There is only one original painting, but 30 people want it on their walls. How do you satisfy them all? By making prints, of course!
You could use a scanner. But what if the painting is too large, or is made of glitter and gold, acrylic and texture? Fear not; photography is here to help.
Digitizing paintings is best done with a camera and a lens, so here is our nifty guide on how to photograph paintings for prints (ensuring your reproductions are true to the original)!
How to Photograph Paintings for Prints: Top Tips
- Why Not Scan Your Artwork?
- 1. Use the Right Gear and Settings
- 2. Lighting, Lighting, Lighting
- 3. Position Your Artwork and Camera Properly
- 4. Watch Out for Reflections!
- 5. Use a Neutral Grey Card and a Print-Calibrated Monitor
- 6. Do Some Post-Processing
Why Not Scan Your Artwork?
Before we get started, I’d like to address a common question:
Why photograph a painting when scanners exist? That’s what scanners are for, right?
Well, yes and no.
Yes, scanners exist to, well, scan whatever it is you put in them.
But scanners have their limitations, and you are better off photographing your masterpiece rather than scanning it. Here’s why:
1. Scanners May Not Be Able to Accurately Scan Certain Mediums
Textured mediums are the most difficult to scan accurately, such as globs of paint or stretched canvas. Scanners work best on completely flat surfaces.
But with photography, you’re able to preserve all that texture.
2. Consumer-Grade Scanners Are Just Not Very Good
When using a standard (i.e., reasonably priced) scanner, many of the small details that make a big difference may not be picked up. Whereas high-resolution cameras can capture even the most minute of details!
3. Some Works of Art Are Simply Too Big to Scan
If you’re working with a very large painting (really, anything larger than A2 or A3 size), you’ll find yourself in a bind. Although it is possible to scan pieces of your painting and then stitch them all together in Adobe Photoshop, that is a tremendous amount of effort on your part.
Photography is a much easier solution.
Now that we’ve established the value of photography over scanning, let’s chat about how to photograph paintings for prints, starting with my first piece of advice:
1. Use the Right Gear and Settings
Most artists agree: Tools do make a difference in your work. And for photographers, the camera and the lens that you use can significantly impact the final photograph. For digitizing paintings, get a camera with a good amount of megapixels, and grab a lens with zero (or minimal) optical distortion.
Cameras come in many varieties, from DSLRs and mirrorless models to smartphones and point and shoot options. But you’ll want a DSLR or mirrorless camera (because they have interchangeable lenses). If you’re buying a camera solely for your paintings, there is really only one specification you should pay attention to: megapixels.
At a minimum, you need a 12 MP camera. But if you want a camera that’ll consistently perform, look at models offering 24 MP and more.
As for lenses, look for models ranging from 35mm to 70mm lengths; these closely match the human eye’s field of view. If you plan to only use your lens for digitization, just go with a 50mm lens and call it a day, though if you’re capturing rather large paintings, a 35mm lens may be the better bet.
As for the ideal camera settings, here is a quick run-through:
- Keep your aperture narrow for a deep depth of field. You want to make sure everything is sharp and nothing is out of focus. An aperture of f/9 is great, but if part of your photo keeps coming out blurry, then try f/11.
- Keep your ISO as low as possible to avoid noise, because noise can really mess with the texture of a painting. ISO 100-300 is the range to use.
- You can adjust the shutter speed as needed to achieve good exposure. That being said, don’t make it so slow that the slightest breeze will cause motion blur. 1/60s is a good place to start.
- Keep the AF mode on Single Shot, One Shot, or AF-S (these are all essentially identical, but the name depends on your camera brand).
- Shoot in RAW mode. This will give you the latitude to make color and exposure adjustments in post-processing.
- Use the Adobe RGB color space.
2. Lighting, Lighting, Lighting
The goal with photographing paintings is to make sure the lighting is nice and even; one part should not be darker than another.
A common misconception is that you should center one light in front of your paintings. But this won’t create even lighting and may mess up your rendering of details.
Instead, place two lights on opposite sides of the artwork. Angle these lights at 45 degrees toward the painting. The light will meet in the middle of the painting, keeping the illumination even from edge to edge! This will prevent harsh shadows and bright highlights while keeping it all neutral.
