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The Complete Art School Portfolios Guide: Photographing Artwork

Alex Rowe, Lauryn Welch, & Prof Lieu talk about photographing your artwork

Updated December 18, 2019

By Clara LieuAdjunct Professor at the Rhode Island School of Design

How you photograph the artwork in your portfolio can make or break an artwork

One of my artist colleagues once said to me “As artists, we live and die by our photographs.”

Today, the vast majority of the time, people will see our artwork on a screen before they see it in person, if they ever do!  The photograph of your artwork may literally be the only representation of your artwork anyone ever gets to see.

I have seen a lot of artworks, particularly 3D artworks that are so poorly photographed and presented, that they look like an entirely different art piece It’s easy especially with 3D artwork for the artwork to be completely misunderstood because the photograph does not accurately show all of the dimensions of the artwork.

It’s critical that the photograph is an accurate representation of the artwork. You’ve worked so hard to produce the artwork, you don’t want that artwork to be misrepresented in your documentation!

Photographing your artwork is time consuming

Many people don’t realize how much time it can take to produce excellent quality photographs of your artworks in your portfolio. The process is not rocket science, but it is really easy to mess up if you don’t know what to look for, or don’t know the techniques.

If you aren’t paying attention to important details, if you have the wrong tools and materials,  if you aren’t equipped with the right information an instructions, so many things can go so wrong, so fast.

Lucky for you, you’re here on this page! I’m going to give you everything you need to know to do this right, without spending a fortune on pricey camera and lighting equipment.

Art School Admissions Portfolio, Photographing 3D artwork

Photographing your artwork can cost almost nothing, or it can be very expensive

There are so many versions of how you can approach this process.  You can take the surefire (but very expensive route) of hiring a professional photographer. If you do, wow will it be worth it!  When I’ve worked with a professional photographer, I’m always blown away by the quality of the photographs. It’s as if my eyes had no idea that a photograph could look THAT GOOD.

The photo on the lower left of the architectural model with the blue background was done by a professional photographer. The photo on the lower right is the exact same architectural model, except it was shot by a student.

When you compare these two photographs, it’s hard to believe that they both are photos of the same architectural model. Choices like lighting, backdrop color, camera angle, focus, and much more are done in a dramatically different fashion between the two photos.

Architectural Model, photographed by a professional photographer

Photo of an architectural model, shot by a professional photographer

Architectural Model, photographed by a student

Photo of the same architectural model, shot by a student

Don’t wait until your portfolio is complete to start photographing your artwork

So many people assume that they can work on creating artwork right up until the day before the deadline and when they realize what a gigantic mistake that is, it’s too late to do anything about it.

Unless one of your parents is a professional photographer, get started as early as you can so you have plenty of time to deal with challenges that are going to arise.

It’s pretty much guaranteed that you’re going to have to do multiple rounds of photography if you have never gone through this process before. Make sure that you plan enough in advance so that you have time to fix all the mistakes that you will inevitably make in the process.

Art School Admissions Portfolio: Photographing Your Artwork

Photograph your artwork as you make it

A lot of people presume that they will wait until they finish all of their art school portfolio pieces, and then photograph all of the artwork at once.  There are a few reasons why this isn’t a good idea. First of all, photographing artwork can get really tedious and time consuming if you have a huge pile of artwork to photograph. That can feel very overwhelming which isn’t fun for anyone

If you can, get an extra pair of hands

While you certainly can photograph your artwork by yourself, (I do all the time) it is really helpful to have someone help out. If one person is in charge of hanging the artwork on the wall, while the other person is behind the camera, the process goes much faster.

I highly recommend that if you are a student and a family member is helping out, that YOU be the person behind the camera. If you do end up going to art school and having a career in visual arts, this will definitely not be the last time you’ll need to photograph your artwork. So start training yourself now by being the photographer.

Art School Admissions Portfolio: Photographing Your Artwork

Do several trial runs of photographs early in the application season.

As soon as you have 3 or 4 artworks that are ready be photographed, you should try shooting photos of those artworks simply to walk yourself through the entire process from beginning to end.

