Sunday, June 14, 2009

Photographing Oil Paintings

Photography ranks near the top of the list of things I don't like about my job. Getting good photographs of my paintings has frustrated me since the day I started painting. Unfortunately, the further I get in my career, the more important it is to have quality images of my paintings.

I used to have a perfect spot in my house to photograph my paintings - indirect light, no glare, just perfect. Then we moved (three times), and every time we moved I found myself scrambling to find a new "perfect" spot.

I've tried every spot in the current house with indirect light, shooting outside on a cloudy day, shooting outside on a sunny day, shooting inside the studio with my daylight flourescents, shooting my paintings at an angle, and whatever else you might suggest. No matter what, I seem to end up with glare on some part of the painting. I use thick paint, and I find it next to impossible to to take a photo without the light catching on some brushstroke, and it drives me insane. For big paintings, it's not a big deal - hardly noticeable unless you blow up the painting full size. For small paintings, or paintings with a lot of dark values, it can make getting a decent image virtually impossible.

So, I started looking into having my paintings professionally photographed last year. Problem is, most photographers who know anything about photographing 2D art charge $50-$70 per painting, which adds up quickly if you're at all prolific. Also, I live in the mountains, so add in the hassle of transporting my paintings two hours to a photographer in Denver, then having to make the same trip to pick them up. I'm cheap, so this doesn't really appeal to me - I'll probably only do this if I ever start to make giclees or prints.

A few weeks ago, Carole Marine recommended this new ebook called "Exposing Yourself: The Artist's Guide to Digital Imaging". It's written by Jason Smith, a photographer who does all the photography for the Greenhouse Gallery in San Antonio, TX (if you want to see his work, just go click on the high res image of any painting on their website). Every year I'm impressed with the images of my paintings that show up on the Greenhouse Gallery website for the Salon International show, so I figured I could probably learn a thing or two from him and bought the book.

The book covers everything from cameras to lighting to computer editing and printing, but I was mostly focused on the lighting. Like most of the local photographers I've talked to, Smith recommends using polarizing filters on the lights and camera to eliminate glare. Unlike most of the photographers I've talked to, he actually explains how to do this in enough detail that I was able to order the equipment and try it myself!

So, long story short, it worked. I'm actually totally impressed at how easy this was after all my frustration over the past few years. The picture I put up with my last blog post is the poster child for all of my frustration.

Here's the "before" shot:

If you click to enlarge it, you can see that I had some serious glare on anything resembling a vertical brushstroke. It looks okay small, but full size it's fairly atrocious. And since it's a small painting (11x14"), it's really obvious that the photo is lacking.

Here's my "after" shot (click to enlarge):

You probably have to see these images full-screen to really see the difference. First of all, NO glare - yay!! Second of all, more saturated color and accurate values. I took this photo and uploaded it to my computer and immediately felt that every penny I had spent on lighting and filters had been worth it (and wished I had figured this out two years ago).

Also, for the record, the "before" photo took me about half an hour and twenty photos to get the quality you see here. The "after" photo was my first shot after setting up the new lights - that's about 29 minutes worth of frustration avoided! This is just an average example, but I've had some paintings with darker values that were a nightmare to photograph without having glare messing up the values, and I can tell just from this photo that this setup will solve those problems completely.

Overall, I had to spend about $270 on equipment. I bought a polarizing lens for my camera, an adapter for the lens since my camera isn't an SLR, lights, bulbs, stands, polarizing filters for the lights, and filter holders for the lights. That cost translates to the price of having about five paintings professionally photographed, so I figure it'll pay for itself quickly. Also, now that I know I can successfully eliminate the glare myself, I'll feel more justified in eventually buying that nice new DSLR that I've had my eye on for a while!

Anyhow, I just wanted to share this, and say that if you have any questions about photographing your paintings or editing the digital files, I'd highly recommend getting Smith's book, Exposing Yourself. It's a simple upload, and worth every penny at only $19.95.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going to go re-photograph every painting in my studio!


