Photographing oil paintings

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TPF Noob!
Jan 22, 2009
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(I repost this thread here cause in beginners I had no answers.)

Can you give me some advice to make good photographs of oil paintings? I have a collection of 20 paintings (from 20 x 20 cm. to 150 x 200 cm.) that I need to photograph, but can’t find the proper illumination.

I have a Mamiya 7 (65 mm. and 150 mm. lenses), Sekonic L-508 photometer, Manfroto tripod (and a Canon PS).
Thanks in advance.
Oil and Acrylic paintings, along with any other types of "flat" art that have textured surfaces, post some interesting options that require a more specific setup than conventional copywork. My recommendations are:

1. Use a very long lens so that your working distance is at least 2-3x times, and preferably 4-8x, the diagonal measure of the painting.

2. Take complete control of the lighting. You need a minimum of two evenly spaced lights that strike the edge of the painting at and angle of 40-45 degress from the plane of the painting (45-50 degrees from the lens to center of painting angle). This angle might be different, particularly when you can use a properly long lens. With a long lens, the angle from the plane of the painting should be greater (closer to camera's line of sight.

3. The lights and camera should both have polarizers. The lights should have identical orientation to each other and the camera's should be 90 degress from that of the lights. The idea is than no light should reach the lens other than what is diffusely reflected from the painting.

4. If you wish to show the brush strokes, a single unpolarized light should be place at a low angle (close to the plane of the painting) to skim the tops of the brush strokes. This light needs to be at a distance from the near corner of the painting equal to about 8-10x the diagonal measure of the painting.

The reasoning for the above is that the long lens reduces the angular difference in the view at each corner and the center. Seeing one brush stroke from slightly below and another, at the other side of the painting, from above creates and artificial look. The distance to the copy lights is so that the lighting is reasonably uniform across the image. The placement of the lights is to minimize reflections, though with shiney oils and acrylics there will always be some. The crossed polarizers are to eliminate reflections further. The accent light (#4) needs to be so far away because it must not be detectably brighter at the near side/corner comparted to the far side; the 10x factor will reduce the difference to 1/2 stop or less.
Thank you very much, Dwig. I will print your recommendations and begin to make some tries next week.
If it's at all possible to arrange, shooting outside on an overcast day will eliminate almost all of the problems associated with 'studio' lighting. One of the biggest headaches in photographing varnished oils is reflection from the brush stokes.
What are you using the output for? Your camera will determine what you can do. We use an RZ on a locking rack system. Same for the artwork mounting, wall mounted locking rack.

Shooting oils is one of the hardest things to shoot properly. For instance your drying time for the piece will influence the final file. If it's at all possible find out the paints used in the piece. Different colors and media react to different lighting situations. There is no one blanket approach to shooting oils. You can't setup for oils and just start shooting multiple pieces, won't work. Not if you want 99.999% accuracy.

We shoot artwork for Giclee printing on canvas. If the pieces are varnished you have a very hard task ahead of you.
Pretty difficult, I see. Natural light (cloudy day, nice, soft illumination) I tried with poor results:


Bad reflections there.
The gleam from the surface is stronger than I would have expected. Was that shot with or without a polarizer?
The gleam from the surface is stronger than I would have expected. Was that shot with or without a polarizer?

Without. I'll try with one.
The gleam from the surface is stronger than I would have expected. Was that shot with or without a polarizer?

When shooting with outdoor lighting, adding a polarizer to the camera will only partially reduce the shine on the peaks of the varnished brush strokes. Only where the light is reflecting off a surface at a 45 degree angle, as seen from the lens' position, will the polarizer be effective. The cross-polarization technique I mentioned in my first reply is much more effective.

The stray uneven shine is a result of not completely controlling 100% of the light striking the original. You'll never control the shine in such situations. If you are photographing the painting merely to document what the painting looks like, you can get acceptable results this way. If you are attempting to create images for reproduction, such as the giclees that JE Kay shoots for, you must take complete control and prevent any light from striking the original that is not coming from the proper angle.

Good reproduction images of paintings, particularily those with brush strokes, are some of the most difficult photographic challenges that exist. There is no easy way to do good work, much less excellent work. I've done some good work myself, though none I'd call "excellent", and have tutored many artists (many students and a few well know name artists) on how to do their own "documentary" copies for submissions to contests, grant applications, and examples for galleries. If you apply yourself you can readily learn to do good work. Doing excellent reproduction class work will require dedication.
Thank you very much for all the info guys. This is a real challenge!
[FONT=&quot]Another pick in natural light shows reflections too:[/FONT]


[FONT=&quot]This one came better because of very light brush work:[/FONT]


I may be booking a studio to make the picks. My actual equipement is obviously not enough and the quality of the photos is a must since they are going to Sotheby's and a couple of other european galleries to be appraised. Thanks again.
Thank you so much! Ive been looking for a how to on this for quite some time my mother has about 30 i need to photograph and set up a site for her.
my lights will be an Sb 600 and sb900 Do the key and fill terms apply here or should they be to evenly powered strobes?
I'm sorry that I led you down what turned out to be a blind alley.

It appears that for the very finest results, crossed polarizers are probably the way to go.
Before you book a studio and spend for that, remember they are going to have the same problem you're having. The pieces are varnished, any light source is going to reflect.

If this is for website work only then you kinda lucked out. What I've done in the past when shooting something that is for web only that is varnished is, shoot it with the softest light you can get away with and still maintain good exposure. Pull the RAW file into PS. Try working with highlights, shadows, removing noise and such. If you can shoot them with minimal reflections in most cases you can come up with an acceptable image for web work. Remember it's for the web, and 99% of the people viewing the images are not going to have calibrated monitors so your colors and contrasting don't have to be dead on.

If you can shoot in natural light on a cloudy day, you'll have an easier time with these than using flashes. Remember you're going to be editing them. You're better off reflecting natural light in this case. :thumbup:

Just some thoughts before you pay a studio hundreds and end up with the same results you're getting now.

If the studio you choose says they can shoot it, ask to see examples first.
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