Photographing Artwork (Paintings, Drawings, etc.)

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, giclée 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.

This Post Has 12 Comments

  1. Great article Joe and I just wanted to ask a few more specific questions. What would you recommend as a good DSLR camera? What type of lighting works best (fluorescent, LED etc…)?

  2. Roger: For this kind of task, pretty much any current or previous generation of Nikon or Canon DSLR will do, short of making very large reproductions of artwork, you won’t see a lot of difference based on the camera body. Lenses … well, I’d prefer something longer in general, not necessarily very long but at least 60 or 70mm (100 on full-frame), in general you’ll tend to get less geometric distortion (that is, the piece curving around because you’re close to it).

    I use incandescents that are made to produce a specific color temperature, but for digital the latter is probably overkill. I like incandescents instead of flash even though they’re hot because I can see the effect of the polarization filter and lighting placement, which makes the process less error-prone. I’d definitely avoid fluorescents, and would worry about using LEDs, because they don’t emit a smooth light spectrum, which cann lead to uncorrectable color shifts via “metamerism” (a term which will not be on the quiz, *grin*). With regular incandescents, just be sure to shoot RAW, to include a grey card in your shots at the edge of the piece, and use that to set a color temperature for the piece.

    (If you’re working with film, do use the color-temperature-specific incandescents, and then make sure you use a slide film made for “tungsten” light.)

  3. Very good article Joe,
    What is your work flow to match your digital image to the painting if a giclee is required? I use several techniques, but there has to be a better less frustrating way (not to mention wasting paper and ink makng hardcopies). Also exactly what polarizers do you use from adorama for your lights? And hoe do you use them?

    Thanks in advance,
    Mary vogel

  4. Mary,


    Starting with the polarizers–the key things are having polarizers big enough to cover all the light getting on the painting (from two sources, at the angles I described), having them at the same polarization angle (the ones from Adorama actually are marked with which way to apply them), and using a polarizing filter on the camera as well (which you set the polarization angle of last, by twisting to get the minimal effect.)

    This all goes to heck when the painting you are rendering has texture that you want to capture. In that case, sometimes it’s better to better only dial some of the specular highlights away, or alternatively, to use some sort of soft unpolarized lighting (even outdoor shade can work.)

    Color matching I do through using a color checker in the picture with the painting, and setting white balance (color temp & tint) after image capture during RAW conversion, this also helps me dial in about the right exposure. Having a hardware calibration device for my monitor insures the computer understands what colors I’m seeing.

    Then there’s the problem of printing those colors. I use an outside service to print my photographs and giclees, but I always do all the above prepwork ahead, and have used a supplier who understands working with color-managed images. Even then it’s generally important to do a test print and tweak–there’s a translation that happens in making a giclee, the materials just have a different contrast range (Dmax) and sometimes it’s necessary to sort of “interpret” the painting into the giclee. For the most part, with soft proofing and color management, you get pretty good results.

  5. Hi Joe,
    Good info, thanks for the ideas. My paintings are very textural; I’ve tried shooting with a 17 to 85 mm lens at about 35 mm, (it’s an 5.6 lens) at f11, bracketing exposures to get the most accurate color. I have also used a fixed 50 mm lens that is an 1.8 lens, bracketing again. When the photos are enlarged in Preview on my Mac… they are out of focus.
    I need perfect focus and color. I use my photos on my website and in my hard-copy print portfolio.
    Steve Barylick.

  6. Wonderful article. I have an additional problem. I’m photographing historic architectural drawings using large format. These drawings have been rolled up for about 50 years. I can’t attach the drawings to the wall with tape or adhesive putty, and there is no way they will lie flat on their own. I was wondering if shooting with a piece of non-glare glass over the drawings would work.

  7. Tony: How big are the drawings?

    One thing I’ve done in a few cases is photograph from above, with drawings laid flat. Essentially imagine what I’ve described, but turning gravity 90 degrees.

    I’ve only needed to do this so far for relatively informal stuff, but it might work okay for you, certainly better than trying to attach them to a wall.

  8. Joe,

    The drawings are 24×36″. They won’t lie flat on their own as they have been rolled up for a very long time, and I can’t place anything on the corners to hold the edges down. Someone told me non-glare glass is more of a pain than regular glass. This guy told me to use regular glass and cross polarize. Another guy makes a frame out of 2×4’s, puts peg board on one side and foam core on the other. The drawings are placed on the peg board side. He then cuts a hole in one side of the frame and attaches a small shop vac creating suction to keep the drawings attached. Sort of like an air hockey table in reverse. Ha! That sounds like it will work, but who wants to listen to a shop vac run for 3-4 hours?

  9. Mmm, pity you can’t hold the corners down, etc. I’ve seen vacuum tables built to do just what you’re suggesting with pegboard, but I’ve never used one.

    Certainly experiment with glass or plexi in front, but you will lose something in the process, maybe it won’t be bad enough to matter.

    Otherwise, I’m out of ideas, sorry!

  10. Thanks for the info. What do you think of Minolta Maxxum AF Zoom Lenses For Doing the art work?

    1. Hi Kim, I haven’t worked with Minolta gear in particular. but I suspect they’d work great.

      For many purposes (web use and even small print use), you shouldn’t have any trouble with any modern lens so long as it’s used properly, and you do some geometric correction later. For example, Lightroom corrects some lens distortion automatically, you’d want to see if it can do that for your lens, and if not, at least manually dial in some correction, otherwise, the image can appear to have edges bending inward or outward. (Barrel or pincushion distortion)

      There are small differences in sharpness between lenses, but they tend to be noticeable in practice only if you’re trying to leverage your digital file as far as possible – e.g., making a large giclee from the file, etc. (And if you’re really stuck there, you can always consider taking multiple images, each zoomed into only part of the image, and stitching them, it’s a pain, but you can get more resolution out of any lens that way.)

      Hope that helps!

  11. Thank you for this in-depth explanation, Joe. 🙂

    Two quick questions:

    1. Do you have any suggestion for a good brand of polarizing filter for the lens? I notice they can be anywhere between $30 and $150 on Amazon. I’d like to find something that keeps colors true without spending more than necessary.
    2. Would a 50 mm fixed lens make a positive difference in quality for glossy-surfaced paintings shot on a copystand (and measuring 16×20 or less)? Or should I stick to my dslr’s kit lens, which ranges from 18-55? I will do post-processing in Lightroom, so I’m not worried by a bit of barrel distortion that can be corrected, but I’d like to get as much sharpness of focus as possible.

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