Photographing Paintings with a DSLR

When I wrote about photographing paintings last time, I discussed hiring professionals and the equipment they use. In the years since that post, digital camera technology has developed a great deal and in a direction which works well for photographing paintings.

What an artist needs in a photograph of their work are the correct colors, values, and chroma of the piece, with a distortion-free lens, in a very high resolution which can show the detail in the brushwork, as well as the varying sharpness and softness of the edges. For years the best way to do this was with a medium format camera with a digital back. The price for this equipment could run easily into tens of thousands of dollars. The major recent change in consumer digital photography is that the camera companies have engaged in what technology writers derogatorily refer to as the ‘megapixel war’. This race for better sensors with higher pixel counts has pushed the capabilities of DSLR sensors into the range of the low-end digital backs, potentially saving the DIY painter a ton of money.

Obviously hiring a professional photographer will achieve better results. They will have better equipment and the experience to know how to use it. They are also incredibly expensive (in Italy I paid €100 per photo, or about €1000 for an hour’s work). You can buy a whole set up for the price, and since photographing paintings is really a one-trick pony, getting it good enough isn’t that difficult.

To photograph artwork well one needs the following equipment: A tripod, proper lighting covered by polarized film, a color calibration system and gray card, a decent DSLR body which can be tethered to a computer, a computer with tethering software, a good macro (micro) lens with a circular polarizing filter, and software to edit and archive the work.

First place the painting on an easel with two bright, full-spectrum, lighting sources at 45 degree angles to the artwork, put the camera on a tripod so the lens is parallel to the surface of the painting, as shown below. Lights, painting and camera should be at the same height. There should be no other light sources, and anything white that can cause a glare on the painting should be covered.

Photograph artwork Photographing Paintings with a DSLR

My set-up for photographing paintings.

Put your calibration card in front of the painting, photograph it, then run it through the included software (if needed convert RAW to DNG with Adobe’s free DNG converter). The software finds the color squares, measures them and makes a preset for your camera. Save the preset. Remove the calibration card and put a gray card next to the painting.

X Rite Passport1 Photographing Paintings with a DSLR

X-Rite ColorChecker Passport software screen.

Photograph the painting by first putting the camera in mirror-up mode (or set the remote connection to use mirror-up mode). Set ISO to the lowest number, usually 100, and operational mode should be aperture priority or manual (program mode will work too if you can change the aperture setting). Set image type to RAW. Set the lens to manual focus mode. Turn the polarizer on the lens until the glare on the painting is gone.

Next turn on live-view monitoring in the tethering software on your computer, put the tethered image in full-screen mode, zoom in to the maximum and manually focus the shot by hand. If your tethering software can take the photo in mirror-up mode, shoot from the computer screen, otherwise use a shutter-release cable or remote. Do not use the shutter-release button on the camera as it can move slightly and blur the shot. Experiment with various f-stops to find the sharpest for your lens, normally with a macro lens the middle range from f/4 to f/11 will be best.

Import the photo into your editing software and apply the calibration preset (click the eyedropper on the grey card if the white balance is off). Make any other corrections, i.e. rotation, crop, lens profile adjustment, etc… I then tag the paintings with the year, location and subject, so I can find them easily later. I’ve also made export presets for all the possible uses I’ll have for the photos. It makes preparing images trivial.

dalessio 1 4 Photographing Paintings with a DSLR

Some tips for larger paintings: If you don’t have polarizing sheets, the lights can be at angles greater than 45 degrees to reduce glare. If there are problems with getting an even light across a large painting, find an area with even lighting and take multiple photographs, moving the painting on a flat plane at the same distance from the camera until you have photographs of sections of the whole painting. Then use stitching software such as Adobe Photoshop,  PTGui or the free Microsoft ICE to put the individual images together. This method can also be used to get ultra-high resolution images of larger paintings while using a low-megapixel camera. With a bit of work you can capture an amount of detail which would give medium format cameras a run for their money. Subtle HDR is another idea if the value range is too great for the camera.

Below are some of my thoughts on photography equipment for painters. Much of the expense of photography equipment is to make sure photographers are able to capture fleeting moments. Since photographing paintings is done under very controlled circumstances, it isn’t necessary to buy the best and newest equipment. (I’ve added Amazon referral links).

