Yesterday, Kathryn Ikeda of the San Francisco Bay Area wrote, “Recently I was asked to submit jpegs of my paintings for an upcoming book. Requiring high quality digital images, what stopped me from hiring a photographer was that the paperwork included not just a signed release from me, but also a signed release from the photographer to use my images. I don’t understand why I need to get permission to use an image of my own painting. Further, I don’t want a photographer to change anything. I’m thinking about learning how to do it myself, though the investment in equipment may be more than I can handle. I would rather hire a professional, but I hate giving up the rights to my own images. What should I do?”
Thanks, Kathryn. In lands where folks are regularly sued for inadvertently stepping on someone’s peonies, everyone, including photographers, pull out the paperwork. Too bad. It cramps everyone’s style. You need to learn to do the job yourself and you need to know, as the original creator, you can do the job just as well as anyone.
A quick course given by a professional photographer can cost less than a single professional photo. Further, many of today’s inexpensive point-and-shoots take better, sharper photos than the top digital cameras of just a few years ago. Don’t be intimidated. The highest paid blue-collar job in Manhattan in 1909 was “chauffeur.” For a short time in history, people didn’t think they could drive their own cars.
Here’s a quick guide for book-reproduction work: You need a camera with at least 8 megapixels. Check your camera’s handbook and set the camera at the highest resolution and quality possible in JPG. Hang your unglazed art vertically on a neutral-toned outside wall at eye level in open shade on a bright day between 11 and 3. Take several shots almost filling the frame from a few feet away at a medium focal length. In other words — not wide angle and not telephoto. When you look in the viewfinder, make sure the painting is not keystoned (off-square) or pincushioned (curved edges).
You can submit these directly to the publisher (by camera card) or from your computer. You can elect to crop if you wish, but you need to save it, without any resizing, as a very high quality JPG before you send it by email.
The idea is to gain self-reliance, get what you want, put another feather in your fedora, and avoid dependency, bureaucracy and lawyers.
PS: “Self-trust is the first secret to success.” (Ralph Waldo Emerson)
Esoterica: If you want to straighten, crop, brighten, or otherwise play around with your shots, I recommend you load them into a program called Picasa. There are other programs of similar design, but be clear it’s not always necessary or desirable to give your painting shots the full Photoshop treatment. Resist “warm up,” “cool down” or further saturation of colour. Colour truth and sharpness are job one and two in this type of photography. Unless you have a wonky camera, which is rare, you’ll make yourself look as good as you are.
(RG note) As there are legal variations between countries, and a variety of iterations between various equipment — both cameras and computers — we’ve included some useful notes from our own art photography expert Yuri Akuney below.
Notes by professional art photographer, Yuri Akuney
— The situation with copyright for photographs is quite different in the US and Canada. In the US photographer always holds the copyright for the photo he has taken and he licenses the use of the photo to the customer (artist has to ask for permission to use this photo).
— In Canada if a customer hires a photographer to take a photo for valuable consideration, the customer holds the copyright (photographer has to ask permission of artist if he wants to publish this photo somewhere else unless a contract exists to the contrary). In reality it is a bit more complicated as Canadian copyright law was adopted in the pre-digital era of film photography in ’90s, so to avoid conflicts it helps to have something in writing that mentions who is the actual copyright holder when photos are taken by someone for you.
— The situation in Robert’s first paragraph is only pertinent in the US. Canadian artists are in a somewhat better position which many of them are not aware of, but that’s not surprising as many photographers are not familiar with this law either.
— I would suggest shooting in JPG with highest quality and highest resolution the camera can provide. Shooting in RAW format generally gives more flexibility but learning how to process them requires a steep learning curve.
— Most publications will want images to be cropped to include just the painting, no frame or background visible. That’s why it is important to get the painting in the photo as straight as possible without keystoning to avoid cropping too much of the piece out. Practically, you will need a tripod as this process requires very fine adjustments of the camera position.
