The Soft-Light Approach To Photographing Artwork

Photographing artwork is one of those challenges that’s easy to understand and difficult to master. The part that’s easy to grasp is that when photographing something flat—like a painting, drawing or etching—you want to treat it like copywork. That means placing two lights on opposite sides, beyond 45 degrees from the lens axis, and you’re off and running.

But taking this copywork approach to the next level requires a greater understanding of the subtleties of light. For instance, moving those lights farther from the subject minimizes falloff and makes the illumination more even across the frame. That’s also where we start to run into the shortcomings of this basic approach: small light sources aren’t especially good at even lighting. Worse still, they can wreak havoc on surfaces with texture or dimension. To truly begin to master a better approach for photographing flat art, you’ve got to go beyond conventional wisdom and break the rules. You’ve got to use large light sources that produce soft light.

My preferred approach is a simple twist on the basic copywork technique. Instead of small specular sources in parabolic reflectors, the photographer instead uses two large umbrellas. And instead of aiming the light sources directly at the artwork, the light sources are aimed directly at one another. This produces incredibly soft, even illumination across the subject. Better still, it minimizes textural highlights and shadows that are unnaturally amplified when smaller light sources are used.

You see, not all flat artwork is the same kind of “flat.” An etching, for instance, may have subtle embossing into the paper, while an oil painting could have heaps of paint piled on for an immense amount of surface texture. These peculiarities and more can make the traditional specular copywork approach fall short. On a textured painting, for instance, hard light would put highlights and deep dark shadows that both obscure elements of the image.

Photographing Artwork

When a work is particularly large, a parabolic dish reflector is also more likely to create hot spots and uneven lighting. Large umbrellas or “brolly boxes” in particular (umbrellas with diffusion across their opening) eliminate this issue.

With the lights on either side of the artwork in large umbrellas aimed at each other—parallel to both the flat plane of the artwork and the camera’s sensor—you’ll be spilling soft, feathered light from the edges of the umbrella illumination onto the subject. This makes for incredibly soft, even lighting. And believe it or not, it also produces less glare.

You might be thinking that a bigger light source is more likely to cause unwanted reflections, and while that’s true in theory, it doesn’t hold up in practice. Because of the position of the lights beyond 45 degrees from the lens axis, they’re unlikely to reflect on the subject in a way the camera can see. (If they do, simply move them slightly closer to the plane of the artwork, or slightly farther from the surface of the subject in order to increase the angle of reflection.)

The feathered edge of the indirect light is less harsh than a direct light would be. That makes the light incredibly consistent across the frame—which can be checked by holding a handheld incident light meter at each corner. Better still, it doesn’t create strong shadows or specular highlights. It’s a pretty impressive solution.

Photographing Artwork

When I was first introduced to this approach by a professional art photographer, I was skeptical. But it absolutely does a better job at producing even lighting and excels with paintings or other “flat” textured surfaces. The artwork shown here was all photographed using this method.

There are some downsides that it’s important to keep an eye on. First, umbrellas positioned in such a manner increase the opportunity for lens flare. This can be easily solved with a lens hood and flags positioned between the lens and lights. The other issue is the increased potential for reflections on highly reflective surfaces, which can really ruin a photograph. The soft light itself still works wonderfully on the subject, but because of their position, the sources are more likely to spill light toward the camera—lighting up the ceiling, walls and any other objects near the camera. These then get reflected into flat, shiny surfaces on the subject—such as the glass in a frame or a glossy paper surface.

Here, again, flags come in handy to minimize reflections, though in my experience the ideal approach is hanging a wall of black duvetyn behind the camera and wrapping black fabric (ideally velvet) around reflective tripod legs too. These fabrics will suck up the light that would otherwise reflect off the shiny surface of the subject. And short of that, there aren’t many drawbacks to this soft light photographic approach.

Featured artwork is from the Collections of the St. Louis Mercantile Library at UMSL. See more online at www.umsl.edu/mercantile.

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