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

Are you in a situation where the deadline for submitting your artwork to a gallery exhibition is fast approaching, and you don’t have enough time to get it professionally photographed? If yes, then you can take a quick photo of your artwork with your smartphone. However, it’s important to note that using a smartphone to take pictures of your artwork is not the best option and should never replace professional photography.

But if using a cellphone is your only option, then here are some tips to help you capture the best photos of your artwork.

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

Best Lighting Options —

Assuming you don’t have professional lighting equipment, the best lighting options for photographing your painting are outside. You can choose an open area in your yard on an overcast cloudy day or the north side of your house on a sunny day, but not in direct sunlight.

Why Outside and Not Inside?

It’s almost impossible for the artwork to be evenly lit with indoor lighting, and most interior lights don’t contain the full spectrum. Therefore, it’s best to take your photos outside.

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

What if it’s raining and you need a photo now? You can set up your artwork 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 light across the surface. Also, 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 possible, select the largest-size photo in the camera app settings. This will depend on the type of smartphone and app you are using. Most smartphone cameras take photos at 72 dpi, with the only variable being image size. For example, images that were taken with my iPhone automatically open in Photoshop® at 52×46 inches at 72 dpi.

Turn on the grid feature in the settings. This helps you 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 to the surface of the painting or 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 photo size. Therefore, the photo must 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 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 to promote the event on the internet, social media, and print materials. If you are unfamiliar 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 for getting a high-resolution photo to include with an entry submission, but it works in a pinch. It 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 get 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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