— It’s worth learning how to use the custom white balance in your camera so that photos wouldn’t need to be warmed or cooled. It is a very simple procedure that helps to improve colours dramatically.
— Also worth mentioning, looking at the photos taken by artists, way too often I see under- or overexposed photos as most people are not familiar with the concept of exposure compensation which is needed to be applied when photographing predominantly light or dark paintings. Well worth reading camera manual to learn more about exposure compensation and histogram.
Do it yourself
by Ron Gang, Kibbutz Urim, Israel
I have been photographing my own works for years, some of the images published in magazines and even for book covers. Robert’s tips are right on, and I’ll add some more: Before snapping, calibrate your camera’s white balance using a white canvas in the same light conditions, and your colours should be right on. You may want to experiment with direct sun-lit images with the light hitting the painting from the side. This will accentuate the texture of the impasto and canvas weave, which can be advantageous. There’s no need to pay big bucks when you can easily master this. I have not found “professionally” photographed images of my paintings I liked better than mine. After all, you know your paintings and how they should look better than anyone else.
Don’t do it yourself
by Jose DeLaRosa, Fairport, NY, USA
I have to disagree with you on this particular subject. I have a relationship with a photographer who does all of my digital captures. His ability to capture my painting consistently and professionally has truly helped my career as an artist as well as boosted my print sales. It is more than just taking photos of your pieces and sending them in. It is the fact that a professional photographer has calibrated all of his equipment. The fact that his camera, monitor and print all work in sync. It is knowing and having the proper filters to capture a piece even after it has been varnished. It is creating multiple size files to fill whatever need you may have. My photographer even creates slide shows for me so I can run the show on a computer or run the show on a large flat screen. I also know that you are right, a lot of this I could do myself, but the time investment for less than perfect captures to me just isn’t worth it. As for the release for images, my photographer will release anything I ask. Some publishers can totally violate your rights as an artist. Most artists have never had intellectual properties training and may need to educate themselves before dealing with publishers.
Professionals know the ropes
by Cathy Jonasson, Toronto, ON, Canada
The simplest response to this person’s problem is to sign a contract with the photographer that gives the client (the artist) the sole rights to the images. You should always have a contract specifying the ownership and use of the images in any case. Professional photographers are just that: professionals. They are familiar with contracts.
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Not all sensors created equal
by Brian Hohner, North Star, AB, Canada
When purchasing a digital camera one should be reading as many professional reviews on the device as possible. This is made easy by either Google search or going to such sites as www.dpreview.com. The reason for this is that cmos and ccd sensors are not all created equally — far from it, and some manufacturers have learned to pander to the amateur by offering very saturated colour and sometimes colour shifts. A good review of a camera should cover what its colour output is like by shooting a standard colour target and using a colorimeter to find whether it is oversaturated in some regard or has a warm or cool shift. Of course if you shoot in RAW rather than JPEG you get to adjust for those problems but then you would be straying into more technical software and colour management issues. Make sure you have a camera with reasonably neutral colour response. Coupled with your succinct instructions, they should be capable of near professional results.
by Richard Woods, Sparks, NV, USA
As an Art Magazine editor, I can say double ditto, in caps, with exclamation points to the issues of over/under exposed, distorted, out of focus, poorly framed, low resolution images.
One trick to eliminate keystoning: place a small mirror flat at the center of your picture, in the same plane as the art, both horizontal and vertical. When you can see your camera lens reflection right at the center of the mirror, your camera is properly aligned horizontally and vertically. Check your camera manual to determine what is a normal focal length: many are still using the old roll-film camera focal length of 50 mm as their equivalent standard. Set that and move the camera tripod toward or away from the art to fill the frame properly. You may have to turn off the power saving features of some cameras. Mine will turn itself off before I’m done with all the fiddling with hardware, if I don’t keep it switched on continuously.
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by Katherine Tyrrell, UK
When I’ve had my artwork photographed professionally, the photographer will automatically include a reference card for colour and greytones in the image. This provides a baseline for any adjustments required to remove a colour cast or adjust the levels or any other manipulation required — or just restore colour levels to the file after a period of years. This can be cropped out if required.
