As any experienced artist knows, no one becomes rich and famous simply by creating superlative art. The artwork has to be put out into the world for people to see, and this requires the artist to gain expertise in marketing (finding the proper audience), promotion (creating press releases and brochures) and sales (developing relationships with prospective buyers). The artist may also need to become an expert in photography, since the first introduction to one’s art for many of the art world’s middlemen (critics, curators, dealers, art show jurors) is through photographic images. Their first impression of someone’s artwork may be formed on a computer screen. A great work of art, if not photographed well, might be rejected as second-rate. “A poor slide tilts in favor of declining the work, if there are any questions,” said Frank Webb, a painter in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania who has frequently served as juror in many art competitions.
There are myriad problems in badly photographed slides: the artwork is crooked, colors are off, glare from too much light or shadows that obscure portions of the piece, background distraction, the whole thing is out of focus. These problems are not always apparent to the artist, who “lives with his work in his head” and may not see it as objectively as a professional photographer, according to Edouard Duval Carrie, a painter in Miami. “An artist and a photographer may have very different concepts of what the a work looks like. A professional photographer only sees the work through the camera viewfinder, and he photographs just what he sees, not how he imagines the work looks like. I may like the fact that one part is more lighted than another, but it looks terrible when it is reproduced.”
The art of photographing art can be a time-consuming and expensive pursuit, and it may also take up a fair amount of space in one’s studio or home that would be devoted to documenting artwork. Many artists who regularly photograph their own work dedicate some area solely for this purpose — Frank Webb, for instance, uses a third-floor room in his house exclusively for shoots — for a good reason: The setting up of a photographic shoot tends to take the most time; once lights, background, camera and tripod are in place, different works may require only small adjustments in the equipment before they are photographed. (That is why, unless an artist works in a variety of media and at vastly different sizes, paying by the hour is often a better deal than per image.) It makes sense, therefore, to keep the photo studio permanently set up, rather than clearing out a portion of a room again and again, arranging afresh all the equipment for a shoot.
There are certain (almost) universally recommended rules of photographing a work of art. For two-dimensional pieces, the camera lens should be placed parallel to the work (in order to reduce distortion and blurriness), aimed at the center of the piece, and the alignment should be checked by a small level on both the camera and the artwork. When looking into the camera, the artwork should fill the viewfinder, eliminating extraneous material, such as the wall of a living room where it was hung or the easel on which it was photographed. Usually, the artwork is flat to a wall: wire-hung works often lean forward slightly, but a shim between the bottom and the wall can compensate for this; if the work is in a frame, screws may attach the entire piece to the wall, and works on paper may be tacked.
Whenever possible, protective glass should be removed from in front of the artwork, because it reflects natural or artificial light as a form of glare; mats and frames also should be removed, because they add a rim of shadow around the artwork and may present a distraction. Because duplicates, or second-generation, slides are often not as clear as the originals, artists often take between three and six frames of the same artwork; some also take close-ups as details.
Photographing artwork requires a 35 millimeter camera that is “fully manual,” allowing one to control the shutter speed and lens aperture (the f-stop), with a 50 millimeter lens or larger. One may only get as close as two or three feet away from the artwork with a standard 50mm lens, which may create difficulties if the object is quite small or only a detail of the work is to be photographed. Lens up to 85mm or 105mm may be helpful, as they compress distances and do not distort objects near the camera (as a wide-angle lens may), or one may use a 50mm lens equipped with a “macro” or “micro” (the term differs with the manufacturer), which will allow a small object to fill the camera viewfinder or frame. A tripod in which to place the camera is also valuable, in order that no small movements in one’s hand (while holding the camera) affects the image; similarly, a cable release permits one to take the photograph without the possibility of jarring the camera while pressing the shutter release button.
The quality of the “megapixel” images produced by digital cameras has been sharply improving, and “macro” elements are usually built into the basic 50mm lens. A clear benefit to using a digital camera is that an artist may examine the photographed image immediately.
The cost of equipment is not the only factor involved in determining whether to photograph artwork indoors or outside. “Sunlight is the perfect color temperature to use with film,” said Chris Maher, a professional photographer (of artwork), craftsperson and artist Web site designer in Lambertville, Michigan. However, he noted, “variability is the problem, because the light is changing all the time. You may find that it is impossible to repeat what you have done.” Where an artist lives may also affect the ability to take photographs of their work outdoors on a regular basis. Southern California has a lot of sunny days, while the northwest is often overcast and rainy. Wintertime snow on the ground would likely reflect a considerable amount of light onto the artwork, creating the problem of glare. As a result, some artists both set up photo studios inside where they work for the times that they cannot take pictures outside.
“Artists need to try things out to see what works for them,” Maher said. “The difference between an amateur and a professional photographer is that a professional makes tests, while an amateur will just assume that everything will work out the first time.”