Looking for help selecting a DSLR for documenting artwork
November 20, 2012 12:11 PM   Subscribe

What's a good DSLR camera and lens for photographing artwork?

I'd like to buy a DSLR camera for taking pics of my and friends' artwork that's too big to fit on a scanner. I'd use it occasionally for general photography and casual videography, but documenting artwork is the main purpose.

One thing we're interested in doing is getting prints made at sizes like 11"x17" to sell at conventions such as SDCC. 300 dpi is kind of the minimum for a good quality print, although you can get away with a little lower depending on printing method. 11"x17" at 300 dpi is 16.83 million pixels, so if my assumptions are correct (?) an 18 megapixel camera would be good enough. (I think -- correct me if I'm wrong.)

I'm hoping to find an something acceptable for less that $800. Is that possible?

This Canon EOS Rebel T3i with an 18-55 mm zoom lens looks promising. Maybe that one?

I'd be grateful for any suggestions or advice. Recommendations of specific cameras and/or lenses would be great. Even a general view of the tradeoffs involved would be a help.
posted by eeby to Media & Arts (16 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
For the maximum sharpness and least distortion a slightly longer than normal (such as 85 mm) prime would be best; a tripod is a must as well. If you plan on photographing the artwork flat (as on a table) a copy stand may suffice in place of a tripod. You will also want to think about lighting that is even and preserves the color of the artwork; using a camera support will give you more options here. You will have the best chance of staying in your budget if you look at used equipment.
posted by TedW at 12:36 PM on November 20, 2012 [1 favorite]

Most of the cameras in the <1K$ price range have sensors that are smaller than a 35mm frame, so to get the equivalent of an 85mm portrait lens you actually want something like 55mm. If the EOS Rebel takes old Canon lenses, you could probably pick up an older 50mm lens cheap on ebay.
posted by mr vino at 12:44 PM on November 20, 2012

With the EF 85mm f/1.8 lens, you'd have to have the camera 7½' away if you want to fit a 18" object in the frame. That would make it really easy to light, and the geometry would be nice and rectilinear, but you're not going to just be able to just stick the art on the ground and use a normal tripod.

The EF 50mm f/1.8 lens is wider, so would require a 18" subject be 4½ feet away. That seems like a pretty convenient working distance, though if you have a smaller piece you'd want to get closer of course. Added bonus: It's super cheap - just a little more than $100.

(These distances all assume a 22.3mm sensor, as is found on the digital rebels and most other Canon DSLRs near your price range)

You'll get sharper and less distorted pictures with a prime than with a zoom, but the only way to change the size of the art will be by moving the camera. Depending on your set-up this might be a PITA or might be okay.

So my recommendation: get that Rebel, a 50mm f/1.8 for documenting artwork and general use, and a cheapish tripod that will extend high enough. Put any extra money aside to expand the lenses to use for general photography, after you have a feeling for what kinds of shots you find yourself wishing you could take (longer or wider being the main question). You also want some nice white halogen lights to shine on it from 45 degrees away, so you don't get glare and you get good color balance. Halogen is probably best, any incandescent is okay, and fluorescent is bad.
posted by aubilenon at 1:16 PM on November 20, 2012

Your lights and light setup are going to be at least as important as the camera, in my experience. Think about budgets for flash, diffusers/umbrellas and maybe a separate meter too.
posted by bonehead at 1:28 PM on November 20, 2012

Your lighting setup is going to be much more important than which camera you use. Research how to take these kinds of stills. There will be lighting diagrams for you to follow.

Just about any DSLR or mirrorless option will be fine. You don't need crazy high ISO capabilities or weather sealing or whatever, because you will be in a studio setting. Just about any 85mm-equivalent prime will be fine, too, especially since you will be stopping down the lens to the point where almost any lens will be tack sharp across the frame.

It's also worth pointing out that the 18-55 IS kit lens that comes with the T2i is a great lens for the money. It's absolutely fine when stopped down. For studio photos of artwork that have been properly lit and shot at f8 or so, I would defy anyone to tell the difference between a picture shot on the 18-55 and a picture shot on the most expensive lens that you could find, at least not without a magnifying glass, if not a microscope.
posted by Sticherbeast at 1:50 PM on November 20, 2012 [1 favorite]

Thanks for the info so far everyone. I should have mentioned that I have a tripod, so I'm all set there.
posted by eeby at 2:01 PM on November 20, 2012

nthing that you should focus your research and energy into getting (and using) the proper lighting setup. Without the right light setup you might as well be using a camera phone from 2008.
posted by mmascolino at 4:34 PM on November 20, 2012

How often are you actually going to do this? The questions you're asking predict a rather poor outcome - you don't seem prepared to do this. Also, the time and money spent learning how to properly light the work, buying the correct lighting gear and the camera itself will be substantial. Unless you have the intention of doing this on an on-going basis, your money will be better spent hiring a professional. Additionally, your understanding of the print resolution is not accurate - you can do far more with far less than 16MP. Hire a pro - save yourself the headache!
posted by blaneyphoto at 5:57 PM on November 20, 2012

You want to get a flat field lens like the EF-S 60mm which gives maximum edge to edge sharpness. No self-respecting image copyist would use a stock lens. If you are serious about all the pro methods, consider getting this Kodak book which was written with film in mind but will help for digital as well.
posted by JJ86 at 8:06 PM on November 20, 2012

Don't use a zoom lens, you'll get all sorts of image issues that won't be noticeable when shooting random life stuff, but will start to prop up when taking photo's of straight lines and trying to get accurate colors.

