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How do I photograph a huge painting?
August 19, 2005 12:41 PM   Subscribe

Photographing soon-to-be-destroyed architectural paintings...

So, there's a building in downtown Fargo with beautiful old art deco paintings in it. They are approximately 12 feet tall by four feet wide, painted directly on the old walls and framed with trim.

They are going to be torn down in a remodeling project, and I've secured an opportunity to photograph them. I've got a Canon S70 7.1 megapixel camera and I'm familiar with all the manual controls. I'd like to capture these things in a 100megapixel+ resolution, with the hope that they could be reprinted at or near the original size, and preserved for historical purposes.

So, given the circumstances, how would you go about photographing such an object? I've thought about fixing the exposure and white balance so that all are consistent, using a color bar for later calibration, recording in RAW format, etc etc. How would you deal with the sheer scale of these things? Is there some kind of X/Y rig that would make photographing the grid easier? How would you light it?
posted by fake to Media & Arts (16 answers total)
If you really want to do it right, you will need some scaffolding in order to do a series of photos at different heights so that you can then piece together a complete image free from distortion (read - as flat as possible)
posted by Thorzdad at 1:19 PM on August 19, 2005

Best would be a large format camera, perhaps with a digital back. And yes, scaffolding is in order.

This is a job for pro grade equipment, if you want it to be an archival quality document.
posted by me3dia at 1:24 PM on August 19, 2005

No scaffolding required, get an old tripod, and mount it on a big broom handle, set the camera shutter timer, and take the picture. Move a few steps over, and take another, and so on.

Use the free software autostitch to create a larger image from the many smaller digital camera images. Take a ton of photos, the software will use what it needs, and it does a great job. I would recommend telling autostitch not to scale the final image (the default behavior).
posted by splatta at 1:26 PM on August 19, 2005 [1 favorite]

Right, I'm not *that* concerned about doing it to a museum standard, so perhaps I was misleading on the "historical purposes" part. But a scaffold is a great idea, and would get me up to avoid the problems associated with photographing it from down low. I've got a copy of Realviz Stitcher to do the stitching.

I'm more interested in clever or even bog-standard solutions to the problem than I am in advice about pro-grade equipment (which is unfortunately out of the question). Thanks everyone so far...
posted by fake at 1:44 PM on August 19, 2005

First, figure out the ideal distance from the mural, and once you know that, the appropriate X and Y between shots (with a generous overlap).

Strike a line on the ground the ideal distance from the mural (parallel to teh wall), with tickmarks along the line at the appropriate X interval. Then, go rent a telescoping tripod, set up on each of the X tickmarks, and run the camera up at the approriate Y interval (maybe with a storypole marked with the Y interval?)

You might need some kind of rig to make sure the camera is perpendicular to the wall. That it the critical part...

On preview, is renting the fancy tripod too "pro-grade?"
posted by misterbrandt at 1:50 PM on August 19, 2005

No! That's perfect misterbrandt... a device I was unaware of that would make the job easier. I was toying with the idea of using a large pipe extension on a regular tripod, but that would work a lot better. I think I could keep the camera parallel with a pretty simple floor rig...
posted by fake at 1:55 PM on August 19, 2005

Sorry to be kind of OT, but why are they being torn down? Are they original art deco era paintings? Is art deco uncool again? I guess there's already been an unsuccessful effort to save them, at least by being removed from the building in a non-destructive manner.
posted by zsazsa at 2:10 PM on August 19, 2005

Fake, I was concerned that teh telescoping portions of the tripod might not be "keyed" to prevent them from rotating. So when you telescope up and down a couple of times, will the camera stay aimed correctly?

Depending on which item is easier to find and rent, you could also just get a smallish Genie-type scissor lift. and set a standard tripod on top of that. That will for sure not rotate. Just make sure the wheel base is perfectly parallel to the wall.
posted by misterbrandt at 2:23 PM on August 19, 2005

You want to use lighting in such a way to avoid glare. the best way is to use a polarizing filter on the lens and polarizing film over the lights. Any old lights will do shone at 45 degree angles to the subject. You may be able to get away without using the polarizing filters depending on the glossy character of the paintings. Chances are though you will not so try to find some polarizing film, k?
posted by JJ86 at 2:48 PM on August 19, 2005

It looks like the Plains is the local art museum. Have you thought about calling a curator over there? (They also have a photographer on staff, it looks like.) At they very least, they may have some tips for you. (Best case scenario? They'd take the paintings themselves and preserve them.)
posted by Vidiot at 3:13 PM on August 19, 2005

You can buy center rod extensions for Bogen tripods. A decent base, extension columns, and a bubble level is a workable solution.

