How to Photograph your Paintings – Step by Step to Giclée Print

This process from Photographing your Art to Printing quality images is not easy!! There is a reason labs charge a lot to scan and process your painting’s image. Their equipment and time is expensive! If you plan on submitting and showing your art to galleries, submitting for grants, presenting them digitally, or making full size prints to market or sell, you MUST HAVE EXCELLENT IMAGES!!! Pay the pros or use this DIY guide.

This article LONG and is broken into several steps from taking the photos to the final editing for printing or use in social media.  It can be used as a guide for photographing any piece of art, like a painting which is flat and rectangle, or 3D large or small. I am a watercolor painter so it is biased that way. The final result for some painters is to make and sell prints with the finest giclée paper. I have other articles on using “Photo Gray Cards, Color Balance your Camera” and Photographing Paintings behind Glass. Check them out too.

Preparations in advanced to photograph your painting or art work. There are steps you can take before you get caught up with the frenzy of taking multiple photos.
For paintings, relax and take the time at home to decide the exact cropping dimension best for your paintings. I write that dimension in pencil viewable in the far upper corner of my watercolor painting. I also make light pencil cropping corner marks on my painting (they can easily be erased). This helps when you crop your photo. Later, when you are at the frame shop you don’t want to be rushed thinking about the opening size of your mat!!! 
   For your record of this painting/art piece, write on a small piece of paper the following.
Date        Title        Full paper size      Preferred Crop size, and anything else you want to remember about it. You will include this paper later when you photograph your piece.

Prepping the room and lights for photography. Lighting is key to getting an image with accurate color. 5600k is the color of daylight. Anything with a lower number is less white and more yellow. You probably know that 5600k inside almost looks blueish. Position the lights as necessary for your needs. If using flash, position it to the side or above a painting to minimize direct flash glare. Be aware that the flash may make the closer edge of the painting brighter (hot spot)!!! If you do not have perfect white lights available, you need to calibrate your camera and MUST have a piece of gray card in your photo (see below). 

Camera Equipment and Camera Setup. These guidelines can be used with your cell phone or a digital SLR. Newer cell phones have excellent cameras. They have many features for cropping, editing and color correcting. They may not be best for going to a level of printing an expensive full size giclée print. But fine for presenting on a computer, social media, or printing smaller items like note cards, etc.

I use a Cannon digital SLR.  To get best clarity in your photos I recommend you:
1. Use a tripod. They make devices to hold cell phones and tablets.
2. Consider using manual focus rather trusting the auto focus.
3. Use the self-timer to minimize blur from camera movement.
4. Use the lowest ISO setting practical to improve image quality. If your camera can’t do all that, all is not lost. Read on. (Some recommend that you shoot your DSLR photos in RAW format, I use only jpeg right now.)

If you will be using your own lights or using other’s studio lighting, you still should (need) to ensure your camera is calibrated to those lights and any reflected color in the room! This term is Custom White Balance. Having your camera’s color correct before taking the photos eliminates the need to correct any color error in the software later. Read your owner’s manual or do an internet search on your camera’s make and model to see how to do this. For more info on gray cards read my article on “Photo Gray Cards, Color Balance your Camera”. In summary, with your lighting set, flash or studio, place your 8”x10” Gray Card (full frame) where the subject will be. Zoom in on the gray card and take a photo of the card. You will set that image in your camera as the Custom White Balance photo (cameras differ on how to do this). Now every shot in that light will be color correct and you shouldn’t need to correct it later. I will mention later that I still ALWAYS include a small piece of the gray card off to the edge of my photo. If you are serious about color balance, you need to buy an “18% Gray” or “Neutral Gray Card”. They are sold at all camera stores and online for about $10.  If your camera can not set Custom White Balance, that’s ok.  Tip: You could paint a homemade gray card using Golden Neutral Gray paint N6

Additionally to eliminate glare and hot spots on the paper and glare from paint texture I take photos with a polarized filter on my camera lens and on my external flash! (I am not going into that process here. If you are interested in how the polarizers works do an internet search on “using Polarized light to photograph your paintings”) If you want to see the impasto texture you could take the photo outside on your deck.

