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Q&A: How to Photograph Artwork

Photograph by Pete Duvall
Photograph by Pete Duvall

Nothing tells your artwork’s story better than seeing it in person — still, for your website or a show submission, the next best thing is a photo. But what happens when weird colors, unexpected shadows, and poor image quality get in the way? How do you get your work looking its best?

For answers to these questions, we turned to photographer and Art League instructor Pete Duvall, who also teaches a workshop on the topic and works with artists to photograph their artwork. For more information or to contact him, visit Pete Duvall’s website here.

What’s your general procedure when an artist brings you a work to photograph?
In general, the more information I have about size, surface and number of pieces, the better. That way I can plan better. Flat artwork has one approach, and 3D artwork has another. It is always preferable to have flat artwork unframed and un-matted, but that is not a deal breaker. For 3D artwork, I want to know the color, approximate size and surface so I can plan on background and a lighting approach. The reality is that I don’t really know until I have the artwork in front of me. Then the artist and I can really make definitive decisions on an approach. After all, photos of the artwork are the best marketing tool an artist has, so you want the images to reflect the work well.

How should I edit the photo for the best results on my website (processing, file type, etc.)?
For a website, you do not want to use large files, for two reasons. One – they can be stolen (happens a lot). Two – it will take a long time to load the image on your page. So the sizing should be somewhere around 800 pixels on the long side at 72 dpi (dots per inch) or ppi (pixel per inch). Just make sure that you change the file name so you don’t save that small file over your large file. Very important! There are a lot of web services that can help you through this process, like Other Peoples Pixels.

What’s the best way to light artwork for photography? Can I use my pop-up flash?
That’s a tough question to answer in a short space, but I’ll do my best. First, DON’T use your pop-up flash. No good can come from that. For most flat artwork, you want to use two lights equidistant from each other and the background, and at about a 45 degree angle from the piece. You want to aim the lights so that they crisscross each other and light the piece evenly and cancel out shadows.

Two light sources at 45 degree angles reduce glare while evenly lighting 2-D artwork. (illustration by George Miller)
Two light sources at 45 degree angles reduce glare while evenly lighting 2-D artwork. (illustration by George Miller)

A similar approach can be used for 3D work, though you will want a neutral background. I recommend getting a roll of seamless paper from the photo store. You can always experiment from there, but that is a good place to start.

The colors look different in the photograph than they do in person — how can I fix that?
This is a big problem to deal with. First, you want to match your lights to the white balance (WB) setting on your camera. For instance, if you have incandescent light bulbs, then use the incandescent/indoor/tungsten WB setting. Also, I would recommend getting photo flood bulbs from a photo store. The bulbs you get at the hardware store are not consistent enough to be reliable for color reproduction. It will cost you a little more up front, but save you tons of time (and headaches) later. It can’t hurt to get familiar with how to do a custom white balance setting on your camera. But that is half the battle. The other is with your computer. If you are doing color critical work, then you need to invest in a monitor calibration system. This will make sure your monitor is displaying the correct colors. I can not stress how important this is. The ColorMunki from X-rite is a good basic system. I think it is about $150. There are few more things I do to maintain the best color I can, but it gets a lot more complicated.

Examples of different white balance settings. (Image by curiousl used through a Creative Commons license.
Examples of different white balance settings. (Image by curiousl used through a Creative Commons license.)

What should I keep in mind for photographing 3-D artwork?
That you want to feature shape, detail and surface. There is a lot more you can do with the lighting when shooting 3D work. Make sure that you show the needed detail, but move the lights around until you find the most interested look. Also, you often have the place in a submission for 3D artwork for both an over all and a detail shot. So, find the interesting close up or second angle.

What if I don’t have a DSLR — what’s the best way for me to, say, use my iPhone camera and still upload a good-looking image of my artwork for my Facebook fans?
While I can never suggest using your iPhone for submission or your website, there is nothing wrong with a quick shot for Facebook, or Google+. Especially if you are doing an “in progress” shot. Just try to find some even light, and the most interesting angle. I am sometimes surprised at the results, but hey, sometimes it just works.

What other photography courses might beginning or non-photographers find useful?
Well, Andarge Asfaw, Alison Duvall and I all teach the Intro to Photo class which is a great place to get a good foundation in photography. I have had many painters in the past that have taken my class so they take better reference images. We will also be offering a “Jumpstart into Photography” this next year for the first time. If you can’t commit the 9 week class, this is an intensive 2 day weekend workshop. Check the catalog for the timing and dates.

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Did you know: The Art League's Art Camp is the longest running visual arts camp in the area! We've been here for more than 30 years! While sadly we can't find any photos from the '80s (please let us know if you have any lying around), let's take a look back at the last several years of burgeoning kid artists and eight years of fun at Art Camp!

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