How To Photograph Art Like an Expert

My friend Elon Schoenholz is a talented photographer who is often hired by museums to photograph gallery interiors and artwork. He is also a former staff photographer for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, where he photographed everything from tiny paintings to large sculptures and installations. When I wanted to know more about photographing artwork like an expert, I turned to him. He shared his approach to lighting, equipment, composition and camera settings.

Elon’s assignments frequently call for photographing works more artfully than traditional copy stand photography. Sometimes they’re flat paintings or prints—for which he does apply those basic copy work principles discussed previously—but just as often they are three-dimensional works, from room-sized sculptures to tiny pieces of jewelry. For these he suggests starting with a careful study of the piece in order to choose the most appropriate angle, and then lighting simply to show dimension without altering the look of the work.

“That’s what I hope I’m good at,” Elon says, “seeing the art for what it is. You try to reduce it, to see the essence of something in its simplest form, and then use light to reveal that. Just simplify. With sculpture you always want to get the simplest, cleanest angle and the one that shows you the most of what’s happening. You want someone who’s not there to be able to see it.”

“You don’t need to be an expert to see,” he continues. “The very first thing I always do is ask the person who’s hired me, ‘What’s your favorite angle? How do you want it shot?’ If someone has input, then you don’t have to rely on your own ability to see. But if you do have to rely on it, just take your time. Anyone who’s interested in photography is interested in seeing things and interpreting. It’s all in how we see.”

“For sculpture,” Elon says, “what I really like is light about 45 degrees behind and to the side, and then bounce from the front to fill. When possible I use a single light, have it positioned as you might a hair light, but use a big source—a window if possible—and then bounce. That’s usually the easiest, best way to get dimension.”

Just as there’s more to photographing art than straight reproduction, there’s more to lighting it than a sterile copy work approach. Elon enjoys photographing artwork in situ because he’s able to add context and interest to the images. Photographing installations requires lighting that not only makes the artwork look good, but the surroundings as well. He’s a skilled architectural photographer, so this part comes easy for him. His favorite light for this can often be found for free.

“If you have big window and indirect sun,” he says, “a north facing window, and if the piece is of a size where the window light hits it top to bottom, then get a bounce as close to it as possible and that’s probably going to be the best quality of light you can get. Window light is an easier way to do things, and it can be remarkably pleasing.”

The alternative to window light, Elon says, is to bring a China lantern to produce soft, directionless light.

“Get the biggest China lantern you can find,” he says. “Mine cost about four dollars. And get the highest wattage CFL light bulb you can find. The result is just magic. Put it above and to the side; A C-stand is the easiest way to hang it. Let’s say you have your painting on the wall, a few feet over and a few feet up is the lantern. That’s approximately gallery lighting. On the other side you put a bounce.”

There’s one problem with China lanterns. Since they’re made of paper, they’re not ideal when used in conjunction with a hot bulb.

“Here’s the problem,” Elon says. “It gives a nicer quality of light than anything else I have, but it’s highly flammable. Outside of that, you can not get better light. They’re magnificent. Just absolutely fantastic. To be safe, shop around for CFLs. You probably want about 200 watts or so. The alternative is to invest in one made by Profoto, which uses a strobe. That would be the best thing you can do.”

In terms of equipment, lens choice is most important. Elon suggests using a telephoto lens and taking additional steps via camera settings and post-production to minimize distortion and maximize sharpness.

“You want to have as much space between you and the art as possible,” he says. “You want to use as long a lens as you physically can, and then use the Lens Correction controls in Lightroom or Photoshop to fix distortion problems after the fact.”

“My favorite lens is the 100mm macro,” he says. “It’s my best lens for photographing a painting from 15 feet away, and then it’s also great for details on sculptures or jewelry. My 70-200 doesn’t focus close enough for that kind of stuff.”

“For sharpness,” he says, “I like to shoot somewhere between f/8 and f/14. I always shoot at f/11 if nothing else matters. Because I always think of sharpness at f/11. Which is a generalization and each lens will be different, so you have to plan accordingly.”

“Also,” Elon says, “remove your UV filter. No one’s got a UV filter that’s not going to degrade their image. If I’m shooting something critical I absolutely take it off.”

The one filter Elon will use is a polarizer—but only when necessary.

“I always carry one,” he says, “but I try not to use it because it creates too much contrast. It’s definitely necessary sometimes; it can be enormously helpful. You can use them for multiple exposures, too. With a circular polarizer, I rotate it to eliminate reflections on different surfaces and then blend the different exposures together in post.”

Ultimately, the real artistic challenge in making a successful photograph of artwork is leaving one’s ego behind and creating a photograph that doesn’t attempt to upstage the art. Doing this while still making something beautiful is a real accomplishment.

“The best photograph of art falls away as a photograph,” he says. “People won’t even know that it’s a photograph because they’ll just see the art. That’s key. You have to have no ego. You’re not present in the photo at all. It’s only the art.”

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