Photographing Art

If you are planning to submit a Visual Arts portfolio as an Arts Supplement
 [ PDF PDF » ] to your admissions application, the following information may be useful in helping you to prepare it.


  • 35mm Single Lens Reflex (SLR) camera
  • Tripod
  • Cable Release (optional)
  • Hand-held Incident Light meter (if not built into camera)
  • 8" x 10" grey card (for built-in light meters)
  • Skylight, 81A, or 81B Filter (for daylight photography in open shade)
  • Two 500-Watt Photoflood Tungsten Bulbs, 3200 or 3400K (Kelvin)
  • Two Adjustable Light Stands with Reflectors
  • Daylight-balanced Slide Film: Kodachrome 25, Kodachrome 64, or Ektachrome 64
    (Kodachrome films increase contrast and intensity of colors, while Ektachrome film reproduces more accurately.  Lower ASA films are finer in grain (sharper and more detailed) than higher ASA films, but are also slower, requiring a tripod in shaded conditions.)
  • Indoor (Tungsten) Film: Ektachrome 64


35mm slide transparencies are standard among art institutions and galleries for recording and presenting art.  Other films such as color print film and black and white film are used but have more specialized applications.

Unexposed professional film, such as those listed above, should be stored in a cool place, such as a refrigerator, and sealed to keep moisture out.  New film can be stored in a freezer and maintained indefinitely.  The film should be allowed to come to room temperature overnight or a minimum of 1.5 hours before use.

Exposed film should be processed as soon as possible.

Color slides are subject to fading over time.  To maintain a permanent record of your art, it's a good idea to store at least one "master" set of original copies in a cool, dry, and dark place (closed box or cabinet).

Daylight Exposures:

Diffused daylight under bright but overcast conditions is best for outdoor photography of art.  If the day is sunny, open shade near a white wall is best.  Partially cloudy days are least desirable due to frequent changes in light.

For shooting in open shade, a color correction filter will be necessary to eliminate the bluish cast of shadows in daylight.  A Skylight, 81A, or 81B filter should be used, depending on the degree of color correction necessary.  Tests and experience are the best way to know.

For shooting in open sunlight, a color correction filter is not necessary.  Though good for color rendition, sunlight may create problems with too much brightness (exposures over 1/1000 second risk color distortion), cast shadows, reflected light, or glare.  Glare can be corrected with a polarizing filter or by angling the work to the sun's rays.  Mid-morning or mid-afternoon is the best time to achieve the most accurate color rendition.

Daylight exposures may be made indoors near ample windows that are admitting north light, providing that the light is bright and uniform in illumination (exposures at F4 or less, or less than 1.2 second shutter speed risk color distortion).  A predominantly white room is best for color accuracy.  As in open shade, a filter will be needed for color correction.

Artificial Light Exposures:

Indoor photography with artificial light offers the advantages of convenience, comfort, maximum control of light, and least physical risk to the artwork.

Artificial light is provided by 500-watt Photoflood tungsten bulbs with a color temperature rating of either 3200 or 3400 K, depending on the type of film used (check the label).  The bulbs should be mounted in adjustable light stands.  The bulbs should be discarded after 2-3 hours of use since their color temperature gradually alters, distorting film colors.  Quartz Halogen lights have the advantage of maintaining a consistent 3200 K throughout their life.

Camera Setup

Studio lights should be placed as shown above so that illumination of the artwork is completely uniform.  Each light is placed on either side and the same distance from the object.  The lights are directed toward the opposite third of the artwork and placed at a 35-degree angle to its surface.

Larger works may well require four lamps in order to uniformly illuminate a larger surface area.  Place two lights on either side of the artwork, spaced and angled as above, with one light high, aimed down and across the work, and one light low, aimed up and across the work.

Paintings should not be photographed in frames that cast shadows on their surface, and works on paper should be photographed unmatted.  Photographing works under glass is best avoided, but reflections can be minimized by darkening the studio behind the camera and shooting with the lens placed through an opening in a dark cloth or panel.

Photographing 2-D Work:

Mount the work to be photographed as flatly as possible on a wall or large board.  Works on paper should be mounted as unobtrusively as possible, using rolled tape on the back or straight pins.  The artwork should be mounted on a smooth, clean, and uniform surface.  A white background works well and a non-reflective black cloth (such as velvet) offers the effect of masking out the background when the slide is projected.  The darker background also tends to intensify the effect of color.

To avoid distortions in the image when photographing 2-D work, the center of the lens must be centered in relation to the artwork and the film plane or back of the camera must be parallel with the picture plane (you can check plumb-ness by placing a level on the camera lens and adjusting the camera/ tripod accordingly so that the camera is leveled perfectly straight up and down). Raise or lower the camera on the tripod until the center of the lens is at the center of the artwork.  Move the tripod back until the work fills the viewfinder squarely.  Be careful to allow enough of a margin around the art so that the slide mount does not cover its edge when processed.  On the other hand, the impression made by an artwork in slide form will be greatly diminished if the slide is taken from too far back.

Another method is to position the work flat on the ground (on a suitable background material) and shoot it from above, either hand-held or on a tripod.  This method is especially useful when you're shooting several pieces since it saves the time and effort of mounting the work on a vertical surface.  Position yourself over the work with the camera lens centered over the image, the film plane parallel to the picture plane, and the edges of the artwork square with the viewfinder.  Artificial lighting can be set up at the same angles as for vertical shots.  In either daylight or artificial light, be careful to avoid casting shadows across the work.

