Quick Steps to Photograph your Art with a Cellphone — if it’s your only option!

Does this sound familiar? The entry deadline for an upcoming gallery exhibition is looming..it’s the eleventh hour…the painting is still wet…and there’s no time to get your painting professionally photographed before the submissions close. So what to do? Especially, if the painting is still WET?!? Snap a quick photo with our cellphone!

How to photograph you art with a smartphone if that is your only option

At one point or another, I think most artists find themselves in this familiar situation — despite their best efforts. I know I have! So let’s talk about the best way to do it when it’s really the only option.

However, I’d be doing you a big disservice if I didn’t say this right upfront — using a smartphone to photograph your artwork is definitely NOT the best option! And, it should never replace having your work professionally photographed. With that being said, if this is your best option, then read on.

Steps to Capture the Best Photos with Your Cellphone

Best Lighting Options

I’m going to assume that you don’t have professional lighting equipment; if you do and are comfortable using it, skip ahead to the next section. But I’m willing to bet those with professional lighting equipment are probably not the ones reading this post. 🙂

The best lighting options for photographing your painting are outside are:

  • an open area of the yard on an overcast cloudy day (this is the best option)
  • the north side of your house on a sunny day, not in direct sunlight

Luckily (or unluckily) I live near Lake Ontario, one of the Great Lakes, and gray, overcast days are all too common.

Lay the artwork flat on the ground, away from anything that might reflect color onto the surface. On an overcast day, I find my driveway works great, and on a sunny day, the back patio. 

Why outside and not inside? 
I’m so glad you asked. First, it’s almost impossible for the artwork to be evenly lit with inside lighting. Second, most interior lights do not contain the full spectrum. Have you ever noticed a warm glow to the room when turning on a lamp, or how cool an overhead fluorescent light can make a room feel? 

What if it’s raining and I need a picture now?
Set your artwork up opposite a window. Pull the blinds or shades all the way up and fully open the curtains. You will have to adjust the artwork position up and down until you get the most even lite across the surface. Oh, and watch out for a cast shadow from the window frame across the artwork. Don’t turn on any room lights.

Check the Camera App Settings

If you can, select the largest size photo in the camera app settings. This will depend on the type of smartphone and app you are using. If you aren’t sure how to check this, check the phone or app support guide or do a google search. 

Most smartphone cameras take photos at 72dpi, with the only variable being image size. For example, images taken with my iPhone automatically open in Photoshop® to 52×46 inches at 72dpi.

If it’s available in the settings, turning on the grid feature! This will help you to avoid keystoning of the painting while taking the photo. 

Also, turn off the flash.

Time to Take the Photos

One common issue with taking photos of 2D artwork, such as a painting or drawing, is keystoning. Keystoning is the distortion created when the camera is not held parallel with the surface of the painting. In other words, the camera is not held at the same angle as the painting.

hold your smartphone at the same angle as the artwork
Make sure you are holding the camera at the same angle as the artwork to avoid Keystoning

The newer iPhones feature white and yellow crosshairs on the screen; when the camera is level, the crosshairs merge into one. CAUTION! This does not mean the camera is at the same angle as the painting you are photographing. So please don’t rely on it.

  • Hold the camera at the same angle as the artwork
  • Tap and hold on the screen to make sure the artwork is in focus
  • Take several photos

As long as you are set up to take the photos, take several. Readjust the camera for each one and try a few locations. Over time, you will learn which area and time of day work best.

Editing the Photos

No matter where you take the photos, the image will need to be cropped so that just the painting is visible. You can do this with a photo editing program on the computer such as Adobe Photoshop or Photoshop Elements or with your smartphone using an app.

But what if I only want to use the photos on Social Media or my website?
Great! Everything else still applies to get the best pictures using your smartphone. The good news is, you get to skip this next part.

What if I need a High Res photo for submitting to an exhibition? 
Open the photo in Adobe® Photoshop® or other photo editing software.

  • Check the Image Size to see what the dimensions are for the width and height
  • Using the formula, figure out the new dimensions for the width and the height
72dpi x width of image = ? number of pixels
? number of pixels ÷ 300dpi = the new (reduced) size
  • In the Image Size settings, type in
      – 300dpi for the resolution
      – the calculated reduced width of the image (the height of the image should change automatically) 
Side by side comparison of a small High Res image next to a large size Low Res image taken with a cellphone and reduced to the same size.
Side by side comparison of a small High Res image next to a large Low Res image reduced in size.

In the above example, the math works out to be 72dpi x 20 inches (width of cropped photo) = 1440 pixels ÷ 300dpi = 4.8 inches for the new reduced size of the photo. Therefore the photo would need to be reduced to at least 4.8 inches wide (or smaller) at 300dpi to be an acceptable High Res file.

72dpi x 20 inches = 1440 pixels
1440 pixels ÷ 300dpi = 4.8 inches

This only works because you are shrinking a large-sized (height x width) Low Res photo to a small (h x w) High Res photo. Or, in other words, taking 72 pixels per inch spread across 20 inches or 1440 total pixels in the above example, and shrinking the pixels’ size to 300 pixels per inch — it’s the same number of pixels, 1440, but within 4.8 inches instead of 20.

I know! You’re an artist, not a mathematician! I totally get it, but you can do this!

Wondering why it matters?

The nuts and bolts of it are this — First, you should want the best quality photo you can get to represent your work, especially for a juried exhibit. Second, and most importantly, the photo you submit will be used in promoting the event on the internet and social media, and in print materials. If you are not familiar with the terms or what they mean, I suggest reading How Converting Images from RGB to CMYK Affects the Colors.

As I mentioned, this is not the best method to get a High Res photo to include with an entry submission, but it works in a pinch. This should not replace professional photography or scanning a painting to capture the highest quality image.

Whether the painting has sold, been given as a gift, donated to raise money for a charity, painted over, or damaged due to a natural disaster — in the end, photographs (or scans) are often the only visual record we have of our work.

As artists, we owe it to our future selves to capture the best High-Resolution images we can today. Oh, and don’t forget to back up those files; computers fail too.


Other Helpful Resources:

How Converting Images from RGB to CMYK Affects the Colors
Get the Best High-Res Images of Your Artwork

Meet Your New Friend — the Color Calibration Chart

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