This article is the final in a series of 3, by Garry Benson, which covers all the technical steps for succesfully taking shots of artwork suitable for print publication.
On the left, the untouched image – on the right colour corrected image. The original was shot using the ‘Loo Paper’ alternative.
Many digital cameras behave like color slide film – the best images are often slightly underexposed, particularly when bright scene elements are involved. But this means you have a lot better detail in shadow and highlight areas that you can access to if you have access to image editing software. Use exposure compensation to feel out your own camera’s exposure sweet spots, but count on some variation with photographic conditions. When in doubt, bracket your exposures by about 1/3rd of a stop either side of your meter reading.
Most on-camera flash units are too good! They pump out a very strong blast of light, so if you’re close to an artwork and want a subtler light try adding a few layers of loo paper or kitchen roll. You need to experiment to work out the best exposure but make sure that the flash sensor (under the words FZ150) isn’t covered up as it measures the amoiunt of flash light needed.
Sooner or later, you’ll have to deal with other digital recording mode issues like white balance and in camera sharpening, but it’s usually safe to accept camera defaults for starters. Digital cameras have more to do in preparing to take a photo than film cameras. Like film cameras, they have to focus the lens, however they also have to take a pre exposure to get proper colour balance!
The good news is that they are able to achieve better exposed, better colour balanced and in many cases better focused images than film cameras. The bad news is that this takes a fraction of a second and could cause you to miss a great picture.
What can you do about it? There are a couple of approaches that are very effective. The simplest is to just push the shutter button half way down and keep it there until you are ready for the photo, and then press the rest of the way. Pressing halfway signals the camera to immediately choose focus, colour balance, and exposure. The subsequent delay when you take your shot is now quite small, comparable to film cameras. When I am shooting I keep the shutter button half depressed, and I get great shots, even action.
Invest in large memory cards for your camera. One of the most important reasons for using a massive memory card is to enable you to shoot at your camera’s highest resolution. If you paid a premium price for a 24 mega pixel digicam, then get your money’s worth and shoot at 24 mega pixels. Why not squeeze more images on your memory card by shooting a lower resolution and low quality compression settings? Because you could be missing out on a great picture and the quality will suffer. And if you take a beautiful picture at the low 640 x 480 resolution, that means you can only make a print about the size of a credit card.
One of the great hidden features on digital cameras is the fill flash or ‘flash on demand’ mode for when you want it (the name may change in different cameras). By taking control of the flash so it goes on when you want it to, not when the camera deems it appropriate, you’ve just taken an important step toward capturing great photographs. How many flash settings does your camera have? In ‘flash on demand’ mode, the camera exposes for the background first, then adds just enough flash to illuminate your subject. The result is a professional looking picture where everything in the composition looks good. Wedding photographers have been using this technique for years.
A huge gallery exhibition like Cai Guo-Qiang: Falling Back to Earth is a challenge – there’s no alternative but to go with the gallery lighting.
Photographing art in a gallery situation will often present difficulties. When you have work in a gallery it is usually illuminated by spotlights and the colour balance is very ‘warm’, similar to the light you see at sunrise and sunset. Unless you have supplementary lighting or have a good flash unit on your camera, don’t submit these types of shots. The colour isn’t true, often spotlights create lots of shadows and you’re just not doing justice to your artwork.
This image was presented for publication. Notice the blue daylight streaming in from the left; the fluros in the ceiling and the fact that to avoid reflections in the glass the photographer had to move to the left. See below for hints on shooting images through glass.
The solution is to turn off all the spotlights, house lights, fluros etc and just use your camera flash that is colour adjusted for daylight. If you have the luxury of a remote flash head setup place two of them either side of the camera at 45˚ and turn off your in-built camera flash. A cheaper solution is to use your camera flash, place some large sheets of white packing foam (save them when you buy a large item like a new fridge or 50″ LCD TV!!) close to the artwork at 45˚ and they will help ‘fill’ in the shot.
I scrunge up Alfoil on the other side and glue it on the foam sheet – this is for sharper, broken light and is also good for portraits. Oh, and if you’re using reflected light (off walls or ceiling) check the colour – white walls are best but any other colour will change the colour balance. If you’re shooting in daylight any stray window light will be OK as long as it’s not too strong or ‘modelling’ (from one side).
In a gallery open to daylight and no spotlights but fluorescent lights there’s another problem. Unless the fluorescents are special daylight ones the images will look greenish – again, turn off the fluoros and use your flash. One last hint; make sure you are taking the shot lined up to the centre of the work, both vertically and horizontally.
I was shooting a documentary in the APY (Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara) Lands in Central Australia when the producer received a call from her book publisher – all the gallery shots of paintings were unusable due to the mix of fluoro, spotlight and daylight on the images. Could I help? Well I waited until midday (good daylight balance), turned off the spots and fluoros and shot with a ‘soft’ flash (some layers of loo paper over the flash head) to soften shadows.
Softening the flash effect also helps when photographing works under glass but inevitably glass is a problem. The best solution is to demount the work but galleries (and artists) get a little twitchy when this is suggested. The next best solution is to buy a Polaroid filter.
Sometimes you can use reflections to get a more interesting image. This poster in Avignon was interesting but with the reflections added it achieves a different result…
…and it’s an interesting way to get a ‘selfie’ – you can just see my reflection in this shot in the lanes of Venice, Veneto. ©2014 garrybenson
Polarizing filters need to be rotated to alter the effect they have on reflections. Slowly rotate the filter while looking through the lens and most reflections will magically disappear – but be careful you’re not lit or you’ll be reflected, camera and all.
The old images of ancient photographers hiding under black drapes seems crazy now, but a large (say 2 metre square) piece of black velvet is perfect for blocking out the shiny bits of your camera and tripod, not to mention my shiny bald spot! And it provides a perfect ‘black hole’ background when photographing small objects.
And the most desperate solution if you don’t have a filter? If you have a pair of good quality, clean and scratch free Polaroid sunnies you can use them as a filter by holding them over the lens and rotating them to block reflections. Definitely the last option as the quality of sunnies glass is not as good as the quality of your lens.
So as you can see by the above, the whole process of taking your own great photos of artworks is relatively easy – not! But why not try it, get some experience by shooting lots of images and like this once 15 year old trainee you will gradually learn how to take your own great images of your own great artwork. Just another hint – don’t forget to delete all those crappy experimental shots so only you know how bad they were!