Why Don’t the Colors in My Photo Match the Painting?

One of the most common complaints artists have about photographs of their artwork is that the colors are off. This isn’t surprising because painters have spent years developing the ability to detect minor differences in color.

As an artist, you’re going to be more critical of the color in your photos of your paintings than anybody else who looks at them. A painting takes hours or sometimes months to complete.

If the colors in the photograph are off by just a little bit, you’ll notice it.

Causes of Inaccurate Colors

So, what are the causes of inaccurate colors in your photographs of your paintings? There’s at least three areas that I would check; the lighting, the white balance setting on your camera, and the picture style setting. All three of these settings can affect the color.


Lighting is a complex topic but I’ll try to make it as simple as possible. The main concept that you need to understand is how the white balance setting on your camera correlates to the color temperature of the lights you’re using.

Color Temperature

Every light source has a specific color temperature. There are a range of colors that the human eye will perceive as white light. The mind is good at adapting to these differences in lighting, but the camera will faithfully record the differences.

When you shop for light bulbs you’ll notice that there are variety of “colors” available. There’s soft white, daylight, bright white, and other general terms for the color of the light it produces.

Fortunately, the base of the bulb has the color temperature printed on it. Color temperature is measured in Kelvins so look for a number followed by the letter “K.”

An illustration of the color temperatures of various light sources

The illustration above shows were common light sources are located on this scale. The color of the light is warmer at the top and it becomes cooler as it progresses towards the bottom.

Most lighting in our daily lives ranges 3000K to 6000K with daylight measuring around 5000-5500K. These numbers are approximate as the color temperature of daylight changes depending on the time of the day.

White Balance Setting

The white balance icons found on most cameras
White balance settings on cameras are represented by icons. Each setting corresponds to specific lighting conditions.

The white balance setting on your camera will have symbols on it similar to the ones pictured in the illustration above. You want to use the white balance setting that matches the type of lighting you’re using. If you don’t know how to set the white balance then refer to the manual for your camera.

Camera manufacturers use these cute icons for white balance because they realize that most consumers don’t have an understanding of color temperature. Aside from serious photographers, who’s going to remember that you need to set the white balance to 5500K when shooting on a sunny day? So they just label it with a symbol of the sun.

The flaw in this system is that fluorescent lights are available in a number of color temperatures. If you use a “cool white” fluorescent bulb then it will probably match the white balance setting with the fluorescent light bulb symbol.

The problem is there’s “daylight” fluorescent bulbs that have a color temperature of 5500k. If that’s the case, you will get more accurate colors if you use the “Daylight” white balance setting.

See how confusing this can be?

The critical point is to figure out what the color temperature of the bulb is, and then use the white balance setting that matches it. So, look at the base of the bulb for the color temperature. Then look up the white balance settings in the manual for your camera. It should list the color temperature in Kelvins for each white balance setting. Choose the white balance setting that matches the color temperature of the lighting. The other option is to set a custom white balance.

Some professional cameras also have an option to actually set the white balance by specifying the color temperature in Kelvins. In the diagram above, the “K” represents this setting. You can use it to select the exact color temperature of your lights.

Custom White Balance

Setting a custom white balance is a way to set the white balance to the precise color temperature of your lighting. This is what I use most when taking pictures of my artwork.

The basic premise is that you take a picture of a white piece of paper or a gray card under the lighting conditions you’ll be using to photograph your art. The camera uses that picture to set the white balance setting to match the color temperature of your lights.

Every camera has a slightly different method for setting a custom white balance setting. For detailed instructions, look it up in the manual for your camera. The custom white balance icon looks like two triangles with a square in the middle as pictured in the illustration below.

This is the icon that represents the custom white balance setting.

On my Canon point and shoot, I have to select the custom white balance option and then take a picture of a grey card or white piece of paper. The camera automatically updates the white balance setting and the colors look correct.

With my DSLR (Canon T2i) I set the white balance by taking a picture of a gray card. A gray card is a gray piece of cardboard that has a neutral gray printed on it. Then I press the menu button and navigate to the photo of the gray card and select it. The final step is to make sure the white balance setting is set to “custom.”

When you successfully set the custom white balance setting, the colors in your photos should appear to be accurate.

Using a Gray Card and Photoshop to Color Correct Your Photos

In another post, I discuss how to use a gray card to color correct your photos in Photoshop. The difficulty of correcting colors by eye is that you have to use your subjective judgement about how the colors should look. In other words, it’s easy to tell that there’s something wrong with the color balance but it’s not always obvious what to do about it.

This is where a gray card can help with correcting colors. I use it every time I take pictures of my art because it saves me a lot of time. Visit the link above to read more about it, I include screenshots with step by step instructions.

Continue on to the next page to read about how using different light sources can cause inaccurate colors.

Similar Posts

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *