Taking a Digital Photograph of a Painting for Amateurs

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This article explains how I take digital photographs of paintings that are high enough quality to be reproduced to at least 7 inches square in high-resolution print format, using affordable equipment, and little technical knowledge. I suspect, without having tried it, these images would also print well at much larger sizes.

The equipment I use:
A mid-range digital SLR camera. (I think I paid about 250 for it.) It records JPGS at around 5MB.
A sturdy camera tripod. If not, you will need something else stable for the camera to sit on.
Two wooden boards, the second of which is at least the size of your painting

Wait for the painting to dry properly.
Set your camera to record at its highest quality setting. Mine records JPGS at around 5 MB. Turn the flash off.
Take your painting (no frame or glass), equipment, and preferably an assistant outdoors.
If it's an overcast day, that's ideal. If it's sunny, don't put the painting or the camera directly in the sun light. Find a shady area, but not too dark or you won't have enough light. If it's even slightly windy, be extra careful. Even a small gust can take hold of a painting if caught at the wrong angle. If it's raining, wait for it to stop. I've given up trying to photograph paintings indoors.

Weather permitting, put the first wooden board on the ground, and stand the painting upright on top of it. The first board protects the painting from the ground. Stand the second wooden board, that is at least the size of the painting, directly behind the painting. This double ensures no light shines through the back of the canvas. Have the second board resting against something solid like a wall or fence.
Ensure the painting is standing straight. Don't let it tip back. If you have a steady-handed assistant, they can support the painting to ensure it doesn't topple over. Otherwise you will have to tie it with string, or something. A tipping back painting in my garden, always gets horrible glare on it. If anything, I have it tipping slightly forward, but I'm sure this isn't recommended by the professionals. You will probably want it straight to ensure equal focussing, if nothing else.
Ensure the camera is parallel to the painting, so that when you look through the camera, the edges of the painting are parallel with the edges of your viewfinder. Of course, assuming your painting is either square or rectangular.

I use the following camera settings:
a. View finder: Adjust the position of the camera so the painting fills as much of the view finder as possible. This maximises the level of detail.
b. ISO: 100, if not 200. No higher, or the image is too grainy.
c. Shutter speed: No slower than 1/80, to allow for slight unintentional movement without blurring.
d. Aperture: F4, or a higher number. Don't use a number lower that 4 if possible. With the lower numbers (wider apertures) I tend to get focussing problems.
e. Auto-focus. I'm hopeless at manual focussing.
f. Check that a wasp, or something similar, isn't sat on your painting.
g. Use the timer. Don't take the picture with your finger, it can cause slight movement, and therefore blur.
h. After you've taken the photo. Refocus the auto-focus on something else, then return to the painting, and take another shot. I do this 4 times. Just so I have a choice of images.
i. If you get a short preview of the recorded image on the back of the camera after you've taken the picture, look at it. It's always slightly different from what I see in the view-finder.

Note: If I have to compensate some of the camera settings in order to get enough light, I widen the aperture to an F number lower than 4. Maybe, I will use a shutter speed slower that 1/80, but I don't compensate on the ISO. 200 really is the highest I would use. Otherwise, wait for the light to improve.

Lastly: Take additional shots of the painting from other angles. Don't worry so much about the image quality, or camera settings on these ones. Take a few of the painting leaned up against a wall. Take a few of the back of the painting. These are useful to have on file, especially if you are sending images to a potential buyer, or listing the painting on Ebay. Take some close-ups of the artist's signature, and any other notable details. Take close up shots of any damage to the painting that you may need to declare. Buyers like to see photos that give more of an indication of what the painting looks like in the flesh. They may want to see if good quality stretchers have been used, or if any of the paint has seeped through the primer and is visible from the back. I also take a few shots of the painting next to a milk bottle, to give an indication of scale. Even if the potential buyer knows the dimensions, it's helpful for them to see visually what the scale is. If it's a very small painting, a 50p coin might be better.
Always take several of each shot. The preview screen on the camera may look ok, but I often find when I upload the images to my computer afterwards, that some of the shots are too out of focus to use, or have something else wrong with them that I didn't realise when taking them.

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