Photographing paintings

I had a client come to be and ask about photographing some paintings. He wanted to have them shot with enough resolution to make reproductions of them for sale. Wonderful! I was glad he called because it’s not as easy to photograph a painting as one might imagine.

As you can see below, the shot is terribly washed out on the left hand side. What happened?

Washed out glare
Washed out glare

Glare from the flash caught the surface of the painting and bounced into the camera, creating a badly washed out looking left side. What about the right side? I had the polarizers from the lamps set to the proper orientation, so it looks fine.

You’re asking – wait a minute..did he polarize the flashes? Yes, in order to eliminate glare off the painting, I needed to polarize the light coming from my flashes. This way, I could align the light in such a manner as to nearly eliminate all the glare coming off the painting even before the light hit my camera lens. But, to get the correct effect, the lens also happens to have a second polarizer on it. And you need to use a polarizer alignment card to check the polarization to make sure it is correct.

Confused yet?

There’s a lot to photographing products and artwork because if done improperly, these problems will show up:

  • Glare
  • White balance
  • Color calibration
  • Lens distortion
  • Orientation/perspective distortion

All of these problems will ruin your attempted reproduction. In order to photograph flat artwork properly, you’ll need the following tools beyond the usual photo tools:

  • Polarizer panel for each light source
  • Diffuser for polarized light source panels
  • Polarization angle detector
  • Polarizer for camera lens
  • Color calibration reference card for printing
  • Distortion profile for your lens
  • Light stands
  • Powerful strobes
  • Light meter with remote trigger or flash sense

It takes quite a bit of equipment and even more know-how to photograph flat art properly. Even if you’re able to get away from the glare, the color calibration is a major deal. If your colors are incorrect, the client is going to be very unhappy. You can’t just put your camera on flash white balance and assume it’ll all work. Polarizers subtly shift color (especially in sunlight),  plus the color dye balance of your camera never matches the flashes. And the color balance of your flashes is never correct.

No matter how much effort you put into trying to color balance your lights, you’ll never get 100% of the way there. The only way is to have and use a color reference card, then know how to calibrate the final image so it looks correct.

Also, using hot lamps (light bulbs) is problematic for 2 reasons. They’re easier to align for polarization, true. But you have to have a LOT of light power to expose the image properly. That means your very expensive/nice painting is boiling under quartz halogen lamps.

Or you have to have a very long exposure. That means the rest of the lights in the room have to be extinguished. But wait, you’re in your gallery, so you can’t shoot this in the dark. So you need even more and more powerful lamps.

Then notice that the blues in your image are too dark because you’re using a tungsten/halogen light source. So you adjust the white balance but notice that there’s blue noise in your image.

It’s important that the light is uniform across the image as well. Otherwise there will be gradients of light that aren’t in the original piece. This makes a BIG difference. In order to measure the light uniformity, you’ll need to use a light meter (I use Sekonic-L608C) to check the uniformity across the painting. And you’ll need a way to remote trigger your strobes from the light meter while doing this as well. If the painting is brighter on one side or spot than the other, you’ll not be happy with the reproduction.

You care about getting the image correct, right? The above is the basics of what you have to consider, own and understand.

Or, you can just hire me and I’ll get you the images without the headaches and $1000’s in gear you’ll have to have to make this work correctly.

Color corrected, no glare
Color corrected, no glare

Note – Edge intentionally left on images

Off-camera strobe teaser

Off-camera with fill

To get people excited for my two upcoming strobe photography classes at the Art Association of Jackson Hole, I’ve decided to post some samples to show what you can do with you get the strobe (flash) off the camera.

First, you need a strobe that can be triggered remotely, either wired or wirelessly.  There are a multitude of ways to do that.  We’ll cover that in the class.

The photo at the right shows the final image (click to see a larger version).  The background isn’t nice but that’s not the point.  Look at the texture of the trilobite I collected from the desert a few years back.

You can see depth, shape, texture.  How is this accomplished?

With shadows.

Once you get to a two-dimensional photograph, the only cue for texture is shadow.  You can kind of guess when there isn’t, but it’s pretty darned difficult.  I used one off-camera strobe and the on camera flash for fill.  More on that in a moment.

Direct flash
Direct flash

Now to the left, you can see a photo taken with just the on-camera flash of a Nikon D800.  Pretty ugly compared to the one above, right?  This is the type of photograph of something you’ll see on eBay.  Even some wedding “photographers” think their little pop-up flash will do a good job (and charge a lot for it).

We don’t want to do that.  We want to create convincing, dramatic photographs.  Does every shot have to be art?  No.

But it took me about 2 minutes of making adjustments to go from the shot on the left to the shot above.  Is the balance as perfect as I’d like?  No, but you get the point, it’s easy to see the trilobites are there, that they have depth and they are interesting.  The direct flash gives you none of that feeling.

It’s a dramatic change.

The next shot is done with purely off-camera flash.  It looks a little overly shadowed, right?

Off-camera only
Off-camera only

This is way too dramatic for this object.

That’s where the concept of fill-flash comes in handy.  Even though we’ve got the strobe off-camera, the shadows are so dark that they distract from the subject.  This is something we don’t want to do, either.  For this shot, I wanted to emphasize the subject and not the shadow.  In another blog entry, I’ll cover the shadows as negative space, an art concept.  Sometimes you want to draw attention to the shadows.

But not in this shot.  I wanted to show texture without making it look like a film-noir for ancient dead creatures.  There are plenty of b-movies with those.  For very flat objects, it does take a little work to get some drama out of them.  Even a piece of paper can be made to look interesting.  I’ll show that in another blog entry.

I was shooting perfectly flat petrified wood tables for By Nature Gallery and, with a little effort and off-camera strobes, I made the tables come alive.  Even though they’re perfectly smooth, the little crystals inside the petrified wood just pop with color.  Getting the strobe off-camera made those shots possible.  (note that the photos on their site are not mine, mine are in their brochure)

Getting texture out of seemingly flat things is just one of the concept that I will be teaching in my strobe (flash) photography class.

Click on any of the photos to see a higher resolution shot to see what I’m talking about.