So let’s talk about photographing 2D – two dimensional – art. Generally this includes all forms of painting, drawing, printing, etching, murals, mosaics, and even some fiber art. What is commonly referred to as 2D art is also commonly known as flat art, as opposed to art which stands on a surface and is viewed in-the-round.
In some ways, 2D art is the easiest art to photograph. Often the lighting is reasonably simple, or seems to be. The work can only be viewed from one side, and that point of view is usually obvious. And often there are no issues with glare or reflections. For these reasons, many 2D artists opt to take their own photos, as opposed to coming to a professional photographer such as myself.
However, I would argue that in spite of the above-mentioned circumstances, photographing 2D art can still present substantial challenges to the non-professional photographer. And while it may be possible for an amateur photographer to get an ‘OK’ photograph of a piece of 2D art, is ‘OK’ good enough? If you as an artist have spent many hours making your painting or drawing or etching as good as you can possibly make it, does an ‘OK’ photograph do it justice?
Here are some of the challenges that a photographer encounters when photographing 2D art:
Color and contrast fidelity
All simple lenses produce distortion. Distortion comes in various varieties. The main ones are several types of linear distortion, and chromatic aberration. Linear distortion is just what it says. When you take a picture of an object which has straight lines, those lines are reproduced as curves. It can be really annoying, and virtually all uncorrected lenses, or “simple” lenses, do it. All smartphone lenses do it, as do most low-end SLR lenses, in particular zoom lenses.
What this translates to for the person photographing 2D work is that their rectangular frame, or edge, is no longer rectangular.Your painting looks like a pillow, or a pin cushion. It also results in subtle changes to composition. Relationships between elements in the image are changed slightly, and lines within the composition which should be straight are curved. Some cameras and lenses are worse than others, and some offer forms of digital correction for it, if you know how to do it.
However, the best solution is to get it right in the first place, and that means using a corrected lens. A properly-designed lens will render straight lines as straight lines, and leave everything in the photograph where it is in relationship to everything else, with no correction needed. And since all forms of digital correction degrade the image to a degree, getting it right during the original image capture as opposed to correcting it after the fact results in a cleaner, better, sharper image.
The other main form of lens distortion is chromatic aberration. What this means technically is that the various colors of light focus at different distances from the lens. The visible result is what is called ‘color fringing,’ wherein fine details in the photograph appear to have colored haloes around them. Often it is slight, but it causes the image to seem less sharp than it should be.
Once again, simple lenses and inexpensive DSLR lenses almost always have this problem. You might not notice it immediately but it is there, subtly robbing your image of clarity, making it softer and less detailed than it should be. There are lenses that are corrected for chromatic aberration, but like those corrected for linear distortion, they are more expensive. And lenses that are corrected for both, for linear distortion and chromatic aberration, are more expensive still. These are the lenses I use, because it is worthwhile for me to invest in them.
Reflection is one of the greatest challenges that one faces when shooting some types of 2D work. Oil paintings, especially those to which a varnish has been applied, are often the worst offenders, although acrylics can have issues, too. And any kind of metallic paint can be a real challenge.
There are specific lighting techniques which I use to overcome reflections on flat art. One is to simply move the lighting units off to the side as far as possible, and shoot on as long a lens as possible. Unfortunately this has its own trade-off. As one takes the light farther around, less and less hits the piece directly and the colors become more and more muted. So in cases where this doesn’t work, I use a combination of focused lighting and Photoshop manipulation to result in an image with no reflections. It’s complicated, but it works, although it is beyond the skill set of most casual photographers.
Not all 2D art has surface texture. But the fact is that most of it does. Whether it is the subtle texture of water-color paper, the more significant texture of canvas, the even greater texture of fiber surfaces, or the substantial texture found in some impressionist paintings where the paint is built up heavily on parts of the surface, that texture is part of the piece of art. Capturing it in the photograph is essential to rendering a faithful representation of the original. Failing to capture it is failing to capture an essential part of the piece of art, which is to say, failing as an art photographer.
Capturing texture in a 2D piece of art comes down to lighting the piece properly. To do it requires some fairly sophisticated lighting tools and techniques and the knowledge of how to employ them. I have the tools and the knowledge, drawn from more than 30 years in the world of high-end product photography.