As for the lights themselves, look for continuous lights or flash and strobes (either works well), but make sure to use a diffuser; diffusers soften the light, allowing for an even spread as opposed to a spotlit effect.
If you don’t already own a couple of flashes, you might be tempted to use natural light, as colors can come out beautifully. Unfortunately, unless you are shooting at very specific times of day and with the right weather, you’ll end up with many issues.
If the sun is too high, the glare may be too intense. If it’s the golden hour, everything will be tinted yellow. If you’re in shade, everything will be too dark and cold. Overcast lighting is ideal, but you don’t necessarily want to be at the mercy of weather every time you need to digitize a painting.
So stick to photographing with studio lights.
3. Position Your Artwork and Camera Properly
How you position your painting makes a huge difference.
If you can hang the painting on a wall, go for it. Putting the painting on an easel works as well. You need to make sure your camera is perfectly parallel to the painting itself (this is best achieved with a tripod).
Avoid placing the painting on the floor, as you won’t be able to light it properly. And of course, make sure the painting is straight. But the biggest thing is to always, always, always make sure that the camera is perfectly centered and parallel to the painting!
If you fail to position your camera properly, your perspective and angles will be all wonky and unfixable.
4. Watch Out for Reflections!
Certain painting mediums suffer from being very reflective. While reflections can look absolutely stunning in person, they will be your worst nightmare in photography.
A good solution? Invest in a polarizing filter.
Polarizing filters screw onto the front of your lens element, and their purpose is to reduce reflections and glare. A polarizing filter can make a massive difference in your painting photography, especially if you are photography acrylic.
If possible, grab a linear polarizing filter over the more popular circular polarizer. The circular one can leave the edges of your painting full of reflections.
5. Use a Neutral Grey Card and a Print-Calibrated Monitor
Color is everything in painting – so how do you know if you’ve captured colors correctly?
First, you use a neutral gray card. Second, you preview your photos on a calibrated screen.
Gray cards look like a paint sample you’d find at a home improvement store – it’s a small square that’s covered in gray. And this simple tool gives you a baseline to adjust your white balance for your photograph!
All you have to do is take a photograph with some part of the gray card visible, and you’re good to go for all photos taken during that session; it’ll act as your reference point.
Regarding calibration: Computer monitors display colors in all sorts of ways. For instance, a photo might look more yellow on a phone than on a laptop screen, or vice versa. If you’re trying to create a true-to-life print, this is a major problem, which is where calibration comes in handy.
Monitors can be calibrated to display colors as close to how they would be printed as possible (this is known as print calibration). And there are various monitor calibration tools you can use to help you achieve perfect print calibration.
This leads us into our final point…
6. Do Some Post-Processing
How you post-process your painting photograph really depends on the original image. Here, the goal of post-processing is to try to bring back the original colors as much as possible; that way, you preserve the authenticity of the original painting.
A program such as Adobe Lightroom is a great choice because the panel sliders can help you work with the colors.
By the way, before you send a file to print, think about your export settings. By default, cameras capture a resolution of 72 DPI, and they may not use the correct color settings for printing. Make sure your color space is Adobe RGB (change this prior to doing color correction) and increase your DPI to the resolution required by your printer of choice.
How to Photograph Paintings for Prints: Conclusion
Photographing paintings for prints is not as complex or difficult as it may sound. If you have the right gear adjusted to the right settings, paired with good lighting and a good positioning – you’re golden! A few tweaks in an editing software to bring out the most of your artwork and you’ll be all set to create beautiful reproduction prints from your artwork.
The minimum resolution for a professional printer is a DPI of 300.
Although you can print from home if you’ve invested in a professional grade printer, it is suggested to go to a professional print lab to have quality work made. Avoid consumer markets such as Walmart or CVS, and invest in high level labs such as Miller’s. Consumer market labs are often inaccurate on color with printers that are not best formatted.
Prints of paintings can be done on all sorts of paper, depending upon what final look you are going for. For posters, glossy is a great choice. For reproductions, paper that has a texture to it such as canvas is an excellent option.