Photographing Your Art: Which Camera to Buy

Sophie Ploeg Blog - how to photograph your art work

Artists have used cameras for as long as cameras have existed. The creative possibilities are endless when you mix photography and other art forms together. Photography has so much to share; a good photographer’s views on composition, vision and colour could teach many painters a thing or two (and the other way round). Many artists use photography in their work, but are not sure which camera to choose for what they want to do. This guide is for those artists who need a little help in the camera jungle. 

Choosing Cameras

The world of photography can be extremely techie. Getting to grips with focal lenghts, sensor sizes and file formats can be pretty challenging. Many artists want to use photography but do not want to take time out from their precious studio hours in order to learn how to distinguish a megapixel from an f-stop. So many artists are a bit lost when it comes to choosing a camera or are unhappy with how their camera performs.

Camera Types

There are lots of different types of cameras available but, to keep things simple, let’s bring it down to three. 

Compact Cameras

These also include point and shoot cameras, compact zoom cameras, advanced zoom, super zoom, bridge cameras and mobile phone cameras.
Cheap, small and lightweight, easy to use. 
These cameras are usually fully automatic, often with an integrated flash and zoom. Some models are water- or weather proof, some have video options.  These cameras have small sensors (the sensor is the ‘eye of the camera and decides the quality of the image taken).  
Some larger models offer (limited) manual settings, an exernal flash and image stabilisation (great for shaky hands!) and better zoom options, but these models are usually slightly larger and more expensive.

Compact mirrorless cameras

Although a compact camera is also a mirrorless camera, this category is definitely a step up from the compact range. These cameras are a bit larger, but not as big as a DSLR. They offer interchangeable lenses, giving access to the huge world of lenses and the possibilities that they provide. There will be an array of manual settings. These cameras are ideal for those who want more control over the image quality and effects and who are interested in the technical side of things.
These cameras have a much larger sensor (usually an APS-C crop sensor) than compacts and provide much better image quality. They are often priced moderately and are a bit larger than compacts but much smaller than DSLR’s. 

DSLR

Digital SLR’s are the big daddies of the camera world. These cameras are big, heavy and expensive, but provide the best image quality one could wish for. There are very affordable and slightly smaller models with smaller sensors which will cost a few hundred £$, there are entry-level models, but there are also full frame professional models that will set you back many thousands of dollars. These cameras have the best and largest sensors providing fantastic image quality. 

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Which Camera to Choose for the Job?

I can think of quite a few ways how artists use cameras. Not all uses might apply to you, so hopefully this little guide will tell you which way to look when you go hunting for a new camera. 

Submissions to Open Exhibitions

You will need large, clear and sharp images that have good colour to submit your work to online open exhibitions.  Often 2MB files are accepted, which means you can submit print-sized images.  
Best camera: DSLR, mirrorless.

Keep a Record

Whether you keep a proper database like Artwork Archive or simply keep your photos on your computer or in a box somewhere for reference, these photos do not need to be large and are for your own use only.
Best camera: compact.

Reference Photos

Which camera you use for reference photos depends on how you work. If you create highly detailed realistic paintings from your reference photos, you are going to need large, detailed photos with lots of depth of colour and value. You will want to see every little detail in that dark corner and every hair on that model. This is how I work and so I would need a DSLR for this.
Best camera: DSLR.

If you interpret your reference photos and add lots of other material to your work then you might not need such a detailed photo of your subject. Your reference photo might just be used to juggle your memory and make you remember what it was like to be there. Your reference photo might be a an interesting pattern or texture you saw somewhere and you want to integrate it into your painting. For such, much looser, use of photos you might not need a DSLR and get away with a compact or a mirrorless camera. There are many ‘in between’ models that sit on the edge of these categories.
Best camera: all.

Making Prints

For large prints (A4 and up) you will need a camera with a lot of megapixels (20MP and higher) if you want to maintain detail and quality. To avoid endless colour correction in photo editing software it pays off to invest in a decent DSLR, especially if you want to sell your prints.  
Best camera: DSLR, mirrorless.

Photographing Events

To take photos at open studio events, exhibitions, private views and other events it probably helps to have a small compact camera that you can easily carry around with you. And many compact cameras are perfectly able to do this. But do keep in mind that a bigger camera will take better photos, especially in low light. So a balance between portability and image quality must be made.
Best camera: compact, mirrorless, with a flash.

Photos for the Web

Images of your art work and studio to put onto your website, blog or online portfolio must be kept small in file size. Large file sizes will slow a website down and put people off from visiting. So for small file sizes you will only need a small camera, right? Although it is true you don’t need a lot of megapixels for this type of photography, it is very important to get excellent colour and light. On your site the art must look good, the  colours must be right and beautiful. It is your business card to the world so good images are vital. Don’t settle for a cheap point and shoot camera, but invest in the best you can afford.  I would opt for at least a mirrorless camera or a very good compact camera for your website.
Best camera: mirrorless or very good compact.

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Some Things to Look Out For

Colour and Light

The bigger the sensor the better the quality of light and colour. A big full frame camera will produce beautiful images with lots of detail in the highlights and shadows, with deep rich colours and a huge array of values. Compact  cameras on the other hand, will have a small sensor that is simply not able to record what is in the dark shadows or in the bright highlights and you run the risk of washed out white highlights and deep black empty shadows. 

Low Light

Photos can look blurry or grainy when taken in a place with little light. Cameras with small sensors don't like dark places. The bigger the sensor the better it can read in the dark without having to resort to flash. 

Megapixels

The more the better, right? No not really. Megapixels refer to how large the images are that the camera can produce: as in how many pixels wide and how many pixels tall.  It depends whether you want to print your images into A1 posters or whether you want to stick to 5x7” snapshots or just web images, whether you will need a lot of megapixels. 

Pixels

One Million Pixels
1 megapixel (MP) = 1 million pixels. An image that is 4500 pixels wide and 3000 pixels tall makes in total 4500x3000=13,500000 pixels. That is 13.5megapixels or 13.5MP.  So a camera with 13.5MP can produce images of 4500x3000 pixels. 

DPI
DPI=dots per inch. An image of 4500x3000 would make a 15x10” image if it was printed at 300dpi. 

Depth of Pixel
The depth of a pixel tells you how much colour is recorded in each pixel. A 2-bit pixel only records black, white and 2 shades of grey (4 colours). An 8-bit pixel is very common in cameras and would produce 16 million colours. Some cameras offer 10-bit colour.

Source and more info: How to Understand Pixels on Digital Photography School

Other Gear

You might find the need for more gear than just a camera. It’s like DIY; one thing always leads to another. Before you know it you are also buying memory cards, extra lenses, a tripod, studio lighting, a camera case, lens cap, a printer (+ink), print paper, and photo editing software are just some of the things I can think of. 

Which Model

Cameras are even worse than mobile phones. Within a year a brand can easily release a couple of new models within a range. A new camera can have an updated and newer version within months.  There is an active world of photographers who test and review cameras.

 I find it hard to recommend any particular model, simply because I dont know enough models, but also because the world of photography moves too fast. If you read this article in a year from now - newer models will be out (although sometimes the older models keep the top spot in reviews). Within each category there are many excellent models available and I recommend getting the advice of a good camera shop, or read reviews online to guide you to your best choice. 

Budget

Cameras come in a huge range of prices, from £$50 to many thousands. Keep in mind the ‘other gear’ you might have to purchase as well when you set your budget. Many cameras are somewhere in between a compact and a mirrorless, or in between a dslr and a mirrorless so you might be able to get the best of both worlds: dslr quality for a mirrorless price. Shop around and do some research.

I am no authority on photography. Nor on art for that matter. I am an artist, as you know, but have always had a love for photography. I learned the ropes on a (now ancient) film-based manual camera (Minolta), but moved on to digital soon after. I use photography in my studio a lot, but for lots of different reasons, and all of the uses mentioned above. My research for a new camera inspired me to write this article for you. I hope you find it useful.

What camera do you use? Let me know in the comments below.


Further Reading

  • For a wealth of information on cameras, gear, reviews and tutorials, check out Digital Photography School
  • For all the latest news and reviews, forums and tech talk, visit DPReview

Some Cameras that Come Recommended

These cameras are recommended in various reviews, but I have no experience with any of these. (aff. links)

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8 thoughts on “Photographing Your Art: Which Camera to Buy”

  1. Hi Sophie,
    Just wondering out of interest which bits of my advice you don’t agree with. This would be really useful as feedback to me as a photographer coming from you – a pro artist. Hope you don’t me asking.
    Also, what do you mean by – ‘your website is your name’?

    All the best – Richard

    1. Hi Richard
      No problem. I really do appreciate your input and I know many people will find it super useful to have some input from a proper photographer. They are free to ignore me 😉 !
      If people click your name, they go to your website – because you filled it in when you made the comment. So there is no need for a separate website comment. 🙂

      As for the bits I don’t agree with…well…I often find photography tips for art work a bit too prescriptive. The 90degrees to the artwork, the lights at 45degrees angle – as if you simply follow those rules all will be well. I don’t think it is that straightforward and I do think that it can be much easier if you allow for a bit of playing around.
      Few artists have proper lightboxes to set up at 45degree angles and yet many photographers say this. I have yet to photograph a difficult painting (shiny varnished black for example) following those guidelines and it coming out perfect. So even if an artist has 2 normal lights (whatever they have lying around) putting it at 45degree angles won’t just solve it.
      F8 is very small – you will need lots of light to pull that one off. I think it’s better not to recommend an aperture at all. If someone has a DSLR they will probably know how to play around with the aperture and might well get better results with a wider one, if the light is a bit low.
      The main advice I would give artists is to get a photo editing program. It doesn’t have to be Photoshop, but most problems can be ironed out quite easily in an editing program. A colour cast, cropping, slanting images, uneven lighting: so much easier in an editing program than in the studio.
      I agree with a lot of what you are saying as well: On a cloudy day, working outside might be perfect, a tripod (or pile of books) can be useful (but is by no means a requirement when you are simply taking a photo of a painting to submit to a competition), don’t use flash (in fact don’t ever use flash 😉 ), I don’t think many of us have to worry about shelters or seagulls unless we spend a long time outside. Windy days: be careful indeed!! So yes, lots of great advice, and a few things I would not have listed, but it’s all personal.
      My main advice would be: get to know your camera and if you don’t want to; get to know some photo editing program. If you’re not technical or you don’t want to mess around with it all: try out lots of places in and around your house and see where you get the best shot of your painting; without glare, with even lighting, with true colours etc etc. Trying it out will tell you where to go next time and what angles to use. A bit of of trial and error and that window next to the dog’s bed will prove perfect for lighting – who knows.

      1. Yes, I see your points and agree! As a photographer, if I can use f8 with lights to take a shot of a painting I will, trying to be 90 degrees and lights at about 45. You are quite right in saying that the 45 degree angle shouldn’t be so prescriptive – so ‘roughly’ will do. In fact, the last photo I took, I used the lights to balance the existing ambient light in the room and they were not 45 degrees. Given than many people won’t have similar lights to use to illuminate their piece, then a wider aperture than f8 is fine – any difference won’t be that noticeable. Next time, I will put on my (new) artists head on and less of the photographer!
        Just bought an easel from Jacksons reduced from £213 to £113 because one of the legs wouldn’t extend. It’s made by a company called Mabef, the M22. After chatting to the shop owner and saying that even at £113 it is useless as an easel, he reduced it to £50. I took the risk and found that the leg just needed a gentle ‘tap’ as some of the varnish had stuck the leg in. Other than that it is perfect! He said that they often have returns or problems they don’t try and fix. There were two others that were half price because of slight chips and a mark. So, it is worth checking out the seconds.

        1. I know many artists pay photographers to photograph their work for them. Now if an artist is totally non-tech and doesn’t want to go there, fine, but I suspect most artists are perfectly capable to take photos for their website, submissions etc by themselves, without buying fancy kit. I just hope that artists realise that; it’s perfectly doable to DIY it!
          That easel problem sounds like the bargain of the century! Wow, well done you. Mabef is a great brand and those easels will last forever. I got mine as a teenager and it’s still absolutely fine (now functions as a second easel though). Thanks so much for your great tips – fab contribution to the article. Sophie

  2. Great article. I am a professional photographer and enthusiastic about my art (but still much to learn!). I have taken many photos of artists work for their records, to make prints and to make cards. I’ve taken shots of my own work and had prints made (Giclee on 300gsm rag paper) – I’ve been pleased with the outcome and I am my own worst critic.

    The type of camera is important but not critical when taking photos of your own work. However, if you are taking shots in a gallery or exhibition you might want to put the camera in a bag or pocket, so size matters. Some places don’t allow flash so learn how to turn it off.

    If you are taking photos at home or in a studio I find the following are key points to remember;
    – make sure the camera is exactly at 90 degrees to the artwork otherwise the image will be slightly distorted,
    – therefore, it is important to use a tripod (failing that on a table or beanbag),
    – the artwork must also be absolutely still,
    – lighting must be even across the artwork so move the easel to the right position,
    – don’t use built in flash on your camera as this is very harsh and will cause reflections, distort colour and bounce about the area causing uneven light,
    – if you use artificial lighting, there should be two similar lights either side at 45 degrees to the artwork (some lights will give a colour cast – so be aware),
    – natural light is best as there will be very little colour cast,
    – if you take a shot by a window make sure it isn’t coming in from just one side as this will give uneven lighting,
    – I take many shots outside but under a canopy or shelter if I can (to reduce risk of anything getting on the work – seagulls can make a mess!),
    – if outside, don’t take shots in sunny conditions, bright but cloudy overcast days are best as the light is even and soft,
    – be careful of windy days,
    – set the camera to maximum quality, ensure the focussing is pin-sharp, an aperture of f8 is usually best to get the most out of your lens, once you have taken the photo, zoom in on it to check sharpness,
    – use a focal point of 70mm as a minimum, better around 100mm. This is because at a wide angle the edges of your picture will curve slightly – not good!

    I have just taken up pastel painting and this blog has been great!
    Hope this helps – it works for me. Richard

    1. Thanks for that Richard! Don’t agree with everything you say, but sure helpful to many people!
      (your website is your name)

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