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Photography

How to Photograph Paintings and Prints with Copy Lighting

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Difficulty:BeginnerLength:LongLanguages:
This post is part of a series called Product Photography.
How to Photograph Ceramics and 3-Dimensional Products with One Light

Photographing prints and paintings can be intimidating. You want to accurately record the colors and texture of the piece so that your work is represented at its best, but the the scale, delicateness, and intricacy of the pieces often makes this tricky. In this tutorial, you'll learn two ways to photograph paintings or prints using a tripod and a pair of lights to ensure the lighting is even and the colors accurate. Have no fear: with a little bit of methodology and some good light photographing paintings can be easy, and even fun!

Things you will need

  • Tape measure
  • Tripod
  • Lights
  • Camera
  • Gray card

Photographing Unmounted Artwork

If the work is not mounted or framed, such as loose print, it will be more practical to photograph it lying flat on the floor rather than trying to prop it upright. However, if your piece is too large and you can’t get your camera high enough above the work to fit it entirely into a frame without getting tripod legs in the way, the setup used for the mounted work (described below) will work better.

Set Up a Tripod

Set up a tripod around the piece on the floor. You may want to put the work on a piece of white foamcore or a self-healing cutting mat. The advantage of the mat is that it has grid lines, which you can use to ensure your paper is straight. Once your tripod is over the work area, adjust your tripod so it can face the floor.

Some tripods allow you to take the center column out and mount it upside down and splay the legs out farther than their normal position. This configuration places the camera directly above your work area and allows you to photograph larger pieces without the tripod legs getting in the way. 

Camera on tripod with inverted center column

Prepare and Position the Artwork

Prepare the artwork by making sure it is free of dust and checking to see if it lies flat.

I set up a self-healing cutting mat that has a grid printed on it to help me line up the edges of my subject. This is not entirely necessary but having some tape marks at the very least will help you line up each piece if you are photographing a number of items.

Place the artwork on the surface and line it up so that you can squarely position it in the camera’s frame.

Print lying flat on work surface

Set Up Camera to Squarely Frame Artwork

Position the camera on the tripod and line it up so that it is as squarely situated as you can get it. Ideally the back of the camera will be parallel with the ground. A small level laid on the back of the camera will help. Aligning the camera squarely will help eliminate unwanted lens distortion, which will save lots of post-production time and make the end result look much better.

We want to fill as much of the frame of the camera with the subject as possible. However, most artwork does not conform to the standard aspect ratio of a camera. If that is the case for your work, fill the frame and leave only minimal areas to crop out later.   

Camera directly above print

Position a Pair of Lights to Evenly Illuminate the Surface

Even lighting is key to making a well-exposed image that needs little post-production work. For this set up, we will use a pair of lights positioned at equal distances from the subject. This kind of lighting is called "copy lighting," because we are lighting to make as exact a copy of the subject as possible.

First we will go head and measure out equal distances with a tape measure:

Measure distance from print

The lights should be positioned down at 45 degree angles toward the subject. Once I have them at that angle and equal distances, I will start to check the surface for even illumination. I have an incident light meter to help me take exposure readings. It records how much light is falling on the subject, unlike the meter in a camera which records the light reflected from the subject.

Light positions for photographing flat work

If you don’t have an incident light meter at your disposal, you can use a gray card and record exposure readings using your camera. Just change the metering mode of your camera to the spot meter and record the exposure value as you place the gray card in different areas of the work area. Check the four corners and center. If the reading are equal, the light is perfectly even.

For more information on this method, check out this informative tutorial about using a gray card to set exposure and colour balance

Set Exposure, Focus, and White Balance on the Camera

It is very important for when photographing artwork to have your color balance set accurately. To set custom white balance, select that option in your camera’s menu and use a gray card to adjust the white balance.   

Setting color balance with a gray card

To set exposure for the camera I will use the manual mode (M) and my light meter reading. If you don’t have a light meter use a gray card and your camera’s meter to get a reading.

Checking exposure with light meter

Carefully adjust the focus using manual focus and check with LCD screen on your camera until you can see that the smallest detail is in focus. Then take a test photo and zoom in to make certain that everything is in focus.

Take Your Photo

You are almost ready to take your photo! If you have a cable release, using it will reduce vibration and create a sharper image. If you don't have a cable release, switch your camera to it's timer mode. This mode is called various things on different cameras, sometimes marked as a little stopwatch. It delays the shutter release, letting the camera come to rest and the vibration caused by your finger pressing the shutter button.

Ok, now go ahead and press the shutter release.

If the image looks good on review, great work. If not, check over the setting and repeat the previous steps. Once everything is dialed in, you can photograph pieces of artwork all day long on the same settings.

Ready to take the photo

After you have taken the photos it is time to edit. Find a walk-through after the setup for mounted work.

Photographing Mounted Artwork

If the work is mounted or framed, such as a stretched canvas or framed print it may be more practical to photograph it hung on the wall, especially if it is a very large piece.

