Using Flash to Take Pictures of Paintings

A Bit More on..., Creative technique, Flash

Tell me how to take a picture

of a painting!

Reproducing a work of art (or anything for that matter) is always an interesting technical challenge. Perhaps most importantly colours and the geometry of the original work need to be accurately represented. Or as accurately as possible.

The other day a painter of many vibrant colours and of dark passions, portrait painter Emma-Leone Palmer asked me to shoot her latest body of work. What I found very important about reproducing her oil paintings was to preserve the vibrance of her colours without introducing unwanted reflections. Paintings are also three-dimensional objects and keeping (or hinting at) the reality of the canvas and the strokes are essential.

As you can see in the diagram on the right, the setup was very simple: two powerful strobes with softboxes.

The most important factor was the angle relative to the paintings. Lighting works along the same principles no matter what the subject matter is.

The closer lights are to the lens, the flatter the resulting image is with more and more light reflected from the subject back into the lens. The most extreme case is when the light source is right above the lens – e.g. the tiny flashes that most DSLRs come with.

The further you move the lights (the smaller the angle of incidence gets) the less light is reflected back into the camera and the plasticity of your subject’s texture increases – whether it is a landscape lit by the setting sun, a wrinkled face or an oil painting with subtle brush strokes.

The two Bowens strobes were placed about 8-10 feet from the paintings so that angle of incidence would be around 20º-25º. Both strobes had large softboxes so that the entire length of the paintings would be evenly exposed. I measured the illumination with an incident lightmeter again just to make sure that the exposure would be absolutely even.

Using a Nikkor Micro 60mm, f/2.8 lens, I went for an aperture of f/8 at an ISO of 100.

One question that you may instictively ask:


Wouldn’t continuous light sources do the job just as well?

Yes, they would. In a controlled environment where there are no other light sources. But Emma’s studio is small so we had to take the paintings outside and shoot them in the corridor where there was lots of skylight and diffuse sunlight – light sources that were quite strong to begin with and that I didn’t have under control.

The danger of that for reproduction is twofold. First, the intensity of the light might change giving you inconsistent results. But more importantly, the colour temperature of the light will most certainly fluctuate making accurate colour reproduction very difficult.

The strobes, on the other hand, have a standardized colour temperature and being very powerful and physically close to the subject they completely overpower the ambient light giving you consistent exposure and white balance.

The images were shot in RAW at an ISO of 100, for maximum resolution and minimum noise using the camera’s neutral picture profile. There was only a very small amount post-production necessary and all of that was done in Lightroom in a few minutes. To counter the neutral picture profile we applied with Emma a bit of sharpening and a very delicate saturation boost until she felt that the reproductions were closest to her originals.

Because the most important lesson is: don’t do reproductions of anything without the artist present. There is always a subjective element involved in any photography and there’s only one person who can be the judge of that: the artist of the original artwork.

If you’d like to know more about her paintings and her availability, you can always get in touch with Emma-Leone Palmer through her website.

10 May, 2015 May 10, 2015 27 May, 2015 May 27, 2015