintings is easier than with film and watercolours are easier than oils. It is best to learn to use the camera you have rather than buy something that may be rather expensive, and that you don’t really need. A top end point and shoot or a low end SLR would be adequate but anything other than a telephone should do. The better the camera, the better the results. Somewhere between 5 and 10 megapixels would be fine; the bigger the sensor the camera has, the better the result. SLRs have bigger sensors and in theory give better tonal quality.

The camera should be able to be attached to a tripod and be able to produce TIFF or RAW files and photograph in an aperture priority or a manual mode. If your camera doesn’t do these things you can still probably make it work for you. Experiment and get to know your camera as well as you can.

Set the ISO rating to its lowest; that gives better tonal quality, and have other settings at standard or high, and noise reduction to low, the quality at either TIFF or RAW (if your camera doesn’t have these settings, set it to its highest quality JEPG ). Set the exposure mode to either aperture priority or manual; do not use automatic as it changes the ISO rating.

Preferably light it with daylight; a bright overcast day is best. Organize plenty of light, especially if you have a small camera with a small sensor as you are less likely to get noise or grain. Avoid using flash, as it can be a bit harsh. Attach the camera to the tripod or secure it so it cannot move; avoid hand holding it.

Frame the painting on the screen or viewfinder taking pains to get it as square as possible and crop it as close as you can; if you have a zoom lens, it can do that easily. Do not use the wide angle end of the lens, as that can cause barrel distortion, but rather use a medium to long tele setting. If your camera can take a lens hood, use it, if not, shade the lens with a bit of card. With the camera on aperture priority or manual choose an aperture about halfway in its range. Take pains to get the exposure as accurate as you can, as you want to avoid too much adjustment on the computer as that can degrade the quality. Use the delayed action to take the photograph.

Photographing a painting behind glass

If the painting is behind glass there are no problems. Using the zoom, get as far away from the painting as is practical thus creating a narrow angle of view. Organizea plain background behind the camera, preferably dark, it could be an area of shadow outside (it doesn’t have to be very big and I occasionally use a black cloth).

Reflections usually come from the tripod and sometimes the camera; drape a dark cloth over the bright bits of the tripod and, if necessary, the camera, leaving a gap for the lens. Take the photograph as before, but, once the delay has started, step well away, as you don’t want your reflection in it.

If it is a very big painting the organization has to be greater but I have never been unable to photograph a painting behind glass. When the photograph has been taken check it carefully for reflections and, if there are any, identify their source, eliminate them, and retake the shot.

Using the Computer to Assist the Photography

If you have Photoshop or a similar programme on your computer you may have some more options. You can photograph the painting behind glass obliquely, choosing the angle that shows the least reflections or you can use flash, which won’t reflect, as it is at an angle to the glass. You will get a picture that is not square; it will have a long and a short dimension, bottom or side, depending on the angle of the camera. On the computer go to image – transform ( Photoshop ), and you can make the picture square. To get it to the right proportions you may have to do a bit of fiddling between the transform options. On some versions of Photoshop there is a filter that makes everything very easy; Elements 5 and 6 have it. Go to the filter gallery and look for a “camera distortion filter”; if you have it you will find it has a number of functions, it acts in much the same way as the movements on a “professional” camera do. The vertical and horizontal perspective sliders are the ones you use to restore your oblique painting to its proper proportions. If using these options, you should photograph the painting with a bit more space around it to allow for the movement.

Do these corrections before you crop. Experiment so you learn how to use the programmes you have. With the photograph on your computer you can adjust it with one of the programmes designed for working with pictures; one possibly came with your camera or you can download a free one such as Google’s Picasa, or you can buy Photoshop in one ofits forms. You may have a filter that improves or eliminates barrel distortion. Crop it to the painted area taking care not to crop out your signature. Adjustments to the picture should be approached with caution as they c an affect the tonal quality.

Unless you have been very clever in taking the picture you will probably need minor adjustments to the brightness and/or contrast. Be very cautious in making adjustments to the sharpness and colour saturation;
it’s usually counter-productive.

Save the files. Write them to CDs or DVDs. If you are not able to work your photographs find someone who has the facilities and sit with them and tell them how you want the pictures to look. The more care you take with the photography the better your paintings will look when published.

John Rundle

Watercolour NZ


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