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Hi everyone and welcome!

This is part 1 in series of articles dealing with photographing your artwork at home. My aim is to share my experience and provide enough information so that you can start photographing your own artwork immediately and arrive at satisfying results quickly without too much trial and error. The series is intended for my fellow artists who wish to have their work archived digitally in professional quality without the fuss and expense of hiring a professional. If you’re completely new to photographing artwork or you’re an artist or a photographer already doing so but seeking more satisfying results, this tutorial should help you fine-tune your process. I tried to develop a process requiring as little guesswork as possible. My instructions are going to be straightforward and direct so they are easy to follow and replicate.

This tutorial does not include information on basic camera operation. This knowledge is required but there is no point in including it here. There is plenty of information on the web if you need to learn not only how to operate a camera but also how it works. Please do so before continuing. (external links: Camera, Digital Camera, Crop factor)

To a large extent photographing your artwork is a matter of details. Details are the most important part of being successful with this task. You need to be precise and aware of what you are doing. This tutorial contains the knowledge I acquired through a long period of search and study and many trials & errors. Review your process step-by-step when your results are not satisfactory.

One last note before we continue: this tutorial is based on my experience with photographing artwork on paper, specifically watercolor. The principles are however applicable to any kind of work as far as the surface is not highly reflective. In such cases the core process stays the same, however there would be additional steps or workarounds dealing with these reflections.

The following list is an overview of the equipment I use and consider necessary. Most of the equipment listed can be replaced by newer or higher end model if so desired. The list only features the gear absolutely necessary to successfully complete the task. I don’t believe in redundancy and only use tools most suited and required to complete the job.

  • DSLR camera
  • Lens or lenses
  • Tripod
  • Continuous lighting
  • Color calibration tool
  • Remote switch
  • Editing software
  • Printer for printing reproductions
  • Notes on LCD Monitors, Printers, Lens Filters & Other Accessories

Camera

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I strongly recommend using a DSLR camera instead of point-and-shoot, bridge or analog SLR. We don’t need a high-end model. The lowest-end one will do just fine. But what we look for in a camera is high pixel count and completely manual mode. We need the option to set our aperture and shutter speed independently of each other and of the exposure meter. If you can’t afford even the cheapest DSLR, it’s still better to go for second-hand DSLR than either bridge or point-and-shoot cameras. With DSLR we have a wide range of high quality lenses to choose from, which is another reason to prefer DSLR to other formats.

The other important thing to note is that a DSLR usually comes as a kit with a zoom lens. I would recommend you to pick up only a body without lens. The lens is best chosen separately, optical quality of kit lenses is usually very low.

At the time I write this article I still own my Canon EOS 600D (which I believe is called T3i in the US) with 18 megapixels CMOS sensor. This is a lower-end model and has been around for a few years. It still provides me with excellent results and there is no need for upgrade. The sensor size is 22.3 x 14.9 mm which is quite small compared to the full-frame 36 x 24 mm but I don’t really mind, the resulting A3 (11.5 x 16.5 in) print is still of excellent quality with almost no loss of detail (let alone web presentation). The smaller sensor also provides me with a crop that eliminates possible shortcomings of my lenses. However, if you can afford a full-frame DSLR, by all means, go for it. The larger the sensor and megapixel count, the better the image quality, the larger the prints.

New DSLRs offer a useful function called LiveView. It simply means that you can see on the screen of your camera what’s in front of your lens in real time (similar to taking pictures with your smartphone). I highly recommend using it. Not many viewfinders let you see 100% of your frame. Therefore, you cannot rely on the borders seen in the viewfinder but if you use LiveView, what you see is what you get. Also you can much more comfortably position and operate your camera this way.

If you are just choosing your first DSLR, ignore all that marketing nonsense that comes with the introduction of new product. You don’t need creative filters, high burst rate or ISO 12800. Look again at the megapixel count, image resolution and sensor size. I won’t be recommending any particular camera here, because the article would be outdated too quickly, but I will answer any questions if you leave a comment below.

Links: Canon EOS 600D DSLR (discontinued); Similar choice (April 2015): Canon EOS 750D DSLR

Lens/Lenses

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Since we really only need one lens, we need to make sure it’s a good one. The characteristics we are looking for are sharpness and low distortion. We don’t require the best ergonomics, build quality or features. The single most important attribute is image quality. The best image quality is usually found in prime lenses, that is lenses with fixed focal length.

This may sound trivial but when choosing focal length, you have to consider your room size and the size of the artwork. For example, you can’t possibly fit a full sheet painting into your frame from 2 meters if you’re using an 85 mm lens. On top of that, if you use a crop sensor camera the angle will be reduced (refer to this article) and the focal length will appear longer than it really is (more on crop factor here), so you’ll need to step back even more. There are lenses designed specifically for these smaller sensors so you don’t need to make the calculation and your 50 will be 50. I don’t, however, recommend these as they will become worthless if you upgrade to full-frame later. It would be best to settle for a standard 50 mm. There are macro lenses with 60 and 65 mm focal length and these may be a good choice as well. Anything wider than 50mm is not suitable for the unnatural amount of distortion find in wide lenses and for anything over 65 or 85 mm you’ll need to have 4 to 5 metres of space to get a full sheet painting into the frame. To illustrate, I find that from 3 meters I can shoot a full sheet imperial size painting (22 x 30″ or 56 x 76 cm) with my 50 mm lens and half sheet with my 85 mm (APC-S sensor with 1,6x ratio). Since I don’t have more than 3 meters of space, I can only dream of using my 85 mm for shooting full sheet watercolors, it’s physically impossible.