  • The tripod can be one of those cheap $20 plastic ones they sell everywhere. I have a couple that people have abandoned in my studio which I’ve used in a pinch. The problem is that they can be annoying to move into position. They are normally not recommended as they can wobble, but since photographing paintings should be done via a remote and with the camera in mirror-up mode there isn’t any movement. Still it’s better to have decent one like those made by Silk or Dolica, they run $30 to $80 (I use a Silk). Manfrotto Photographing Paintings with a DSLR or Vanguard Photographing Paintings with a DSLR are better brands and, while they cost more, a tripod is something one should only buy once.
  • Proper lighting is inexpensive. I needed lighting to paint after dark in my studio anyways, so I picked up a soft-box lighting set-up with the following specifications: 125W (625w equivalent) Continuous Lighting, 5400K pure white daylight bulbs, General color rendering index Ra > 90. This is the one I have, to give an idea of what they look like. Professional photographers will use flashes which can produce stronger and better quality light, but you can’t paint from a flash. Finally, polarizing sheets should be placed over the soft-box, a cheap place to get polarized sheets is Polarization.com.
  • As to which camera to buy, there are better websites to read than this one (Luminous Landscape has an interesting article here on sensor benchmarks). Generally it’s considered a good idea to spend more on lenses and save on the camera body. The lenses last longer. I went with Nikon since they seem more interested in high pixel-count sensors while Canon seems more focused on their video capabilities. The recent Nikons have also removed the low-pass, antialiasing filter for sharper images (removing the low-pass filter can put the camera at risk for moire, but art-photographers I wrote to say it hasn’t been a problem). A new Nikon entry-level (DX) D3200 runs under $400, it has a resolution of 24 megapixels and will take great photos. As you move up the line of Nikon’s offerings, the D5200 Photographing Paintings with a DSLR gets slightly better image quality for one third more the price. It also has a bunch of bells and whistles that don’t matter when photographing artwork in a controlled studio environment. The same goes for the D7100 Photographing Paintings with a DSLR, which is weather sealed, takes photos faster, has better autofocus, gets better photos in low light, etc. Again, all things that don’t really matter for photographing paintings, but which should be considered if you plan on using the camera for other things. (For the record, the D5200 gets a better score from DxO than the D7100). Buying a generation behind, used, or refurbished can save money. High-end professional Nikons with a full-sized (FX) sensor (the D800 Photographing Paintings with a DSLR or D800E Photographing Paintings with a DSLR) are 36 megapixel cameras and are getting into the range of medium format pixel numbers.
  • A macro (or micro) lens is normally for photographing small things up close. The reason they are used for photographing paintings is that they have flat field of focus with little geometric or color distortion. They are also generally very sharp lenses which can capture fine details. Painters need a prime macro lens with a fixed focal length, not a zoom. Since I have a small studio now I’m using an inexpensive 40mm micro lens for larger paintings, and a used macro 105mm AIS lens for my sketches. Most professionals seem to prefer an 85mm. The longer focal lengths tend to be better quality, and will have less geometric distortion, but you need more space to shoot larger paintings. A fast, f/1.2 or f/1.4 (expensive) lens isn’t necessary as the studio will be well-lit, and the sharpest aperture settings are in the middle (f/5.6 to f/11) range. Finally, because one should focus manually while photographing paintings, autofocus isn’t necessary and old used lens can have great (sharp) optics for less money. The circular polarizer should be from a reputable brand (mine is a B+WKaesemann Circular Polarizer Photographing Paintings with a DSLR).
  • The color calibration system is one of the most powerful tools in art photography. I have the X-Rite ColorChecker Passport Photographing Paintings with a DSLR and it’s worth its weight in gold. What you do is set the color grid on the easel where your painting will be photographed, take a photo of the squares under the proper lighting, import it into your computer and run it through the X-Rite software. It will make a profile of how your camera sees colors under your lighting set-up. From there, any photograph you take can simply have the profile applied to it and it will get your colors and values correct with one click. I’ve spent hours trying to fiddle with settings with my painting next to the screen with much worse results. This is really worth the money. I also have a gray card from Amazon, it helps to quickly set the white balance (the X-Rite Passport comes with a gray card too).
  • For photo archiving and correcting software I’m using Adobe Photoshop Lightroom 5 Photographing Paintings with a DSLR. It’s inexpensive for what it offers, and is quick and powerful when you get the hang of it. The library works very well and I’m quickly able to navigate through my archive of thousands of photos. It has all the standard color correction tools, as well as spot-removal (often meaning bug-removal on plein air paintings). It also has my 40mm lens profile from Nikon, so if I tell the program that’s what lens I used, it will fix the geometric distortion, quickly giving me straight lines on the edge of my paintings. To photograph from the computer I tether the camera with a USB cable and control it using the free Sofortbild program in OSX. If I’m using Windows, I use ControlMyNikon ($30).

