How to photograph color and grayscale artwork?
June 14, 2004 7:02 AM   Subscribe

I am trying to photograph several hundred pieces of color and grayscale artwork. I will be using a digital camera. Any pointers or resources that I can look to?
posted by the biscuit man to Media & Arts (11 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
There are probably online resources and books but really it's a piece of cake. Here's what you need:

2 light sources, of either the tungsten variety or strobes. Since you're digital I recommend strobes. The traditional mechanism of correcting for tungsten light is to use tungsten film, which isn't an option in digital. You *can* post-correct in digital, it's just more work. You could probably figure out a photoshop macro that would do a good job though, and just bulk run that on the files.

Anyway, you have your two light sources. They need to be set up one either side of the artwork, at a 45 degree angle to the line between you and the artwork, to illuminate it evenly. They need to be set up for soft light, however you wish to do it. Strobes often have huge soft-boxes you can attach to them, these work great. Back in the day I made 6x3 foot frames out of PVC pipe and pinned translucent layers of fabric to them, to make tremendous soft light sources.

You will definitely want a polarizing lens on your camera, to reduce glare. it will also reduce the available light. Rotate it until glare disappears.

It is helpful to have polarizing filters on the light sources, also. With that extra step you can remove glare and light relfections ENTIRELY, even for something under glass.

If you're photographing flat work in bulk, maybe you'll be lucky and can set this stuff up somewhere, and just go through a big stack of stuff, using the exact same set up for all of them. If you're unlucky you're photographing this stuff off studio walls and will have to move the whole contraption from place to place. If you're moving everything, fashion something to make it easier. Little set up aids. You've got 3 things to position, the camera, and the 2 lights. Make the dimensions easy, like the camera is back from the piece 2 yards, the lights are 2 yards to the side of the camera and 2 feet forward (or back or whatever). Having the lights and camera stand on wheels would help.
posted by RustyBrooks at 7:37 AM on June 14, 2004

Response by poster: Thank you very much RustyBrooks! I'll see what I can put together.
posted by the biscuit man at 8:11 AM on June 14, 2004

Also - call around to local dark rooms or photo stores. If this is work you can do flat - they often have a copy stand with all the lights and such set up. The one I've used even had a camera included with a great macro lens - all you needed was film. I was able to get through a stack of a friend's work in no time and the results were quite good. I've also done it Rusty's way - and he's right - it's not that hard. Good luck.
posted by Wolfie at 8:30 AM on June 14, 2004

The traditional mechanism of correcting for tungsten light is to use tungsten film, which isn't an option in digital. You *can* post-correct in digital, it's just more work.

No, in digital you just push a button to set the white balance to incandescent. So incandescent lights will work fine, and they're easily obtainable, and easy to work with and see what you're actually lighting. As Rusty notes, you will want lights with diffusers (shades) on them; the bigger the light source, the fewer hot spots you will have. This means that the lights will need to be fairly bright. Position the lights far enough from the artwork that the light falls evenly on the subject. Avoid mixing various types of light (daylight, fluorescent, and incandescent lights all have different color temperatures, and any light of one type leaking into a scene white balanced for a different type will throw the color off). This isn't as much a factor for strobes because they are so bright, they basically wash out any other type of light, so if you can't control the light totally, strobes will be what you want.

I highly recommend using your camera's manual white balance, exposure, and focus settings, instead of using the camera's auto mode. Put a white card where the photos will go and take a white balance from that. Then take an exposure from a gray card and lock it in. The suggestion of a polarizing filter is a good one. Find out what aperture your camera is sharpest at and lock that in. Use your camera's lowest ISO setting. This may (especially if you are using incandescent lights) require fairly long exposures, so obviously, use a tripod. Not so obviously, use your camera's mirror lock-up function (if it's an SLR and has this feature) and use the self-timer so that the vibrations induced by pressing the shutter release have time to die down before the picture is taken. (Or else use a remote or a cable release, if your camera has it.) If you are using lenses or a camera with image stabilization, turn that off -- when shooting on a tripod, it can actually induce blur.

The polarizer is a good idea, but glare can be avoided by positioning your lights well to the left and right of the artwork, so that highlights aren't reflected directly to your camera to begin with. I believe you want at least a 45 degree angle between the camra and each light. That is, the angle formed by the lights and the painting should be at least 90 degrees, and the camera should go smack dab in the middle. If you can't position the lights how you want, yes, use a polarizer.

Make sure your lens is not giving you any barrel or pincushion distortion at the distance you are shooting. If you are using an SLR, try to use a prime lens, since these are typically the sharpest and free of distortion. Otherwise keep the zoom away from the extremes, especially wide angle. If you are getting some distortion (straight lines aren't straight) then try moving the camera back some and zooming in more.
posted by kindall at 8:49 AM on June 14, 2004

I wasn't aware that most digital cameras had an incadescent adjustment feature. I'm not a technophobe but I have some much invested in the film process (and to be honest, I enjoy it) that I've not done much with digital. A good friend of mine has though and his system is an absolute joy. It's a replacement back for a hasselblad, basically. the image size is smaller so all the lenses are off (that is, a normal lense is now something of a slight telephoto) but it's no huge deal. He's totally cut polaroids out of the picture.

Since you're shooting digital, maybe you'll be able to take a (non-laptop) computer with you, so you can experiment with this a bit and see how things are working out without having to make multiple trips. That kind of thing is almost tempting to me to get a bunch of digital stuff.

(I am not a pro photographer but a pretty dedicated amateur)
posted by RustyBrooks at 8:59 AM on June 14, 2004

eep. can i hire one of you to shoot my portfolio? this sounds daunting...
posted by judith at 10:13 AM on June 14, 2004

If at all possible include a color patch card and/or grayscale card IN the picture. This will make the color correction a lot easier.
Here is an example.

If you are really doing this a lot then setting up the color profiles for the camera/monitor and printer is important and time spent now will save time later.
posted by stuartmm at 10:16 AM on June 14, 2004

How big is the artwork you're photographing? If it's small and flat, you might consider scanning; rather than using a copystand. If it's very large, there are additional photographic complications to consider.
posted by normy at 10:38 AM on June 14, 2004

not all digital cameras have that much white balance control....

make sure that all of the lighting effort isn't wasted on a camera that isn't up to it...that goes for resolution, white balance and the lens. A lot of prosumer cameras are going to distort the image a bit, your canvases-or whatever-won't be square.

digital seems to do well with flicker-free compact flourescent bulbs also, the 5000 or 5400k [soft white] variety is close to a color proofing lightbox.
posted by th3ph17 at 12:54 PM on June 14, 2004

Response by poster: The artwork consists of about 350 children's drawings, varying in size from 8" x 11" to 12" x 18". Some can be scanned, but about half of them are the larger size, my scanner bed is only 8.5" x 12".

It's a little late, but here is some background information. The pieces will be used for filler in a telephone directory published in the Houston area. We produce several directories so I will be doing this every few months. I am using a Nikon Coolpix 4500 with a tripod.

Thanks for all the help everyone!
posted by the biscuit man at 1:42 PM on June 14, 2004

not all digital cameras have that much white balance control

Any worthwhile model made in the last 5 years certainly will. Even my vintage Coolpix 800 had a few manual presets; the 4500 certainly does.
posted by kindall at 2:03 PM on June 14, 2004

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