Photographing 3-D Work:

Unique considerations in photographing 3-D artworks include the choice of background, point-of-view (composition), and lighting to present a 3-D object through a 2-D medium to maximum effect.

Backgrounds should be clean, uncluttered, and unobtrusive as possible.  A backdrop of seamless paper or fabric is well suited for this purpose.   Larger objects may require photo backdrop paper, sold by photo suppliers and available in 12-yard rolls, either 54" or 107" wide.  White, grey, black, and solid-color backdrops are available and should be chosen to contrast and highlight the works of art.

Presenting multiple viewpoints of a single object is most often necessary to represent some sense of the object as it actually appears.  Viewpoint and framing should be carefully considered to emphasize 3-D characteristics in relation to the picture plane of the slide.  The image should be framed closely enough to create visual impact but with just enough surrounding space to indicate its three-dimensionality.

Lighting should be strong enough to characterize various planes and modeling but not so harsh as to loose color and form in dark shadows or intense lights.  The object should be angled to the light to create the maximum effect of form and dimension.

3-d setup

Camera Settings:

Set the ASA on the camera to correspond with the ASA of the film.  Note that Kodachrome 25 can be "pushed" for richer color saturation by setting the ASA on the camera (or hand-held light meter at 40 rather than 25, and having the film processed normally).

F-stops 8 or 11 are considered the best aperture settings for color accuracy.  Settings of F4 or less risk color distortions.

Set the shutter speed on the camera, in conjunction with the F-stop, to achieve the correct light exposure, as outlined below.  Avoid shutter speeds of longer than 1/2 second or shorter than 1/1000 second, due to possible color distortions at these extremes.

Setting the Exposure:

The correct light exposure can be determined by means of either a hand-held incident light meter or a camera with a built-in metering system.

When using a light meter built into the camera, hold a Grey Card as near to the surface of the work as possible and take a light reading through the lens so that the grey card completely fills the viewfinder, adjusting the F-stop and shutter speed accordingly.  Despite what may appear to be an over-or under-exposure when the grey card is removed, the camera is in fact correctly adjusted to the light falling on the object, and the exposure will be correct.  The same aspect of the lighting is measured by a hand-held incident light meter.

When working under artificial light, only one reading is necessary per session.  Because of gradual and imperceptible changes in sunlight, however, readings should be taken periodically when working out-of-doors.

To insure the best possible reproduction, bracket exposures by taking three photographs: one at the meter reading, one at an F-stop above and one at an F-stop below.  Each of the three will be generally accurate, but you might well find that one exposure creates a stronger impression.

As another measure, the individual piece can be taken into account.  For works with predominantly dark tones, you might expect to open the F-stop by half a step.  For works that are very light overall (such as a simple line drawing on white paper). Use a smaller F-stop, for example: close the aperture to F8.5 or F11 if the light reading is for F8.

Making the Photograph:

Use a cable release to minimize camera movement (and blurry slides).

It's a good idea to expose as many original transparencies of the same image you expect you'll need (and you will probably need more than you think).  Duplicate slides made from originals are more expensive per slide and generally lower in quality.

Detail shots are important for representing characteristic textures, details, or formal relationships of the work that aren't evident in an overall view.  Compose details to effectively present important close-up aspects of the work, adjusting the light if necessary to reveal texture or surface.

Mounting Slides:

Slides are mounted in either cardboard or plastic mounts by the processing lab, unless otherwise instructed, and may be remounted, if necessary, by hand.  Plastic mounts are preferable for their sturdiness and because they are less likely than cardboard mounts to jam in the projector.  Sturdier plastic mounts with glass windows are also available and are recommended for keeping original slides safely over a period of time.  "Anti-Newton" type glass mounts are recommended.

Unwanted background images in a slide can be masked out in the mounting process by means of silver slide tape that is carefully attached to the front of the transparency, masking up to the art's edge and extending under the mount.  The transparency is placed in the mount after taping.

Labeling Slides

Slides should be clearly labeled with title, media, year, dimensions, and artist's name on the front of the slide.  If needed, the top of the slide should be indicated with the word "TOP" or a small arrow.  Rub-on arrows (such as Pres-type) are handy for this purpose.  A self-adhesive or rub-on dot at the lower left-hand corner of this slide (viewed so that the image reads correctly) provides a key for loading the slide in a Kodak Carousel Projector, which is the most commonly used.  Label as shown:


Labeling information can be neatly written directly on the slide mount with a Sharpie or can be typed or written on self-adhesive labels, which are attached to the mount.

Slide Presentation and Storage:

Slides should be presented in a sturdy, plastic slide-holding sheet.  A 9"x12" sheet with 20 slides is the standard format.  Slides should be arranged from left to right, starting on the top row with the sheet held vertically, with most recent work first.  Never cut the slide sheet, even if it is not filled.  Always show quality work over quantity.

Slides should be stored in a cool, dry, and dark place to protect them from fading, color alteration, or other damage.

Cleaning Slides

Fingerprints can be safely removed with Kodak Film Cleaner, or pure methanol.  Be sure to use these chemicals only in a well-ventilated room.