Color and Contrast Fidelity
This is probably the most critical area of photography of art in general, and 2D art in particular. In my experience working with artists, one thing I have come to understand is that artists are, by nature, picky. This is what makes them artists. There is a reason they used exactly that shade of magenta, and not one that was close to it. And when it comes to producing a photograph of their work, they want to see that same shade of magenta in the photograph, not one that’s just close.
The fact is, however, no photographic reproduction system is perfect when it comes to color and contrast. Truly they have improved by leaps and bounds in the last decade in particular, but no system is perfectly accurate. All require adjustment or compensation of some sort.
There are two ways in which this is done. One is by allowing the camera to use evaluative software to attempt to get the image as close as possible. When used properly, this approach can result in a fairly close reproduction. However, under most circumstances it will only ever get close, because the camera has no way of knowing what the artist’s intention really is. So the question becomes, is close, close enough?
The other approach, which is the one I use, goes several steps further. First, by properly setting up and calibrating every piece of hardware and software in the photographic system, from lighting and camera to imaging software to image editing software to viewing screens, making sure they all speak exactly the same ‘color language’ and are all working at their optimum, the photographic system will create the best, most faithful reproduction of which it is capable. After that it is up to the trained, experienced eyes of the photographer and the artist to evaluate the digital image and manually tweak it if needed and dial it in to as close to perfection as possible.
So after I’ve captured an image as close to perfect as I can make it, the artist and I evaluate and adjust it, if needed. I work with artists for whom it is not unusual to spend as much as 20 minutes tweaking each individual photograph of a painting to make sure every color in the photograph matches every color in the painting as closely as is humanly and digitally possible. And with the proper software and the knowledge to use it, this is possible. In the end we wind up with photographs which are virtually identical to the original work of art. These images are suitable for high-end reproduction of the original.
(I would also note as an aside, a point I have made in other posts about having a properly calibrated system. If your monitor, at least, is not properly calibrated you literally have no idea what you are looking at when it comes to evaluating an image. It might look right on your monitor but be completely wrong because your monitor is incorrectly adjusted.)
In the end, to me it comes down to how the artist answers the question, “How good do my photographs of my work need to be?” Is there a value to be gained by having images that are an extremely accurate representation of the original piece of art, or is ‘OK,’ good enough?” I would actually reverse the question, and ask the artist, “Was ‘close’ good enough when you were creating the piece of art? Or were you extremely particular about everything you did, every color you chose, every bit of brush texture you created, every bit of reflectivity, and every decision you made about composition?”
And here’s where the rubber meets the road, so to speak. These days it is quite common for artwork to be evaluated, juried, enjoyed, bought and sold without ever actually being seen in person. In so many circumstances it is the photograph that represents the piece of art, that stands in for it. And it is indeed the norm for artists to be accepted or rejected from shows and exhibitions and galleries without their work ever having been seen in person, but only the photographs of it.
So my thoughts for the artist are these: “You poured a huge amount of yourself, your energy, your vision, your creative judgement, into the art you created. Can you afford to have it represented to those who might evaluate it, or judge it, or buy it, by anything less than a photograph which truly preserves and represents the fruit of all of your efforts? Is an iPhone photo snapped in your yard worthy of a painting or drawing or etching which you spent years learning how to create, and on which you spent so many hours in execution?”
Photographing 2D art is deceptively simple. It is easy to get an OK photo of a painting or drawing. But is that OK photo good enough?
There are specific challenges to overcome in producing a photo or a piece of 2D art which accurately represents it without compromise. These are:
Color and contrast fidelity
Smartphone cameras and DSLR’s with inexpensive lenses almost always produce lens distortion, and result in images which suffer from numerous defects, which, while subtle, diminish the viewer’s appreciation and enjoyment of the original artistry. Unskilled use of lighting will not result in successful reproduction of texture and reflectivity. And non-professional and/or poorly adjusted and calibrated image editing, processing and viewing hardware and software will rarely accurately reproduce color and contrast.
It is important for the artist to ask himself or herself whether these compromises are acceptable in the context of the amount of time and effort they have put into getting good at their art, and in producing the particular piece of art in question. In a world where a photograph of a piece of art can be the difference between selling or not selling, getting into the gallery, or not, or getting into the show, or not, do less than high-end photographs do justice to the art and the artist?