How I photograph my artwork

High Barnet ChurchI’ve read an enormous number of posts and asked advice of various people over the years of the best way to document your artwork. Until recently I still felt that the best way, if you wanted to have print quality scans, was to have the images professionally scanned; cameras and software have improved til i feel you can now get a decent scan from a digital SLR, plus a few bits of kit. So I thought I’d share where I’m at, hopefully it’ll be as useful to somebody as all the other blogs and articles I’ve read over the years! Much of the really good advice, the last bits of the puzzle that have made me satisfied with my results, come from advice from Marc d’Alessio, a plein-air painter who now lives in Croatia. ( So thanks Marc – and hopefully we’ll meet in Florence one day!

1. The Camera

I use a Nikon D5300(no I don’t, I use a D5200!), a digital SLR that is just above entry level, but does produce files around 25 Mbs. The main feature, beyond all the usual bells and whistles, is that I can tether it – this means I can link my laptop to it with a USB cable and take the photos remotely. This does two things – it really helps eliminate camera shake, as you will often be shooting at low speeds, but mainly it allows me to immediately review the image, and easily either bracket it, or shift things if they need shifting.

2. The Software

To tether the camera I use “Sofortbild“, a great piece of German coding that does exactly what it says on the tin – you can operate the shutter from your laptop, review the image, change the settings, even have a live-view running. I take the pics RAW, most dSLRs will allow this, and it gives you great latitude to change exposure, apply a camera profile, correct for lens distortion, before you open the file in Photoshop. At the moment Photoshop can’t open the RAW files from the D5300 so I run them through Adobe DNG converter. This is a very nifty piece of software that turns RAW files into the Adobe DNG format which is, as far as I can tell, Adobe’s version of RAW,  which Photoshop is happy with. So the process at the moment is:

  1. Sofortbild to take the pic
  2. Adobe DNG converter to convert to DNG
  3. Photoshop to apply camera profile, crop and fiddle with levels if necessary
  4. Save (and keep a copy of the RAW file somewhere too!)
  5. Run image processor with Photoshop to get smaller jpeg for web use.

3. Color Profiles

X-rite PassportLike Sofortbild, this is another great bit of advice from Marc d’Alessio! I bought an X-rite Passport with relative software. Very unassuming at first glance, this is a folding plastic case with colour cards inside. You take a photo of your artwork with the Passport colour card in front, then dump it on the X-rite software which analyses it and builds you a color profile. This is the same profile you can call up when opening up the RAW files, and it will adjust levels to the correct settings. This was the real life saver for me – I get colour blindness when I start fiddling with curves and levels, but now my starting point is so much closer to a satisfactory result I just have to tweak.

4. Physical setup

Camera, Lights, PictureA tripod for the camera, 2 cheap lights – I got mine from Amazon and they seem fine – set at approximately 45 degrees to the work, an easel set to hold the work as vertical as possible. A long USB cable to your computer – and I have invested in a 24″ monitor, but it’s a luxury!

It all stores away easily, and I set it all up when I’ve taken a sketchbook apart and want to document the work before I store it in the plan chest, or it goes off for framing (or to a new home!). photo 3As for camera settings, I tend to go for a mid aperture setting, like 11, which gives me slow shutter speeds but not so slow that I have to worry about shake. I keep the camera on manual so I’m in control of everything, and use a fixed 50 mm lens, so I know there’ll be very little distortion, and I can fill the lens without being too close. I also now calibrate the screen, but that’s a story for another time.

I hope this has been helpful, feel free to drop me a line if you have any questions!