How to Photograph Art: Solutions to Common Problems

In Photography by Chris BreierLeave a Comment

Why Does My Painting Look Like It’s Leaning Backwards?

You’re probably photographing your paintings when they’re on the easel but I suggest hanging your painting on a vertical wall instead. The tilt of the easel can make the painting appear as if it’s leaning backwards.

Some easels can be adjusted to hold your painting completely vertical. If you have such an easel then you may be able to use it to hold your painting when you photograph it. The only problem is that you may have to clamp the painting in place on the easel, otherwise it may fall forward. Most of the clamps found on easels extend over part of the painting and that may show up in the photograph.

Hanging a painting on a wall prevents these problems. It also makes it easy to align the painting in the viewfinder.

Easels usually tilt backwards and that makes it more difficult to adjust the camera to the right height and angle. These extra adjustments increase the difficultly of framing the painting in the viewfinder. See the illustrations below.

The camera is not parallel with painting. The painting will appear to be tilting away from the camera as shown below.

If the painting isn’t parallel with the camera, it will look like it’s leaning backwards.

When you set up the camera on the tripod, the goal is to align the camera with the center of the painting, and make it parallel with the surface of the painting. Having the painting tilt back at an angle on the easel means that you’ll have to tilt the camera down, and raise it up slightly as shown in the illustration below.

The camera has to tilt down to line up with the center of the painting. It’s also parallel to the surface of the painting.

If the camera isn’t parallel to the surface of the painting it will appear to tilt away or towards the camera. The distortion that happens when the painting appears to slant backwards is commonly referred to as “keystoning,” where a rectangle takes on a the shape of a trapezoid. It’s named after the central stone in a stone archway that has a similar shape.

It’s easier to align the camera to a painting that’s hanging vertically on a wall, than on an easel that’s leaning backwards.

When the camera is parallel to the surface of the painting, the painting won’t appear to be leaning back.

Why Do the Edges of the Painting Appear to Be Curved?

“Barrel distortion” is when straight lines appear to curve outwards, especially at the edges of the photo. It will cause the edges of your painting to bulge outwards. Wide angle lenses produce a lot of barrel distortion, so you want to avoid using them to photograph your art.

Below are two pictures that I took of a grid with my Canon T2i and the kit lens. The first photo is at a widest angle (18mm) and the second photo is at 34mm.

This lens doesn’t show any barrel distortion beyond 30mm. Using a longer focal length means that you’ll have to move the camera further away from the artwork. The specific distances are in the captions beneath the photos. Test your lenses and make a note at which focal length the barrel distortion disappears.

Lens: EF-S18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 IS. The lens was set to 18mm and the end of it was approximately 7” from the grid. The wide angle setting of the lens makes the lines appear to curve, this is called “barrel distortion.”

 

Lens: EF-S18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 IS. This is the same lens as above except the focal length was set to 34mm. The end of the lens was roughly 25.25” away from the paper. There is no visible barrel distortion and the lines appear to be straight.

If you’re using a compact camera the same principle applies. In order to eliminate the distortion you may have to zoom in a little bit to eliminate the distortion.

Another problem with the wide angle end of the lens, especially on compact cameras, is that you will have to get very close to the artwork so that that artwork fills up the frame. If the painting is small, you may have trouble with the camera getting in the way of the lights and casting shadows on your painting. The goal is to use focal length that doesn’t have a lot of noticeable barrel distortion and that allows you to stand far enough away from the painting so that you’re not casting any shadows on it.

Use the Photoshop Lens Correction Filter

If for some reason, you weren’t able to set the lens to a focal length that doesn’t have barrel distortion, you can correct it in Photoshop. I spent a lot of time writing a post that gives away my Photoshop tips for painters. How to remove barrel distortion with the lens correction filter is part of that post.

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