Photographing works of art


This lesson covers Smarthistory’s best practices for photography. Most of these tips are about how to shoot in a gallery, but the same practices can be used for architecture or works of art that are outdoors.

Our next lesson shows you how to edit your photos using Adobe Photoshop.

In this lesson

  • Choosing your camera
  • Before you go out to shoot
  • Etiquette
  • What to photograph
  • Common problems
  • Technical tips for getting the best photographs

Choosing your camera

You should use the best camera that your budget will allow. Here are a few features to look for when choosing a camera:

  • The ability to control settings manually
  • The largest possible light sensor (full-frame if possible)
  • The best lens you can get (35mm is wide enough for most applications, but if you shoot a lot of architecture you might like something wider)
  • A big, fast memory card

Before you go out to shoot

Remember to always check that your camera is fully charged, and reformat your memory card so that you have ample space.

Tip: We recommend wearing dark clothing with no patterns (to minimize your appearance in reflections).

Visitors in a Thomas Cole exhibition at The Met view The Course of Empire

Visitors in a Thomas Cole exhibition at The Met view The Course of Empire

Etiquette

The thing you’ll need the most during the photography process is patience

Galleries can be crowded, and the photographing of an object may draw people’s attention to it. We try to be respectful and step back while people look at it or take their own pictures. 

When people are present, we try to be aware of privacy concerns and photograph them from behind; otherwise we may blur faces later in Photoshop so they are no longer recognizable.

It goes without saying that we follow stated institutional rules (this almost always means no flash or tripods).

What to photograph

On a typical day out, we may shoot up to 500 photographs—often 50 or more of each object. We take photographs directly after recording our raw audio conversation about the work, using the content of the audio to guide us as we think about the details we need to photograph. For instance, if we have discussed the brushwork in a particular part of a painting, or the way a sculpture appears from a certain angle, we make sure to capture good images of those particular features.

With very few exceptions, we shoot horizontally with a 16:9 aspect ratio, since the end use for the photos is 16:9 video. Because this is a very wide ratio, if you’re photographing something at the edge of a painting, you’ll end up including some frame and the wall beyond in order to center the detail. By keeping the detail in the center, you’ll minimize lens distortion.

Berthe Morisot, Hunting Butterflies, 1874, oil on canvas, 46 x 56 cm (Musée d’Orsay, Paris) Here focus is on the children on the left edge of the canvas, note they are centered allowing for a view of the frame.

Berthe Morisot, Hunting Butterflies, 1874, oil on canvas, 46 x 56 cm (Musée d’Orsay, Paris) Here focus is on the children on the left edge of the canvas, note they are centered allowing for a view of the frame.

We generally start wide and move in slowly. For each of the types of shots listed below, we typically shoot between 4 and 10 frames. This increases the chances that we will get a sharp, well-framed photograph of each.

  • We start with two or more wide gallery shots from different angles, then move in step by step to wide shots, medium shots and closeups of the work.
  • Make sure to get one good shot of the entire work, getting as close as you can while still including the whole work in the frame. In this case, your framing may be vertical in order to get the highest-resolution photo possible (you’ll crop it later in Photoshop).
  • Remember to allow a small margin around the work so that you can easily correct for lens distortion later.
  • It’s okay to include the frame of a painting if necessary when shooting details.
  • If you have time at the end, you may want to capture additional gallery shots from different angles.
  • It is nice to include a person (or people) in one or more of your gallery shots to give a sense of scale (just make sure to be aware of privacy concerns when doing so).

Tip: Stop midway through your shoot and review what you’ve shot so far. Make sure your color settings are working. (Sometimes plexiglass can look green, for instance, or you might find some other technical issue that you weren’t aware of.)

Common problems

When shooting details, make sure you’re paying attention to shine (i.e. the varnish on a painting) and/or reflections (especially from plexiglass or glass). To correct for this, you may need to shoot from angles that seem odd: very high, very low, or from an extreme side angle. You can correct for this later in Photoshop. It is more important to capture the visual information about the work than to have it framed perfectly in your raw images.

Tip: Even slight differences in angle can minimize reflections!

Sometimes there is no way to avoid a reflection or shine. Try to maneuver so it is as small as possible, and/or frame it against a broad field of color on the object so it’s easy to remove later in Photoshop. 

Remember to be aware of your shadow as well as your reflection!

When people are present, be aware of bright clothing, or bags or backpacks with logos that are distracting.

There are several problems with this shot: shadow of camera and arms checkered shirt is reflected focus is soft

There are several problems with this shot:
• shadow of camera, hands and arms are visible
• checkered shirt is reflected in the plexiglass bonnet (upper left and upper right)
• focus is soft • the object is cropped at the bottom

Technical tips for getting the best photos

Take a variety of photos using different settings (aperture, shutter priority). Play with your auto and default settings as you do this. Give yourself lots of options.

How to shoot sharp photos without a flash or tripod:

  • Once your focus is set, take at least three to five shots in a row of the same thing.
  • Hold your camera with two hands and hold your breath as your press the shutter.
  • If the camera has an actual viewfinder, use it—it will give you a more accurate sense of what you’re shooting.
  • Use macro mode for closeups.
  • Never exceed your camera’s physical zoom capability (i.e. do not use “digital zoom”).

If you are in a very busy room (full of either people or objects, or both), adjusting your depth of field (i.e. the range within which the image is in focus) can really help highlight your object. The more open the camera’s aperture, the shallower your depth of field will be. Using a shallow depth of field can help blur out objects or people in the foreground and background.

Ear spool depicting a warrior, c. 640–680 (Moche), gold, turquoise, wood (Museo Tumbas Reales de Sipán, Lambayeque, Peru)

Ear spool depicting a warrior, c. 640-80 (Moche), gold, turquoise, wood (Museo Tumbas Reales de Sipán, Lambayeque, Peru)

Shot with a narrow depth of field to blur distractions in the background:
Camera: Sony RX1RM2
Lens: 35mm
Shutter speed: 1/160 sec
F-stop: 2.5

Conversely, closing your aperture will help your ability to focus, especially if what you’re shooting is a very small object. If you need to increase your ability to focus, you might choose to shoot things a bit dark and adjust in Photoshop later.

Once you’ve shot your photos, you’re ready to edit them in Photoshop.

Cite this page as: Dr. Naraelle Hohensee, Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker, "Photographing works of art," in Smarthistory, June 14, 2018, accessed December 15, 2018, https://smarthistory.org/photographing-works-of-art/.