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How To Photograph A Painting

photograph a painting
If you want to copy a painting, drawing or photograph, your main challenges are to ensure the piece remains perfectly flat (in order to minimize glare and optical distortions) and to light it evenly so it’s well represented and doesn’t show any distracting shadows or highlights. The easiest way to do this without any special equipment is to hang the work to be copied on a wall and photograph it with a camera on a tripod.

If the work is small enough, a copy stand is an ideal way to photograph flat artwork. But that requires purchasing a whole new piece of equipment, and it starts to be limiting if you want to work with pieces larger than poster size. So, in the end, as long as you’ve got a wall, a tripod and a couple of lights, you might as well keep your copy setup as simple as possible.

Start by hanging the artwork on the wall. If it’s framed, simply hang the frame as usual and work to keep it as level as possible—maybe even using a bubble level to ensure it’s plum. If the artwork isn’t framed, you can consider taping or pinning it to the wall, or you can make your own magnetic hanging system by affixing a metal bulletin board to the wall. You can then purchase inch-wide strips of magnets at a hobby store or craft store, and cut them to roughly one-foot lengths. These magnetic strips then can be used to hold the edges of the print flat against the steel bulletin board. This eliminates the opportunity for the print to curl or bubble, and it doesn’t require any permanent modification of the print as a thumbtack or tape would.

Sometimes you might be photographing artwork that’s already on a wall in a place where you can’t move it. This could be a painting in a gallery, for instance, or a mural that’s literally painted on the wall. This was the case for me recently, when a client asked me to photograph a mural that was scheduled to be eliminated during renovation. The mural presented a few challenges that I’ll outline below, but otherwise it behaved as any flat artwork would.

With the art flat on the wall the next step is positioning the camera. Start with a normal or short telephoto lens to minimize distortion. Then determine the horizontal center of the artwork. Try to position the camera in the exact center of the artwork, both horizontally and vertically. You can either eyeball it or, if you want to be very precise, use a tape measure to ensure you’re perfectly centered. If your camera has a built-in digital level, you can employ it to make sure the camera is level; if the artwork is centered, then you’re square. LiveView is a big help here so you can just check the composition on the LCD rather than looking through the viewfinder.

photograph a painting
When copying flat art, like a painting or a photograph, it’s essential to light properly to avoid glare. Lights should be positioned past 45 degrees from the camera to ensure they won’t reflect glare on the artwork surface back into the camera.

Now it’s time to light. The key here is to use two lights to ensure the coverage is even. Lights should be positioned past 45 degrees from the camera to ensure they won’t reflect glare on the artwork surface back into the camera. Even matte-finish pieces can display glare if the lights aren’t placed carefully. The closer the lights are to the camera, the more likely they are to cause glare, so err on the side of keeping them well away. The light will also be more even the farther the lights are from the artwork. You can measure the evenness of the illumination by using a handheld light meter at each corner and in the center of the image. If the exposures vary by one-third of a stop or more, you’ll need to adjust the position of the nearest light (both height and distance) in order to even out the coverage. Also, rather than aiming each light at the nearest side of the frame, aim them at the far side of the frame so they won’t create a hot spot in the center.

At this point, the artwork should be square and centered in the frame, and the light should be even. You’re just about ready to take the picture. First, though, create a custom white balance or photograph a neutral gray card so you can fine-tune the color during RAW processing later.

I mentioned using this technique recently to photograph a mural. The only catch was a large support column about five feet from the wall, directly in front of the mural. So I added an additional step to my approach: I would composite the image from two separate exposures. This offered the additional benefit of increasing the effective resolution so I could make an even larger print of the image. It’s a technique you should use, too, if the artwork is too large to capture in a single frame.

photograph a painting

First, I centered the camera on the artwork and photographed it as above. This covered about 60% of the mural; the rest was hidden by the column. When I moved to the other side of the support, rather than angling the camera in such a way to fill the frame with the left half of the artwork, instead I kept the sensor parallel to the wall to eliminate distortion. That meant that the half of the mural I could see occupied only the right half of the frame. It meant wasted space, but also that I had minimized the chance of distortion by keeping the camera’s sensor plane parallel to the artwork the whole time.

With the images loaded into Lightroom and selected, I used the Photo Merge tool in the Photo menu to let Lightroom do the heavy lifting of lining up these two photos into a new panorama. It turns out I had done a pretty good job of keeping the camera positioned correctly, because the automated merge worked perfectly. If it had not, I would have simply nudged the layer into place and used Photoshop’s Transform tool to bend it into shape, if needed, so that it lines up perfectly.

photograph a painting

photograph a painting

The key to this shot, as it is with every flat art copy shot, is even lighting and little to no optical distortion. Take your time to get those elements right, and everything else will fall into place.

photograph a painting

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