b&w images • blog • project journal



Jun 5, 2017

Confronted with one of those people who, even though the camera obviously likes them, believe firmly that they are not photogenic and do their darndest to sabotage any pictures. I kept at it, telling the young lady that she probably couldn’t look bad if she wanted to. To prove my point I put together this assembly as a birthday gift to her grandfather, a friend and next door neighbor of ours. Man, it was hard to pick my favorite five from the twenty or so that I had – originally I was planning to put four more small images actoss the top, and then four across the bottom, but soon realized that it would be overkill.

Joelle is a charming 26 year old, and almost the only thing I had to do to the exposures is burn in the corners and add a little contrast. Can’t wait to see her reaction – bet I have to print a couple more copies. The shot I’m giving her first is one with her mother.


– updated version –

Back when digital wasn't ready for prime time and and we had to use negative film for such chores, I developed a system for assembly-line photographing art for our local art organization. Some years my partner in this and I, along with a team of helpers, would be at it all day long – asking only for enough money to do the processing. I posted the basic set-up a good while back – after I had switched to digital.

Part I of this combination update and clarification is called THE QUICK AND THE DIRTY. It focuses on using smart-phones and scanner apps.

For Part II I switch to the formal with-flash set-up that can be used on all but special problems, even those works already behind glass, to produce print-worthy files. 

Part III  covers what I do about oil or acrylic paintings that already have the varnish on – the real problem child in the mix.


How to get a good-enough-for-almost-anything-but-gliclee-print-grade images of one's art work. We all need that good quality quickie occasionally. My method of choice is my trusty iPhone – or any smart phone.

1– Get any "Scanning App" for the phone. the freebies aren't all that good, but most of the others are pretty cheap and work great. My App of choice is Scanner Pro – these things also shoot to turn text into PDF using an OCR, so you have to make sure your settings are on image. Their advantage over the camera apps is that:

     a) They detect edges and auto crop.

     b) They auto-correct for tilt – both accidental and conscious to eliminate glare. This one is so counterintuitive to some people that I have more than once had to demonstrate it with extreme tilt to get them to grasp the concept. 

2– No, you do not want to use flash.

3– You can set the App to shoot JPEG for simple uses like web, sharing or record keeping – but TIFF is far preferable if the goal is for a book or anything serious. A few of the apps have this option (JPEG is a destructive compression while TIFF is lossless).

4– Find some even lighting, then set the art work up where it is stable and frame your shot against a contrasting background. I often use a sheet of black mat. Newer phones are so good at adjusting for the color temperature of artificial light that you can usually get away with that – and often best to focus controlled light on a painting that helps eliminates glare.

5– You will see guide-lines appear around the image, sometimes not perfectly – this can be fixed in the next step. If there is glare – simply move off to a slight tilt to eliminate it. Shoot.

6– You will have a temporary image with (usually) blue crop-lines around it. Notice that the tilt has not been corrected yet. Grab the corners of the blue line and move them to the corners of the image if they are a little off. Press to go to the next step.

7– Voila, you have a 12 megapixel or so image of your art work that looks like you shot it straight-on – easily good enough for record keeping, web posting or even including in a book. The image will be stored in your Photos (or other) App. There it can be adjusted as far as brightness, contrast, color balance, etc. – although best fine tuning is done in the computer (or even iPad these days).

8– I send the images to my computer via PhotoSync, but there are a number of ways to do this. Nan uses this system on her iPad to get pictures of her paintings for me to post on her site – she shoots those in JPG and sends them directly to the records she keeps in a phenomenal app called Tap Forms.

9– To back-up a tad, I'll stress that art work is best photographed before it is framed and especially BEFORE any gloss varnish is applied.

10– Color and/or exposure corrections are usually minimal.

I used essentially this same system – exposing JPG instead of TIFF – to photo-scan many hundreds of old family pictured and turn them into digital records. The big difference there is that one must devise a renaming system for the files that can be used for date-sorting because they all then have the same exposure date so will not auto-sort by year. The admittedly tricky details of that are for another posting.


I designed this set-up after spotting, in a magazine article about an art museum exhibit being mounted, a wheeled rig in the background that was obviously being used to photograph the work. I realized immediately that it offered a solution to all of my art photographing problems and, though I couldn't see the complete system, I was able to fill in the gaps and come up with a workable system.


1– Advantages: sharp images, excellent color duplication, no glare or reflections from glass, quick and easy, a large number can be done in one session, high resolution camera can be used, no need to work in darkness because some amount of ambient light will not effect the results, 

2 – Cautions: deep frames should be removed – flash coming in at an angle leaves shadows around the sides. Paintings with gloss varnish will leave a myriad of hot spots. Paintings with extremely thick paint with peaks will leave tiny deep shadows; two things that help some here are a polarizing filter (usually not needed) and shooting RAW – but I've never been happy with the results.


1 – A Picture is worth a whole bunch of words: this set-up can easily be duplicated. In a spare room upstairs I have a rod running across the center of the room from which to hang the black curtains and a shelf-rack mounted flat against a wall on which to hang the art. Below is my mobile set-up. In this case it's in my wife's painting studio:

2 – Venue: as you can see, this can be set up almost anywhere. This room has one huge window at the far end that I somewhat blacked out. The window in the door behind the art, even though it was broad daylight, was not an issue. One can work in enough light to see what one is doing – just turn off overhead lights while shooting.

