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Wouldn't it be easier to scan paintings for making prints rather than to photograph?

Jeff Z. , Jun 25, 2009; 10:25 a.m.

In reading the many and detailed posts archived on the best way to photograph oil and watercolor paintings, this is the first question that comes to my mind. I'm probably being naive judging from what others seem to be doing.

I was asked by two local painters to photograph their works (both oils-on-canvas and watercolor paintings) so that they can then make prints from the resulting files. The only thing remotely similar that I've ever done was to photograph a few oils-on-canvas for a friend a few years ago. I'd done this particular job outside in good, subdued natural light, and they turned out well.

But to do this for reproduction work really gives me the jitters, when all the various factors one must take into account are considered, and corrected for, and moreover, I do not own studio lighting. I have access to it, but if scanning them on a flatbed would make this so much simpler, wouldn't that be the route to go..? I guess the biggest reason I posted in this forum is that so many seem to use lighting methods for this purpose judging from the number of threads.. But wouldn't scanning eliminate all or most of the various concerns that one would have in photographing works such as these? Thanks for any help you can provide.


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Matt Laur , Jun 25, 2009; 10:28 a.m.

First, you might need a very large flatbed scanner, or the patience and skill to carefully scan sections of the work at a time, and stitch them together in post production.

Second, the scanner's light source travels with the sensor. It can do some very odd things when it encounters the 3D texture of the oil paint. Alas, a carefully lit photograph generally looks better - even without regard to the fit-it-on-the-scanner isssue.

Arief Novisto , Jun 25, 2009; 10:32 a.m.

How big is the painting? Most flatbed scan letter or A4 size document, some are a bit bigger. Are you going to stitch them in photoshop?
I suggest to get Light, Science Magic to get some idea of light placement and such.

Jeff Z. , Jun 25, 2009; 10:39 a.m.

Matt, Thank you! Is there any hope for my doing the photography outside with natural light? I know of a local gallery owner who is doing this (but as of right now, I do not know his technique), and also, a painter. The painter told me that she has been doing this for awhile with a moderate megapixel 35mm digital camera! I am experienced at scanning 35mm film and making gallery quality prints, and was impressed with her results, but again, I do haven' inquired into the specifics yet.

If doing this outside in the right light is viable and advisable, what focal length lens might be best? I don't have specialized macro lenses, but do have a full range of the most used focal lengths, both prime and a couple of zooms (with "macro" settings). Many thanks!

Jeff Z. , Jun 25, 2009; 10:47 a.m.

A, Thanks. Yes, this was a next logical question for me should the scanner route be best. I was aware of the most affordable, quality flatbeds being only letter sized, and was told about the "stitching together" method in p.s. Is this complicated and involved?

Most are on 16" by 20" boards and paper, with the image sizes averaging about 13" by 9.5", but a lot of variation. Some are larger, on 18" by 24" boards and paper, with correspondingly smaller image sizes.

Just wanted to add, that while I respect very much what Matt said, I've seen a file made by a friend that was made on a several year old 3-in-one type scanner, and it seemed to be very good; I'll have to find that and look at it again.. This was a scan of one of her relatively small oils, and I actually printed it on EEM and was impressed, fwiw. Again, I intend to find that today and take a closer look, as I know that the print I made was only about 4" by 6", but the appearance surprised me.

James Ratterree , Jun 25, 2009; 10:49 a.m.

Many paintings would be damaged by placing them on a scanner surface.
Think of someone who layers paint on very thick to create physical texture. Lots of oil-base paint to get that physical texture means months to years of drying time to fully cure. So the suface may seem dry but the paint could still be soft underneath. Like the Earth's crust and molten lava inside.
Plus too much contact tends to either polish hardened oil paints or crack them depending on the age and dryness of the elements.
So it's safer to shoot.

Jeff Z. , Jun 25, 2009; 10:56 a.m.

James, Thank you, that sounds like a good point. I noticed that with a few of the canvases, they were slightly warped, and I would think that this might be a problem as they would have to have pressure applied to give a flat enough surface for scanning..?

Matt Laur , Jun 25, 2009; 11:04 a.m.

Jeff: outside can work, if you have the good fortune to have either a very overcast day, or circumstances in which you can use large reflective surfaces to "glow" some light indirectly onto the work from more than one direction. Evenness of the lighting can be tricky, but it sounds like you're working with (comparatively) small works, so that makes life a lot easier. You do need to make sure you're getting a good white balance reading on the camera, though. Follow your camera's instructions on shooting a custom white balance target, or if you're shooting in RAW, then make sure you shoot a white target along with the paintings so that you can correct after the fact.

Lenses? If you're on a digital SLR with an APS-C (cropped format) sensor, then you should be able to handle 16x20 pieces while two or three rungs up on a step stool using a simple 50mm prime. But if you don't have a lot of light, you'll need to rig up a solid camera support to avoid motion blur. A cable release or the self timer can help out, in that regard.

Jeff Z. , Jun 25, 2009; 11:18 a.m.

Matt, Sorry, I should have mentioned that I shoot film. The experience I mentioned from a few years ago was with overcast conditions, and made with a Nikkor 70-210mm f4.0, on Kodak 100 speed E-6 transparency. I can't remember the actual approximate focal length setting, but think it was around 70, so that would seem to coincide with your suggestion to use a 50mm on the cropped format digital SLR(?).. But, I'm really not sure what length I selected.. something makes me think that it could have been around 105mm, too..

Choosing the right focal length would seem to be critical for the perspective of getting the print right, wouldn't it..? This was actually one of the major factors that led to my thinking about scanning. I'll have to experiment with this, and see if one or the other looks "right", I suppose.. Any suggestions on this?

Yes, the cable release and tripod seem like a must.

Really good to know that doing this outside is possible, but I definitely see the problems with getting the right light.

Matt Laur , Jun 25, 2009; 11:36 a.m.

On a 16x20 work, you should still be able to get properly scaled, flat shot with a 50mm lens, Jeff. The full-frame 35mm camera isn't a handicap in that sense. You do need to get your camera absolutely square to the working surface, though.

Here's my favorite trick: place a small mirror (say, two or three inches around) dead center on the flat surface that will hold the work. When you look through the viewfinder, you'll only see the reflection of the camera if you're properly parallel to that surface. That will cut down on keystoning, and on the necessary fixes in post production.

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