If you’re the sort of person whose one and only camera just slipped out of their back pocket and into a pool, please pay attention, because this article is for you.
Let’s first acknowledge that there’s no shame in not knowing how to use a camera. Some of the best artists we know are hopelessly challenged when it comes to point, shoot, and click.
While there’s no rule saying you have to learn or the art police will bust down your door in the middle of the night waving a telephoto lens in your face, it’s always helpful to have a new skill. Especially one that can take your job title from “Unknown Painting Recluse” to “Bonafide Instagram Art Star with Amazing Hair, That Everyone Loves.” Or something like that.
When you get famous enough, you can hire someone to take photos of your art, but until that day arrives, we’re offering you a couple of tips courtesy of PatronArt’s very own resident photographer, Harry Acosta.
*Note: This article is geared toward photographing flat, two-dimensional works only, e.g., paintings, drawings, and prints.
Look around you
Most artists skip this vital first step, says Acosta. “If the lighting is bad, you’ll have a difficult time getting your camera settings right.” Choose a well-lit area inside, or use natural light on an overcast day. “The clouds will act as a natural diffuser to disperse harsh contrasting light,” says Acosta.
Once you choose an appropriate space, hang your art straight and even on the wall. If you need to photograph multiple pieces, only hang and photograph one at a time so you’re able to keep orderly. “Make sure you leave enough space between you and the painting to get the whole thing in the frame,” adds Acosta.
Light it up
If you’re unable to hang the painting in an ideal spot, you’ll need to get your hands on an external lighting source. An attachable off-camera flash unit is preferable to a built-in flash, which only works on your camera’s automatic setting. You’ll have more versatility using an off-camera flash and putting you camera in manual mode (more about that later).
The downside with that approach is the glare you’ll sometimes see with both on- or off-camera flashes. Off-camera flashes can get pretty pricey, too.
“The most cost-effective way to get good lighting on a painting is to purchase a kit,” says Acosta. “You can buy one for under $100, with tripods and lamps. Lamps can be easier and cheaper to use than a flash. Umbrellas [used with an off-camera flash] can become expensive and complicated.”
The ideal set-up (and the method most art schools teach) consists of two lamps, placed on either side of your piece at an equal distance. Aiming the two light sources toward the piece at a 45 degree angle will ensure light is spread evenly, and reduces the chance of glare.
To film or not to film
Prior to the digital age, it was common for artists to take photos with a film camera, using special film for slides that galleries could view by slipping them into a projector. These days, most galleries have moved on to a digital format, and most artists want a photos that they can put online without hassle of converting analog to digital.
“I wouldn’t recommend using film,” Acosta agrees. “It’s just more complicated. If you only have a film camera and you’re comfortable with it, but transferring film to digital format is more complicated.”
Try putting your camera on automatic
Assuming you’re using a digital camera, let’s move on to the scary part: numbers, numbers, and more numbers.
“It’s actually not that scary,” says Acosta. “The automatic setting on your camera is specifically geared toward taking a still photograph, which is perfect for our purposes here. If you put your camera on automatic mode and you try and take a picture of something moving, it’ll come out blurry. But in automatic mode, if nothing is moving, you should get a sharp detailed image.”
Acosta notes that putting your camera on automatic will only work in this situation if you’re working in a well-lit area.
If you can’t get access to good lighting, you might need to put your camera in manual mode so you can adjust the light sensitivity. (See next section.)
Oh, and one more thing: “If you’re going to be taking a lot of photos, use a tripod,” says Acosta. “You can get an inexpensive tabletop one for about $15. Even a larger one will only cost about $30.”
Manual mode: The technical stuff
If you must use your camera’s manual settings, first you’ll need to know the basics.
“There are three main ingredients that go into getting the photo right,” says Acosta. Here they are, in a nutshell:
Shutter speed: Shutter speed is the length of time the camera’s shutter is open and is responsible for catching movement. “Don’t worry about shutter speed too much for photographing artwork, since it won’t move,” says Acosta.
ISO: The ISO indicates your camera’s sensitivity to light. Lower numbers are used in areas with a good light source, and produce a fine, even textured photograph. Boosting the ISO number can help let more light in in poorly-lit areas, but doing that can also give the photo an unattractive grainy texture.
F-stop: The f-stop is also called the aperture, and it dictates the focal area of the photograph. A larger number will bring a larger amount of the photograph into focus. You’ll probably need a larger number but you’ll require more light in the photo, which is done by adjusting the ISO.
Standard manual mode settings
Now that you know what all those scary numbers are for, it’s time to figure out how to use them. We know you’re busy, so we proudly present a cheat sheet to get you there a little quicker.
In his own words, here are Harry Acosta’s standard settings for photographing artwork:
Shutter speed: A good standard setting here is 1/100. It’s a low number, so you should be fine without a tripod if you don’t have one.
ISO: To get the most clarity, keep the ISO low and set at it 1/100. You have a little wiggle room to adjust here, but if you find that you’re going above 1/600, you need better lighting.
F-stop: This number is determined by the lens on the camera. Some lenses go as low as 1.6, but there’s no reason you’d need to go down that far for artwork. A setting of 5 is perfect, because there won’t be anything blurry in the photograph.
Keep in mind, these are generalized settings to keep things easy. You might need to adjust bit by bit to get the photo you want. This is called bracketing. “If the photo is too light, try boosting the f-stop until it darkens,” says Acosta. “If it’s too dark, bring the ISO up a little, and bring the shutter speed down so the camera brings in more light.”
All this technical stuff might seem a little confusing, but with a little practice, you’ll be taking perfect photos of your artwork in your sleep.