3 – Mounting the Art: artwork should be mounted over a black background. For this I use a single display rack. That way drape hooks can be used to hang the work. Height of the art work is measured by placing the center of the work at the precise height of the center of the camera lens – easily measured. I place a small piece of masking tape at that point (centered in both directions) on the backdrop. Then i used a couple of pieces of stacked foam core wedged behind the bottom corners to hold the work perfectly flat, since it inevitably hands out a tad at the top. 

For shooting mounted and/or matted work I hang an inexpensive easel attached to the rack for propping the art flat – this can require moving the easel up and down some. Unmounted work can be pinned on a flat board propped on the easel – pictured below in my permanent set-up upstairs. Mounted work can be kept vertical by placing a flat board on the easel and holding the art work up with overlapping edges of push-pins:

4 – The Curtain: this is what eliminates glare, reflections and hot spots. I use a total of three pieces of black cloth about six feet in height and 48" wide (one is behind the art). This way the two curtains in front of the camera can overlap and be clipped together allowing a tight hole around the lens. You can just see a couple of the clamps holding the curtains in place. The two racks in front of the camera in the mobile set-up sport short rack extenders that allow a bar to be run between them.

5 – The Flash: not near as demanding as one might believe. I use two ancient Vivitar 283 flash units set at an angle of 38 to 40 degrees from the art. Height is at the established camera and art level. Distance adjusted according to room available and some test shots. Otherwise here is where it gets a tad complicated:

     a) Set flashes on full manual.

     b) Mount the second flash on a slave firing unit. These are extremely inexpensive.

     c) I used to use a cord running from my camera to the first flash – but that seemed to make for a lot of missfires. Now I use a Cactus Transceiver model V5 Duo under the fitst flash set on receive and one on the camera set on send. Never a missfire since. They're not very expensive either.

     d) If there isn't room enough to pull the flashes back far enough, I have sheets of white cloth I rubber band over the fronts of the flash units to tone down the power.

     e) Flashes are mounted on rather inexpensive, adjustable lighting stands.

6 – The tripod: obvious, but I need to make a special note here. High resolution digital cameras pick up on vibration easily. And modern tripods are pretty light. I've run tests and can verify that holding the camera steady on the tripod while shooting is preferable to stepping away and using a cable-release or remote. Of course you can invest in a heavier tripod and rail system for locking things down, but I find that unnecessary.

7 – The Camera and Lens: naturally my camera of choice for this changes with time. Right now I am using a Fuji X-T2. It's 24 megapixels and gets superb results. A quality 16x20 result is relatively easy – 18x24 with  interpolating at a harmless level.

Distance from art to camera: I find approximately 5-5.5' to be best.

I use my Fuji 55-200 zoom for this (that's 84 to 305 equivalent). That gets me close enough to fill the frame with smaller works and still be able to cover most larger works. For huge works I simply switch to the 18-55 normal lens.

Full manual exposure and manual focusing (I have a small spotlight I can turn on for focusing only).

F-stop  settings can vary according to need. Artwork is flat so anywhere over 5.6 should be fine – I usually end up on 16.

Shutter speed will be flash-sync speed with mechanical shutter – usually 1/125 or 1/250 second.

ISO can be anywhere from 100 to about 400, again depending on what is needed after exposure tests – 200 is my average.

Framing… careful framing saves a lot of work later. Zoom until two sides of the image are right up against the edges of the viewfinder (I have a 100% viewer so I've had good results actually cropping out the mat on two sides right there in the camera). Sometimes you will find that the art isn't hung perfectly straight or the whole piece isn't as flat to the view as needed. These are easy corrections to make. The result should be a file that only has to be cropped on two sides – and only very slightly or not at all on the other two.


Paintings, especially oil, that already have the varnish applied are a serious problem to photograph well. Here are a few tricks that have worked for me in the past.

1– Choose a cloudy day, the cloudier the better. Finding shade might seem like a good idea, but almost always leads to serious color shift. Even with heavy clouds, north light is a good idea. Getting the light evenly on the painting is sometimes tricky.

2– Use a tripod, mostly because you need the art to frame square, shooting from the center, and flat to the camera plane if possible. While distortions can easily be fixed in Photoshop, this is not available to everyone.

3– Use a circular polarizing filter. You can turn it and actually see glare decrease. It's almost always necessary and is usually a cure-all.

4– Shoot RAW if possible, for greater control in the computer if there are still a few problems.

5– As a last resort be willing to shoot at a slight angle and correct the issue in Photoshop, etc. later. This requires a much higher f-stop to keep everything in focus.

6– And then there are what I call the "uglies". These paintings not only have the varnish on, they are painted so heavy that almost any lighting leaves tiny shadows. I've managed these to varying degrees. The best was one of those super rare days where, in the middle of the day, heavy black clouds hung over everything. Lighting was so even that I had no problems.

7– There can still be some residual glare, more like slightly light effects in darker, often solid blackish areas. The trick to solving this is to later brush-burn in those areas (this way the deep shadows don't suffer peripheral damage – sometimes mid-tones, sometimes shadows, sometimes a little of both.

8– Since this isn't flash, expect at least some color correction to be needed.