  1. Good topic Stacey! When you do get your DSLR I hope you give the Nikon D300 a look (or it's replacement).

    Not sure what the book(s) say about photographing your work but for me the DSLR, two strobes shooting through umbrellas, and a white balance reference card are the bee's knees.

    - Michael

    PS Thanks for "Tweeting" the blog - it let me know you had a new post faster than me checking all the blogs I look at each weekday.

  2. This is the second time I've heard this book mentioned in the last couple of days-guess I'd better get it. The glazes on my paintings are the culprit for me. I think we already have the stands and maybe even the filter for the lights so I really have no excuse- off to download it now!

  3. jake gaedtke6/15/2009 8:18 AM

    Hey Stacey,
    Excellent advice. Thanks for passing this along. This task being one of the most frustrating one's in an artists life, we need as much advice as we can get. This looks like a gem. I use a photographer in Loveland who is pretty good, but I don't always have time to haul my work over there and go pick it up. it's great to be able to do my own when necessary. Thanks again,,,,,,and as always, great work. jake

  4. Michael - I've been looking at both Nikons and Canon EOS. Seems they both get good reviews, but the Nikons are rated low when it comes to needing repairs - have you had any problems?

    Deborah - if the glazes on your paintings are reflective, it very well might help to use the filters. I found that I got much more accurate color and definition all over. It's worth a try!

    Jake - I'm a procrastinator and often finish my paintings at the last minute, so it's always good to know how to do this myself! You're lucky to have a good guy that's fairly local - the only guy I've found up here who will photo paintings doesn't like to do it...

  5. Thanks for posting this Stacey. I will have to buy a filter and give it a go. BTW, regarding Canon cameras, I actually dropped my 10D on a rock once and still works like a champ. I have owned it for about six years and it has never been in the shop. Mine has the all metal body, which I feel is more durable than plastic/metal outer shells.

  6. Stacey,

    I have never had any problems. In fact my Nikon D70s and I have taken over 30,000 photos together. I do freelance work as a photo editor, and shooter. My brother is a photographer and we work together a lot. He has used the D70, and the D200 without problem. Currently he is using the D300 and has yet to have any issues.

    I do a lot of his editing and the D300 has a nice dynamic range. With that said, I would only purchase the D90 or better at this point. My next camera is the D300 or D700 replacements. I am waiting for the next new models.

    If I had to get everything over again I would get Adobe Photoshop CS4 to edit, a D300 to shoot, a good prime lens (f2.8 minimum non zoom), a white balance reference card, and I would only shoot in RAW format. For lights, I would invest in two SB-900 flash strobes, and shoot through umbrellas. I shoot this way now but I use my D70s in place of the D300.

    See B&H Photo for great prices on camera gear.

    - Michael

  7. Lee - good to know the Canon has held up for you! I have some friends with Canon SLRs and they take amazing pictures.

    Michael - thanks for the advice. I actually buy all my photography stuff from B&H - seems like they always have everything, which makes ordering easier =) I had a photographer shoot my paintings with strobes and umbrellas once, and they still had glare - I was very disappointed, and luckily he didn't charge me. I don't know if I'm just too picky, or my paintings are too shiny, but I'm glad to have stumbled upon the trick of using these filters to cut the glare. And it's allowing me to get by with fairly cheap lights right now. I'm sure I'll upgrade eventually...

  8. Can I have your current camera when you get the DSLR?

  9. Wow, seeing the difference between shots of your wonderful landscape really does a great job to illustrate the importance of good photography. Although, the first one looks really good too, even the blown up image. I really need to improve my back porch/in the shade approach... Thanks for the great post, Stacey!

  10. First time visiting your blog; thanks for the book recommendation! I think many painters (myself included) struggle with photographing their artwork. I'm glad your photos can now do justice to your beautiful paintings-nice work!

  11. You are right. If after painting a nice one, you cannot capture it well for an online display, or magazine can be very frustrating. If you need to sell it online., you have to get a good snap of the painting. But now that you have got a good snap, things will be easier for you. Best of Luck.

  12. Ahh....this is great! I spend half my life trying to photograph my paintings which contain a LOT of black and very thick it's a glare extravavganza! I can't wait to try this out!

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