Update: Somehow my last paragraph on monitor calibration got deleted before I posted, so here it is again.

The Short Version: Get a decent monitor (I have a Dell U2413 Photographing Paintings with a DSLR and a cheap 27″ Qnix from Ebay), and get a monitor calibration system. I have the X-Rite i1Display Pro Photographing Paintings with a DSLR which works with the Dell calibration software. Spyder is another brand to look at. It makes a big difference in viewing your paintings on the computer.

The Long Version: After spending all this time and money getting the photographs correct on the camera, it is also important to see them correctly on the computer screen. A new DSLR will take photographs with 14 bits of color depth, but most cheap LCD screens can usually only display 6 bits of color depth. These LCDs do some technological gymnastics  to make their 6-bit color look like 8-bit color, which is the 24 million colors that were all used to on monitors. The newer IPS monitors will have true 8-bit color depth, and professional monitors like those made by NEC and Eizo will display 10 or 12 bits of true color depth. These can run $1,000 or more. One then needs a professional graphics card to use them as normal graphics cards won’t display more than 8-bit color. There is furthermore the problem that not every operating system, OSX for example, can display 10-bit color even if you have the hardware (though individual programs will). If you don’t want to break the bank, a good middle range are Dells or the Asus PB series. TFTCentral.co.uk is great for monitor reviews.

19 comments

  1. Marc:

    A fine article on copyshooting our work. One of the best I’ve read. However, one thing left out is the need to periodically calibrate one’s computer monitor as they will drift out of spec over time. It’s not required per se if an X-Rite Color Check profile is being used for the initial shot but it can be helpful if you want to view or edit the file afterwards. X-Rite offers several inexpensive options as does Spyder.

    Again, a very good soup-to-nuts post on how to shoot a painting. Thank you.

  2. I have a cannon D60 as of one year ago…. with 2 different lens, I take the photos outside against a neutral background on a bright overcast day, and also shoot in direct sunlight with location sunny keyed paintings… and get extremely accurate color representation. No other equipment is needed for my purposes. I find filters distort as well as indoor lighting.

  3. Awesome article Marc! Amazingly in depth. I realize an iPhone isn’t cutting it for taking pictures of my paintings. Time to dust off the ol DSLR and drop some cash on a lens. You are spot on about the circular polarizer, it does wonders for photographing paintings. I used to have one and a roomate broke it along with my lens hence the dust. I am inspired, again, to photograph my work right! So thank you sir!

    Cheers!

  4. What great and concise information! For quick images of smaller paintings, I’ve been using an inexpensive scanner lately, which seems to give me (usually) glare free images of my paintings because I don’t have a proper setup to photograph.

    I was interested in what you said about using a digital back for medium format cameras. I have an old Mamiya medium fomat that I was gifted which I’m sure has better lenses then the Canon G11 I use for almost everything now. I wonder what I would get to use this?

  5. For days I was undecided between Canon and The Nikon D3200. Fortunately on the day I was going to make my decision your article appeared and confirmed my choice of Nikon . I bought it the day before yesterday. Now I have to learn how to use it as any type of hi-tech is french for me.

  6. Really great article, Marc, thanks so much! I kind of found my own way in figuring out how best to photograph my paintings. Luckily for me, I followed a path similar to yours. I have a Nikon D5200 (love it). I use a wireless remote shutter (about $8.00 on Amazon), I bought Lightroom 4 as well, and bought a book by Scott Kelby with way more info than I needed, but still really useful. I have 2 light stands set up pretty much as you have diagrammed, each with an 85watt CFL (about 300 watts equiv) at 5500K temp. I don’t have softbox covers, but I may look into these based on your success. I shoot with a grey card first and have had pretty good results so far, with quality art prints from my web page with Fine Art America. I had to learn not to “adjust” too much, with Lightroom, when looking at my computer image, because my initial results, when printed were often too warm when compared to the originals. Again, based on your success, I’m going to take a look at an adjustable polarizing filter and the X-rite color checker package, and I’ll also try tethering the camera directly to my laptop when shooting.
    By the way, really beautiful artwork, love the light, and thanks again for this great article.

  7. Hi Jack, the D5200 should work in mirror-up mode while tethered too. As far as I know it’s the only one besides the D800 which does.

