Your digital archive


Dear Artist,

With a photo habit, you can visually keep track of work over time, and collecting your own images allows you to offer accurate, quality-controlled snaps to anyone who asks. Here are a few ideas for a better photo archive:


“Bathers at Asnières” 1884
oil on canvas
by Georges Seurat (1859-1891)

It’s not necessary to kit yourself out with reflectors and other professional lighting aids. You can get natural images by taking advantage of even, ambient daylight. Hang the painting on an easel or wall and perpendicular to a large window, under a skylight or outdoors in medium shade or cloud cover. If the work is on an easel, make sure there’s no backlighting. Avoid facing paintings directly into the sun.

Shoot when paintings are finished and signed, but before varnishing — this will eliminate pesky sheen and reflections. Keep the work unframed for purity and timelessness. Frames also cast shadows.

Avoid flash, light bursts and gradations in light quality. Diminish overexposure and amplify brushwork by keeping the work perpendicular to the ambient light source and by paying attention to where soft shadows can creep in. For example, a large piece of furniture or an overhang outdoors can lead to a shadowed corner or a darker area.


“A Sunday on La Grande Jatte” 1884-6
oil on canvas by Georges Seurat

When working with a lot of finished work, shoot the back, too, assuming you’ve titled verso. This keeps the title handy during editing.

Use a tripod or set the camera on a table. A wide-angle lens on a digital SLR camera will keep things sharp, but an iPhone will work in a pinch, steadied on a table and using the HDR setting.

Most computer photo apps have a basic editing suite where you can crop, straighten, adjust exposure and colour temperature. Crop with care — get horizons straight and edges clean. Crop delicately as close to the inside edge of the image as possible, without including the painting edge. Colour correct with caution, and reference the original work as you go. Natural daylight (not too cool, not too warm) should get you most of the way there.

Give your image file a helpful name, something like this: artist-name-title-size-medium-year.jpeg. You, your collectors, adjudicators and dealers will appreciate this attention to detail.

Take a minute to assess your work as a tiny, perfect thumbnail, where compositional strengths and weaknesses reveal themselves.

Store your images in folders or in galleries in your photo app. You can sort images by gallery, what’s in your studio, sold paintings, etc. Files double as inventory lists and are shared easily with free apps like Dropbox. File sharing apps save you the embarrassment of clogging innocent inboxes.

Shoot with the idea that you’re creating your own comprehensive archive, and execute in such a way that when it’s time to share, the quality of your images reflects your artistic standards.


“The Lighthouse At Honfleur” 1886
oil on canvas by Georges Seurat



PS: “How you do one thing is how you do everything.” (Author unknown)

Esoterica: Watermarks ruin paintings. Worse yet, ill-conceived ones reframe your work as commercial or amateur. Artists may disagree as to whether watermarking even works to discourage copyright infringement, as your sister’s nephew’s dog can likely remove it in any basic graphic design app. If it’s branding you’re after, this is what your original style and signature are for. Better to eschew any possible “fear energy” that can leak from an overzealous overlay and into the heart of someone who would otherwise have become enchanted with your work. You can use Google’s reverse image search to find works you think others may be “borrowing” and simply ask to be credited. If they’re printing t-shirts for sale, shut ’em down. For the rest of us mere mortals, images of our work, whether requested privately by a potential collector or shared online, should exude the same ineffable lustworthiness as their originals. Trust and quality just might transcend them into real-world objects of desire.



  1. Thanks Sara, this is great advise. I often stumble when it comes to taking photos of my painting efforts (some of those efforts don’t call for a photo or archive). And I don’t have a roomful of lighting. I’m painting today – though it’s cloudy and maybe a little wet – I’m going to take photos of the ‘stages’ and of the end resul – maybe the references will help me improve too.

  2. Hello, I always take my photos after varnishing, outdoors during a overcast day, if the sun is shinning I wait for a overcast day. I set the painting on a easel making sure there is no tilt, 90 degrees from the camera and about 5 feet apart, everything level. I use a Sony Nex-6 with manual settings, but any good DSLR will work. Nothing else has given me better results. At times I use a UV filter , but the overcast lighting is so even that even varnished works come out great.

