Photographing Art for Dummies*
Or How to Take Reasonably Good Photos of Your Completed Art Work

* the Photographically Challenged

Lois M. Tryon

Picture this: you read about a great art show, it's nearby, and you'd like to enter. The deadline's a week away, but
you have time. Then you read the part where they want to see 5 photos or slides of your work and a picture of your
display from your last show. The camera store charges $60 to photograph just one painting - so what do you do

Plan Ahead
Most importantly, you should plan ahead for this type of "emergency" by having some slides and photos on hand. If
you have a web site, maybe they will allow you to submit that as samples of your work. If not, here's how you can do
it yourself with almost any kind of camera. It doesn't have to be a big expensive camera, you just need to learn to
use it to its best advantage. Now in the age of digitals it's even easier, but unless you have a computer and know
how to get the images out, you still have to go to the Kodak kiosk and print.

Why Photograph Your Art?
Even if you don't enter shows, you should have a record of your art. It can be used for insurance and inventory
purposes, advertising to sell your work, and for tax purposes if you are eligible to declare your expenses and
certainly for income if you sell something. It also gives you a photographic record of what you sell so you can paint
a "similar" or a companion piece. It will give you a portfolio, to which you can add text and data. Keep in mind that in
a portfolio, you want to project the best possible image - you are in essence selling yourself too.

Getting Good Images
Getting good quality usable photos is the key issue. Automatic or disposable cameras do what they want you to do,
and there's little you can do about it. Manual cameras, digital or 35 mm will take instructions. But even with a point
and shoot, you can make the camera produce what you want it to produce. You can use a tripod for your camera or
not; it depends on the steadiness of your hand.

Light and Setup


 WRONG                                                                                           RIGHT

Assuming you don't have your own photography studio, the best place to photograph a painting is outdoors in
bright shade. Don't use a flash. "Bounceback" is a real problem, as is lens flare. The shade usually eliminates the
lens flare, and absence of a flash eliminates the light coming right back into your camera. You can put the painting
on an easel, or prop it against a chair or another stable object. You can put a dark drape over the easel or chair to
hide any miscellaneous background. If you make your background black, and slightly larger that the painting, you
can include the whole painting and have a border that is not distracting. Look closely at the painting, squinting
occasionally. Do you see any bright spots or reflections? If so, adjust the position. Paintings that have a glaze or
other shiny medium are difficult, but not impossible. Pay close attention to what you see through the camera. Don't
get too close; find out the camera's focal length - the closest distance from an object the camera can get without
blurring. If the camera is a disposable camera, it should say somewhere on the packaging.


In most cases, glass is the camera's enemy. You will be as likely to photograph your
own reflection as you are to photograph the painting underneath the glass. If you
have an adjustable focus, you can blur the reflection and focus on the painting, or you
can use a polarizing filter.   Angling slightly may also help. Look closely at the
reflection and position  the painting as best you can. The best scenario is to
photograph the painting before it's framed, i.e., without the glass. Use a black mat or
drape to hide the unfinished edges, or temporarily put the frame around the
painting, leaving the glass off for the moment.

If you must photograph indoors, don't use incandescent light as a source - it will yellow everything. Fluorescent light
is cold, but more accurate, or use your flash and angle at least 15° off the surface. Distortion will be minimal, and
you can crop the resulting image after it is printed. There are many computer programs that will aid you in this
process, from the reasonable priced to the darned expensive! Watch the windows! They make nice unwanted
images on glass or glazed paintings!

Should I Photograph the Mat?
Generally, the painting itself is all you want to show. You can add a simple paper mat once the image is printed if
you need to do that. Try it both ways,

Watch out for unwanted shadows. These are usually caused by
frames in bright light, or by something you didn't notice when you
set up your art. If you are using flash, the further the flash from the
lens, the more chances of a shadow or unwanted artifact. A ring
flash eliminates shadow, but may not give you the effect you want,
and it is often an unnecessary expense.

Parallax and Exposure
This is usually not a problem with small paintings. For larger ones, there may be a difference in the image in the
center as opposed to the edges or top and bottom. A zoom lens is helpful; a wide angle lens enhances the
problem. If you are using a slow shutter speed, by all means use a tripod.

If you are using a light meter, take your reading off a grey card for accuracy. Most cameras now have built in
metering, but some older cameras do not.

Pottery and Sculpture
In whatever medium you work, photographing 3 dimensional objects is somewhat easier than photographing 2
dimensional flat objects. Find an old curtain or blanket, preferable grey or black, and put it over a straight-backed
chair. You can use a stool if you have an easel or quilting frame to drape behind it. Don't let the spot where the

seat joins the back show. Don't make the drape perfectly smooth - a few folds are attractive. Don't use a shiny
material that will reflect the light; velvet works well. Use the darker drape for light colored objects, use the lighter
drape for darker pieces. Put your camera at the same level as the object, frame your shot and click! You may want
to take several angles of the same piece. Again, watch out for shadows! The closer the object to the background,
the less shadow that intrudes. That's one of the reasons black is recommended.

Film type is fast becoming a moot point, thanks to the advent of digital photography, but for those who are using
film, there are several points to consider. Prints can be done with Kodacolor or its equivalent. The higher the ASA
(or ISO) number, the "faster" the film, meaning that less light is needed to achieve the desired results. ASA 100 is a
good all purpose daylight film, but ASA 200 will take less bright light and be more tolerant of movement. For slides,
Ektachrome or Kodachrome can be used. Kodachrome is the warmer of the two, and often the more pleasing to the
eye. Ektachrome is cooler, having more blues and bringing out the cool colors. Neither do well in incandescent
lighting without a flash. Film type is a matter of personal preference.

If you have the time and money, there are many studios that will photograph your art. If you choose not to do that,
these instructions will get you what you need. Take notes of whatever method you use; if it works, use it next time. If
something went wrong, don't make that mistake again. Try a few shots at a time, and you'll see how easy it actually

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Copyright © 2008 by Lois Tryon - All Rights Reserved