7 tips for photographing art

Photographing your work can be one of the most time-consuming parts of being an artist. Here’s some of the tricks you could try that have worked for me. 

Seascape painting on light surface on floor in art studio with ring light and reflector foam board in front of window

1, Shoot in the morning

Monty Cooper (South African photojournalist and dance photographer who led our undergraduate photojournalism module) taught us that the best time to shoot outdoor portraits was either the morning or late afternoon when the light is soft and gentle.

For art, I almost always take photographs in the morning. Usually between 8 and 10.30 am depending on the time of year. This gives me the best hope of decent lighting conditions. Drawings and paint sketches on light paper always require a morning shoot (and I avoid trying to photograph drawings on paper in grey January). Paintings on canvas are a bit more forgiving so I photograph the drawings first. You may be surprised how much slight changes in light over the morning can change your images. 

2. Use natural light

A good space in front of a large window or doorway is ideal. My current studio has large windows that get morning light so I keep the floor space in front of that for photography rather than painting. In my old place, my front door got the best morning light, so most of my photography was done in the doorway, with the door open. Now you know why I didn’t have bigger artworks on my website when it first launched, I couldn’t take decent photos of anything that was bigger than my doorway.

Artists love receiving photographs of their creations on your walls. If you’re shooting images of your purchases to share with the artist, natural light is best. But depending on where in your home you’ve hung the artwork, you might consider whether morning or afternoon light is best. You won’t get the best image if the art is in shadow or if it’s getting so much direct light that you’re casting your shadow or camera shadow on it.

3. Use white light

Some days (especially during the winter months), artificial lighting can help improve the quality of the image. It’s important to make sure that you’re using white light (not the yellow bulbs we have in household lights). I have a ring light that has a white light setting. It’s got an adjustable stand (essential for changing the distance for artworks of different sizes). You can also change the angle of the light. 

If you’re photographing oil paintings, be extra vigilant that the oil isn’t catching too much light in places. You want the light to be even across the surface of the artwork. 

4. Use reflectors

Monty also taught us always to keep some large sheets of white card or a bit of tin foil in the car to use as reflectors when shooting outdoors. These days, I use foam board to achieve balanced light across an image. They’re light but sturdy so easier to prop up. When I was limited to shooting artwork in my doorway, they were essential to make sure the blue door wasn’t creating a darker side to the image than the facing magnolia wall.

5. Consider your background

Different colours photograph differently, particularly if you’re using an iPhone that tries to figure out and correct the white balance in an image. Experimenting with different backgrounds can help you achieve better colour accuracy – essential when you want to be sure your customers see a reasonably realistic reproduction of the colours in the artwork. Even though you may crop the background out of the image, shooting with it in the first place might enable you to minimise the time you need to spend doing colour correction.

Light backgrounds – not pure white – typically work best. But some creations, particularly if there’s a lot of blue in them, may photograph better against a dark background. I had a few paintings that photographed more accurately against the wooden floor than against a light background.

Jeanne-Louise in art studio with window and light set-up for photographing art

6. Introduce props

If you’re not getting a good colour balance or sense, it can be advantageous to introduce props. Monty taught us that a good photographic print in the darkroom (yes, it was the 90s), always has a perfect black and a perfect white in it. I make sense of the white balance correction that my iPhone camera does on its own by applying this darkroom logic. Introducing props or backgrounds that add more tonal range to the photograph seems to help the camera figure out more accurate lighting.

Props are also great for adding more depth to your photographic composition, especially for drawings on paper that don’t have the dimensionality that oil paintings do.

7. Don’t believe everything you read in blogs

You’ve probably read several photographing art blogs that advise shooting outdoors. I’ve tried this and rarely get usable outdoor art photos. In fact, coming across this suggestion yet again, prompted me to write this blog. It’s helpful to remember to experiment and figure out what works best for you and your work. 

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