Monday, June 28, 2010

How to Photograph Oil Paintings

Photographing oil paintings has always been tricky and I've struggled for years to get satisfying results. Problems in the past included uneven lighting, fuzzy details, and glare.This new set up gives the best images I've ever had so I thought I'd share.

I have four light stands each with a 33" white translucent umbrella, "premium" light sockets with 65 Watt 5000K UL listed florescent light bulbs. These are "continuous light" not "strobes". It's important that all the bulbs are the same so they all have the same color. Most of my equipment came from It costs about $100 for two stands, light sockets, bulbs and umbrellas. To photograph smaller paintings two lights may be sufficient.

The lights are arranged at the sides of the paintings rather than in front of them. This "raking" light minimizes glare. To be able to do this the painting is sitting on an easel rather than hanging on a wall. If light pollution from a window is a concern just draw the shades or shoot at night.

My camera is a digital Canon Rebel XTi. After some serious instruction manual reading I set it to Manual Mode, set the custom white balance (by photographing a white poster board under the lights) and set the f stop on 3.5 and Auto Bracket. I use an Ultrasonic 24-85mm lens 1:3.5-4.5. I also use a shutter release cable which prevents camera shake when I take the picture.

I use a tripod, determine the exact middle of the painting from the floor (involves math) and set the tripod so the camera lens is at that height from the floor. Adjust the tilt of the camera angle up and down so there is as little distortion as possible.

Finally I download them to my trusty iMac, perspective crop in Photoshop to crop out my messy studio. There is very little to do in color adjustments. Usually they can be adjusted using levels and channels.

I usually photograph the paintings a second time after varnishing and the results are even better.

I'm sure my photographer friends will see a number of things I could do better and I'm all ears! The process is eternally evolving.

That's easy enough, right?

Update: I've done another post about photographing particularly challenging dark paintings, Photographing oil paintings, Part 2

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  1. Great setup, thanks for sharing it. Great painting too by the way.

  2. Thank you Michael, Glad you like the post and the painting.

  3. You've arrived at pretty much the same method that I came to after much experimentation, but here's one more enhancement. I use a short carpenter's spirit level and adjust my easel to make sure the painting is perfectly vertical. My Canon 40D has a hot shoe on top (don't know about your Rebel) that accepts another bubble level that's made to fit in there. With camera set at same distance from floor as the center of painting, all the leveling assures you are shooting exactly perpendicular to the plane of the painting.

  4. Thank you Kirk for the additional idea, looks like I need another addendum. I usually try to eyeball the lines of the painting and the tilt of the camera making sure the lines look parallel. I've been a little nervous to put the easel straight up and down for fear of the painting falling off. That could be fixed with some painter tape. I usually have to square it up a little in photoshop with perpective crop but it would be so much better to not have to do that. I also adjust with lens correction which works great.

  5. Great setup, I also worry about the canvas falling of the easel when in the canvas is in the vertical position. On larger paintings there is always a center brace so I use a reusable cable tie to hold it in place.

    1. Yes, thanks for your comment, Tim. Good suggestion. I usually secure my painting as well. If the easel is tilted back ever so slightly, you can also tilt your camera back too.

    2. And thank you for being a reader of my blog and sharing your thoughts.



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