When choosing a lens it’s always a good idea to figure out how it performs before the actual purchase. There are overpriced lenses with not so great performance and there are underestimated lenses that can overperform quite a few of their expensive counterparts. First, you need to make sure you know how much money you are willing to spend on a lens. Then look for prime lenses in this price range. Finally, to find out how any of them perform, look for sites that review lenses and cameras. Dpreview.com (no affiliation) is one of my favorite sites on lens reviews. Whatever the brand or focal length, there is a good chance they reviewed it. Their tests are objective, thorough and easy to understand.

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Put some time into reviewing a lens you want to purchase. Camera gets outdated but lens won’t, it stays with you through all your camera upgrades.

If you have trouble choosing the right lens for you, leave a comment down below.

Links: Canon 50 mm f/1.8 II and Canon 85 mm f/1.8 USM

Tripod

Don’t buy a cheap tripod! Tripod is going to serve you for many years. Good tripod will outlive all of your camera upgrades. I am not saying you should buy $300+ tripod but you shouldn’t go for the $20 one either. Find one that is sturdy and stable and offers enough height (1.5 – 1.8 m should suffice).

Lighting

Source: photoneurope.cz
Source: photoneurope.cz

I use and prefer continuous lighting to strobes. Both can be used effectively but I opted for continuous daylight lamps because I use them for photography as well as video. I advise you to find lights that come on tripods with attachable umbrellas as a pair of identical lights, since we need to illuminate our work evenly from both sides.

They are consistent and I’ve never had any problems since I started using them. I also use them to light my work desk where I paint and shoot my demonstrations.

Each light head contains 4 fluorescent bulbs. Total output is 1200 W (600 W each). They are calibrated to a color temperature of 5500K. The only downside is that after one of your bulbs reaches the end of its life you need to replace it with the same model.

Links: Photon Europe SUN 600+600 Daylight Kit; Similar choice: Cowboy 1200W Continuous Lighting Kit

Alternatively you can use sun as your light source. You can try direct sunlight or shade (beware of reflected color in shade!) but either way the results won’t be consistent in the long run. If you don’t have any other choice though, give it a try, I’m sure you can achieve acceptable results eventually.

Color Calibration Tool

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For color calibration purposes I use Color Checker Passport from X-Rite. You don’t have to have the same thing (although I recommend that you do), but make sure you have one. This is easily one of the most important tools and the most necessary. I wouldn’t even recommend to proceed without it. It’s essential for achieving correct color reproduction. I can’t stress this enough, get a color calibration tool, you can’t do without it. Your images won’t be accurate by default. Even $1500 camera won’t guarantee you this amount of color accuracy.

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The Color Checker Passport comes with accompanying proprietary software tool that will analyze your image and generates a specific color profile applicable to all your images.

Link: Color Checker Passport

Remote Switch

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To eliminate vibrations from pushing down the shutter button I use a remote switch. This is a relatively inexpensive gadget that allows you to operate the shutter without touching the camera. There is a workaround if you don’t have or don’t want to use the remote switch. You can switch on your camera’s built-in 2 or 10 second self-timer. This will active the shutter after 2 or 10 seconds from pushing down the shutter button, thus taking picture after your hand is no longer touching the camera.

Link: Canon RS-60E3

Editing Software

I use three software tools to process my images: Adobe DNG Converter (free), Color Checker Passport (supplied with the product) and Adobe Lightroom. There is really no need for anything else. At the same time, each one is a vital part of the process and you can’t do without any of them. Adobe Lightroom is the only one requiring additional funds but it’s worth it. I still have the old version 4 and it works well. It’s basically a one time investment.

Links: Adobe DNG Converter, Adobe Lightroom

Notes on LCD Monitors, Lens Filters & Other Accessories

There are few more things I want to talk about.

First of them is your LCD monitor. You don’t really need a fancy high-end calibrated monitor. It is beneficial if you have one but don’t buy one until you really think you need it. The Color Checker Passport will calibrate the pictures for you without the need of manual adjustment.

Lens filter may seem like a good idea. Especially if you photograph slightly reflective surfaces. But don’t use polarized filters that attach to the lens filter screw. They negatively affect the resulting image by casting a slight tint of color over a part of the image. Take my word for it, I learned the hard way.

Some tripods have a built-in bubble level or you can buy one specifically designed to fit the hot shoe of you camera separately. I used to use it for positioning of my camera, but soon you’ll be able to guess the proper position easily without the use of gadgets.

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So, that’s about it for the equipment we’re going to use to digitalize our work. In part 2 I’m going to describe my process in few simple steps. If you have any questions feel free to leave them in the comment section down below.

– Daniel

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