Photographing Flat Art Work With Digital Part 1

It’s been a little while since my last post, but I assure you this one is worth the wait. This one is a three parter. In part one we will deal with lighting and capture considerations pertaining to, you guessed it, photographing flat art. Part two will deal with technique. Finally, part three will deal with post processing and output. My recommendation is to get yourself a steaming cup of joe or an ice cold beer before reading on. 

I have on numerous occasions been called on to photograph, or to advise others on how to photograph paintings and other flat art. There are numerous things to take into account, and it’s easy to get bogged down in the minutiae, throw your hands up in the air, and solicit the services of a talented professional. Here’s the deal, it’s not that hard to capture useable, printable, beautiful images of your art work with out having to spend a fortune on the latest greatest digital camera and lighting package. You can do so with an entry level digital slr (Canon Digital Rebel series, NIkon D40, D50, D60, etc..), and a basic set of continuous lights. Depending on your budget, you can easily get repeatable, reliable results.

 To begin with, we will focus on the most important thing, lights. I say this because to deal with all of the different camera options, this article would take days to read and you will probably get a little bored and move on to We will assume at this point that you have a digital slr of some sort (I will also be showing you results  later on that I obtained from a few different cameras to illustrate the point that it really all comes down to lighting). There is one thing that I will stress before moving on, no matter what camera you have, get a Prime Lens. By prime, I mean a fixed focal length lens. Every camera manufacturer offers a 50mm lens of some sort, and that’s what I would recommend to use. The reasons are that regardless of manufacturer, 50mm lenses tend to be very sharp, low on distortion, and fairly inexpensive. You can usually find good deals on used ones too. Plus even in crampt quarters (like a NYC apartment) you should be able to photograph even larger size paintings without having to rearrange all of your furniture.

Onto lighting.

You will need at least two lights. Unless your trying to photograph a billboard, two lights will serve you well in most cases.

So lets just say you have $200.00 to spend on lights. This kit from Impact will get you by for a while. It’s about as basic as it gets, but offers a lot more adjustability and control then lights from Home Depot. These lights have plenty of output and replacement lamps are easy to find. The kit itself sets up and breaks down in no time, and takes up little room. It’s also very easy to transport. The included lightstands allow you to easily adjust the height of the lights. The caveats? These baby’s put out some serious heat. It won’t melt the paint on your beautiful artwork, but after a while you may find yourself opening a window. The lamps, since these lights are household based,  will accept numerous wattage lamps, anything from 75 watt bulbs to 500 watt photofloods. This kit comes with (2) 500 watt photofloods. The downside of Photofloods is that they don’t last long, typically 5 – 20 hours. 

So lets say you have between $350 – $400. What does that get you? The next kit is from Lowel. It is the Lowel Tota Light Two Light Kit. This kit is an industry standard for photographing artwork. It delivers a whopping 1500 watts of gorgeous tungsten halogen illumination. A couple things to keep in mind with these lights. 

1: These lights draw a combined amperage of 12.5. A typical household circuit is rated for 15 amps. The bottom line; avoid plugging both lights into the same circuit. Or at the very least make sure they are the only things plugged into that circuit. There is nothing more annoying then throwing a breaker switch. 2: These lights use halogen lamps. DO NOT touch or handle the lamps with bare fingers while installing or removing them. The oil from your fingers could  cause the lamps to explode, at the very least oil from your fingers will dramatically decrease the life of the bulbs. 

What is good about these lights? Lots of things! Large amount of output; a really wide throw; easy to find replacement lamps; long lamp life; two year warranty on fixtures (Lowel lights are manufactured in the good ol’ US of A, and are well known for excellent customer service); wide range of light modifying accessories; most Lowel lights, Tota’s included, can be adapted for use in a Chimera, Photoflex Cine or Silverdome,  and Westcott softboxes. The down side: Heat, like the Impacts these continuous lights put out a lot of heat, using lower wattage lamps can mitigate that somewhat. Out of the box these lights can be a little hard to control in terms of diffusing or controlling the spread of the light. All in all these are a durable and versatile lights, and are a tremendous value for the budget conscious.

So lets say you have a fair amount of money to spend, and for whatever reason continuous lights aren’t an appropriate solution for you. I may be opening a pandoras box here, but I feel compelled to include this as an option, as it is one that is used often by museums, auction houses, and artists who require the highest quality lighting. Welcome to the world of Studio Strobes. Strobes are useful because they don’t have the power requirements of some continuous lights, and are a daylight balanced source. They are also much more comfortable to work with and around. That being said, we could have an hours long conversation on the merits of various manufactures strobes, and the virtues of Monolights vs. Pack systems. I won’t delve too deeply into that, as for this application, technique really does reign supreme. So here are two options.

Option 1: Elinchrom 400BX (2) light kit. I own this kit, and I’m extremely happy with with it. It’s very consistent in terms color temperature and output from shot to shot. There is very little you can say to fault this entry level lighting kit. The only thing, and it’s a minor thing really, is the modeling lamp. It’s only 150 watts. When you start mounting certain modifiers, like softboxes, it gets rather dim, and becomes a little difficult to see the effect of the light. 

Option 2: Profoto Acute 2 1200. This is a pack system kit with a pack and 2 heads. This is where we start hitting the higher end of strobe lighting. Profoto‘s are extremely reliable and consistent in terms of color temperature and output. It is the reason why they are the standard issue at most rental houses. I have shot with these many times and they are nothing short of amazing. If you dig around you would be surprised by the number of auction houses that use Profoto for reproduction work. The only caveat with a pack system is that the heads are tethered to the pack. Most of time this is a non issue, especially when photographing art work. 

Both manufacturers offer a complete line of light modifying accessories for their lights. Fortunately, most situations will require just the reflectors, or umbrellas if you need to soften the light.

Stay tuned for Part 2!

2 thoughts on “Photographing Flat Art Work With Digital Part 1

  1. Pingback: Photographing Flat Art With Digital Part 2 « Adventures in Digital & Analogue Imaging

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