  8. Hi Marc,
    Good post.
    I agree with most of what you say.
    I photograph art for a living and I wish I could get paid those prices. I charge $100 Euros / hour. The Large Format scanning camera that I use is 216 mega pixels. A scan costs $125…and it is 618 megabytes…My small camera is a 36 mega pixel D800 and images made with that one range between $25 and $50 depending on volume. I recently upgraded it from a D700. Incidentally, I photographed a 4 foot square – thinly painted canvas which gave so much moire with the D700, that I chose the non E version of the D800.
    There are several processes that I use to elevate the quality.
    Zig Align / Equalight / In camera profiling:
    Zig Align is around $150. It uses mirrors to ensure perfect camera alignment. This allows for wider apertures and sharper images.
    With Equalight one photographs a white card larger than the painting. The $50 software maps out brightness levels caused by uneven lighting and lens fall off. Then it applies that math to the image file.
    ‘In camera’ profiling plus the SG chart is 5 times the cost of the Xrite Passport. However, it makes better profiles without the need for a dng workflow. The passport is definitely better than not using a colour managed work flow, but it cannot compare to Pictocolors In Camera profile.
    Here I can still work with Raw image processors.

  9. Thanks Grant, that’s great information. I wish I had gone for the D800, it was a bit out of my budget though.

    I’ve seen people removing the moire in post. I’ve had moire from the linen grain even with a low-pass-filter camera.

    It’s too bad the Pictocolor software doesn’t support 64-bit software. I’ll look into the others and add them to the post when I update again.

    Thanks again for your input.

  10. Marc,
    I keep Photoshop 5 around just for this reason. I can set it to open in 32-bit to use Pictocolor’s In Camera, so I leave it in 32-bit all of the time. It is easier just to keep both PS5 & PS6 running side by side. Pictocolor’s Edit Lab works well in in both 32 & 64-bit, so I use Edit Lab in both PS5 & PS6.
    If you like how much better colour looks using Passport Colorchecker, you will be in total awe using “In Camera”.

    Although Capture One Pro has some of the best tools and it can arguably produce some of the largest sharpest files, it is not so hot on its colour interpretation with Nikon Cameras. This is because Nikon will not release the necessary code to Phase One, effectively hamstringing Capture One from being able to do a better job of it. The result is that contrast is ramped up and colour skewed. After building a profile and editing it slightly in Edit Lab [ +5 contrast / + 5 saturation ] colour prints on my iPF8300 almost flawlessly. When an artist sits beside me and I choose the new profile, they say “Now that’s it, That’s what it should look like”

    And then there is the Betterlight Super 6KHS scanning Back.

    On another note:
    If a profesional is truly great at his or her craft, then their efficiency should equate to economics. If you need to use a pro, then choose one who specializes in art photography. A great portrait or wedding photographer is not perhaps your best choice. Skills for each are very different. Portrait photographers will not normally have the skill set nor the experience to give you a perfect job at a reasonable cost.
    They may be gaining experience at your expense.

    Grant

  11. Thank you a lot Marc, you have put in one post everything I was looking for, and for a while! All the photographs I have “interviewed” had different solutions…
    Usually, they don’t agree with the use of a polarizer on the camera, and I would admit it change a lot the colors, and in a non homogen way, no? It takes a lot of light too.. Perhaps mine is too cheap…
    I don’t understand why you use first a diffuser for your light and after a polarizer on your box? Why not something where you choose the angle of the light directly? And on the website, I don’t understand which on I should look for.
    Excuse me for my bad english (it’s hard for me to understand everything too in the article; good english training!) and my poor level on photography…

