Photographing kids' artwork
April 5, 2019 9:13 AM   Subscribe

My kids bring home a ton of art, some of which I'd like to keep memories of, but our house is overrun with paper. What's a good setup to get good quality digital images of it that I can look back on and enjoy? I don't want to spend a fortune, but would consider buying a few select items if they'll make a big difference.

I've of course tried just snapping photos with my cell phone, but the lighting in our house is wonky and there's always unattractive shadows and whatnot. Is a scanner the best bet? But then how to handle things on larger paper? The elementary school seems to pretty frequently use paper that's about twice the size of regular letter paper and that would require quite a large scanner. We do have a decent DSLR camera at home. I've wondered about something like a pop-up light tent - would that be a good idea?

I've seen the services where you can send off a box of art and get back a photo book. What kind of setup are they likely using? I don't need to be fully competitive with them, quality-wise; I'm sure they earn the money you pay them. But I would like a way to, once a week or month, set up a setup, image my favorite pieces of artwork and writing assignments for the week, and then recycle the vast majority of them. Maybe at some point in the future I'd like to print some of those images in a photo book.
posted by telepanda to Media & Arts (13 answers total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
the google photoscan app does a pretty good job of taking a photo, or kids art, in a frame or not, illuminating it during the scan, and coming up with a decent resolution glare free image.
posted by zippy at 9:18 AM on April 5 [1 favorite]

The ideal set-up would be a copy stand. If you google that you'll find a very wide range of prices, but you'll get what you pay for. The main consideration I think is the quality of the camera holder. You want to make sure it will securely hold the weight of your camera and lens. You may be able to replicate how a copy stand works with a tripod pointing down, but it's not ideal. You really want the camera lens and "film plane" to be parallel to the subject. That's much easier to accomplish with a copy stand.

Honestly I would be less concerned about lighting. If you can adequately and evenly light the art on the stand without paying for a lot of extra lighting then that should be fine. Even if your set-up ends up with, say, a 1/2 second exposure that's fine since you're not actually holding the camera. Since you're using a digital camera you can deal with color balance issues (and possible lens distortion issues at the edges) with the camera itself or with editing software after.
posted by sevenless at 9:25 AM on April 5 [1 favorite]

Check your camera and find what kind of tripod attachment it needs. There's a wealth of options these days for that, and you might be surprised if you've never used a tripod (or other stabilizer thing) with a camera before just how much simpler and more consistent it makes taking pictures, especially with a timer.

The hardest part is diffuse even lighting, and that's highly dependent on your environment. A good way for even lighting is to use reflected or bounced light. One way to do that is to bounce light off of a white curtain. A shower curtain can be great for this, and you can also buy silvery reflectors that pop-up and fold back down when not in use. For the actual light sources, the most cost effective thing I've ever found is simple clamp lights from a hardware store. There are of course a lot of package solutions for this, but a couple clamp lights, a big reflector and a flat surface parallel to a tripod camera is how I've shot all my portfolio contents for years. It gets more complicated with 3d pieces, like my mobiles and crochet and embroidery and whatnot, but that's when I find the flexibility of my DIY setup to be very handy.

If you live near a big city there will absolutely be a camera store you can visit and ask questions in. I highly recommend this because getting your hands on some lighting and setup stuff can really help you understand what you do and don't need. Also, employees of such stores tend to be really happy to explain things and figure out how best to achieve project goals.
posted by Mizu at 9:37 AM on April 5

Last year when downsizing, I took all pix of all the portfolio work my kids did, all the pix of my family and put everything into a digital frame. It's been great; every time I look up, there's something I haven't seen in years.
posted by yes I said yes I will Yes at 9:45 AM on April 5 [1 favorite]

