If you’re an artist who wants to photograph artwork for display on social media or your website a smartphone may be all you need. Smartphone cameras have come a lng way in the last few years; under the right conditions they can produce results that rival more expensive digital cameras.
Ready to give it a try? Follow these tips to get the best results:
Use — or create — soft light — The best light for photographing art without glare and shadows is soft and even. That’s why you’ll find some of the best light outdoors on an overcast day. If you have to work inside using artificial light, or if you have bright sun pouring through a window, soften it by hanging a white sheet over the window or light. And be sure to place your painting against a wall or dark background to be sure no light comes through the canvas from behind.
Stick to smaller paintings — For best results, shoot only paintings that comfortably fit in your frame. Why? If you need to move back significantly to fit a large painting in the frame, you’ll likely be left with a lot of empty space on the sides or top of the image. This means you’ll need to crop most of the photo to isolate the image of your artwork leaving you with with a low-resolution file. Photographers solve this by shooting large paintings in pieces, then stitching them together using image-processing software. That’s beyond a smartphone’s capabilities, however…and don’t even think of using the panoramic photo option!
Use a tripod and smartphone holder — Smartphones are good at image stabilization but for the best, sharpest results always photograph your art using a tripod. You don’t need a fancy professional tripod — a table-size model will do. If you do have a tripod, a smartphone adapter costs only a few dollars and is well worth the investment.
Turn off the flash — The flash on a smartphone can create annoying hotspots and glare on your artwork. Be sure to turn it off before photographing your artwork.
Turn on your camera’s grid option — Most smartphones have an option to superimpose a three-by-three grid on the phone’s screen. This is useful for ensuring your artwork is properly centred in the frame and square to the camera.
Don’t use HDR — HDR stands for High Dynamic Range. Using it, your camera takes several exposures then blends them to create a single photo that preserves details in both the scene’s dark and light areas. This works best in high-contrast situations such as landscapes, where the sky is bright and the ground is comparatively dark. When photographing art, however, it can unnaturally darken and lighten areas and affect colour. Best to leave it turned off and ensure you have good even light instead.
Skip the fancy filters — Smartphone camera apps allow you to apply filters both when taking a photo and when editing it after shooting. Neither is good when photographing art. Your goal is to produce an image that resembles your original work as closely as possible. Filters look cool, but they won’t help you create faithful reproductions.
Turn on “do not disturb” — This tip is included just for the sake of your sanity! There’s nothing more frustrating than setting up art, getting everything just-so and being interrupted by a text or a phone call.
Use the back camera — Smartphones have two cameras — one on the back and the other on the front. The lower-resolution front camera is used mainly for taking selfies or making FaceTime calls. For best results, use the higher-resolution back camera.
Don’t use zoom or wide angle — Zooming too tightly or backing the camera out to capture a wide angle can both introduce undesirable distortion in your photo.
Don’t completely fill the frame — Usually we advise filling the camera’s frame with your artwork. For smartphones we don’t, and there’s a good reason: Smartphone cameras have small, relatively wide-angle lenses; if you move close enough to fill the frame you risk producing a distorted image. So back up a bit, make sure the artwork takes up a good portion of the frame without distorting, and shoot.
Use the self-timer — A tripod helps, but using the self-timer removes all camera movement and produces a sharp image. Use the 10-second timer for best results..
Keep your painting upright — To avoid distortion (such as the bottom of your image being wider than the top) make sure your painting is upright — either by hanging it on a wall or propping it on an easel. If you can’t achieve a perfect upright position, ensure your phone and painting are at the same angle.
Process using Snapseed or similar — All smartphones come with built-in image editing apps; on an iPhone it’s as simple as opening the image in Photos and pressing Edit. Doing so offers options to change the photo’s orientation, correct distortion, change colour, contrast, exposure and apply filters. While the built-in app is powerful, Snapseed (a Google product) is even better, with more options and controls — and it’s free to download and use.
Straighten, crop and check colours — You shouldn’t need to do a lot of processing if you have good light and good technique. But at minimum, check to be sure your image is straight, crop out the background and make sure your colours look the same on-screen as they do in real life.
Give these tips a try the next time you shoot your art with a smartphone. And let me know if they helped you or if there are other tips you’d suggest!
If you’d like to keep these tips in a handy format, download this tip sheet I created!