On the cheaper side, a lightstand typically will have much extension height (say, up to 15'), with less control over the legs, and much more wobble/sway. A beefy lightstand will be reasonably stable up to maybe 50% of it's height, extending the big tubes first of course. You should be able to find adapters from the light stud end to mount your camera, though you might have to call and explain what you're doing.

I also would measure away from the wall, mark a line, and use it to align the feet. Use the bubble level on the wall first, to check how vertical it is, if it's way out of wack, attempt to roughly compensate by putting tape on your tripod/stand legs, or use a ball-head($$$).

On the super cheap, I'd use a Superclamp w/head, and a ladder. The superclamp thingy is basically a very strong clamp with an attachment that allows you to clamp your camera to bars, tables, ladders, as long as the surface isn't thicker than about 1 1/2". The ladder method would require much more recalibrating, because after every row of shots, you're going to have to remove and re-clamp your camera, and then align it with the wall again.

To align the camera parallel to the wall, I guess I might measure out several parallel lines on the wall, and put screws in beyond the paintings with a string between them. Zoom out, and rotate the camera until they look like they're not converging, and you're parellel. It would be a pain in the butt, but I can't think of simpler way. A level takes care of everything except for rotation, so it doesn't matter if the lines are parallel to the ground, just parallel to each other. This might not be that big of a problem in the final image.
posted by Jack Karaoke at 4:06 PM on August 19, 2005


I actually used to be a Plains employee- unfortunately, the collections person has just moved to Austin. I'm friends with most of the staff there, and their funding is very limited, as is their interest in such a thing. Greaty suggestion though.

Jack, great idea with the strings. I was thinking of just using a printed out grid and using PTlens to correct for whatever barrel distortion remained after zooming in as much as possible. I really like your Superclamp reccomendation, I think it is the most technically and financially feasible option at this point.

Thanks to everyone for the help. It all goes down Sep. 1, so If I get these images captured and processed, I'll post the results here.
posted by fake at 4:59 PM on August 19, 2005

If you’re handy with Photoshop, here’s an alternate (or maybe supplimental) thought:

Relax a bit about staying perfectly parallel to the wall, and use the perspective-crop function in PSCS to return any off-square images to square. So long as you can take totally in-focus shots of overlapping sections with some reference lines in each that will tell you what square is, you can correct for keystoning, etc. quite easily. You might, for instance, cut out a large mat with an opening the same proportions as your images and move this across the paintings, frame the mat as well as you can and shoot it, thus capturing overlapping sections with perfectly rectangular outlines. Include color bars (or a white, black and/or 16%-grey swatch) on the mat and you’ll be able to color-correct easily with the eyedroppers in the Levels dialog.

I’d personally be primarily concerned with getting the lighting consistent across the entire image, with no glare, shadow or hot spots.

Sounds like a cool project!
posted by dpcoffin at 5:15 PM on August 19, 2005

As far as lighting goes you want soft lighting coming from either side. I'd rig up a pair of curtains on wheels and make a large mobile light box. Move the light box so that it's bracketing the area you're photographing and illuminate it with lights passing through the lightbox parallel to the floor. This will create a nice even lighting that won't cause glare.
posted by substrate at 6:56 PM on August 19, 2005

Using curtains to make a big softbox is a really cool idea. Even 5 2x4s put together like a giant sawhorse with a sheet on it would help in some situations.
*filed away for future pre-demolition fresco photography*
posted by Jack Karaoke at 12:26 AM on August 21, 2005

You might want to consider renting a tilt/shift lense. This kind of project is what they are designed for and Canon makes a good one. Some Nikon guys even get the Canon mount converted to Nikon to use it.
posted by Mitheral at 8:12 PM on August 22, 2005

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