Shooting photos of your artwork really is a skill in itself, it’s not one that you’re doing to figure out overnight and get pristine results.  Part of the process is shooting many bad photographs so you start to see the difference between an accurate photo and one that is poorly done. You’ll need to troubleshoot the inevitable technical issues that will arise. Like any skill, the more you practice the process, the better you’ll get at it.

Photoshop cannot fix everything

Never assume that you’ll be able to perform a miracle on your photo in Photoshop. Even for an professional who is an expert in Photoshop, there are some problems in the original photo that cannot be fixed. (or, even if it could be fixed, it would take hours and hours to do)

In most cases, you’re much better off simply reshooting the photo instead of hoping that you’ll be able to magically fix a fundamental issue in Photoshop.

Camera options

For many students, hiring a professional photographer to shoot photos of their art school portfolio simply isn’t an option. You’ll have to figure out what equipment you can assemble for yourself to get the job done.

There are several pieces of equipment that you can definitely live without, although keep in mind that if you do end up attending a art school and working professionally in visual arts, this will definitely not be the last time that you will have to photograph your artwork.  

The nice thing about all of this equipment, is that once you buy it, you will have it forever.  You probably will eventually want to make updates on your camera, and you’ll have to replace light bulbs, but stand lights and lighting umbrellas don’t tend to be purchases you will have to make again.

Art School Admissions Portfolio, Photographing 2D artwork

Smartphones

Nowadays, smartphones are ubiquitous. However, the quality of the camera can vary tremendously depending on the version of smartphone that you own. 

When I got an iPhone X, there was a dramatic difference of quality in the camera. In the past, when I upgraded my iPhone, I didn’t really notice much of a difference in the camera

None of the previous iPhone cameras remotely measured up by comparison. If you have an iPhone X or above, that is completely sufficient to shoot your art school portfolio images on.

DSLR Cameras

The best option in terms of shooting your own photographs is to purchase in DSLR camera.  While the photos that you shoot on an iPhone XR totally acceptable for your art school portfolio, the difference between a photograph shot on a DSLR camera versus an iPhone X is gigantic.

You will immediately notice how much more crisp the photos will be, and how vibrant the colors are in a photograph shot by a DSLR camera are compared to one that is shot on an iPhone X. 

On top of that, if you ever need to shoot photographs for print, or that you maybe want to send to someone in a professional context like an art gallery, a DSLR camera will totally take care of that for you.

I highly recommend the Canon Rebel series. We shoot all of our videos and still photos for Art Prof  with the Canon Rebel series, and you can see the results: with the proper lighting and camera settings, you can get professional-quality video and still photos.

Art School Admissions Portfolio, Photographing 2D artwork

Don’t worry if you don’t have formal photography skills

A lot of people get quickly intimidated by DSLR cameras because they worry that they won’t understand what types of settings to use in terms of getting the right color correction, brightness, and focus.

Fortunately, DSLR cameras have all kinds of automatic settings. You can set the focus to automatic, you can do the same thing with white balance. Most of the time between this and a little bit of Photoshop at the end, you can get everything accurate.

Where to purchase a used or new DSLR camera

It’s pretty easy nowadays to get a used DSLR camera for a much lower price. In general, DSLR cameras really do not need to be updated very often if you are only using it for still photography, so it’s a long-term investment that it’s definitely worth your time if you can afford it.

You can search sites like eBay for deals on used DSLR cameras,  and for new equipment I highly recommend the New York City store B&H Photo. The one thing about being is photos that you need to know in advance is that the store is run by Orthodox Jews, there for their store and their website completely shut down on Friday evenings, and do not reopen again until Sunday morning. Other than that they ship incredibly fast, have excellent customer service, and have pretty much everything you will ever need for photography and video. 

Lighting Options

Art School Admissions Portfolio: Photographing Your Artwork

Lighting Kits

Having a good camera is really important, but at the same time getting the correct lighting situation is in a lot of ways even more important. If you have a bad lighting situation,  the problems are often times so bad, that no amount of Photoshop skills will save you from a poorly lit photo.

The ideal situation is to purchase a lighting kit. Lighting kits come with to stand lights, and photoflood bulbs (500 watts).  Lighting umbrellas usually are sold separately. The nice thing about a lighting kit, is that you can shoot your photographs indoors, at any time of day.

