How I Photograph Artwork

Welcome to my first ever blog post.

At the SCBWI Oregon conference this weekend (my first, and it was awesome and I learned so much!), I had a conversation with a couple of people about scanning shiny artwork. Since my scanner died a couple years ago, I have exclusively photographed my paintings, and I rarely have a problem with glare, even after spraying several heavy coats of varnish on top of acrylic paintings. I am not going to lie, the way that I do it is very time consuming (and I am sure there are better, faster ways of doing this), but here are a couple of advantages:

If you do it right, you can get rid of the glare from shiny surfaces.

You can get a super high-res image of your artwork.

You can reduce the texture of canvas, or watercolor paper, compared to scanning.

If your artwork is too large for your scanner, you can take several pictures and piece them together. 


Here are the materials that I use:

Camera, preferably a Digital SLR with a macro lens (I use a Cannon EOS), but I imagine an iPhone will work, as long as you can zoom in closely and make sure to keep the planes of the artwork and the camera the same.

Tripod with a crank handle

Halogen light (I use the floor standing dorm room type--look at Goodwill)

White paper

Easel (you could hang/tape your artwork to the wall, but an easel will make it easier)

Photoshop with Photomerge option (File > Automate > Photomerge) 



The basic process is to take a whole bunch of tiny pictures, then use Photomerge (Photoshop's photo stitching program) to piece them together in a high-res, digital version of your artwork.


Set Up:

First of all, if you are using a floor lamp, unscrew the different sections so you can hold it in your hand with the light facing the artwork.

Set up you artwork on the wall or on an easel positioned as vertically as possible.

If your lamp is like mine, you will want to turn it on a few minutes early to let it warm up on its brightest setting.

Set up your camera on the tripod in front of your artwork.

Set the picture quality to Large or RAW. 

Before you photograph, set up the white balance on your camera:

With the light pointing at the page, take a picture of the white paper.

Set this as the white balance. (On my camera, this is under Menu>Red Camera Icon>Custom WB)

Set the white balance to Custom White Balance (On my camera: the last option under WB on the lower right side of the camera).


Take Pictures:

You will first want to get a picture of the entire artwork, so that Photomerge does not get confused. 

Set up your camera and tripod across the room from your artwork (you are trying to minimize distortion as much as possible). Line up the camera with the center of the artwork, get as "squared up" as possible. Take a picture, the picture quality doesn't matter too much at this point.

Because your artwork will have different sections of light and dark, you will want to use the same light reading while photographing the entire painting. Manual mode works better because and auto mode will want to compensate for these light and dark areas. To get an average light reading of the entire artwork, move your camera forward so that the artwork completely fills the viewfinder, take a few pictures at different settings until you find one you are happy with, then leave the settings alone.

Next, take the camera and tripod right up to the surface of the painting and get the lens as flat as possible against the surface. Now, when you pull the camera straight back, it should be in the same plane as the artwork, minimizing distortion. I set my camera back about 10 inches, but you can set it closer or further away, depending on the final resolution you are shooting for. 

Start on the upper left side of the painting, and hold the light on the right side of the camera, like so:


While looking through the viewfinder, adjust the angle of the lamp to find the position that creates least glare; try to use the same angle and same placement for each photograph. 

The sketch below shows the pattern I use when photographing. I stitch the painting together in rows, so make sure to overlap each photograph and each row.


Now save your photos to your computer, and it’s time for Photoshop!


Using Photomerge to Combine Your Photos:

Open the picture you took of the entire painting, crop off the edges and re-size (Image>Image Size) to the final dimensions you have in mind, at 300 dpi.

Save the photo.

Go to File>Automate>Photomerge.

Uncheck “Blend Images Together.” Leave Auto, in the furthest left column, checked. 

Select add open files, making sure that only the desired file is on the list. 

Select “Browse,” chose all of the first row of pictures that you took of your painting, click “OK” to merge these together (it might take a few minutes).

Now, you want to get rid of the hard edges using a fuzzy-edged easing tool (don't forget to zoom in and check the edges, once you add the next strip of photos, these layers will be flattened and not accessible for erasing.) You don't need to erase every edge, as they will be covered by the new layer. Here is an illustration (the wavy lines are the erasures):


Use the "second page" pattern for the rest of the image.

You may have to lighten or darken individual layers. Levels (Ctrl + L) works best for this, or use the dodge and burn tools.

Save this new image and repeat the process, using this new image as the bottom layer.

Flatten the final image, and you should have a nice, crisp, glare-free image of your artwork!

If you the canvas or paper texture is still a problem, you might want to try photographing outside on a sunny day. I set up in the shade of a large tree with the sun in front of me and a large building behind me. The diffused light bouncing off of the building will fill in the valleys and peaks of the canvas, making it less prominent.


See, I told you it was labor intensive!

If scanning works for you, you should probably stick with it.

Let me know what you think!