Prepare and Position the Artwork

Prepare the artwork by hanging it on a wall. Hang the piece at a comfortable working height and make sure it is level because that will help you line everything up squarely.

Leveling a painting before photographing it

Set Up a Tripod

Set up a tripod so that it faces toward the painting and adjust the tripod head to be level using a level. Many tripods have built-in spirit levels to help. Again, this will help us line everything up squarely.

The spirit levels on a tripod head

Set Up Camera to Squarely Frame the Artwork

Position the camera on the tripod and line it up so that it is as squarely situated as possible to the artwork. Ideally the back of the camera will be parallel with plane of the artwork, though this is sometimes trickier to do with large wall-mounted pieces. If you have the option, moving your camera back and using a longer lens can make positioning your camera easier: the further away from the artwork you are, the shallower an adjustment you have to make to get your camera perpendicular to the artwork. Don't back up too far, thought, you want to keep the piece as large as you can in the frame.

Position a pair of lights to evenly illuminate the surface

Even lighting is key to making a well-exposed image that needs little post-production work. For this set up, we will use a pair of lights positioned at equal distances from the subject. So first I will go head and measure out equal distances with a tape measure. A rule of thumb is that the larger the piece you are photographing, the further away the lights need to be positioned.

Measuring light distance to subject

Again the lights should be positioned at 45 degree angles toward the subject. Once you have them at that angle and equal distances, check the surface for even illumination.

Lighting and camera position

If you don’t have an incident light meter at your disposal, you can again use a gray card and record exposure readings using your camera. Just change the metering mode of your camera to the spot meter and record the exposure value as you place the gray card in different areas of the work area. Check the four corners and center. If the reading are equal, the light is perfectly even.

Set Exposure, Focus, and White Balance on the Camera

It is important to have your color balance set accurately. Again use the camera’s custom white balance. To set custom white balance, select that option in my camera’s menu and use a gray card to adjust the white balance.

Checking white balance before photographing a painting

Watch out for uneven color casts. If one of the walls in the area you are photographing is a strong color, and it catches some of the light from your setup, that colour may "bleed" into your artwork. If you do have this problem, a neutral-colored blanket or a piece card stock can help to block to offending light.

To set exposure for the camera, again use the manual mode (M) and light meter reading. If you don’t have a light meter, use a gray card and your camera’s meter to get a reading.

Checking exposure on a light meter

Carefully adjust the focus using manual focus and checking with LCD screen on your  camera until you can see that the smallest detail is in focus. Take a test photo and zoom in to make certain that everything is in focus.

Take the Photograph!

You are ready to take your photo. So go ahead and press the shutter release. If the image looks good on review, great job. If not, check over the setting and repeat the previous steps. Once everything is dialed in, you can photograph pieces of artwork all day long.

Ready to take the photo

Image Processing: Crop, Levels, and Sharpness

Once you have the photo on your computer, we can perform a few edits to enhance the quality of the image. I will demonstrate the most essential edits in Adobe Photoshop.  

While we were working with the camera, we tried to get as close to the edges of the print as possible. However, since the aspect ratio was different, we need to cut out anything that is not the image area on the print. So the first step is to crop the image. For this task, I want to use the Perspective Crop tool which is found in the flyout menu under the normal Crop tool.

Using the perspecitve crop tool

Using the Perspective Crop tool, I will move the corners of the crop rectangle to the corners of the artwork. I like to zoom in and make certain that the corners are as closely lined up as I can get them while keeping out unwanted areas. Then, press OK to crop. The software will cut out the area you told it to and re-calculate the image to be a rectangle.

Adjusting the crop edges

The first adjustment we will make is to the Levels. To find the Adjustments panel and click on the Levels button. This will adjust the tones in the image to look more like the original item. The levels adjustment shows a histogram that has three sliders under it.

Adjsuting the tonal levels in the image

We will begin by adjusting the slider for the light areas of the image. It is found on the right side. Take that slider and slide it to the left until it meets the histogram graph. This will brighten the light areas of the image. You want match the brightness of the original artwork.

Next, take the slider found on the left side and slide it to the right until it meets the histogram graph. This will darken the darker areas of the image try match the dark tone to the original artwork.

The third slider lies under the center of the histogram and adjusts the overall brightness of the image. If your image looks too light or dark, try adjusting the center slider slightly left or right. You want match the overall appearance of the original artwork

The second adjustment we will make is to sharpen the image using the Smart Sharpen filter. Zoom in to 100% on the image. Then, go up the Filter menu in Photoshop and find the Sharpen option. Select the Smart Sharpen option in the sub-menu. 

Adjusting the sharpness of the image

I will set the overall amount to somewhere around 120%, or to where I see the brush strokes or other surface detail becoming clearer. I will keep the radius at 1 pixel to keep the adjustment minimal and not over enhance the texture. The goal with with this adjustment is to enhance some of the detail such as the brush strokes in this painting.

And that's it! Here's a look a the final images:

The final photograph of the painting
The final photo of the print



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