Cell phones are capable of amazing images. I would recommend you research and experiment with the different settings and apps. I assume the phone’s auto setting will work just fine if the light is white. If not white your colors will not be perfect. Use my comments below to assist you if that is your best camera.

Taking the photo:  We have the art work prepped, lights set, and camera ready: 
Set up all the elements before we shoot.
1. Position your artwork. Paintings on a flat wall.  3D pieces on a table or floor with backdrop set.
2. Include (stick) the art information paper (see first step above) right next to the painting to be photographed. If the 3D piece is larger put it off to the side, out of final view but still viewable in the photo. 
3. ALWAYS include a piece of the 18% gray card next to the subject, on the edge of the photo as a reference. If you couldn’t calibrate your white balance in your camera you can do it in the software. It only needs to be a small 2”x 2” piece cut from one of your gray cards and in the same light as your artwork.
4. Camera setup. See above (tripod, manual focus, self-timer, etc.)
5. Don’t photograph your painting from too close a distance. You do not want to be using the “wide angle” portion of your lens thinking that being closer is better.  If you do you will have barrel distortion, a fisheye lens effect. Keep around 5-6’ away and zoom in a little.
6. Photograph your paintings “dead-on!” You want your paintings vertical and lens to be level, pointed right in the center so you don’t have any angle distortion. This will save you time later! Some cellphones and cameras have a grid function to assist you. Photoshop or Elements can correct this with Perspective Crop command later but you won’t need fancy software if you do it right, NOW!  Of course no glass on framed art. If the painting is behind glass you can read my article “Photographing Paintings in frames”.
7. Take several shots to ensure the light is positioned correctly.
8. Check exposure. Change (bracket) the exposure up and down if you can on your camera to ensure one will have proper exposure.
9. Focus is a priority! You can make some adjustments to exposure but a fuzzy photo is unusable!!!

Apps for editing cell phone photos. There are apps to edit exposure, white balance, color and more for both type cell phones. I have not used either but I have heard about Pro Camera by Moment App for IPhones $4.99. Pro Camera for Android is free for a “lite” version and $4.99 for Pro version. Another with more features for editing your shots is a Google app for IPhone AND Android called Snapseed both have lots of features for color balancing and editing images. In the apps they can correct to a gray card.

Photo processing and filing on your computer or device:
Make a folder for EACH subject with a name like 2020 04 Sally. The date first is good so you can sort and find them later. Copy all photos of Sally into that folder.  Open your photos with whatever software you are using and enlarge them and check which has the best focus. Using Photoshop, I drag multiple images of the same painting in to the program at once. Then I do a Window > Arrange > Vertically. On each photo I zoom in very close to compare the focus. Focus is the first priority, then exposure!

NOW KEEP THE BEST ORIGINAL IMG 2782.JPG AND RENAME THIS ORIGINAL PHOTO. Example: 2020 04 SallyOriginal.jpg AND DON’T TOUCH THAT ORIGINAL AGAIN. DON’T DO ANY EDITS ON THE ORIGINAL PHOTO. While you are at it, make a copy of that original and rename it 2020 04 Sally uncropped just to be on the safe side. If you screw up something you don’t want to have messed with the original!!! If you learn a new technique later you want a perfect image to comeback to and make another copy! (Note, I understand Jpg files degrade over time due to file compression. Every time you save a jpg image it loses some pixels. If you want this image to last forever, save an archival copy as a tiff file. Tiff files will not degrade.) Note, to be safe, don’t delete the photos off your camera until you are done editing.
One comment before you start to edit your images: You want to edit but not enhance your actual art. Don’t increase the values, contrast, or color saturation to something they are not! Beware that if you print an oversaturated image, the print will look bad! If you think it will look better for your purpose save that image as xxxxx oversat.jpg.  At the bottom of this document I give some inexpensive ways to test your final print at Walgreens or equal.

