How To Photograph Your Artwork And Get Great Results

In today’s day and age you’d think taking high quality photographs of your paintings would be an easy thing to due, but in fact it’s more tricky than it first appears. When you photograph your artwork, there are 3 main priorities you need to bare in mind:

1) You want the sharpest image possible, that your camera will allow.

2) You want the largest size image file size possible, that your camera will allow.

3) You want to avoid any unwanted light reflection or colour reflection cast across the painting you’re photographing.

Obviously the quality of your final image is going to be somewhat dependant on the quality of your camera equipment, the more high-end your camera, the easier ( in theory  )it will be to get good quality images. That said, you do not need to spend a lot of money on expensive camera equipment to get great quality images of your artwork.

The Camera

The camera I use for my own artwork photography is a Sony Panasonic DMC-LX5, which is a high-end compact camera, and cost about £400 new.

Panasonic lumix dmc LX5

Panasonic Lumix DMC LX5.

If you have a cheaper camera, this will mean it has cheaper hardware inside it, a cheaper lens, and as such it will generally take lower quality images. But, don’t be put off too much if this is your situation, because as important as the quality of your camera ( and in most cases, much MORE important ) is how you go about lighting your artwork for photography. Generally, a less expensive camera will require more light to take sharp photographs of your work.

I’ve tried many different cameras to photograph my paintings over the years, some cheap models and some very expensive models, and some of my best results were with the cheaper cameras, …but only if I got the lighting right.

1) Sharpest Image Possible

Natural light is best. Although indoor lighting seems very bright to our human eyes, to a camera’s sensor, it’s hopeless. You can test this by taking a photograph indoors under artificial lighting, and then looking at the camera telemetry to see what the shutter speed was for that photograph. Then take another photograph outside, even on a fairly dull day, and look again at the camera telemetry. The shutter speed for the photograph taken outside will be much faster ( i.e the percentage of 1 second that the shutter was open when taking that photograph eg. 500/1 second ) than the photograph taken inside – generally, the more light, the better your camera will work, the faster the shutter speed be, the sharper the resultant image.

The best way to find out which lighting condition works best for your camera, is to experiment. My Panasonic camera is highly sensitive, making taking photographs of my artwork outside unnecessary. In fact, sometimes outside is too bright even on an overcast day for good results. Your own camera might need different conditions, so try taking photos of your work:

A) Outside on a dull day.

B) Outside on a bright but overcast day.

C) Outside on a bright day.

D) Indoors in natural light.

E) Indoors under artificial light.

The worst kind of light for photographing paintings is usually under bright direct sunlight. When the sunlight is too harsh, it bounces back off of the whites in your painting, and will tend to overwhelm the camera sensor. You end up with washed out ( whited out ) areas in your photograph – not good.

taking photographs of your artwork

Photographing paintings, with blank canvas being used to reflect more natural light back and down into the painting.

I photograph all of my paintings in the manner you can see in the photograph above. The French windows face south. I place my paintings on the floor in front of these French windows, and depending on the time of day, which of course governs where the direct sunlight will be falling, I move the paintings left or right to keep them OUT of the direct sunlight.

At the bottom of this photograph you can see I use a blank white canvas, propped up at an angle, to reflect more light back, and down, onto the painting I’m photographing.

I stand behind the propped-up reflector canvas, and shoot looking directly down on top of the painting.

Through trial and error, I know that if there is enough light in the room to take the photograph at least 1/250 of a second shutter speed, it will be a sharp, clear, reflection free, high quality image.

2) Largest File Size Possible

Fill your viewfinder with the painting you are photographing, and use a little bit of zoom if you need, to achieve this. Not doing this, is a common mistake a lot of people make when photographing their work.

NB. The more of your final image you have to crop-off ( because it isn’t actually painting, but carpet, or wall, or whatever else was around you painting when you took the photo ), the smaller your image will be in megabyte size.

tiger bad crop

Badly filled view finder – lot of wasted mega pixels, just photographing what’s around the actual painting.

tiger good crop

Correctly filled view finder – I’ve used nearly all of the camera’s mega pixels here photographing ACTUAL painting. 

