How to Photograph Oil Paintings

how to photograph oil paintings

Transformation of a painting by Piper Talladay (pipertalladay.com). 

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Knowing how to photograph oil paintings properly can be tricky.  When photographing your artwork it is always best to use the best possible equipment and lighting in order to capture the most accurate likeness of your work. However, these tools can be expensive and difficult to source for most artists just starting out.  

Another difficulty most artists run into is the notorious difficulty of glare on oil paintings. The reflective and shiny surface of an oil painting has caused many painters to feel frustrated as they try to capture a photograph of their work for a website or social media.

However, there are tricks to achieving beautiful images of your work, and here are three tips that can help you take even and clear photographs of even the shiniest oil painting. 

Even under proper museum lighting, paintings can be difficult to photograph without a proper set up. Photo by Eric Park on Unsplash

How to Photograph Oil Paintings by Removing Glare

First, we're going to tackle glare in our photos. Color, mediums used, and the surface upon which you work all affect the shine and gloss of your finished paintings. Varnishing paintings can help to even out the layers of paint (You can read more about varnishing here). However, the final painting will still have a gloss and reflection to it that is beautiful in person but difficult to capture with a camera. 

The easiest way to reduce glare in photographs is to consider the light source. For instance, direct light from windows or lamps will cause a glare on your painting and make the final result difficult to see. For this reason, it's smart to invest in blackout shades and make sure that your painting is not facing an open window. These shades will also enable you to have consistent light as you work on your paintings.

Tilting Your Painting To Reduce Glare

Light bulbs and bright lamps should be moved far away enough that they are not directly shining on the painting. With that in mind, indirect light from a covered ceiling fixture is often good enough to photograph a painting if it is fairly soft and not too bright. 

One of the easiest solutions to avoid shine on a painting is to slightly tilt your painting. Easels generally lean back slightly, which can exacerbate glare on your canvases.

Straighten your painting up to a 90% angle with the surface it is resting on. As you photograph, look for glare and if you see any, tip it slightly forward. Be careful to avoid distorting your painting, and adjust the camera to the same lean as the canvas.

If you want to learn how to photograph oil paintings with your smartphone, this simple trick can help to remove glare.

A professional studio set up for photographing artwork. Photo by Sven Brandsma on Unsplash

Smartphone Photography for Oil Paintings 

Next, we're going to talk about how to photograph oil paintings using smartphones. Smartphones are great tools to use to capture photographs of your work. As always, it is best to have your work professionally photographed for websites or portfolios. That said, there are ways to capture great photographs with your cell phone. 

Often times if you point your phone’s camera at your canvas or still life, the lights will be pure white. This means you need to adjust the white balance for an even explanation of what your camera is seeing. Most smartphones have a white balance feature build in. 

For most phones, you can touch the screen on the brightest part of your painting. Your phone will then adjust the light to eliminate any extreme highlights or shadows and create a balanced image. 

Once you have the glare taken care of, using the white balance tool on your phone can help to achieve a clear, even photograph of your work.

Remember to carefully frame your painting on the phone, cutting out any blank canvas or background. You can do this in frame or after you have taken the picture, simply cropping the image to only contain the painting. 

how to photograph oil paintings

Clicking the brightest part of your screen on a smart phone generally adjusts the white balance to take a clear photo of your painting.

Art Studio Lighting

Lastly, we'll talk about lighting in your art studio. One final and simple but incredibly valuable tip for correct light in your work space is buying the proper light bulbs. Full spectrum light bulbs are the best, affordable option to correct light in your studio and will help tremendously when learning how to photograph oil paintings.

Several options exist for full spectrum light bulbs. For example, the most common options are CFL bulb, fluorescent tube, or LED bulb form. The type of housing used is not important, except that it must be able to handle the type of bulb that you put in it.

When choosing the appropriate light bulb for your work space it is vital to look at both color temperature and color rendering index (CRI). Specifically, your color temperature needs to be between 5000k-5700k. This rating is equivalent to ambient daylight and will give you a correct color light for your work. The CRI must be 90 or better, which will give you a full range of the color spectrum.

These light bulbs are affordable and can also be found in lamp form or with a clamp to attach to your easel. Housings for these lights can be found at home improvement stores and are very affordable and easy to install. The smaller options and easel lights are great options for smaller studio spaces.

Choosing the right light for your studio and to light your painting can make all the difference. Photo by Manuel Sardo on Unsplash

Final Thoughts on How to Photograph Oil Paintings

Capturing an accurate photograph of your painting may seem difficult, but don't worry! With the help of these tips you'll capture a beautiful rendition of your work. Choosing the right lighting can also go a long way in capturing accurate photographs.

Working and photographing your work under correct lighting is vital to artists. It helps to see the colors you are working with as they are, and not tainted or changed by the light source.  It will also help the artist be more productive by spending time on painting and now figuring how to photograph their paintings properly.

Below are links to finding the right light for your space so that you can paint and photograph your work accurately.

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