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.
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.
There are lots of different types of cameras available but, to keep things simple, let’s bring it down to three.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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=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
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.
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.
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.
How do Artists Use their Cameras and 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.
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.
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.
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.
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. I am currently looking for a new camera (pondering over a DSLR or a mirrorless model that can shoot 4K video for my next video course!) and my research 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.
Some Cameras that Come Recommended
These cameras are recommended in various reviews, but I have no experience with any of these.