Lighting kits are extremely reliable, easy to set up, and again, an excellent long-term investment for a visual artist.  Most lighting kits run about $120 to $150.

Tripods

A tripod can really make a big difference when shooting your photographs, because it guarantees that your camera is completely still in stable as you shoot your photographs. Having a tripod will eliminate getting motion blur in your photographs. 

However, you can totally live without a tripod if you don’t want to bother with the expense. There are ways to avoid motion blur in your shooting technique. (see our explanation of motion blur and ways to prevent it down below.)

Camera tripod
Photo Flood Bulbs

Photo Flood Bulbs

Take note that photo flood bulbs cannot be used in any regular light, the wattage of a photoflood bulb is so high (500 watts) that most regular lights cannot handle it.

Be really careful when you are handling photoflood bulbs. They get incredibly hot when you turn on the stand lights, and you can quickly hurt yourself in the process. Make sure that you give the photo flood bulbs enough time to cool down before handling them.

Lighting Umbrellas

Well you certainly can take your photographs without using lighting umbrellas, lighting umbrellas make a really big difference because they diffuse the light and make it a lot more even.

One of the most difficult things about shooting two-dimensional artwork is getting lighting that is even across the entire artwork, and lighting umbrellas make that much easier. Lighting umbrellas are pretty inexpensive as well. 

Lighting Umbrellas

Free lighting (shooting outdoors)

The cheapest (i.e. free)  version of lighting, is to shoot your photographs outdoors on a day  that is cloudy, where the light is soft and diffused. You don’t want to shoot your photographs outdoors in the brightest most direct sunlight.

The part that’s challenging about shooting your photographs outdoors is that you have to deal with things like the weather, wind, and having to place her artwork somewhere where you can shoot it face on while standing up. Unless the artwork that you are photographing is only a few inches tall, do not shoot your photographs from above. You will likely end up with a lot of distortion in terms of the shape of the artwork that you cannot correct layer in Photoshop.

In the case of 3D artwork, try to find a window that has soft, diffused lighting that you can set up a table by. Be aware that you will be very limited in terms of the way you can position the lighting since all you are working with is a window.

Don’t shoot your photographs indoors. The lighting indoors  which is usually incandescent lights, is usually far too weak, and will have a yellowish tint to it.  In this lighting situation, the color accurate is a nightmare and is usually impossible to fix in Photoshop. 

Photoshop

Photoshop won’t fix everything

Never assume that you’ll be able to perform a miracle on your photo in Photoshop. Even for an professional who is an expert in Photoshop, there are some problems in the original photo that cannot be fixed. (or, even if it could be fixed, it would take hours and hours to do and require that you have significant Photoshop skills)

Photoshop really is best used cosmetically, when you need to crop an image, slightly adjust the color or the brightness, etc.  The majority of the work that goes into photographing your artwork is shooting the photo itself.

In most cases, you’re much better off simply reshooting the photo instead of hoping that you’ll be able to magically fix a fundamental issue in Photoshop.

How to set up to photograph 2D artwork

It can be really tempting when photographing 2D artwork to get lazy.  I’ve seen a lot of people not bother to set things up properly. They place the artwork on the floor, thinking that they can simply stand on top of the artwork and shoot from up above.  

The problem with shooting the artwork from above on the floor is that you will end up with a distorted view of the artwork. An artwork that is shaped like a rectangle will end up with address that are tilted and not straight.

Photographing 2D artwork
Photographing 2D artwork

Lighting is impossible to control when the artwork is on the floor

It’s really tough to control the lighting situation, regardless if you were shooting indoors or outdoors.

Usually if you are standing above the artwork from bird’s eye view to shoot the photograph, you’re going to end up with a shadow cast by your body on top of the artwork. 

It might feel like a hassle to get everything set up, but it will be worth it in the end because you’ll have high-quality photographs, and the Photoshop work that you do later on will be very minimal.

Stand when you are shooting the photo

Whether you are shooting outdoors or indoors, the important thing is that you are standing up when you shoot the photo.  The artwork has to be set up at eye level on a flat surface which is right in front of you.  

It’s better if you can hang the work up on the wall using blue painter’s tape on the back of the artwork, so that no tape shows. Bush parents aren’t such a great idea because they are usually visible in the photograph, in which case you have to do some Photoshop work afterwards to fix it.

