Monday, February 8, 2010

Photographing Artwork

My studio lighting isn't perfect, but it's adequate. I have eight 6500K fluorescent tubes, and track lighting with six halogen bulbs. None of the halogen bulbs are pointed directly at the canvas, because they have too much color. (Even the "color corrected bulbs") They're pointed at walls and ceilings to add warmth to the otherwise very cool fluorescent ambient lighting, thus balancing the temperature.

And in this light I paint, and shoot my smaller works. I don't shoot the big canvases in this light because it's not even enough. The big ones are shot outside in open shade or under an overcast sky. Overcast is preferable because the light is more neutral than open shade on a sunny day, where the light source is the blue sky; the light tends to be pretty blue. But here in California, we don't always have overcast skies so I just have to make do.

A good digital camera is a good start. Preferably one that has a white balance setting, where you can adjust the color temperature according to the type of lighting you have; fluorescent, tungsten, open shade, overcast, sunlight, etc. Whether I'm shooting my paintings inside or out, I try a bunch of different white balance settings to find which one comes closest to accurate color. I often move my painting around, trying different spots around the house, inside and out. Hey it's digital so it's not like you're wasting film. I just delete the dozen shots that I don't want.

So White Balance Setting is one convenient tool. But that doesn't address the glare on the surface of the canvas. If you are using a digital SLR, a good investment is a polarizing filter. This filter can cut down the glare considerably. It doesn't have to cost a whole lot, either. Mine is a Hoya and I paid twenty something dollars. Totally worth it.

If you're not using a SLR, there's still the biggest trick in the bag; shoot your painting at an angle so that you minimize glare, and use the perspective crop tool in Photoshop to straighten it out. This is probably the most effective way to eliminate glare, short of professional copy photo set up. But make sure the angle is no more than absolutely necessary, because you are essentially creating uneven distances between your camera and the painting, and that means uneven focus. Not good. You can remedy this a little bit by standing back a ways and using a zoom lens, and a small aperture, but if you're adept at adjusting the aperture on your camera, you probably don't need tips from an amateur like me.

So that's how I deal with glare. Now, color accuracy is quite another matter. The aforementioned color balance setting is a great tool, but it's not perfect. Sometimes you get very accurate colors, other times, you can only get so close. Often I need to rely on Photoshop to do my color correction. But the fact is, the more accurate an image you start out with, the easier it is to achieve the end result. So if there's anything you can do to get a good starting image, that's a huge plus.

You probably know that when pros do it, they use a color strip to ensure all the colors come out accurately. You can do the same by painting a strip of cardboard with different colors (just use tube colors you already have on the palette, plus white and black), and make sure it's visible in your viewfinder. Your digital image now has the color range information. Take this image into Photoshop and before you perspective-crop it out, try auto-adjusting levels, color and contrast. ( Image->Adjustments->Auto Levels, etc.) Usually, this puts the image in the right direction, but more often than not it's too much. So I first copy the original layer, then apply the adjustment on the top layer, then adjust the transparency of the top layer so that the adjustment isn't so drastic. After you're satisfied, flatten the layers back into one.

Only after this adjustment do I perform the perspective-crop. See for yourself what Auto Levels does with and without the color strip in the picture. The difference can be pretty significant.

If the image is still not there, the next thing I try is to fiddle with color balance. (Image->Adjustments->Color Balance). I don't usually have problems with my photos coming out with colors too saturated, but if I do, use the hue/saturation control. (Image->Adjustments->Hue/Saturation). If that still doesn't give you reasonably accurate color, it's time to go back and reshoot your painting under different (hopefully better) lighting conditions and try again.

There are tons of other tools in Photoshop, and an advanced user can manipulate curves and such to get the accurate colors, but for most color corrections, having a color strip, adjusting levels, color balance, and hue/saturation, together with perspective crop, will do the trick.

Lastly, I can't stress enough the importance of NOT doctoring up your digital image to make it look BETTER than your painting. Don't do that. You're only cheating yourself. Color correction should be used to make the image as accurate as possible, not to fake out judges to enter competitions, make a sale online, or to gain gallery representation. That's just outright fraud and it ain't Kosher, to say the least.

If I think of other photo tips, I will mention it in a future post.

1 comment:

  1. If you posted all of this excellent advice after 2 AM you at least deserve a thank you - so here it is :-)
    Best regards,


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