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Photographing oil/watercolour paintings with glass

Paul Jones , Apr 16, 2001; 02:38 a.m.

I have numerous paintings (both oil and watercolour) to put onto film and have seen a lot of info. about taking pictures of paintings, but nothing about paintings behind glass. Can anyone suggest the best way to take pictures in this circumstance?


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John Marsden , Apr 16, 2001; 03:49 a.m.

You will need to do all the other stuff for copying a flat surface object but in addition ensure you use a polarizing filter rotated to eliminate any reflections, - usually from other light sources in your room.

Keith Nichols , Apr 16, 2001; 07:53 a.m.

Use polarizers only when all other measures fail to eliminate reflections - polarizers alter color and knock valuable f stops off your film speed. And only the pieces behind glass should present reflection problems, anyway. Place your lights so all the hotspots they might produce bounce off to the sides, i.e., so the lights hit the pieces at about a 20-degree angle. (Many references say 45 degrees, but why encourage hotspots?) Drape any windows or light-colored items that show up in the glass-covered pieces or hang a black cloth behind your camera to block the background. You might have to drape your tripod, too, if it appears in the glass. I hang black cloth from light stands on both sides of my tripod to block light from my strobes from reaching the tripod and camera. Note, too, that altough the glass may not be evident in the slides you shoot, it can alter the color of your art slightly and cause a very slight underexposure, because the glass absorbs some of the light. It's always better to unmount the pieces to free them from the glass if possible. Also, if you shoot slides, some testing would be needed to find the correct color-correction filters for your lights, lenses, and film. How much of this you do depends on how true your color needs to be.

Ellis Vener , Apr 16, 2001; 11:21 a.m.

Photographing artwork under glass is tricky. My experience (sixteen years and counting photographing art for artists, galleriesm magazines and book publishers) is that you will need to polarize your lights and and also use a polarizing filter on your lens. To partially contradict the previous answer, high quality polarizing filters (I use Heliopan, but B+W should be fine as well are neutral in color. Cheap polarizing filters are not. the polarizers on the lights. He is correct in saying that you will lose a lot of light using this technique -- approximately five stops but you will get an accurate rendition of the artwork. He also very correct about masking off all possible reflective surfaces.

Choice of film is critical too. For the most neutral rendition I use and recommend Kodak EPN film . For critical and accurate printed reproduction I place a "Kodak Color Seperation Guide and Gray Scale (Large)" (catalog #152 7662) next to the artwork and make sure it is in the film frame. This provides match guides for the printers.I have found that if the eveness of the lighting is off by more than 1/10th of a stop this will be seen by the film and quite possibly by your client.

Keith Nichols , Apr 16, 2001; 11:33 a.m.

Ellis, why is polarizing necessary in cases where specular hotspots can b eliminated by positioning the lights appropriately? My experience with polarzing eliminated so much of the sparkle off the oils that the pieces looked like velvet paintings rather than oils.

Ellis Vener , Apr 16, 2001; 12:31 p.m.

Keith, Because not all of the glare and what I call "micro reflections" can be eliminated by positioning the lights. Also as you use flatter lighting angles you start running the risk of uneven light distribution. With a framed and matted piece you also run the risk of getting the shadow of the frame or the mat impinging on the painting area. These problems are more evident when using large format film than if you are using 35mm.

DK Thompson , Apr 16, 2001; 01:52 p.m.

Paul, I've shot alot of paintings here at the museum I work at, and so has my boss (who's been here a long time, and before that worked at an art museum). We pretty much do paintings in both of the ways that Keith and Ellis are describing, however I like to avoid cross-polarization whenever I can. For a variety of reasons really, and sometimes I do like to leave a little bit of the patina in on the painting surface as well. Ellis may disagree, but I think this is more a matter of taste (I'm not talking about rampant specular highlights here...). We have a large, very dark studio--all right, it's entirely black...we have a very beefy easel that we put the art on and we'll hard light everything with 2-4 heads adjusting the angle for the depth of the frame. Usually we skim the lights. We use 2 4x8 black gatorboard panels on either side of the camera to sort of "hide" the camera. As long as no light is hitting you or the camera, you should be "blind" to the glass. We also shoot some very large paintings in other areas of our building this way, even if we have to construct blinds out of black cloth and more sheets of foam core. There are 2 good books on this sort of thing, although they're about 20 yrs. old. One is called "How to Photograph Works of Art" by Sheldon Collins that was published by the Am. Assoc. of State and Local History (AASLH) and the other is Kodak's "Copying and Duplicating in B&W and Color" We mostly shoot 4x5 but this techniques works with any format, good luck.

John G. , Apr 16, 2001; 02:46 p.m.

For art under glass, I use Ektachrome 100+, and I push it a third or a half to clean up the highlights which are often colored by the glass. You should always always include a grey step card on the edge of the image.

Jack Kennealy , Apr 16, 2001; 05:10 p.m.

The cross-polarization procedure and EPN film already described by Ellis are very much the "standard" in repro-photography. In shooting oil/acrylic paintings, where you may want some show of texture, it's a simple matter to back off the polarizer from maximum polarization to let some of the texture be visible.

DK Thompson , Apr 16, 2001; 06:56 p.m.

Jack, that's true, it is considered a standard, but there are some reasons to avoid cross-polarizing, and in my experience not all museum people like to polarize every painting flat out. That's kind of what I meant when I said it was a matter of taste. I do a whole lot more cross-polarizing when it comes down to copying old photos. It is true that you can just back off on the polarizer that's on your lens, and "dial" in the amount of specular highlight you want. I do this when I shoot artifacts that for whatever reason I'm using a polarizing screen on the lightsource. You know, to still give the piece form, without flattening it out too much. I do think it's important to have a Kodak colorbar in each shot, but there are alot of other factors in shooting paintings besides trying to diminish every highlight/texture detail....there are color balance issues that go beyond how "neutral" a good quality filter is, and there are also theories that go into "interpretive" lighting, so saying that cross-polarization is the only way, is a bit limited.

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