Updated: Mar 16
For a year I tried every online tip on how to photograph paintings but found that nothing really worked for paintings that were varnished or painted with impasto, a style that creates endless micro-ridges for reflecting light.
Left to Right: quick iPhone snap of Cheddar Cat painting to show my friend's nine-year-old kid who told me the painting 'needed work' juxtaposed with a photo taken using my new process.
If you're like me, your paintings are shiny, lumpy, or excessively dark and magically reflect light even when there’s no light in the room. As a result your stomach turns whenever someone asks you to send them a photo of what you're working on because you know it’s going to look like shit and don't want to spend hours fussing with a photo just to send someone an update.
I used to pay a professional to photograph my paintings but one day I messaged him to see about dropping off some new pieces and never heard back. I realized then that I needed to figure this out on my own.
I googled endlessly and tried every (free) online tip. I tried them one at a time, combined one or two, and found that I still couldn't achieve even lighting, colour accuracy, and of course, there still remained that glare like a solar flare always appearing real smug in one corner or another. The same few tips always came up in my google searches and I tried them all.
The 4 major tips I found online that didn't quite work
1. Photographing your painting outside on a cloudy day
Clouds act to diffuse light so there should be no hot spots. This works well for very matte images like drawings but I would still get a lot of reflection, no matter the angle, and then there would be leaves and ants on my painting afterward.
2. Photographing your painting on the ground
This is a disaster if you're short like me due to the barrel distortion created from photographing it too close plus I didn't use the timer function on my camera. Instead, I just stood there and clicked like a fool so that my shadow was always lurking over my painting.
3. Using a lighting kit and geometry
Here was my first step on the right path. I bought a set of soft box lights and stands. What worked here was making sure my painting and camera were both perfectly perpendicular and that the camera was focused on the centre of the painting. What didn't work was facing the softboxes 45 degrees on either side of the painting. Sure it gave a lot of even lighting but even with soft boxes, the glare was intense.
4. Moving the lights around to the side to remove glare
I read online that if you move the lights closer to the sides it reduces glare. Yes, it did somewhat but it mostly just reduced light. So I had dark grainy photos because my camera was working in almost zero light conditions. Yet there was still glare!
My Process to Photographing Shiny Dark Paintings
I started to put things together after trying a bit of everything. I learned how to use my camera, a basic Nikon D3500. Prior to taking a free online course, I only knew how to turn my camera on and off and thought that was enough.
Then I bought a lot more equipment. If you only have a few paintings a year to photograph, just hire someone. But if you're constantly taking photos of your work then I would definitely invest in the tools and learn how to do it yourself.
I’m sharing my process with you because it was super annoying having to go through months of trials and tribulations with no one to turn to for help. I hope you can save some time and energy and put it towards something more fulfilling, like eating a cheeseburger or playing video games.
prime lens for your camera (I use a 35 mm)
tripod for your camera
circular polarizing lens (for your camera)
soft boxes with stands
linear polarizing film you can place on top of your soft box lights (I adhered velcro to the sides of the film to make it stick to the soft boxes.
color checker (I use color Xrite checker passport because the cheap knockoffs seemed sketchy)
Photoshop or LightRoom
I don't have a room without windows so I wait until nighttime when I can control the light to photograph my paintings. Putting all these pieces in place means it only takes one or two tries now to take a great photo. Having both linear and circular polarizing filters is the crux of this process. This is what removes the glare with the simple turn of your circular polarizer but you need both to make it work. Sure, you do lose a lot of texture, but you can't have it all.
You could do all your photo editing in Photoshop but I'm an amateur so I find Lightroom more user-friendly. I do very little here, basically, just adjust the exposure and add the correct colour profile to the image using the color checker passport.
I use Photoshop to remove dust and dog hair and undo any distortion. Since my paintings are almost exclusively viewed online, I also use Photoshop to embed metadata and save different-sized files for web and print.
It took me some days to learn how to do all this but I was really just a few YouTube tutorials away from empowerment! And now look at the result: