While most of my professional photography involves the great outdoors, I do have a sideline business, I photograph paintings and other artworks for use in gallery submissions, giclÃ©e reproductions, etc.
While doing a great job with these images requires a few specialized tools and tricks, most of the photographic recipe is pretty straightforward. Most of the work is digital these days, so I’ll focus on a digital workflow, but most of the same techniques and principles apply when shooting slides—until very recently slides were almost univserasally required for submissions to galleries, consultants, etc., in the fine art world.
To shoot fine art, you’ll want a digital SLR, a sharp long lens (70mm or more), a circular polarizing filter for the lens, a good-sized room that can be completely darkened, a pair of lights and stands, a pair of polarizing gels and stands, and either a grey card or color-checker card.
Many photographers will have most of these tools already, the most specialized items are the polarizing gels. My artwork photography process makes use of a technique called cross-polarization, which requires polarizing the light sources as well as filtering the light coming into the camera. This technique is essential for removing specular reflections off the surface of the artwork, it’s almost impossible to avoid bright white highlights on oil paintings otherwise–and even on matte materials such as pastels, there’s a significant loss of saturation unless cross-polarization is employed. I typically use 18×18″ polarizing gels from Adorama to give myself a good deal of working room, and the gels indicate the proper orientation.
Hanging the photograph in the center of one wall of your room, you place the lights and the filters at about a 30 degree angle to the plane of the artwork. Make sure the height of the lights matches the height of the center of the painting, and that the lights are the same distance from the artwork for even illumination. I use flood lights that deliver a specific color temperature (more or less), this is absolutely essential for film work but still fairly helpful for digital work, it’s worth the few extra few bucks.
You’ll want to be a fair distance from the work if at all possible, again, this is to reduce the effects of perspective. Spend time aligning your camera so that it is directly perpendicular to the exact center of the photograph, it’ll save you time later. Shoot each piece with and without a grey card (or include a grey card off to the side of the piece). Rotate the polarizing filter on the camera (the effect won’t be subtle!) to get maximum saturation. Use a moderate aperture (f/8 is more than sufficient) and check your exposure. Once you get your images to the computer, you’ll be able to set a white balance quickly from the grey card. Do note that your lights will probably change temperature a bit during the shoot.
It’s just that easy.
Now, I did say there was a catch, and that’s the all too popular use of metallic paints. Cross-polarization, which is a gift in every other case, leaves metallic areas dark and flat. There’s no way to entirely capture the metallic sheen in a single digital image, I take the “dark and flat” image, then rotate the polarizer 90 degrees and shoot a second otherwise identical image, and paint a layer mask in PS to create highlights in the captured image, this is a bit more nuanced work.
Short of metallics, however, you’ll be amazed by how quickly you can learn to produce excellent results.