Image: Muzi Li Rowe, Camera With Three Interchangeable Lens Boards
Whether you’re applying for a grant, an artist residency, an exhibit, or an MFA degree, a strong art portfolio is one of the most important parts of your application. These images will introduce you and your artwork to the selection panel, so it’s a good idea to show off your work in the best way possible. While having your artwork photographed by a professional photographer is a great way to guarantee high quality results, it’s not the only way to obtain strong images of your artwork. I had a chat with Sacramento-based photographer and artist, Muzi Li Rowe to compile the following tips to help you achieve professional quality results on your own with limited resources. Read on for Muzi’s tips!
What you'll need:
A camera or mobile phone
A remote shutter release if you’re using a DSLR camera
A clip-on lens kit for your mobile phone (optional but recommended for older, single lens phones that often have wide angle lenses, which distort the image)
A photo editing app (optional since the editing program in your phone covers pretty much all the basic editing options. There are camera apps that provide manual mode, as well as control over aperture and shutter speed such as Camera+ 2. There are also editing apps that offer more nuanced control in editing such as Snapseed and Lightroom Mobile.)
A tripod or friction arm (optional for mobile phones but a must for cameras)
Light stands or a C-stand
For setting up your artwork you'll need:
A flat white wall or white piece of paper pinned to the wall
Two to three clip-on lights or lamps
Two to three 5000 kelvin LED bulbs
Materials to use as reflectors (foam core, white paper, mirrors, aluminum foil)
Materials to use as diffusers (white tissue paper, parchment paper or waxed paper)
Tapes and modeling clay to stabilize your backdrop and artwork
For 3-dimensional artwork you'll need:
A light tent (You can make one yourself using a cardboard box and any of diffusing materials mentioned above.)
Set it up.
For 2D artwork:
Find a spot with a plain white wall. If you don’t have a white wall you can attach a plain white piece of paper to the wall.
Hang the artwork to the wall or attach it to the paper.
Start with a simple lighting set up by placing one light to the left and one light to the right of the artwork. The lights should be at 45-degree angles pointing to the artwork.
Set up the camera in front of the artwork with the lens pointing approximately at the midpoint of the work. Try to get the plane of the lens parallel to the work to reduce distortion. For 35mm cameras a lens with a focal length around 50-70mm is good. The light should be soft, even, and cover the entire work and a portion of its surrounding area.
To avoid having a hot spot, pull the lights backward and add a diffusion screen in front of the lights.
For framed work or anything with highly reflective surfaces, there are a few ways to photograph:
Move the lights closer to the wall while flaring them slightly away from the work until no visible hot spots are seen on either side edge of the work. (See photo below.)
Hang a large sheet of black fabric over your camera, or cut a hole in the middle of a large sheet of black paper, keeping only the lens exposed. (See photo below.)
Add a polarizing filter to your lens. This is probably the easiest solution but be aware that the filter performs poorly under low light situations and there is also possible reduced sharpness in the image.
For 3D artwork:
Use a large piece of white paper as a backdrop. Attach it to a wall so it extends onto a table or floor, creating a seamless background for your work.
Place the artwork onto your backdrop, use modeling clay to stabilize it if needed.
Start by using one of your clip lights or lamps to direct soft light on top of the object as the primary light source. A C-stand is great for this type of overhead lighting.
Move the light source around until you are happy with the direction and intensity of the light. This is often sufficient for most objects.
You can always experiment with adding an accent light to brighten the shadows, or using a white reflector for a more subtle effect.
For textured work you can add a light to the side of the work to accentuate the surface.
For larger, vertical sculpture work, begin with two lights as you would photograph a painting. However unlike paintings, this is a three dimensional object and you don't want to have flat lighting, this means you will probably have to adjust the intensity and proximity between the lights and the work, sometimes even turn off one light or replace it with a reflector.
Objects with a glossy surface and transparent object are the trickiest to photograph. The key is to avoid direct lighting. Below are some tips:
Having a shooting tent is great for this type of work. A shooting tent is a collapsable tent made from white translucent material. By placing your work inside the tent with lights placed outside, you get a soft, evenly lit object. If you don't want to buy one, it is easy to make one using a cardboard box and parchment paper. (See photo below)
Try using a small mirror to reflect off of your main light source to add subtle highlights to works with a glossy surface.
For glass works, any direct light source will cause harsh, unflattering reflections, so they need to be backlit. You can do so by placing a large, diffused light source directly behind the work. To achieve a seamless, gradient background, place your work on a piece of translucent material such as frosted Mylar as the backdrop
Get the color right.
Besides getting the right exposure and focused imagery, having the right white balance is very important. The color of your photographs should accurately represent the color of your artwork. To best achieve accurate color, refer to the steps below:
Muzi recommends using artificial lights (your clip lights or lamps) to create a consistently lit environment.
If you have curtains, close them or at least avoid direct sunlight on your work. This is because the color of sunlight changes throughout the day. It’s more yellow at dawn and dusk and more blue during the day. Although sunlight is great for many types of photography, it’s not ideal for artwork documentation where consistency is key.
Use 5000 kelvin LED bulbs and turn off all other lights in the room while photographing.
If you’re using a digital camera, set the custom white balance before each photoshoot with a grey card or your neutral white wall.
If you’re using a mobile phone, getting the accurate color while photographing will save you a lot of time and frustration later on. With this said, you still have the option to edit white balance and further color correct in photo editing programs such as Photoshop and Lightroom or with a photo editing app.
Start with the most simple setup, take a shot and see what it looks like. If the light is too harsh, add a diffusion screen or move the lights further back. Try to experiment with different types of reflective materials to add subtle changes to your image. Stick to one variable per shot and slowly improve your photograph. Don’t be afraid to experiment with your set-up until you find what works best for your artwork. Be patient, sometimes it takes a long time to get the image right, but with practice you will eventually be able to photograph your own work with ease.
Muzi Li Rowe is a visual artist and photographer. Born and raised in Beijing, China, Rowe has lived in between Beijing, Sydney, Hawaii and California since the age of 17. She received a Bachelor of Visual Arts from the University of Sydney, Australia and a Master of Fine Arts from the University of California Davis. Rowe is the recipient of The Ali Youssefi Project 2020 Artist in Residence and has exhibited in the US, China and Australia, at venues including The Manetti Shrem Museum of Art, University of California, Davis, CA; Carriage Works, Sydney, Australia; and Bronze Ware Museum, Ordos, China. Rowe is the founder of Eighteen Percent Labs, an artwork documentation and fine art printing service geared toward creatives of all kinds. Rowe resides in Sacramento, California.
Learn more about Muzi and view her artwork at www.muzilirowe.com
All images are courtesy of Muzi Li Rowe.