Consequently if you are going to photograph your own artwork for a professional publication (such as a book), it’s useful to include a grey card or colour reference card.
I’ve also found Photoshop Elements to be a lot more sophisticated than Picasa when it comes to doing adjustments to a digital file. It’s not beyond the grasp of most people in terms of getting to grips with the functionality it offers, plus it’s not that expensive. I’m definitely a fan having been using it since version 3 and I’m now on version 8 (for Mac). If I upgrade my computer it’s the first software I load onto the new machine!
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Copy stand useful
by Chris Pfouts, USA
Copy stands are sold by most large photo dealers. You can rent them in many places, too. I rented one in North Hollywood, California one time to shoot a bunch of work for a book I was writing. If you have to buy, they’re not too expensive. But they are heavy and hard to lug around, which is why you rent when you’re far from home. The copy stand basically just holds the camera on an adjustable-height frame above a flat neutral-grey board. It assures that you’re shooting at a true parallel to your art, for distortion-free images. They work so well that you find, for one or two shots, that it takes much longer to set up and take down than it does to get the pictures.
Art photography in Florida
by Marge Drew, Ormond Beach, FL, USA
The times that you have listed for taking photos will NOT work for FL due to the aperture of the sun. Even professional photographers have issues with taking art photos in FL. Often the best time to take art photos in FL is 10 am or 4 pm. Taking photos in shade is also a NO NO since shade is blue in color. You also have bounce light outside which could also compromise your works. Better to set them up on stand and light them from either side. There are books which address this concept. You need high quality for sure but only 300 dpi and, depending on the size that you want the image print to be in the book, artists can size the photo to the dimensions, though if they do not know how, then best to just crop. However, mailing a HUGE file via email not a great idea.
by Sarah Smith, Camden, ME, USA
I have negotiated a good bit of the learning curve in terms of taking photographs of my own art quilts/textile art. I was pleased when my publisher used my “in progress” photos for my book and even gave me a photo credit as well, and my photos have been included in other books including Lark Book’s 500 Art Quilts and magazines.
My top tip, other than the ones you mentioned: use a tripod! You can pick up a used tripod for under $30, and an inexpensive new one for under $100. You can then use the “timer” function on the camera set to a 2 or 5 second delay. This eliminates any possible motion from you pushing the shutter button to take the photo. Instant improvement in quality!
As one’s skill level progresses, buying a camera that can shoot RAW or TIFF files rather than jpeg will help with creating publication quality photographs. These are generally higher end cameras, and clearly I’ve been able to have high quality photos published while shooting in jpeg format. But I can get better — as soon as I have time to learn to take and process RAW files. That’s on the ever-growing to do/learn list!
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Get a good camera
by Mary Susan Vaughn, Charlotte, NC, USA
I am a professional photographer in addition to being a professional artist (my main career) and I will tell you right here how to solve this problem. The only investment — a good digital camera!! First — a good Digital SLR camera. I use a Nikon D300, but the Nikon D80 and D90 D5100 D7000 D3100 D3000 D5000 and D700 are excellent!! So is the D300, but that one may be too pricey. I Love Nikon, but the Canon line of Digital SLR cameras is excellent as well. A Digital SLR enables you to change out the lenses, purchase lenses specifically for your interests, and more. I use a Tamron 28-300 lens 98% of the time for my photography. I photograph children, barns, beach scenes, cityscapes, still life, macro photography such as flowers, close-ups, and my paintings! You DO NOT need a professional photographer to photograph your paintings. You simply need to know how. Also, check on eBay and Craig’s List for great deals on older Digital SLR’s. You will likely find a great bargain.
