Professionally photographing artwork has a number of problems associated with glare, distortion, and color accuracy. However, with a few simple tools that you might already have in your camera bag, you can get great photos of artwork that is hanging up on a wall or can be moved around. All you need are a few basic and common bits of gear:
- Camera and tripod (obviously)
- 2 speedlights
- 2 shoot through umbrellas
- 2 light stands
- 1 remote trigger for the speedlights
The total cost for everything besides the camera and tripod is currently just over $200 on Amazon. You'll get great results with this setup because it is exactly what I use to take the example photos in this article and for my real estate photography business.
Ambient Light vs Flash
Trying to get great looking results with ambient light will be a lot harder than it seems. Anyone who has photographed indoors (portraits, real estate, birthday parties, anything) will know that the amount of light our brain can see with is much lower than the amount of light our camera can see with. Even with all the windows open and all the lights on, you'll still get muddy results if you try to snap a photo without balancing out the light. See the example below:
This photo was taken only with ambient light coming in through a large sliding glass door directly behind me. As you can see the color and clarity is a bit fuddled and there are bright spots and shadows. There is a bit of glare from the window mainly on the right side of the photograph.
It is simple to fix these issues. In order to remove shadows and glare you just need to add a few flash pops. Because speedlights produce a very harsh light that would wreak havoc on anything with texture (canvas prints, paintings, framed sports memorabilia), you need to soften the light. That's where the shoot through umbrellas come into play. They turn a small point of light (the business end of your speed light) into a large point of light (the size of the umbrella). Shadows are reduced by having the light spread out more. Having more than one point of light (hence the two of everything) further helps to fill in shadows from the other side of the textured surface.
In order to get a good balance of light, all you need to do is place both speedlights on either side of the piece of artwork, about the same distance apart. If it is hanging up on a wall this should be pretty easy. For this set up I am using a 24-105 zoom lens, zoomed in at about 60mm. This helps to eliminate lens distortion common in wide angle lenses and eliminates catching either of the umbrellas in my frame.
Once you have a general set up, turn off any ceiling lights and close the blinds or drapes. You want to control all the light hitting your artwork. First, let's see what 1 flash looks like:
Not half bad, already it is much clearer and cleaner than the ambient only image we took. However, you can see that the right side of the canvas is much brighter than the left side and you can see some shadows on the left side.
Let's see what 2 flash pops will do for us:
Amazing! Now we have a very clear and crisp image with the right color balance and temperature. A few tweaks in Lightroom to the exposure and contrast to improve the RAW files helps to bring out the best image.
I had to adjust the position of the light stands a couple times to eliminate flash glare on the canvas. This is as easy and moving them back and forth, side to side, or angling the umbrella a bit. After taking a couple test shots, I had this one nailed.
My settings for this image were:
f/4 (no need for deep depth of field since my focal plane is so shallow)
Speedlights set to 1/64 power. You want both to be on the same power setting so you don't overpower one side of your artwork.
Since many pieces of art are behind glass, let's walk through how to eliminate glare on reflective surfaces like this or glossy metal prints.
Here I have a high gloss print on aluminum. As you can see, an ambient only image has significantly more glare than its canvas friend.
Those bright bands of light on the right side are from the open window in the kitchen behind me. In order to eliminate this glare we use the exact same set up as before:
Next, following the same steps as before, just turn off the lights and close the blinds and fire away with your speedlights. You should be able to use the same settings since nothing has changed.
Here is our crisp, clean image taken with both speedlights firing. As you can see, there is equal, even light across the entire print, the color balance is good, and the exposure is nailed perfectly. A few tweaks to contrast in Lightroom and I have a perfect photo of a print of a photo. This is one of my top 3 favorite photos I've ever taken. Every 4-5 years we get a fog that rolls into Salt Lake City when the air temperature is below freezing for several days. This causes these unique crystals to form on just about everything. They are so delicate that even a slight breeze will destroy them so time is extremely limited to catch a photo of this event (usually less than a day).
Shooting off the wall
If you have the ability to move your art off the wall, you might have even more creative possibilities. Sometimes walls can be boring like what we see with the plain walls in my apartment. If you can move your artwork around you'll have more flexibility with your shooting and your background.
The easiest way to photograph artwork off the wall is just to lay it flat on the ground. Then, using both your speedlights setup as before, take a well balanced photo.
Here is a photo I took off the wall to show how easy it is to do this. This Manfrotto tripod has a center column that swings out and locks into place. If you don't have a tripod that can do this, you can place a chair next to the piece of art your are photographing and stand on it. Since you are using speedlights, you can easily handhold your camera and still get a great, crisp shot. Just make sure your shutter speed is above 1/60 second for good results.
Just as before, I had to play around with the position of my speedlights in order to avoid catching a glimpse of the umbrella in the photograph:
All I needed to do was move it back just a tad and I was set:
Another perfectly lit and balanced photograph. Slight adjustments to the contrast curve in Lightroom and we have another beautiful photo of a photo. As you can see, placing the photo on the floor makes for a more interesting image and would probably help me sell the idea of this print rather than just a picture of it on a boring wall. If photographing artwork is part of your job or your hobby, you could even go to the home improvement store and pick up a discounted box of laminate flooring and put together a 5×5′ square of it to use as your backdrop.
Photographing artwork is relatively easy and the investment is tiny if you need professional images for an estate sale, auction, or your business. The better the photograph, the more interested people will be in paying for whatever it is you are selling.
A few tips to remember:
- Use a zoom lens or a medium prime to avoid barrel distortion and unwanted objects in your frame. Do not try to shoot at wide lengths.
- Make sure each of your speed lights is the same distance from the artwork and the same power. This will help create an even wash of light on your subject.
- Turn off all other lights in the room including window shades. This will help prevent color casts from light bulbs and glare from windows.
- Remember to make a few finishing touches in Lightroom or whatever post processing tool you use in order to bring life to the RAW image. They should be slight, however. It took me all of 15 seconds to adjust each image.