(Originally published August 1, 2008 in the Santa Cruz Sentinel)
As a photojournalism major at Fresno State in the late 1980s, I learned to shoot subjects (usually people) quickly, with whatever light was available. Back then, newspaper photos were primarily shot on black and white T-Max film, so it didn’t matter if you were shooting outdoors or indoors, under daylight, florescent or tungsten lights. Whatever enhancement was needed after the negatives were dry was achieved by “dodging and burning” a print under an enlarger bulb in a darkened room.
Fast forward to 2008, where black and white film, darkrooms, and my photojournalism career are relics of the past. I have a decent digital camera and Photoshop 7.0, but my shooting techniques are largely old school and, above all, convenient. To photograph art or crafts, I usually use window light and white posterboard, or open shade on a simple outdoor background, and then clean up the colors (shade creates bluish light) in Photoshop.
So, when I came across “Photographing Arts, Crafts and Collectibles” by Steve Meltzer, I began to think about improving my technique, chiefly because the author suggests ways to do so without working in a studio and purchasing a lot of expensive lighting equipment. I also found a few websites with mini-tutorials on photographing art. It’s not really so difficult or so expensive. And even if you just want to make better photos to sell your eBay wares, why not set yourself apart?
Minimally, to shoot small table-top items you need to have the following stuff:
- Kitchen or dining room table
- Digital camera with zoom lens
- 18% gray card (buy one or Google “18% gray card”)
- Way to defuse flash or lights
- Way to reflect light
- White background paper
If you have the first four items you’re halfway there. One simple way to acquire the other four is to purchase two Lowel EGO fluorescent lights with the EGO sweep. For $200 you’ll have two diffused lights, two bounce cards, and a plastic background stand that holds any of 10 colored background papers (the paper isn’t great quality, but it’ll due for a start). There are many other kinds of studio lighting systems, but this one is by far the most affordable, and doesn’t require light stands, umbrellas or a great deal of space.
Know Your Digital Camera
Obviously there is a wide range of digital cameras. Explore the menu on your camera to see if it has:
- ISO adjustment (set to 100 or 200)
- Exposure compensation
- Grid screen
What follows is a very abbreviated summary of the lighting recommendations found in “Photographing Arts, Crafts & Collectibles” and another good--although film-oriented--book, “Photographing Your Artwork” by Russell Hart. Both books are full of detailed instructions geared to lighting two- and three-dimensional artworks in a variety of media.
Photographing Two-Dimensional Objects
Paintings, Prints, Photographs, and other framed subjects
If possible, work in a darkened room with white walls. Remove any glass covering the art, if possible, and decide if the picture’s frame and/or mat are important enough to be included. If you can’t remove the glass, you will have to cover up metallic parts of the tripod and the camera with black paper or fabric to minimize reflections. Hang the artwork as flat against the wall as possible, or set on a table with white background paper behind and underneath the art.
Most two-dimensional art should be lit uniformly, with 2 diffused lights, one on each side of the artwork at a similar distance and angle. Artwork, camera and lights should all be at the same height. Put the camera on a tripod, and make adjustments to square the edges of the view finder or LCD monitor with the edges of the art. (A grid display on your camera may help.) Wide angle will make the edges bow, so set the lens at a normal or telephoto range.
Use the spot meter and telephoto settings on your camera to target an area of the subject that is close to middle gray in tone or meter on an 18% gray card held up to the piece. You can often keep this exposure by pressing and holding the shutter release half-way, recompose and finish pressing the shutter release to take the photo. Or you can compensate for under or over-exposure by using the exposure compensation settings.
If you can adjust depth of field manually, use f8 or greater to be sure that all the corners are in focus.Use the “flash off” setting on your camera and the self-timer, so that there is no jiggle when the shutter snaps the photo. If the final photo isn’t quite square, you can make further adjustments in Photoshop.
The basic two-light studio lighting setup is a good starting place for three-dimensional objects. It consists of an object in front of a background with a main light and a fill light on each side. A bounce card can also substitute for a fill light.
Obviously I still have a lot to learn, but much of that learning will come by trial and error with each new piece of art posing a new challenge. Having a large, dedicated studio with softboxes, umbrellas, light tents and stands, and a variety of backdrops, would be the ideal. But photographing art can be a great lesson in seeing and discovering ways to convey what’s essential about a work of art.
Originally published at: http://www.scsextra.com/story.php?sid=78499&storySection=Local&fromSearch=true&searchTerms=