I would tape the artwork up to an outside wall in the shade on an overcast day and just bulk photo probably with your phone if you have a good camera phone is fine. You could even nail two binder clips to a piece of plywood or coroplast to make yourself a cheap and easy stand if taping each piece up with a roll of tape is too much. Inside in a bright but only sunlit room will work for this too. Trying to photograph anything at night/with florescent light will require way more time/money than this project needs. (I used to have to take a LOT of pictures of disability art for my job, and did it with only natural light and cellphone. The big trick was getting the pieces on a vertical surface with indirect light, after that it's incredibly easy going).
posted by Sweetchrysanthemum at 9:47 AM on April 5 [3 favorites]

The Zero-Budget Guide to Photographing Artwork from The Art League will get you started. It notes much of what others have said -- set up your art parallel to your camera, use indirect light, or get two equal light sources, and check for color tones (too warm or too cool).

When trying to figure out what you want to spend, think about how you'll use these images in the future. Will you be reproducing them? Or just flipping through them with your kids (or handing over to your kids, who may scroll through images later)? Because you can invest in filters and gels, or just get some comparable lamps to light the artwork from either side and go for it.

In general, having a tripod with a DSLR is not a bad genera investment. Depending on the size and weight of your camera, you can get a mini-tripod to put on top of a table or stool, or you can get a "regular" size tripod that can give you more height options.
posted by filthy light thief at 9:53 AM on April 5 [3 favorites]

Yes to what zippy said!
Came here to strongly recommend the Google Photo Scan app (available for Android and for iPhone), which has addressed this issue for our family of prolific art-producing lasagnakids.

The app is free, the storage (in Google Photos / Google Drive) is free, and (on the iPhone at least) can seamlessly integrate with Photos and thus with iCloud storage as well.
posted by lasagnaboy at 10:13 AM on April 5 [4 favorites]

You may want to check whether your local library has a scanner that can handle larger paper sizes.
posted by acidnova at 10:17 AM on April 5 [1 favorite]

Get a whiteboard a bit bigger than 80% of the stuff your kids bring home.

Find the room in your house that's best for window lighting. Basically the biggest window in the house, with the bottom of the window close to the floor, and the ability to turn off all the artificial light in the room.

Lay the whiteboard on the floor near the window. Place the art on it, and use a whiteboard marker to write your metadata: Date, Artist, description.

Put a 35mm or 50mm lens on the DSLR. The kit lens will cover this range, but for bonus points, buy a prime lens, which should be $200, and is great for other stuff in low light.

Stand over the whiteboard, and as you look through the camera viewfinder, fill the entire frame with the whiteboard and art. This will help the camera find the correct white balance.

If you have a recent smartphone, and a big window on a sunny day, the photos will, for nearly all purposes, be good enough that you should use that instead of the DSLR.

This will not get you the absolute best image quality, but the purpose of doing it this way is to make it inexpensive and easy, with no batteries to buy, and almost zero setup. Writing on the whiteboard means you don't have to go back and type metadata into the photo in Lightroom or whatever. Taking the photo on a smartphone means that you can archive to dropbox, google photos and the like instantly, and share to social media for family.
posted by thenormshow at 10:18 AM on April 5 [4 favorites]

The Microsoft office lens app works well for me in digitising documents - it does auto cropping and perspective correction so a combination of phone flash and slightly tilted angle can eradicate shadows.
posted by JonB at 10:27 AM on April 5

On iOS, I swear by an app called ScannerPro for all sorts of on-the-go scanning - including artwork. But I just tried out lasagnaboy's Google Photo Scan app recommendation above, and it seems to work very well too for the two pieces of kid art I had at hand.
posted by RedOrGreen at 12:18 PM on April 5

I will self-link here for the first time. I just did a presentation for historians on digitization on the fly but this would work fine for you as well.

ScannerPro and ScanBot Pro are also really good apps that can take good images. I'd also recommend a good camera app Pro Camera is really good and gets you some lovely image quality for very little work.
posted by teleri025 at 12:53 PM on April 5 [1 favorite]

Doesn't your printer have a scanner? I thought everybody used cheap all-in-one printers now that do scan/print/copy (and also fax in case the 90s ever happen again).
posted by w0mbat at 3:56 PM on April 5

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