Photographing Artwork

It’s important for artists to get excellent and accurate photos of their finished pieces for their websites or portfolios. DCP board member and fine arts painter Jo Mattison shares her journey into photography as a means of documenting her paintings.

Photography has been an interest of mine since childhood. When I was very young, I had to have the latest camera on hand and lots of film. In high school, I was the unofficial photographer for the yearbook. Lots of my photos made the books my junior and senior years. Then I went to college and studied art, painting in particular, but not photography. Sigh.

Several years ago, as my inventory of paintings grew, I got really tired of having photographers come to my studio or me dragging my large paintings to them. But art has to be photographed! And it has to be done right in order for the pieces to look great on a website, a brochure or business cards. Also, pictures have to be the correct file sizes for the different shows you enter. And the color has to be right. The last thing you want is for someone to see one of your paintings online and then when they see it in person, it looks different to them. This happened to me once. I lost a sale. So far, it has not happened again.

Jo Mattison in her Dallas art studio

When I decided to take matters into my own hands and photograph my art myself, I went to Competitive Cameras in Dallas and bought the equipment they recommended. I got an entry level DSLR camera, a tripod and strobe lights. Then I worked with someone at Dallas Center for Photography to learn how to setup the strobe lights correctly distanced between each other and from the piece of art. You can place a pencil perpendicular to the surface of the painting to make sure the lighting falls equally onto the surface from both lights. Proper lighting is extremely important. I have heard some artists take their artwork outside and use natural light but that is very unreliable and the color can shift. Strobe lights are consistent; and once you have your setup tuned, your photos will come out the same every time.

Proper art photography starts with everything being square and level. Start by measuring the distance of the middle of the art to the floor. Place the center of the lights at the same height as the center of the art.

 

Place the center of the lens at that same height as the center of the art.

I ended up with a pair of Versalight 360 monolights by JTL which give me plenty of power and are easy to use. With your lights set up, put your DSLR on a tripod and get your camera settings right. If you don’t have a handheld flash meter (which I don’t), this sometimes takes trial and error. First, put your camera on manual mode and make sure your ISO is not on auto. I usually put my ISO on 100 or 200. The shutter speed should be set to 1/125 because any faster and you can end up with shadows of the actual shutter blades; slower and you end up mixing in the ambient light. I set my aperture at around f11 which gets rid of vignetting and is sharp edge to edge. As you approach the bigger f-stop settings of 16 and 22, you can start to get diffraction limiting which basically just makes the whole photo fuzzy. I take several shots and adjust the strobe power as needed. 

I make some large paintings that have a clear glossy coating on them. To avoid a glare on the photos from the gloss coat, I use a polarizing filter on my camera and a large plastic polarized sheet on the front of each of the strobe lights. I ordered 17”x 20” Rosco linear polarizing filter sheets from B&H Photo. It is very important to have the polarizers lined up the same on each light in terms of polarizing direction. The polarizer on your lens has to be lined up in the opposite orientation. It just takes a little trial and error, but it works like a charm and you end up with no glare or you can dial the filter on the camera a little to allow for a little bit of glare which can show depth to the surface of the painting. 

Detail of the polarizing sheets taped over the strobe soft boxes. Orient the polarization axis of the camera filter at right angles to the light polarizers.

It is important for your monitor to be properly calibrated, so when you’re editing in Lightroom or Photoshop you know that you’re seeing the right colors. A good color checker is Datacolor Spydercheckr. Then you need to calibrate the camera using the Xrite Passport system. It’s a small test card with multiple colors that are industry standard. By plugging the software into Lightroom you can be sure that all colors are represented properly, especially those challenging hues like blue/green and burgundy. You can get these tools on Amazon, B&H, or at your local camera store. There are lots of YouTube videos that show you how to use them.

Jo working in Lightroom to finalize her image.

When I get several shots that look good, I download them into Lightroom. I took classes on Lightroom so I could get the hang of it. And it’s so worth it! In Lightroom you can adjust the exposure, contrast, texture, hue, vibrance, tint, etc. Even though the Xrite Passport gives you the best color possible, there are often pigment colors on a canvas that just don’t translate properly to the more limited palette of a computer screen. You can make sure the colors in your art work are correct so that you don’t misrepresent the work on your website and social media. Also, you can make the file size of your picture whatever you need it to be for the situation. That is, small for quick downloading on certain sites, or larger for publication, etc. Lightroom is a must-have tool for showing your art accurately online or in print.

Since I bought the camera and lighting equipment to photograph my art, I have gotten the photography bug again! Now I also use my camera to have fun, and it has become my other art! I have taken several photography classes and workshops and even started learning Photoshop! There is a whole other world out there for artistic pursuit in photography. I am having a ton of fun learning and creating art that is different from painting. I enter contests occasionally and I don’t worry about selling my photographs. Ahhhhh!

Jo Mattison

Instagram: @jmattison

Website: www.jomattison.com