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The Complete Art School Portfolios Guide: Photographing 3D Artwork

Art School Admissions Portfolio, Photographing 3D artwork

Updated February 13, 2020

By Clara LieuAdjunct Professor at the Rhode Island School of Design

3D artwork is notoriously challenging to do well

3D artwork is especially difficult to photograph well, and are the most problematic photographs for most students.   I rarely see 3D artwork in an art school portfolio that is photographed well.

The problem is that 3D artwork varies tremendously from artwork to artwork, so every single 3D artwork really requires its own custom setup in terms of lighting, point of view, and presentation in the slide.

You could be photographing anything from a small ceramic mug to a room-sized installation. The set up to photograph each of these pieces could not be more different.

Most 3D artworks often require more than one photo

Depending on the artwork, the artwork can look dramatically different from a different point of view. This gets complicated though, because often times people have far too many photos that they cram onto a single side, or, the photos that they have look so similar that some of the photos become redundant. 

On average two or three photos of a single 3D artwork is generally sufficient to capture the entire artwork.

Foam board Staircase Sculpture
Art School Admissions Portfolio, Photographing 3D artwork

Match the backdrop to the color of the 3D artwork

It’s really important that the color of the backdrop  allows for the 3D artwork to clearly appear in the photo.  In general, you want to use black gray or white for the backdrop color to make for a very clean, smooth background that will not distract from the artwork. 

A backdrop which is a very light beige or slightly off white color that is a neutral color works as well.

You can see in the image above of the white plaster sculpture, how dramatically different the sculpture appears depending upon the color of the backdrop. The black backdrop has creates a photo that has contrast that is too high, the shadows which are on the plaster sculpture are very dark and obscure some of the parts of the form.

The white backdrop is too similar to the white color of the plaster sculpture. Therefore the shadows which are on the sculpture are far too light,  and the photograph overall lacks contrast. 

The gray backdrop balances the range of value in the photograph very well. The shadows which are on the plaster sculpture are visible, and the white color of the sculpture pops really well against the grey backdrop.

Art School Admissions Portfolio, Photographing 3D artwork

Backdrops are very important!

A lot of the time when people photograph 3D artwork they simply place it on a table, which they position up against a wall. The problem with this approach is that you often times end up with a really ugly horizon line where the table and meets the wall, which is really distracting.

Instead, take a sheet of paper and using blue painter’s tape, tape the top two corners of the paper onto the wall. Hold the paper so that it slides onto the flat surface of the table.  this will hide in the ugly horizon line in between the wall in the table. Then, take the blue painter’s tape and tape the bottom to corner of the sheet of paper to the table to keep it secure

Photographing 3D artwork
Monika Hedman, Art School Admissions Portfolio

Backdrop materials

The material that works best for a backdrop is paper which is perfectly smooth, with no wrinkles in it.  It’s common for people to think that using a sheet of fabric will work well as a backdrop. However, fabrics are never that smooth when hung on a wall, and it’s inevitable that there will be a wrinkle somewhere.

Think you can iron it? Well, I have found that no matter how much I iron a sheet of fabric, it never gets remotely close to as flat or clean looking as a sheet of paper does. (trust me, I’ve tried) 

Use paper as your backdrop

Paper which is thicker is going to be a lot easier to use as a backdrop because it will not tend to get damaged or wrinkled as quickly. I like to use watercolor paper or printmaking paper because it doesn’t wrinkle easily and is fairly durable.

Get paper that is matte. If you get paper which has even a little bit shiny to it, that will make it really difficult to get a background color that is nice and flat.  Especially a sheet of black paper which has a little bit of Sheen to it is really problematic when shooting a photograph.

The only circumstance where I really do think of fabric is a lot better to use, is if you use duvetyne. Duvetyne is often times used on film sets because it is extremely opaque and does not absorb any light.

Art School Admissions Portfolio: Photographing Your Artwork
Balsa Wood Sculpture
Balsa Wood Sculpture
Balsa Wood Sculpture

Show the entire 3D artwork

When photographing your 3D artwork, make sure that you have at least one photo that shows the entire piece top to bottom, side to side.  (below right image) You don’t want to crop sections of the 3D artwork because it will make it difficult for people to get a sense of the entire piece. (below left image)

Minimize the backrgound

While showing the entire artwork is important.  you don’t want to photograph so much of the area around the 3D artwork that’s a 3D artwork looks very small compared to the background. (below center image)

Art School Admissions Portfolio, Photographing 3D artwork

Detail shots

You might choose to have a detail shot of your 3D artwork, however make sure that new visual information is being presented in that detail shot.  If your detail shop looks too similar to the other photos, then it’s not necessary.

Usually a detail shot is important if there is a specific textual surface to the 3D artwork that is important for the viewer to understand, or if there is very detailed painting on the 3D artwork  which is not visible from a further distance.

Copper Cuff, Annelise Yee

This detail shot of a copper tooling sculpture makes it possible to see more clearly the patina on the copper in addition to the texture of the surface. These details of the patina and the texture are not visible in the photo that shows the entire artwork.

Copper Cuff, Annelise Yee
Chipboard Personality Sculpture, Mica Furtado
Chipboard Personality Sculpture, Mica Furtado

This detail shot of a chipboard sculpture provides insight into the materials that were used to build the artwork: cut pieces of chipboard and hot glue

Lighting your 3D artwork

The best kind of lighting for a 3D artwork is lighting which is very soft and diffused. If you have lights that are direct, very harsh, and very bright, you will end up with a lot of cash shadows which have sharp, graphic edges.

