Shooting Artwork: Less is not More

By Frank Van Riper
Special to Camera Works
Tuesday, October 31, 2006; 12:47 PM

It's bad enough being a starving artist. Having to make good pictures of your art to submit to galleries, funding agencies and competitions is even worse -- especially on an empty stomach.

While the transition from film to digital may make things a little easier for the average amateur photographer to produce good images of his or her flat artwork (i.e.: paintings, drawings, etchings, prints and the like) shooting flat art, like playing baseball, is at once easier and harder than it looks.

After all, anyone can stick a camera in front of a piece of artwork and, especially with the camera set to Program, make a reasonably well-exposed photograph. By the same token, anyone with a pair of sneakers and a glove, can take the field in a pick-up game and not necessarily be an embarrassment to one's teammates.

But to do either thing well--that's something else again.

For the purposes of this column, I will confine myself to photographing two-dimensional (flat) art, not three dimensional sculpture. The rules for photographing sculpture are similar to those for shooting paintings and such, but require far more attention to correctly lighting the planes, surfaces--and background--of the piece.

As a practical matter for most amateurs, photographing flat art is difficult enough.

Probably the biggest mistake an amateur can make when photographing his or her artwork is thinking that this can be done quickly, easily or on the cheap. [The response to each is No, No and No.] In the old days, gallery owners told me they were amazed at the poor quality of slides submitted to them by artists, some of whom otherwise produced stellar work. Granted, some lousy artists also produced lousy slides, but that's not what I'm addressing here.

My guess is that bad slides could have been the result of ignorance of good photographic technique, but also in some cases the result of a naïve belief that the beauty of the artwork would shine through the mediocre photography and let the artist get away with not having to: A) learn a whole new discipline or B) go out and hire a professional shooter who does this all the time.

Bottom line? In today's competitive art world, even Da Vinci's work would be round-filed if it came over the transom reflected in crummy slides or poor digital images. Trust me: I have been there as a judge and I know that nothing turns off a panel more than images that say "I don't have enough regard or respect for you (read also: myself) to make professional-grade photos of my work."

In working with flat art even a comparatively small investment in two strong floodlights can make a world of difference to your images. Ok, I admit: in addition to the floodlights you have to buy lightstands, diffusion covers for the lights, a tripod for your camera and a half-way decent exposure meter. Still, all the gear I have mentioned will be good for years to come. Think of it as a onetime investment in your future as an artist.

Film or digital? Nowadays, even a film-loving, Leica-toting, troglodyte like me probably would opt for high-resolution digital photography, especially as more and more galleries, competitions and the like accept e-mailed transmissions, or CD's. Face it: it simply is a pain in the butt to shoot slides, edit the best and then spend a fortune on good dupes. That having been said, though, people who are used to shooting film should take comfort from the fact that now it is a cinch to have a good custom lab scan chromes or negative film to CD. (Important note: Granted, most website usage calls for nothing more than 72 dpi. But I would have both hi and lo-res scans made at the same time; the hi-res ones then being available should a gallery, museum or other space need the image for magazine or catalog reproduction.)

When shooting film--or digital, for that matter--color balance is all-important. While it is possible to correct or compensate for color temp mismatch (i.e.: shooting tungsten film outdoors, or shooting digital with the color balance incorrectly set, it's a hell of a lot easier to get it right the first time. Hence: tungsten film matched to tungsten bulbs, or blue (daylight-balanced) flood lamps used with daylight film.

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