3) Avoid Reflections

Avoid reflections of any kind. It’s very easy to set your painting up perfectly, take a beautifully sharp photograph, then when you look at the image on your computer you notice that there is a coloured area or stripe across your image, or a dark line across your image, or a bright line even. That is probably because there is a window, a car, a coloured wall, bucket, ..anything really, casting a reflection across your canvas and that you didn’t notice when you took the photograph. Look out for this, and relocate your painting, or the object causing the reflection.

As a case in point, take another look at the tiger painting in the photograph above. You’ll notice that there is a glare across the top half of the painting ( very bad form ) which was caused by my daylight lamp in my studio. I took these photographs to help explain my point about filling the camera’s viewfinder, but coincidentally it also explains the reflection problem we can face when taking photographs of our work. The glare wasn’t strictly caused by a reflection off of another surface, but in fact direct light coming from a very directional source, but it’s the same principle, and needs to be avoided.

Once you have the best possible image you can get using the methods above, the next step is to edit your image in image editing software to add the final touches, such as sharpening, altering the contrast and colour balance e.t.c.. to match the original painting.

Be aware that you can only work in image editing software with what you already have, and that even the very best image editing software will not be able to fix a poor blurry badly lit initial image.

I’ll write a future blog post on how to edit your images for those final touches using GIMP, free open source image editing software available to download here.

I look forward to some great comments below, and if you enjoyed this post and found it useful, please share it.

Thanks ~ Chris

31 thoughts on “How To Photograph Your Artwork And Get Great Results”

    1. Hi Irene, You’re welcome, I’m glad you found it useful. The Sony Lumix DMC LX5 is a great little camera, if you need any tips on camera settings let me know. Chris

  1. I’m very much an amateur when it comes to getting a decent photo of my work. Thanks so much for the tips 🙂

    1. Hi Esther, Thank you, I’m glad you found it helpful. Let me know how you get on if you try some of these techniques. Chris

  2. Thanks very much for this advice, its really helpful. I’ve just bought a Fuji FinePix S1, upgrading from my old FinePix S1000 and it is a lot better, but I hadn’t thought of using the floor and a blank canvas. Will give it a go!

    1. Hi Liana, thank you. The Fugi finepix are good cameras, you should have some great results using it. If you find your painting goes a little out of square when you stand over it and shoot, as in.. the sides bow a bit, just use a little bit of zoom and move further away ( up ), that should correct it. Chris

  3. You mentioned Telemetry in this post and checking it I dont know what this is or how to find it on my camera could you please explain. Great blog post by the way and I will certainly try your method out I have tried before with painting on the floor but as I am not very tall I cant always see it at the right angle so have to get a chair to stand on but I am not so agile these days.

    1. Hi Linda. I’m afraid every camera is a little different, and without knowing which camera you use I can’t tell you where to look, but if you google your particular model camera for that particular query you should be able to find out. Failing that, a sure fire way to find out what the shutter speed was for a particular photo is to download that photo to your computer, then look in that photographs ‘properties’, and in there it will tell you all of the detail.
      To find a images properties in Microsoft Windows xp, vista, 7, 8.. download that image off of your camera onto your computer, right-click on the image thumbnail, click ‘properties’ ( at the bottom of the box that pops up), click ‘details’, scroll down the list to ‘exposure time’. Chris

  4. Interesting blog Chris. One problem I have is when photographing pencil work, particularly line-work in a sketch before applying paint. Resultant photographic image turns out grey, and trying to increase the contrast with photo editing software wipes out thinner and paler pencil lines.

    1. Hi Frank, that’s a common problem, I know scratch-board artists that have the same issues when photographing their work. One possible work-around is to scan your work, instead of photographing. This does require a good quality scanner, and if your work is bigger than the scanner bed, software to knit the sections of the image together. If you don’t have Photoshop, try GIMP, it’s free to download ~ Chris

  5. Thanks Nice article! the reflection canvas is a gem, sure I gonna try that!
    I wrote awhile ago also a sort of taking photo’s blog from your artwork.
    I found that playing with the white balance was a great help, because Gimp can do a lot, but not everything!
    thanks again!
    regards Edo

    1. Glad you found it helpful, Edo. Yes white balance adjustment can be very helpful, especially for a painting has a lot of light colours in it, and so gets a little whited-out in a photograph. Good tip!