  3. I have struggled to find a “system” that works for me . I think I have found it. I now put my art inventory into a Powerpoint presentation file. In this way I can use the slide sorter to sort paintings by year [ month] and I can put comments and notes into the Presenter’s notes page for my own reference purposes. It works for me.

    What isn’t working is photos of certain works ….. When I use multiple glazes the photos are a poor reflection of the actual painting. I have tried a variety of tricks or techniques and have tried some professional images as well…. to little success…. I guess it is an excuse to have someone come and see the originals ….

  4. I have tried everything, including overcast days, and two opposing studio lights at 45 degrees to the painting surface – results are inconsistent.
    The system which I have now been using with 100% success for years seems counter-intuitive at first, but it works every time!
    I place the painting on an easel, with its’ BACK to the window! Now, my camera is facing the light source (usually considered a no-no) but I put a large piece of cardboard behind the painting so that the cameras light meter does not get confused or blinded. Camera is on a tripod, carefully adjusted to eliminate parallax error.
    I almost never get any glare or shine. (I do photograph before varnishing)
    Colours are very accurate, with very little computer adjustment required.

  5. One more tip: place a scrap of white paper against an edge of the work if there is no white in the painting, and include it when recording the image. Most image editing software has a tool to adjust color temperature from a white in the image, and there it is. Makes it almost automatic, and you can crop out the reference.

  6. And yet another tip: as a magazine editor I dealt with distorted images on a daily basis, usually caused by the camera axis not being perpendicular to the work surface. Simply place a small hand mirror flat against the center of where the work will be when you make the shot. Adjust your camera position so that you can see the camera lens reflected in the center of the camera viewfinder. Remove the mirror and make your shot.

    • If you must take photos indoors, have a large piece of black fake fur to put up on a rod in front of your camera with an X cut into it to stick your lens through. It will remove any possibility of reflections on your painting. It’s especially helpful with dark paintings.

  7. Thanks everyone for such great advice. And Sarah, thanks for putting together something of what I’ve discovered through trial and error. I can see there is room for improvement in my method.
    Warmly Lynn

  8. Very interesting! It seems we all have followed similar paths. The problems with outside photography – wind, varying cloud thickness etc, forced me inside. I have a peg board system I built with the camera lens plumb and square to the exact middle. The centre of the painting is also the centre of the pegboard – I move an adjustable ledge up and down depending on the size of the work. I have two studio lights at 30 degrees (or should it be 45?) and I move this in and out for the perfect exposure. I rarely varnish until a painting sells.
    This being said – I admire the various approaches that others have found to work.
    I have my 50 years of painting in HTML – each painting has it own HTML file with” in progress” pics as well as a pic of the back where I record the name, date and signature. There is also the story about each painting and now, a map of the location. The painting number 0001 through 1689 (current painting) is used to locate everything about that painting. I know this sounds anal but it works.

    • One more thing… if the weather is an important part of the painting story, as it frequently is, I include a weather map or two as a picture is worth a thousand words.
      I keep all of these interconnected HTML files up-to-date fairly automatically with some Visual Basic software that I wrote and runs from Excel on my home computer.
      Maybe I have an Obsessive Compulsive Disorder… or maybe it is just being organized so that I can get into “the zone” when I paint.

  9. I am still trying to be convinced that a large megapixel camera is good enough to record my 2-d work. I prefer the have a professional lab scan the paintings on a Cruse Scanner. However, I live in Italy and have not yet found any hi-res scanner that is available to living artists (such is the business of restoration here, I presume).

    Sometimes, I feel the need to varnish BEFORE photographing the work. This would be in the case of certain colors having “sunken in.” They will show as flat spaces and also, the varnish evens out the work of inconsistently applied mediums. If the painting is not thoroughly dry, however, one must use a retouch varnish, not a final varnish.

    The tip on covering one’s camera and tripod is necessary for many oil paintings and I was glad to see someone address that.

    • Thanks for this great advice…something that crosses my mind often. I had no idea about the Google tool. You’ve encouraged me to keep better records, which I started to do this last year, but get lazy sometimes, and realize its importance once again. So helpful to know how it works for others. I photograph my paintings in shade outside and always zoom in just a touch to eliminate distortion. Thanks again.

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