I’ve had many opportunities to photograph paintings and drawings both for private collectors and for the Museum of American Finance. I’ll write specifically about one experience in an upcoming post. Here I’ll share the wisdom I’ve acquired. This type of photography is technical and not at all glamorous, but I do think it’s geeky fun.
For the two works above that I photographed for the Museum of American Finance (Alexander Hamilton on the left and Robert Morris on the right), I had to travel to the Museum with the necessary equipment since the paintings were too valuable to leave the premises. My client offered me a small conference room to use as a studio (pictured below), and it turned out to be a perfect space for the job.
My equipment checklist:
- Full-frame camera with the highest resolution possible (I used my Canon 5D Mark II)
- Laptop for tethered shooting
- AC power adapter for camera (tethered shooting will drain the battery quickly)
- 24-105 mm f/4 lens
- Sturdy tripod
- Two lightstands
- Two bounce umbrellas
- Two identical Speedlites with radio triggers
- Polarizing filter
- Remote shutter release
- Three-way hotshoe-mounted bubble level to ensure the camera is perfectly level
- Laser level to ensure the art is perfectly level
- 10-foot USB tether cable
- X-Rite Passport ColorChecker
- Tape measure
- Power strip and extension cord
The lighting setup is simple, but it’s important to ensure it’s symmetrical and precise, so use the tape measure. For most average-size pieces of art, set the lights at a 45-degree angle, three feet away from the art, and three feet from the center. The camera, with the lens at around 100 mm, moves forward or backward as necessary to fill the frame. Adjust the height of the lights so they are centered on the vertical height of the art. Confirm that the umbrella rods extend the same distance from the mount to ensure identical light from both sides, and that they are both parallel to the floor. These are general guidelines. You may need to make adjustments to the angle of the lights if you’re shooting art behind glass or want to emphasize or de-emphasize the texture of canvas. Also be aware of shadows cast in multimedia pieces like collages.
The light from your strobes must be the only light falling on the art. Avoid contamination from other light sources by turning off the room lights and blacking out any windows that let in outside light. If it’s not convenient to run to and from the light switch as you work, have good flashlight with you.
To check that the lighting is even, make an exposure of the wall with a pencil held close to it. If the shadow is even on both sides, you’re good to go. If you have multiple pieces of art to shoot, once the setup is confirmed, you can quickly shoot and swap in the next piece in assembly-line fashion. Line up all the similarly-sized pieces of art so you can shoot continuously and make changes to the height of your lights and the position of the camera only when the size of the art changes.
After the initial setup, this is how I photographed the Hamilton and Morris portraits for the Museum:
- Place the art as flat as possible against the wall. Ideally an H-frame easel would have been great, but the Museum didn’t have one and it’s not part of my kit. I leaned it as flat as I could against the wall and angled the camera slightly to compensate. Since I was including the frame, I elevated the painting with the small archival box to separate the frame from the table. If the box cast a reflection or shadow on the frame, I’d clone it out later. It’s much easier to adjust and operate the camera in the horizontal position, so orient the art horizontally, and rotate it afterwards if it’s actually vertical.
- Position the camera to fill the frame as fully as possible to take advantage of the full resolution. Shooting at around 100 mm will avoid any wide angle distortion. In my case, the carpeted floor made precise movements of the tripod difficult, so once I had everything set close enough, I zoomed in and out a little for a final adjustment. If you’re using a fixed focal length lens, you have no choice but to move the camera.
- With the room lights still on (or with a flashlight), autofocus on the art, then switch the lens to manual focus, because autofocus won’t work after you turn the lights off. Or just manually focus from the start. I don’t trust my eyes with my prescription glasses, so I focus with 10x magnification on the camera’s LCD screen, then check again on my laptop.
- If the artwork is flat, aperture is not much of an issue, so I routinely shoot at f/8. With your camera in manual mode, set the ISO to 100 or 200, the aperture to f/8, and the shutter speed to 1/250 second. That shutter speed should be fast enough to exclude any stray outside light. Use these settings as a baseline and make custom adjustments as necessary. Set the white balance to Flash. Set the camera to mirror lockup mode to ensure no camera shake. Take a few frames to adjust the power of the lights and judge the correct exposure by looking at the histogram on the camera, or better yet in the application you’re using on your computer for tethered capture.
- Once you’ve got the exposure right, inspect the photo carefully on your computer for focus, shadows, reflections, etc. If reflections are a problem, add a polarizing filter and adjust your settings to compensate for losing between 1 and 1.5 stops of light from the filter. I had to do this because the glossy oil paint was reflecting the light poorly. The challenge was that at f/8 and ISO 100, I couldn’t see the results of rotating the filter. I had to open the aperture and increase the ISO to 3200 to see the effects on the camera’s LCD, then restore my settings before shooting.
- With everything set, shoot a frame with the X-Rite Passport Color checker in the picture, or use some other color target so you can make adjustments later. Capturing the colors exactly as they are in the art is crucial.
- Capture the final image and repeat.
- Finally, do any necessary post-processing. In Lightroom, I made slight white balance and color adjustments based on the image I made with the Passport ColorChecker. Then in Photoshop, I silhouetted the ornate frames and applied some sharpening.