  6. Hi Chris
    Brilliant piece and thanks for the valuable advice. Any tips on how to photograph rectangular shapes? I never quite know how to get the full painting without having the top or bottom showing. Or is it just me? 🙂

    1. Hi Sandie, I’m glad you found it useful. For panoramic or wide narrow paintings you have 2 options. You can either fill the view-finder as much a possible width-wise, and then crop the top and bottom off your image. Or photograph your painting in 2 pieces, filling the view-finder height each time, and then knitting together the 2 images in photoshop/GIMP or similar. If your painting is very panoramic you may even need 3 photographs, and then knit those 3 together.

      If you chose the 2nd knitting option you end up with a much larger megapixel file, which is good.

      When you chose the first option, remember to have your camera set on the maximum mega-pixels option, even if that means the image ratio isn’t as panoramic in shape as other options, e.g: if you camera is set on 16:9 image shape ratio, this will produce an image of LESS megapixels than an image set on 3:2, ..even though it fits the panoramic painting better. So it’s better to take your photograph on 3:2 and crop the top/bottom off, and end up with a larger ( actual painting image, after cropping off the space around it ) size image file.


  7. Hi Chris, thanks for getting back to me on twitter, I found this blog very interesting, I use a Nikon D3100 55m lens f5.6 appeture I usually take the photo outside whenever I can in sunshine but in the shade. Ive tried it on auto setting I’ve have a light meter so I also try it manually but no matter what I do I get an under exposed image which I have to process on my PC using Kodak Easyshare which is the only one I understand. I have gimp but dont know how to use it. Maybe everybody has to manipulate the image in some way or other and I am expecting too much from my camera.

    1. Hi Kieth,
      Taking your photos outside is not always best, it tends to produce a image which has a white glaze effect over it. Try taking your photos inside, on a bright day, in a well lit part of your floor, but not direct sun lite. You want you shutter speed to be at least 200th of a second, to counter any camera shake, whether using a tripod or not ( I don’t use a tripod ). You are right Kieth, all digital images need some manipulation in software, if your images are sharp and somewhere close to the correct colours, then you can usually correct them on your PC.
      I use GIMP to sharpen, correct the colours, correct the contrast, of all of my images after taking them.
      If you have a high res image of the painting you’re trying to correct Kieth, feel free to email it to me and I’ll have a quick play in GIMP and show you the results.

  8. Hi Chris, thanks for a very helpful article, however you didn’t touch on the problem I always seem to get. When taking a photo I find it really difficult to get my camera square on to my painting, the sides either angle towards each other at the top (or bottom) or the whole thing is skewed. No matter how straight It looks in the viewfinder, the image is always off square. Any tips to help would be great. I use either my cheap elderly Fuji EXR on a tripod or in desperation my phone, both get the same crooked results. Thanks

    1. Hi Bev, that is a common problem when photographing artwork. There is no real trick to getting the sides not to angle, other than by taking a few photos so that you can chose the best one. However, to avoid converging verticals, always use a little bit of zoom on your camera, even when quite close to the painting. Back away from the painting if needs be, so that you can use a little bit of zoom, this will correct converging verticals. You can of course correct misaligned sides in your photos using Photoshop/GIMP e.t.c quite easily, with no loss of image quality. GIMP is free image manipulation software ~ Chris

      1. Many thanks Chris, I will try your sugestion of a little zoom. In the past I have edited in Photoshop but just wondered if there was something I was doing wrong. Thanks again.

  9. Hi Chris. Can I know a 2nd hand canera around £200 that can be use to take my own art work in high resolution for usb files and re print on larger canvas?

  10. Tank you for the great article, I’m definitely going to try your tips – I like the idea of using the blank canvas especially. My camera isn’t great but I’m sure this will help me get the best I can from it.

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