White balance if needed:

If you did a Custom White Balance in your camera before taking photos this may not be necessary. If you have a cell phone and can’t adjust the WB hopefully things look just fine!
   If you have software other than Photoshop these commands might be similar. On the COPY of the image, in Photoshop (PS) do a Levels Command (it is under the layers screen on the lower right of the screen). With the levels screen open, select the middle eyedropper (gray) and click on the 18% gray card in your photograph. This corrects the color balance. If you did a White Balance in your camera’s or are shooting in daylight, your color could be OK.

Perspective Cropping, or straightening if needed:
If you took your photo dead center and without being too close you shouldn’t need any perspective cropping. See perspective cropping command in PS.
If your image includes way too much extra clutter around it, crop it to a few inches too large. Leave the gray card and your painting details in the image.
Looks good? Save this color corrected image with the gray card and your detail information! If this photo is of great importance to you, save it in Tiff format and in Jpg format. (Tiff is a lot more megabytes and is better than Jpg)  2020 04 Sally uncropped.jpg   &  2020 04 Sally uncropped.tif

If you ever plan on making prints of this photo you need to ensure the image is saved at 300 dots per inch or px/inch. If you are just taking this for your records or to show someone or to post, this step is not necessary.
If you have software capable of this, change the pixels per inch to 300. In Photoshop go to Image > image size. Note that the cropping dimensions are correct, change the resolution to 300 px/in > Preserve detail (enlargement) > OK.  Save this one 2020 04 Sally uncropped 300dpi.jpg

Cropping your image to post or share:
If you want to show your artwork, or submit to any contests, crop the image to your exact size. Save it like “2020 04 Sally cropped 10.5×13.5.jpg. If you want to upload this image to a web page, Facebook or to email to someone you want to make it smaller! You don’t want to share this full size (LARGE) perfect image. Someone could just print it. Go back into your software and look for a command called “Image” and find something like “resize or resample”. Make it tiny like 600×800 px. Then rename this file “2020 04 Sally cropped 10.5×13.5 small.jpg”.

OK, just reading that may seem over the top, but while you are at it, it takes nothing to have multiple copies. You have the original, an uncropped image, a cropped image, and a small image. If this is a keeper you also have a 300dpi and a Tiff image all in one folder.

Printing a Giclée print. 
You don’t need expensive/best quality Giclée paper for every reproduction. Note cards, or small prints can be made with photo paper. Walgreens, Shutterfly, Vistaprint, any local photo printer, etc..  Beware, quality and consistency varies!
Again about saturation, it is very important that your digital image is “perfect” in order for your image to print accurately. Some labs can adjust/correct your image for a fee. You can pay for an inexpensive sample print or proof to check your image’s accuracy before spending BIG bucks on full size and multiple Giclee prints! Some online places will do small proof samples for $10-15-20 so you can predict the look of your expensive prints.  See the bottom of this doc for Walgreens.
Several printing options:
For less expensive options than going to a professional lab in Duluth like CPL, check your local areas for photo labs that make Giclée prints. Local photo shop may only print giclée on set standard sizes of paper. For example if you give them a 10” x12″ image, they may print it on the size paper that it will fit. In this case they will print it on 11×14 paper and you will have some white border. No biggie. Remember you always want some space behind the mat. Ask very specific questions, giclée prints are expensive! One question to the lab is, “If you print an 11×14 on set size 11×14 paper will the image go ALL the way to the edges without any loss of image???” Or will it get cropped? Will it have a white border?? Or shrunk to fit within their margins…? Quality varies based on their process and of course the quality of your image.

When using online sources like Gicleetoday.com and others you will need to create an online account. Gicleetoday only print in whole inches. They have many choices of paper or canvas. Note: There are many good online labs I have not yet used.

There I explain several levels of complexity for cropping and printing. If you will have your giclée print custom framed then the exact image of the print is not critical. The Framer will frame what you give them! If you or your customer will choose a precut frame, then exact image size is very important!