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by William Bailey, Houston, TX, USA
I’m not a lawyer, but I have read many different articles on copyright in various art magazines through the years, and my understanding is that in the USA the artist owns the copyright to her painting’s image, period. (Unless she signs it away to someone else.) It is also my understanding that it would technically be breaking the copyright law for another person to take a photo of her painting… they could not print, distribute, publish, sell or do anything else with it. In this situation, she is HIRING the photographer to take the photo of her copyrighted artwork for her: since the photographer is a hired worker, the photo is considered as ‘work for hire’ or some similar phrase, and the photographer, as her employee basically, does not have copyrights to that image: it is hers.
Here in Houston, Texas, there is a professional photographer who takes photos of art for many, many artists, and he has told me the same thing. His personal photos, naturally, have his copyright… however, photos he takes “for hire” for artists of their copyrighted images, he has no legal “rights” to. So it seems to me that Kathryn might have been able to just tell the publisher that the photographer did not own the copyright to the photo of her painting.
Something similar and related (in a way) came up in a situation where I was doing a painting to be used on the cover of a book. I had never done this before so someone suggested I look up and read in a guidebook for some guild (illustrators? sorry, I’ve forgotten the name now) that explains contracts for book cover art in detail and even gives sample contracts. One of the warnings it gives to artists is to be sure the publisher’s contract does not list the resulting picture as a work for hire because then the artist has no rights to his painting. Instead, it recommends the artist keeps his copyright, only selling the first time publication rights for the book’s publication, but the artist still retains copyright. Later, if there is a second edition of the book, or if it comes out in paperback, the artist could be paid again for the second use of the image since it’s in a different publication run.
Just reasoning on the principles makes me think it would apply to this situation also where the photographer is “hired” as a temporary employee, essentially, by the artist. It would be good for any artist to make sure the photographer understands this in advance, if they’re hiring him for this purpose.
Of course, your advice to her to learn to take her own photos is right on… she shouldn’t be handicapped in that way of having to rely on others to do what is a fairly straightforward part of recording her artwork, both for her records and for submissions.
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The Artist’s Guide to Digital Imaging
by Jason Smith, San Antonio, TX, USA
I am a photographer and have been responsible for photographing artwork in a reputable gallery for over 8 years. During this time I have visited with hundreds of artists regarding digital photography and imaging and it appears they all face the same struggles and challenges. With this in mind I have written an e-book titled Exposing Yourself – The Artist’s Guide to Digital Imaging. It is an 85 page guide book covering the simple processes I employ to capture high quality digital images.
Colour accuracy and detail
by Yuri Akuney, Kelowna, BC, Canada
Most newer cameras are so good that in good lighting conditions with a tripod and good framing technique, custom white balance and exposure compensation (if needed), you can produce a reasonably good photo of artwork in probably 70-80% of situations, even in auto mode. For many, these results will be satisfactory, especially if photos will be reduced for a website.
To achieve predictable higher colour accuracy and to preserve finest details, it will be necessary to switch to a at least 12mpx DSLR, use low distortion prime lenses, build a good lighting setup, shoot in RAW format, learn how to use specialized software to process RAW files (Photoshop, LightRoom, Aperture). That will in turn require to have a colour calibrated system – a higher end monitor, display calibration hardware (colorimeter) and to learn about colour profiles and computer colour management system.
There is plenty of information freely available on the Internet about all topics mentioned. It is up to artists to decide whether they want to spend time and resources to master fine aspects of photography themselves. It is definitely possible. Some people just have that natural inclination and patience to deal with electronics, computers and complex software and some are better hiring someone to document their work to avoid frustration. We are all different and it is always a personal choice.
Enjoy the past comments below for Self-reliance…
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.
That includes Dianne Harrison of Roswell, GA, USA, who wrote, “Unfortunately, after paying a professional who had the top equipment and the original painting on hand for color comparison I ended up with dark, dreary, nowhere close, images that were unusable. If the colors are all off you do yourself more harm than good. I think photographing art is an art in itself. Learn what you need to know to accurately present your work.”
And also Karen Hunter McLaughlin of Philadelphia, PA, USA, who wrote, “There is another free image editing software available for both Mac and PC called Gimp — it’s much better at manual editing than Picasa.”