If you are shooting your photographs outdoors, you can use the blue painter’s tape to tape the artwork on a window so  that the artwork is right in front of you. Or, if you have an easel, you can place a board on the easel, and tape the artwork to the easel.

Photographing 2D artwork

Common mistakes when photographing 2D artwork

Unnecessary borders

Unless the border is a very important component of the artwork, there’s no reason not to crop out a very wide border. When there is such a wide border, the image shrinks significantly and you won’t be able to see remotely the same amount of detail.

Chances are, when admissions officers are reviewing your portfolio, they are likely looking at your portfolio on a fairly small screen. They are probably viewing your portfolio on a device no larger than a laptop. You’ll want to maximize the image as much as possible for this reasons that it is clear and visible when being reviewed.

Art School Admissions Portfolio, Photographing 2D artwork
Art School Admissions Portfolio, Photographing 2D artwork

The photo is too dark.

Make sure that the brightness in your photograph is accurate. Most of the time the reason you end up with a photograph that is not bright enough is because your lighting situation was not sufficient, or your camera settings were off.

If you only need to adjust the brightness a little bit, you can easily fix us in Photoshop. However if your image really is extremely dark, you are much better off we’re shooting.

Art School Admissions Portfolio, Photographing 2D artwork
Art School Admissions Portfolio, Photographing 2D artwork

Photo is not neatly cropped.

You don’t want anything on the sides of your artwork distracting from the artwork itself.  Stuff like the easel you were painting your painting on, the size of the drawing board, etc., are all large distractions.

This is easily corrected by cropping the photo in Photoshop with the crop tool, take the time to make sure that gets done! 

The one thing that can sometimes get by you in terms of cropping photographs, is sometimes there’s a tiny little sliver that has not been cropped in the photo that you can easily miss.  it’s a good idea to zoom in on the I just saw the photograph, or to view the image on a white background so that you can definitely spot any of those tiny slivers.

Art School Admissions Portfolio, Photographing 2D artwork
Art School Admissions Portfolio, Photographing 2D artwork

The whites in the photo are blown out.

Sometimes the brightest highlights, the white areas of your artwork can get blown out to the point that an area of your image can actually completely disappear.

Most of the time the reason why the areas of your artwork that blown is because either you adjusted the contrast in Photoshop too much, to the point that the whites got blown out. When adjusting the contrast in Photoshop, it’s much better to use “Levels” as opposed to “Brightness and Contrast.” (Images>Adjustments>Levels) “Levels” is more subtle way of making changes in the contrast of your artwork. 

Another reason why you might have areas of your artwork blown out, is because perhaps the settings on your camera were too bright.  If you do find yourself in a situation where the white areas are blown out in the original photo itself, there really is nothing you can do to fix it in Photoshop.  The only way to fix it is to reshoot the photograph.

Art School Admissions Portfolio, Photographing 2D artwork
Art School Admissions Portfolio, Photographing 2D artwork

Glare on the artwork.

Any artwork that doesn’t have a matte surface, (like a charcoal drawing) and has somewhat of a shine to it can be really challenging to photograph. Oil paintings usually have a shine to them and are notoriously difficult to photograph for this reason. it’s the same situation with acrylic paintings that might have a varnish on top of them.  For this reason, it’s really a good idea to take a photo of your paintings before you varnish them.

Glare on a painting makes it really hard to see the image of the artwork well. if you’re shooting your photographs indoors  with stand lights, you’ll have to spend quite a bit of time adjusting the position of the lights in order to get rid of the glare. 

How to position your lights to prevent glare

Usually what works well is to have the lighting coming in from the sides as much as possible. That way, the lighting is really moving across the surface of the painting from the left and right sides, as opposed to the lights positioned right in front of the painting.  Another thing that helps is to place the lights further away from the artwork than usual,  so that the lighting is even more diffused.

Outdoor lighting can be effective in preventing glare

This is the one situation where you might actually be a lot better off taking a photograph of your paintings outdoors. On a cloudy day, when the light is soft and diffused, the tendency to get glare is a lot lower than if you were using lights indoors.  

