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Photographing Artwork with a Digital Camera. By Don Finkeldei:  What you need to know about taking digital pictures.  What type of camera do you need?  megapixles?  Zoom?  How can I take the best pictures possible?

There are thousands of cameras on the market.  If you are an artist and want to take pictures of your work, prepare images for email/websites/printing and/or photograph subject matter for reference during painting you don’t need an expensive digital camera.  A middle of the road camera will suffice.  Below is an explanation of the terms used and suggested use and settings.  There are many more specifications and terms for a camera, but these are the most important for an artist.

Optical zoom:  The amount you can magnify the picture.  Most midrange digital cameras that have a built in lens have a 6X optical zoom.  That’s fine unless you need higher zoom capabilities.  If you do, a digital camera that takes interchangeable lenses might be what you want.  They’re more expensive but you can use the same lenses you have for film cameras.  The optical quality of interchangeable lenses is much greater than digital cameras with built in lenses.  For an average artist, a built in lens is fine.

Digital zoom:  Some cameras have a digital zoom capability in addition to the optical zoom.  For instance, some cameras offer a 6X optical zoom with a digital 12X  zoom.  Don’t use the digital zoom because you’ll sacrifice quality (unless you don’t care about quality).  Zooming digitally will eat into your resolution where an optical zoom won’t.  If you’ve used a 12X digital zoom on top of a 6X optical zoom, you’ve just restricted yourself to ½ the maximum print size you could print.  It’s a gimmick.

Megapixels:  I’ve talked about this earlier.  It’s the number of pixels wide times the number of pixels high your camera takes.  For instance, a 6 megapixel camera takes pictures approximately 3000 pixels wide by 2100 pixels high.  The megapixel size of your camera determines the maximum print size you can get from the images it takes.  See the table of megapixel vs. maximum print size at the beginning of this document.  I think all artists need a camera with at least 6 or 7 megapixels.   Mine is 10 megapixels.

Modes:  Most digital cameras let you choose from pre-configured modes.  A mode determines which camera variables can be set by you.  The variables are white balance, shutter speed, aperture size, F stop, compression and recording pixels among other things.  Almost all cameras offer the following modes: Automatic, Program (P), Aperture Preferred  (Av), Shutter Preferred (Tv).  The description for each is defined below:
Automatic:  The camera chooses all settings for you.  You don’t have a choice and it’s not accurate.  It sets white balance, aperture and shutter speed for you.  This setting is for “Point and Shoot” people.  You need more control than this for photographing your work.  Color reproduction will probably be off if you use the auto setting .
Program:  This is the mode I use most.  It’s perfect for artists.  You can over-ride the most important automatic settings an artist needs.  White balance and shutter F stops below and above the automatic settings.  I’ll talk about white balance later, which is the most important setting to obtain the truest color reproduction of your artwork.
Shutter Preferred and Aperture Preferred settings:  I won’t talk about these settings because you don’t need to use them to take pictures of your artwork.  You can use them to photograph subject matter to paint, of course, but that should be left to the realm of a photography class.

White Balance: Ok, lets talk about White Balance.  It’s the most important thing you can do to make sure your color is reproduced correctly.  The white balance setting of your camera tells the camera what color pure white is.  Well, you might say pure white is “Pure White”, but it’s not exactly that.  A “pure white” sheet of paper viewed under different lighting conditions will appear as either a warmer or cooler color.  If viewed with “yellow” tungsten light, it will appear yellow (warm).  If viewed under fluorescent lights it will appear blue (cool).  In daylight it will appear different than if you view the white sheet in overcast cloudy situations.  The lighting source has a property  called ambient “Color Temperature”.  The camera needs to know what the ambient color temperature is.  Setting the white balance manually does this exactly.  All colors the camera uses are adjusted accordingly base on the white balance.  If the white balance is wrong, all colors will be wrong.  If all your pictures appear to be warmer or cooler than the original, you probably have the White Balance set wrong.  The camera knows nothing about this.  If you use the “Auto” or “Program” mode, the camera can be set to several pre-defined approximations for the ambient color temperature for indoor incandescent, indoor florescent, night, outdoor daylight, outdoor cloudy, etc.  They are an approximation and I’m sure some of you use both incandescent light bulbs and fluorescent in combination.  Using the “automatic” settings for color balance will NEVER produce the true color of you paintings.  You can manually set white balance in Program mode.  In Auto mode, you can’t.
How can I make sure my white balance is set right so my colors are accurate?  Use program mode and set you white balance for the color temperature of the ambient light you are photographing with.  If using “Program” mode you can access the “White Balance” settings in the menu.  Choose custom.  Then, set a white sheet of paper right where you’ll set the painting to be photographed and take a snapshot of the white sheet.  Which buttons to press depend on the camera, so, you may have to read the manual.  The methods vary from camera to camera, but doing this correctly will tell the camera what the “white” reference is under your lighting conditions and will subsequently take the picture with ACCURATE colors.