Shadows like this are too dramatic and will create dark shapes in your photograph making the 3D artwork appear to be more flat than it actually is.

 Shadows are important to have in a photo of 3D artwork

On the other hand, it’s not a good idea to Photoshop the photo afterwards, in order to have a completely flat white background the 3D artwork has no shadow at all. This often times makes the 3D artwork look like it’s floating in mid-air, and can make the artwork look a lot less volume metric.

Don’t create shadows with Photoshop

The photo will end up looking very artificial and fake and flat. Create real shadows with lighting, it will be worth it.

Art School Transfer Portfolio, Audrey Scharrer
Art School Admissions Portfolio, Annabeth Tao

In this photo above, the student used Photoshop to create fake shadows  for this photo of their artist book. The artist book looks flat and artificial.

Handmade Artist Book, Lotus Book Fold

In this photo above the artist book was lit with natural light from a window creating beautiful, soft shadows  that emphasized the sculptural qualities of the object.

Using a stand light

Position the stand light so it is slightly above the 3D artwork, but shifted a little bit to the side.   A lighting umbrella is really really helpful in this situation, without a lighting umbrella you’re going to end up shadows that are lot harsher and higher in contrast which in this case is not what you want.

…or a window

Another option is to use natural light from window. The important thing here is that the light coming from the window is very soft and confused. You don’t want to use very direct strong sunlight which will be very stark and harsh.

Lighting from the window can look really terrific, however you do have a lot of limitations in that for the most part you don’t have a lot of control in terms of moving the light around.

Art School Admissions Portfolio: Photographing Your Artwork

Your physical position in relation to the 3D artwork

Unlike photographing 2D artwork where you do want to be standing upright, when shooting photographs of a 3D artwork you often times will not be standing up perfectly straight.

In order to get a good point of view, you will need to move yourself around the piece quite a bit. You might have to get up on a step stool to make yourself just a little bit higher, or you may need to bend down a little bit more

Try out several lighting situations

You can change the position or the height of your light. Rotate the 3D artwork while keeping  the light in the same spot. Experiment and try out a lot of different situations you might as well while you have everything set up.  It doesn’t take that much longer to do this, and you’ll thank yourself later!

Point of view

It’s surprising how completely different a 3D artwork and appear depending on the point of view that you take when positioning your camera.  In general, a bird’s-eye view of your 3D artwork which is straight on top from above, tends to distort the artwork quite a bit. (see the photo on the right, which is shot from above.) Same thing goes with views from below, in general it’s a lot better to look at a 3D artwork at eye level.

Usually views from the side are a lot more effective in terms of showing the three-dimensional volume of the artwork.  However depending on the shape of 3D artwork, this can vary tremendously.

Like the lighting, experiment with tons of different points of view of your artwork, if you shoot enough photographs you’re bound to get at least a few that look good.

Photographing 3D artwork
Photographing 3D artwork

The three photos above are visibly different enough from each other to warrant having three separate photographs of the artwork.   Each photo provides a new set of visual information that informs your knowledge of the 3D artwork.

Shoot tons and tons of photos

Photographing 3D artwork is challenging is there are so many factors, many of which are so easy to do poorly.  You have to consider point of view, lighting, whether it’s a detail shot or the entire piece. All of those factors means that you need to shoot tons and tons of photos.  

Usually whenever I am photographing a 3D artwork,  I am shooting about 40 or 50 photos, and using only about three or four. This way you have many options to choose from,  and is a lot less likely that you’re going to have to set this up all over again to do a reshoot.

Clay Portrait Sculpture
Clay Portrait Sculpture

Consider where you focus on the 3D artwork

Depending on the depth of the sculpture, where you focus can make a huge difference. For example, in the photo above of a clay portrait sculpture, the focus is on the nose, because it is the part of the sculpture that is the closest to us.  makes sense in this particular context with the nose would be the most in focus.

However, if you took a photo of the same sculpture in the same position, and you focused on the ear on the right hand side, that would create a situation where the nose was very blurry and out of focus

Avoid having more than 3 images on 1 slide

In the slide on the right, there are six different points of view shown of the figure sculpture. However, many of these photos are very similar to each other, and having to fit 6 images on a single slide makes it difficult to see the sculpture up close.

In this situation, three of the images could easily be cut out of the slide.

Art School Admissions Portfolio: Sculpture

Documenting your 3D artwork with a video is usually a bad idea

People tend to think that using a video to document your 3D artwork is a good idea, because you can use the camera to circle around the artwork to show multiple points of view.  However, a lot of people severely underestimate how difficult it is to shoot a video that is of decent quality.

It’s surprising how easy it is to shoot a video that looks really bad

A lot of people move their camera far too quickly, which makes it really hard to see the artwork. Often times the lighting is really poor, people hold their phone vertically (as opposed to horizontally) which vastly limits the view of the artwork.

Most of the time people shoot videos of their 3D artwork with a smartphone and don’t bother to edit the video afterwards, or if they do take the time to edit the video, the editing quality can be sloppy and awkward. 

Video editing is a very specific skill and for the most part high school students do not have the experience necessary to edit a video that will look clean and presentable.

Use video only with artwork that moves, or requires human interaction

The only situation where a video to document 3D artwork is really necessary is if you have an artwork has physical motion, or the artwork requires human interaction in order to have the artwork be fully understood.

In these cases, try to avoid dramatic and/or fast camera movements, and keep the shots really simple. Don’t add any text to the video ( such as your artist statement) or any cheesy music. Aim for your video to be really short, about no longer than a minute or two. Make the assumption that most admissions officers are not going to have time to sit through a 15-minute video.

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