Art School Admissions Portfolio, Photographing 2D artwork
Art School Admissions Portfolio, Photographing 2D artwork

Uneven lighting across a 2D artwork.

It can be challenging to get lighting on a two-dimensional artwork that is even enough so that across the entire drawing, the value of the drawing is consistent.  Usually the reason this happens is because the lights are positioned unevenly.

You want the stand lights to be positioned from an equal distance from the artwork on the wall so that the lighting is even.  If one stand light is very close to the artwork, and the other stand light is a lot further away, you’re going to get uneven lighting on the artwork.

This is where lighting umbrellas can be really helpful.  The lighting umbrellas diffuse the harshness of the bulbs, making the light evenly spread across the surface of the artwork. Usually lighting umbrellas will easily fix the situation.

Art School Admissions Portfolio, Photographing 2D artwork
Art School Admissions Portfolio, Photographing 2D artwork
Art School Admissions Portfolio, Photographing 2D artwork

 Motion blur in the photo.

If you are shooting your photographs with the tripod it’s a lot less likely that you’re going to have problems with motion blur. However, if you are shooting without a tripod, motion blur is pretty common and results in a photo that is not in focus. 

One way to deal with this is to shoot not just one single photograph of each artwork, but to shoot several. Shoot a minimum of say 5  photos per artwork. Having so many more photos of each artwork increases your chances that at least one of those photos is going to be in focus.  

It takes just a few seconds to shoot extra photographs, and it’s a lot more efficient than shooting one photo of an artwork, upload it, only to discover that you have motion blur and then having to go through that entire process all over again. 

Sometimes you won’t spot the motion blur when you are initially looking at the photo. At times, the motion blur can be really subtle,  especially if you don’t have a lot of experience looking carefully at photos. My recommendation is that when you are reviewing your photo, that you zoom in on every photo to make sure that there is no motion blur.   Zoomed in, motion blur is pretty easy to spot.

Art School Admissions Portfolio, Photographing 2D artwork
Art School Admissions Portfolio, Photographing 2D artwork

The resolution of the photo is too low.

Low resolution of a photograph tends to happen if you do something in Photoshop afterwards with the image size. For example, if you shoot a photograph that is 2000 pixels by 2000 pixels, and you increase it to 4000 pixels by 4000 pixels your image is going to lose resolution.  

It’s okay to make the image size smaller but it’s never okay to make it larger.  Once you have lost the resolution of your image, there’s no way to go back and fix it except for going back and reshooting the photo.

Art School Admissions Portfolio, Photographing 2D artwork
Art School Admissions Portfolio, Photographing 2D artwork

Inaccurate colors.

Usually colors are inaccurate in a photograph because lighting situation does not match the camera’s white balance settings.  Depending on how inaccurate the color is in the photo, you might be able to fix it in Photoshop by choosing color balance.

Sometimes though, the color is so inaccurate that there’s nothing you can do about it except go back and reshoot the photo with the right camera settings and lighting situation. Match the lighting situation with the white balance setting.

Matching your lights with your white balance settings

For example, if you are shooting with a lighting kit indoors (which uses tungsten photo flood lights) you want to select “tungsten” for the white balance settings on your camera. If you are shooting outdoors, you want to choose the setting for outdoor lights under white balance.  The white balance settings are set to react to the lighting situation. 

Since incandescent lighting tends to be very yellow, if you set the white balance settings to indoor lighting, the camera will correct for that yellowness. If you really have no idea what to do for white balance settings just choose the “automatic” setting in your camera, it will probably be fine. A smartphone should automatically adjust for you.

Photographing 2D artwork

In this photo, the acrylic painting is too yellow.

Acrylic Still Life Painting, Alex Rowe

This acrylic painting above has the correct colors.

Black and white artwork that has tints of color.

If you are shooting photos of an artwork that is in black and white media, the best course of action is to shoot the photograph, and then go into Photoshop, select Image>Adjustments>Desaturate. Desaturating the photo basically makes everything in the photographs black, white and gray. 

If you don’t do this with your black and white artworks, you’ll end up with images of pencil drawings that have slight tints of color to them all over which doesn’t look good.

Art School Portfolio, Photographing 2D artwork
Art School Portfolio, Photographing 2D artwork

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