Nuts and Bolts-Photographing a Textured Painting

Have you ever finished a painting, loved it and couldn’t wait to photograph it to share on social media?  But after you photographed it, it had shadows, glare and all sorts of blips and blobs highlighted that made it look awful and nothing like what it looked in life?   Recently I finished a painting that was textured and had a number of layers of glazes that gave me that problem.

I want my photographs of my art to look like the painting, not better, not worse.  If I were to sell a painting online or submit it to a show and the painting looked substantially different than the photograph, it might cause disappointment or even (horrors) the thought I was trying to put something over on them or hide a flaw.

There are a couple of quick fixes for photographing a textured painting that has a glaze on it or a varnish.  The easiest is to take the painting outside and photograph it in natural light.  Try to light your painting at an angle and visually adjust for glare.

OK, so you tried taking outside and playing with that angle and this angle and it still didn’t work.   Then do the following:

Use two lights at a 45 degree angle to the painting and try some filters.

I paint using artificial light.  Specifically, I  use 2- 2200 K lights on stands with diffusing umbrellas, in studio with the walls painted white.  Which gives me a nice soft daylight.  The benefit of this, is as the sun rises and gets stronger or as it sets in the afternoon, my light doesn’t change, so I don’t change my pigments in intensity because they look different under different lights.

A good link talking about lighting, color and temperature, can be found here.

The next thing is to orient your light at 45 degree angles to the painting.  But there is still a lot of light bouncing around.  You then need to add polarizing filters on your light, or camera or both as done in this article on documenting art.

Take a moment to look at your setup as if you were the camera.  Is there light bouncing off an area causing a highly visible glare?  Play with your lights.  I use a liner polarizing filter and manually adjust the focus on my camera.  If you plan to use auto focus use a circular polarizing filter.  I am not, at this point, using additional filters on my lights.  A circular polarizing filter may bend the edges of your painting a bit.

This is the first time I’ve used a filter.  The one on the left is filtered and on the right is unfiltered.  I felt I lost a little of the line definition on the filtered.   But I lost the glare and the tones show up better.  But once again, a photograph never quite looks the same as the painting viewed by the eye.  So I leave it up to you, to filter or not.  My goal is to make the photograph look as much like the original painting as I can.  I also manually focused as a linear polarizing filter works better that way.

crows filtered and not

You may be one of those people who buys a fancy camera with all sorts of bells and whistles fully intending to learn how to use each and every one, but after a brief time with it you find leaving it on auto and auto-focus suits you just fine.   And you go to buy a filter for it and search for  “polarizing filter for my brand of camera”.  And you can’t find a single one, only packages with prices you can see might be a bit of a rip-off.  Look on your lens, take off the lens cap and look at the area directly around your lens.  Somewhere there will say what mm the lens is.  My Cannon 60D is a 67 mm lens.  So when I went and searched for 67 mm polarizing filter I found a much larger array of choices.  I know, “duh”, why include this?  I figure if I wasted time doing it, someone else might and I could save them some time.

Another alternative, is to scan your art.  If it is just for your own records and the work is small you can probably use your in-home or in-office scanner.  If it is a larger work, you plan to make and sell prints, you may wish to take it to a facility that has large format scanners and experience in scanning work of your type.

Happy Painting!