    I’v bought before Christmas a Nikon D 5300 (I really like the multi angle screen, it’s the only reason why I haven’t take the D7100, a better choice even if more heavy, because you can take pictures under rain, near the sea… I think I will have dust in my camera in two months…) and as it is wifi, you can use your phone as a wireless remote shutter. Its what I thought! I have a nokia Lumia and it works only with android or iPhone.. So, I have a 8€ shutter; it’s really useful, to take picture with a bad tripod. And to take pictures and video of yourself for the blogs ect… (here the reflexive screen will be really useful too…). My camera has a gps, it’s perhaps useful for somebody who is traveling a lot like you, to classify pictures, but it use a lot of battery. I haven’t even look how it works…
    I’ve bought a calibration card just a month ago, but without the application; now I would like to eat my hat! I really regret to haven’t buy something like the one your speaking about. And I will perhaps buy something for my screen; I use an old apple screen, and two macbook; I never know what are the good colors! And I work as graphic designer; what a shame… Thank you for the advice. It’s just a little bit hard to spend money for that… I wanted to buy a big time capsule instead.
    I have a 1T disk for time machine, but with our big pictures, It’s already too small! I have three other disk, where I put manually my originals; one for picture, one for video (better to loose picture from work than videos from family, I can tell you after having had my house and studio burned…) and one for the rest; design work, marketing and house stuff. If you have troubles with you photo applications you will have troubles to find your pictures. The name can change, the link.. And everything is put in different folders for originals or retuched; it’s good to have a disk with everything in folder with the date (year-month-day-name), so you can find again your original in case of problem with the application, or a virus and to save stuff you don’t have room to put on your computer or from older computers. Time machine is helping for your new works.
    I think I will pay for having my two photos and videos disk saved online too. If they are stolen (it has happen to my cousin, who is working home and who is architect; a realll problem!) but before having money for that I will take two other cheap disks to save pictures, videos and important stuff every two or three months and I’ll give it to a friend or to my husband to put it at work .
    For the moment I try Aperture, to have a library on a few disk if I want. Because I can’t put all the pictures in my computer. As I work with client oversea, in my island (Saint-Pierre & Miquelon) I have a LOT of heavy pictures that I need to check easily and rapidly.
    You can have multi library with lightroom? Or a library shared on a few disk? (it’s what I’m looking for…) I would like to find THE solution for saving and classifying my pictures.. what do you do for yours? It’s perhaps the subject for a new post…

    Thank you a lot for this article, very useful. It was my goal for this winter; doing a good studio for me (and friends) to make picture good enough for giclée printing and for the stamps I do for St Pierre (I’m working again in oil; I’ve abandoned the computer!).
    I’m use to take my pictures outside but it’s really not easy with the reflections and there’s a lake of homogeny between different shots. As I hadn’t money for the moment and as I wanted to try before buying better lights, I’v listen to what a photographer told me and bought another quartz on a tripod. I had already one; I used it when I was building my house. So, it’s a quite white light, strong and veeeery cheap. With the calibration card and photoshop, you can adjust. And you can use of a big board of polystyrene as a cheap an light reflector too. Don’t forget to put curtain on your windows two… A not so pro solution than your’s of course!
    For the lens, I’v choose a Nikon 50mm 1,4. I could have choose a 30 to be closest to the eye vision, but I did a mistake, remembering my old leica 50… argentique! Anyway, I’m really happy to have it and as it is a little bit zoomed, there’s less distortion, it’s more “flat”… And it’s very good to take portrait of family or for an order (another really usefull thing on those new reflex; the video! For the command of portrait, you can take pictures and video on the run and with the same lens and with a really good quality)

    Sorry to make so long post!
    Happy new year to you and all the reader! Happy painting!
    Raphaële

  12. Oh, wow Mark, awesome write up. Taking notes for sure. I use a Canon t2i without a filter but would like to get a setup going where I just take a photo and the color is spot on. Something to look forward to doing this year.

  13. I also have a Nikon camera and shoot in RAW (NEF files), and find that with Nikon´s editing software (Capture NX2) the color is more accurate than with Photoshop. I´ve tried some calibration software with a color chart and DNG files in Photoshop, and the results were not as good as with Capture NX2 and a simple white balance adjustment on a grey card.
    (Note: I have a software- calibrated monitor)

  14. Hi Jose, I agree Nikon’s software appears to give the best results with their NEF files, even compared to the camera-profiled results in Lightroom. I find everything else about Lightroom so useful though (the cataloging and export presets) that it suits my workflow better.

  15. Good post, Marc —
    I have worked with a pro photographer many times with a dual light set up, but when the painting has thicker brush strokes, that kind of lighting (while eliminating glare) also cancels out all fine shadow detail that delineates thick brush strokes, sometimes creating weird effects I don’t want… That’s when I have to take it outside on an over cast day or find some shade that lets in enough ambient light to show those strokes w/o too much glare. The dual light set up is optimum for flat oils or watercolours, but tricky with more textural surfaces… Have you figured out a way to bypass the glare, but still retain the texture you want? Thanks.

  16. Hi Mark, great great post on photographing paintings. The best and succinct painters version on the topic I believe. I know it would be a lot of hassle but this would be great in a video to exactly see how it all works. That would be awesome.

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