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Photographing Art With A Phone

Updated: Apr 28, 2023

Not that many years ago, taking photographs of my paintings involved a DSLR camera, tripod, and photographer's lighting setup. All this would be followed up with professional photo editing software to finalize the images. Now, more often than not I use my phone- not only take the pictures but to edit them too. It's faster, easier, and once I learned the best way to go about it, was more than adequate for my purposes.

Inside vs Outside:

I've found that when it comes to accurate color, if I pick the right conditions, I can get the same (or better) results taking pictures outside than I did in my days of using a lighting setup inside my studio.

I like to take photos on overcast days. This usually provides just the right amount of daylight to get good exposure and color results. Bright sunlight will over-expose the photos and I won't be able to get good color and detail in the lighter areas of the painting.

If for some reason I do have to take the odd photo inside, where the light tends to photograph too warm, I'll compensate for the warm cast by color correcting the photo. Which avoids having to setup the photography lights.

Here's a before and after on a color corrected image-

The unedited photo is the one on the top. Overall it looks too orange (warm), and because of that when compared to the original painting the sky looks muddy. The image is also too dark. In the edited version on the bottom, I brought the exposure up to brighten the image and adjusted the cast (or temperature) of the photo until the sky looked as bright and blue as the original painting.

Don't Just Point And Shoot:

How the artwork and phone are positioned while taking the picture is important. If the art is standing straight up and down on an easel, the point and shoot approach will likely work fine. If the art is at an angle e.g. leaning against a wall or a chair, the phone's camera and the artwork have to stay parallel. Otherwise, you'll end up with skewed and/or crooked edges on the art. Which means... if the bottom of the artwork is forward and the top is leaning back, the bottom of the camera lens needs to be tilted back (towards the photographer) and the top of the lens forward (towards the art).

Here are two pictures that illustrate the effect.

In the top photo the camera lens and artwork angles aren't matched. As a result the art appears to narrow at the bottom, especially on the right side. In the bottom photo the lens was parallel to the art, so the angles matched, and as a result the edges of the painting look squarer.

The next time you're taking a picture of artwork, you can easily see this effect by tilting the camera to different angles and watching how the edges of the artwork change. When the lens and the art are parallel the art will look squared up on all sides.

Don't Stand So Close (To Me):

Not just an 80's song by The Police, but an excellent thing to remember when taking photos of artwork. Leaning in for a close-up is the natural inclination, but this will cause the edges of the work to bend outward and become rounder (known as lens bend). You'll get straighter image edges if you stand back and use the camera to zoom in instead.

On the left side of this painting you can see a slight bit on lens bend. Starting about mid-way down, that side bulges out (it's especially noticeable when compared to the right side). It wasn't enough to ruin the image, but it's sign that I got a little too close. In more extreme cases it will make the image unusable- so using the camera to zoom is a much better practice.

When zooming on a phone or tablet, just be sure you're using optical rather than digital zoom; using digital zoom will result in a lower quality image. If you're not sure what the difference is, let me try to explain-

Optical zoom uses the physical properties of the lens to enlarge the image allowing more details to be seen clearly. Whereas digital zoom works more like a magnifying glass on a picture, it will make the image look bigger but won't let you see more detail, it may even make things look blurry the closer you get.

If you're using an iPhone with multiple lenses- selecting the numbers in the camera app likely means you're switching lenses (optical zoom), reverse pinching the screen to zoom is optical zoom. Confusingly, there some instances where selecting a number can still mean you're using digital zoom (on an iPhone 14 for example, the .5, 1x, and 3x options are optical, but 2x is digital). The easiest way to be sure your using optical zoom is to cover one or more lenses while you switch numbers. Ever time the phone switches to a different lens it's using optical zoom.

Final Image:

The very last thing I do when I'm happy with the image I've taken is crop it so that you only see the artwork.

When A Phone Won't Do The Job:

For most purposes (entering a show, putting the image online, sending images to collectors, creating smaller prints) taking a picture with phone will likely do just fine (older phones with smaller cameras might not be great for prints). But if I wanted to create enlarged versions of the work I wouldn't use a phone, I'd choose a camera with the ability to capture higher resolution images.

Hopefully these tips will help when taking pictures of your art!

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