Simplest.
Go back to your 2020 04 Sally uncropped 300dpi.jpg image. Upload this image, choose the paper and image dimension, and crop your uncropped image on the screen. The dimensions can be anything from actual size or some common size for a pre-cut mat, 11×14, 8×10, or some old frame with odd size mat you already have. Depending on the quality of your image you could enlarge bigger than your original! Remember you need to include some additional width and height to account for loss of your image behind the mat or frame! No matter the size print you will lose about a 1/2″ in each dimension (1/4″ per side x 2). I think gicleetoday can add a white border (call them, I haven’t done that). Some want the border to add the painting’s title, and your original signature, and the unique copy numbers like 4/100, 5/100 printed…

Little more complicated.
What if you want to use a 10.5” x 13.5” precut mat opening for your painting? Then you want at least an 11×14 overall print. Go back to your 2020 04 Sally uncropped 300dpi.jpg image. This image has lots of extra room on the sides because it has not been cropped! So when on-line crop the image larger than the exact image dimension you like to account for the image lost under the mat (you don’t want to cover any important image under the mat!) 

More advanced person with Photoshop: This gets in the weeds.
If for some reason you want your viewable image to be an exact dimension other than a whole number you need Photoshop.  To print an exact image size with a border, open your “2020 04 Sally cropped 10.5 x13.5.jpg”. (Insure it is 300dpi, if you did this in the order above it will be greater than 300dpi). Make sure in PS your background layer is white, not some funky color. (Over on the tool bar.)  Go to Image> Canvas size> 11×14 inches. And leave the defaults (so it expands from the middle.) >OK.   Now you have your exact cropped image centered in a ¼” white border with a dimension they can print (a full round number). Lately I have been adding 1.5″ – 2″ so I have at least a 1″ border around the image. I think it is worth a little more because it looks more professional. If you are going to frame it you don’t need more than ¼” border/side. 

I have not used CPL Imaging here in Duluth but have heard that if you want the best quality image and giclée print in our area and don’t mind paying for it go to CPLImaging.com. Just an estimated example, their scan for an 11×14 is $50 + $28 for one print (in 2020).

Advanced tip: Make cheap test print, for those with photo software:

You can get a real good idea about the color and saturation by printing a test print at Walgreens or other local print store. In short you will create an image with BOTH a test image and your art image in the same photo.

Do an internet search for “Kodak Monitor calibration test images” and download a few of these images with people on them to see different flesh tones.  Here is one source of an image. They have a link and you can download a photo. https://smallpond.ca/jim/photography/photofinishers/index.html

With your more advanced photo software, open a copy of your painting photo, then insert/add a copy of a calibration image on top. Adjust the size and position of the cal image down out of the way. Now crop this new composite image to 8×10 or 5×7. Save as Sally cal print 8×10.jpg. It doesn’t have to be your whole painting! The point is you want to see a perfect image in the same photo as your painting to compare. Send to a 1hr print place and go get it! Well??? How does it look? You will quickly see if your color, contrast, and saturation are correct and it only cost you a couple bucks. If it looks great then feel confident that you can pay more for a print! If not, figure out what happened! Be very aware of color saturation. If you increased saturation because it looked better on your monitor that is fine (you renamed it to reflect that change), but a little more saturation will look bad in a print!!!

GOOD LUCK!
Bill

For those of you, like me, who want WAY more information here is another excellent web page with a blog with many articles on details and tips on how to get the best reproductions from your camera, shooting photos in raw or jpg. Using your monitor and calibrating them both, using proper lighting, etc!! Search their BLOG http://www.imagingartsprinting.com/ for Printing Tips. Also there is information on megapixels and photo quality and the differences between RGB and CMYK, etc . This quote is from Imaging Arts Printing’s webpage “The “G” in giclée is pronounced like the “J” in Jacques Cousteau. The “I” is pronounced like the “E” in “easy”. The “clée” is pronounced basically like “clay”. Zs-EE-clay. Zseeclay. Giclée.” As of now I have not tried Imaging Arts Printing web services. I will report back if/when I do. http://www.imagingartsprinting.com/

(If you got all the way down to here, To get the é symbol in Giclée, press and hold the Alt key and press 130 and did you know the © is Alt 0169, gawd what I come up with..)

 

23 Aug 2020, Major rewrite! 27 Nov 2019, added info from imagingartsprinting.com,  7 May 2019, Added the importance of color saturation. 21 Apr 2019 new doc.