As for resolution, nicer cameras will give you more quality information to work with, so even if you don't have as many megapixels as you'd like, you can "stretch" the image and resample in photoshop to give you what you need for printing.
posted by markblasco at 9:38 PM on November 20, 2012

You want to get a flat field lens like the EF-S 60mm which gives maximum edge to edge sharpness.

Don't use a zoom lens, you'll get all sorts of image issues that won't be noticeable when shooting random life stuff, but will start to prop up when taking photo's of straight lines and trying to get accurate colors.

These are canards from earlier days. These are generalities that do not fit to the specifics.

When you look at objective test results, such as from PhotoZone, you see that the 18-55 IS* is an excellent performer optically, especially at the long end, where OP will be working. Color rendition is fine. Sharpness is high, especially when stopped down, which it will be. Distortion at 55mm is perfectly comparable to that of the 60mm (.2% vs. .1%).

I would happily wager money that even an eagle-eyed observer would be literally unable to tell the difference between properly made prints made with one lens or the other, with regard to the project that the OP is talking about.

Sure, the 60mm has other advantages. It's faster, it's sharper across the frame at lower apertures, it's a macro lens, it's better made, and it's quieter when focussing. However, these advantages are not relevant to what the OP is trying to do. If money is an issue - and the initial choice of a T2i with an 18-55 IS makes it sound like it is - then you're better off investing in lights and such.

Ultimately, the difference is not going to be about the difference between the 18-55 IS and the 60mm. It is going to be between your skill level as a photographer and the setup of your studio.

That said, blaneyphoto does have a point. Professional results will come from a professional. You might want to hire one before you get frustrated with the outlay and the learning curve.

*Not to be confused with the earlier, crummy 18-55 non-IS.
posted by Sticherbeast at 8:49 AM on November 21, 2012

Another thought: making quality prints is an enterprise unto itself. Do you have the equipment and expertise to do this yourself? If not, then who are you going to contract to do it, and how much will it cost you? Bear in mind that all this talk about the color rendition of any particular lens will be essentially moot if you are not the one controlling your prints, especially if you don't have a professionally-calibrated monitor. Pixel-peeping concerns about lens sharpness are also often mooted by the realities of printing.

Basically, if you're doing this to make things to sell, then there are lots of factors to consider beyond the camera and the lens. The camera and lens are easy topics and not all that expensive, relatively speaking. Lighting, studio set-up, and printmaking are the real bugbears here.
posted by Sticherbeast at 9:28 AM on November 21, 2012

Sticherbeast, not really. A flat field lens is designed for this type of work where other lenses are not. Believe it or not, lenses are still designed for specific purposes. Sure, you will get a decent image with the 18-55mm but it is misinformation to say that you will get an equal image. Saying that "These are canards from earlier days," is ridiculousand doesn't say much for your apparent expertise. If the OP is building a system from the ground up for the purpose of copying artwork then they should not start out with inferior equipment for no other reason than it will work.

But if the OP wants to get quality images then using a tripod is not optimal either. A copy stand is a much better choice along with levels to check that the planes are parallel.
posted by JJ86 at 10:29 AM on November 21, 2012

Saying that "These are canards from earlier days," is ridiculousand doesn't say much for your apparent expertise.

There's no need to get vituperous about it; these are just lenses that we're talking about.

The actual optical qualities of both lenses have been tested by a variety of entities. For example, you can go to photozone.de and see for yourself, with both lenses tested on the 15MP 50D. At f/8, both lenses do 2200+ LW/PH across the frame. At the long end of the 18-55 IS, there's barely any distortion with either lens. Color rendition and contrast are comparable. Neither CAs nor bokeh quality is an issue for either lens in this context.

If there is some other relevant, measurable optical quality that you'd like to compare, aside from sharpness and distortion and color rendition and contrast, then we can talk about the evidence from both lenses.

If I had crop sensor Canon equipment, let alone these two lenses, then I'd create comparison images myself.
posted by Sticherbeast at 11:23 AM on November 21, 2012

For prints I'd go with someplace like Kablam or a local shop. I'm not planning to try to print myself.
posted by eeby at 12:55 PM on November 21, 2012

Macro lenses will give you the flattest plain ~ virtually no barrel distortion. Not cheap but great results, and they're surely rent-able.
posted by mcbeth at 7:07 AM on January 18, 2013

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