Lessons Learned on Photographing a Painting


I recently discovered, to my horror, what not to do when photographing a painting and thought I would share it.  Many of you are skilled, professional photographers with equipment that is far beyond what I will ever understand, so bear with me if you will.

The last couple of photographs of my paintings showed the whites and creams screaming brilliant garish colors.  I couldn’t imagine what was happening, because they looked nothing like the original oil pastels.  So I went to WetCanvas and PMP (both sites with professional photographers) and posted my dilemma.  Wow the answer to my problem was so simple, I feel pretty disappointed in myself to not realize what I had done when taking my photographs.

A couple of weeks ago, I hit a button on my camera when I was adjusting the settings to take some photographs.  What I didn’t realize is that I changed the White Balance Over/Under Exposure setting higher and over-exposed my photographs, so over the next two weeks I took some pretty awful shots without understanding what I had done and spent a tremendous amount of time trying to fix them.

Some tips from an artist friend, Cherry Aron on pmp, for taking photographs of paintings:

First check out your camera adjustment and settings on its menu, such as brightness, contrast and saturation.  Any of these that are not set correctly can over-expose the whites.

Second, if your camera has a white exposure setting, that should be looked at as well.  Same here, if this is not set correctly it can overexpose the whites – exactly what happened in my case.

Third, consider the external light and conditions. Take photos of a painting outside on a bright, but not sunny day – or as natural light setting as possible.  Some artists will lie the painting flat on the ground and standing directly over it zoom in to take the photo, being mindful not to cast your shadow over it!  This solves the problem of tilted angles as well as uneven light.

Fourth, check out the editing software during re-touch, again looking at color balance, saturation, brightness and contrast.

After I did each of these steps, I saw a dramatic difference in my photographs, as noted below.   I can’t tell you guys how much time I wasted over the last 4 days – that I could have used for painting.  But the problem is corrected and I’ve posted both the before and after photographs of my latest two oil pastel paintings so you can see what a difference the right setting makes.  There are four photographs posted, please scroll down.  Okay, now it’s time for some serious painting!

Virginia Beach - BEFORE

Virginia Beach – BEFORE

Virginia Beach ... UPDATE Version
Virginia Beach … UPDATE Version
Cobalt Plate with Lemons - Before
Cobalt Plate with Lemons – Before
Cobalt Plate with Lemons - Updated Version
Cobalt Plate with Lemons – Updated Version
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About Mary

Oil Pastelist
This entry was posted in About Oil Pastels, OPs New Paintings. Bookmark the permalink.

25 Responses to Lessons Learned on Photographing a Painting

  1. Awesome work!!! Following your blog now. 🙂

  2. It is amazing how the green and blues changed with the settings. This is great information. Thanks for sharing Mary!

  3. mamiesmith says:

    Wow! That’s really cool. I love your still life of the lemons, too- beautiful light!

  4. Petronette says:

    What a difference !!!

    I also have trouble to make a good photo. Mostly the upside or downside is smaller / larger.
    (I hope you know what I mean).
    With my crochet work I found out, that I don’t must use the blitz. The my colors are really different from the Original work.

    Sometimes I also lay down my painting and make a picture when standing on a chair.

  5. You know – I think we painters should take a photo course – digital is very different form the film days. The worst colour I have trouble with is cobalt on a white backer – it is like a neon blue when photographed. I think the camera is picking up the white. Yes I too use a post editing software in case there are issues – mostly for my student’s work that I shoot indoors under florescent lighting..
    I take most of my art photos outside. As soon as it is a cloudy or a softly overcast day I am out there around 10am. I don’t let the light fall on the picture – I let the light bounce off the building onto my picture.. This seems to get most of the issues covered.
    Thanks for all the tips – I must look at my camera more seriously. I took a double photo the other day and quite seriously I can’t remember touching any buttons and don’t know which button did the work. Luckily it worked out perfectly – dumb luck is my best luck.

    • Mary says:

      Great feedback and suggestions. I agree a basic course in digital photography would help me tremendously. Most days in TX is brilliant sunlight, so I’ve had to adjust to taking photographs of my work indoors. Now that I know what I’m looking for when shooting, the more I study my camera’s user manual I’m finding it’s really pretty good – check yours out, it will resolve some of the issues with a few minor adjustments.

      Very nice to hear from you, thanks and have a great weekend!

  6. Jane Lurie says:

    A good discovery, Mary. Informative post.

    • Mary says:

      Thanks Jane for your feedback. With your expertise this is probably very basic, but for me it’s the technical of taking good photographs that I haven’t spent time learning. I’m thinking I would probably benefit form a basic course, as ArtInstructor blogger commented here. I love your photography, your technical skills and professionalism shows.

      • Jane Lurie says:

        Thanks– I am always discovering new techniques — so much to learn, so little time! True, a basic course would help you understand the different effects of WB and aperture settings, etc. You are busy making beautiful paintings!

  7. poppytump says:

    Well yes, I can really see what you mean Mary ! For your paintings particularly I do see you want us to see them as they really are on the canvas . Enjoy your paints this weekend 🙂

    • Mary says:

      Thank you Poppy! Well I was going to start loading photographs of my paintings onto my website and there was no way I’d be able to take that step forward with the looks of the former images. Working on two paintings, don’t know which will be done first – aw love moving the oil pastels around!

  8. yay! we get by with a little help from our friends!
    the images are lovely, and don’t you feel empowered?!!!

    • Mary says:

      Oh my, well empowered I guess so. Stubborn is more like it – I just refuse to let something go when I know there’s a solution. Have a great weekend, I’ll be off for a bit and also painting on two pieces that I have going. Safe travels if you aren’t home yet!

  9. Healthy A-Z says:

    I can see your diligence to correct them…and your frustration! Wow, what a difference! Congratulations on having the perseverance to solve the mystery!

  10. Great tips Mary! I’ve a PS devotee, so I was no help with your photo probs. Glad you found the answers:)

  11. artscottnet says:

    wow, what a huge difference! Thank you for this post, and happy painting, Mary!

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