F Stops:  In Program mode, you can also change the exposure F stops to 1/3 below or above the program mode automatic F stop.  How you do this depends on your camera but you should try and figure out how to do it.  I get my best pictures by setting the F stop to a minus 1/3 (under exposing) for the best color saturation.

Compression: Your camera can take images in several “compressions”.  It’s usually called “Super Fine”, “Fine” and “normal”.  What that does is save the picture with various jpg compressions (described earlier).  Super Fine has minimal compression but the kilobyte size of the image is high.  You memory card will hold fewer images on your camera, but the quality will be the highest obtainable.  Make sure your camera is set to Super Fine.  Get a bigger memory card if you need to store more pictures on your camera.

Recording Pixels:  Your camera can take images with different recording pixels.  Normally, the settings are L, M1, M2, M3, etc.  Make sure you are using the maximum recording pixels, L.  L will take the picture using the full megapixels you camera is capable of.  Using M1, M2, M3 or others will reduce the number of megapixels.  In effect, using something other than L will be like using a smaller megapixel camera.   For instance, if you have a 6 megapixel camera, and if you set the size to something other than max, you won’t be taking 6 megapixel images. You’ll be taking maybe 3 mega pixel images.  You can of course store more pictures using something other than the “L” but you sacrifice pixel width and pixel height.  Make sure your camera is set to take pictures at the maximum, L.  You can buy bigger storage cards to store more pictures but you can never increase the pixels after the picture is taken.

Resolution: Another thing to consider is what resolution your camera is using to photograph pictures.  Normally, this might be  180 pixels/inch.  Don’t worry about what your camera’s resolution is set to.  All this is changeable in photo manipulating programs (Photoshop is the premiere).

Color Space:  I’ve mentioned S-rgb and Adobe rgb color gamut.  Adobe RGB is better for printing.  It doesn’t matter for web/email jpgs.  Don’t worry if you camera can’t be set to handle Adobe RGB.  It’s close enough.  But, if you’re camera has the capability to set color space, set it to Adobe RGB.  It’s like the difference between using the colors of student grade pigments and professional grade pigments.  Color space makes a difference, but unless you are a professional photographer, it’s not absolutely necessary to have Adobe RGB.

Raw Images: Some cameras can be set to take images in Raw format.  A raw image has no pre-defined settings applied to it.  You can set white balance, file type (tiff or Jpg) and many other settings AFTER you take the picture.  You need special software to handle raw images (like the full blown photoshop CS2 or greater).  Raw images are the best when printing higest quality digital images is paramount,  but most midrange cameras cannot take Raw images.   If your camera doesn’t have Raw capabilities, that’s ok.  Raw is generally used by professional photographers and a discussion of this is left to a professional digital imaging class.

Tips for taking the best picture:  Don’t put the painting in direct sunlight (you'll get some reflection from the sun).  Don’t use a flash (you'll get glare from the flash).  If you’ve got a rangefinder, don’t use it (what you see through the rangefinder isn't accurate).  Frame the picture as big as you can using the digital view screen.  Using the rangefinder won’t take the biggest picture because it doesn’t frame the picture accurately.  If you view the picture through the screen, you’ll make sure you’re placing the painting in the frame as big as you can.  Use program mode and set the White balance for the ambient color temperature.  White Balance is VERY important if you want to reproduce colors accurately.  Make sure your camera lens is centered perpendicular to the painting so you minimize parallax.  You will know when you have parallax problems by looking at the picture.  The sides of the painting will not be the same length as the opposite sides.  Remember, fill the digital viewfinder as much as you can with the painting.  You'll be glad you did if you need to send the printer a high resolution photograph.


Next article: Manipulating images in Photoshop.


# Jeff Nichols 2013-04-19 18:03
You mention F-Stop, but my camera doesn't have an f-stop adjustment it has iso, are they the same thing?
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# Robert Waltman 2013-02-25 13:00
Thanks for the great information, very helpful.
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# Dan 2013-02-25 12:59
Great Tips!! very informative!
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