How to photograph paintings to make perfect prints - a discussion with Auckland photographer Bret Lucas

At the Beach, Auckland Artist: Simon Williams
Fine Art Canvas Print 450 x 320mm
Auckland painter Simon Williams' first series of fine art canvas prints has just been published.  These superb quality reproductions printed on canvas right here in New Zealand (Simon's new print At the Beach, Auckland is shown at right) are an excellent example of the kind of technically accomplished reproduction that is now possible for NZ artists looking to sell prints of their paintings.  We have written recently about the vibrant digital printing scene in NZ but the arrival of Williams' particularly fine quality prints made us realise that we hadn't covered the vital first step in reproducing a painting as a print - the photographing of the painting.

So in this article we talk to Auckland photographer and lighting expert Bret Lucas of Fstopstudios (company motto "Light it Right"!) about how he ensures artists like Simon Williams will be able to create the perfect prints by expertly photographing their paintings at his specialist studio in Penrose.  NZ artists contemplating publishing prints will hopefully find the following discussion with Bret a valuable in depth technical explanation covering the techniques and experience that an artist requires from their photographer to ensure they successfully navigate their way over the image capture hurdle on the way to printing the perfect reproduction of an original painting.

Whether the end product is a canvas, offset or digital/giclee print the printing process nearly always now begins the same way with capturing the image digitally. We are very grateful to Bret for taking time out of his busy schedule to explain to NZ Art Print News what a professional photographer considers when photographing paintings at an incredibly high resolution so the artworks can be faithfully reproduced down to the smallest brushstroke like they are in modern reproduction prints.

NZ Art Print News: Photographing the painting correctly is such an important part of getting a good reproduction print or print on canvas.

Bret Lucas: Yes, this is often overlooked by many and it really is the difference between selling a few prints and a lot of prints.

NZ Art Print News: How do you make sure the painting is photographed perfectly? Light and reflection are so problematic. And how do you get a square picture! [I know from photographing prints for our catalogues at NZ Fine Prints that this is really, really hard to do - I sometimes end up having to crop corners off the pictures of the prints at pre-press time!].

How to light a painting so it photographs correctly
(Image courtesy Fstop Studios)
Bret Lucas: It's all about the light and how it's placed and reflected off the art work. All sorts of things come into play including the surface being photographed, the "family of angles", incident and reflective light, the lights depth of field, white balance, just to name a few.

I'll break this down and describe what I mean. Firstly the surface that's been photographed. If the painting or art work has physical depth due to paint brush strokes this can cause a problem with allowing unwanted specular reflections onto the final image. Understanding the family of angles allows the fix. It's a little bit like playing billiards with light. Aim the light at the surface and make sure it doesn't land in your lens when reflected off the artwork. If I'm photographing a large piece of work I'll back the light sources away to allow for the light to have less falloff across the painting. I'll also use an incident light meter to make sure the strength of the light is consistent across the entire surface of the artwork. White balance is also very important when captured a painting. The ideal is to have the colours of the painting the same as the colours in the print or canvas. I have a very good understanding of colour management and this comes in handy to make colours true both in print and on a monitor.

Getting the art work square is another thing that I pay particular attention to. Not only does the camera need to be lined up perfectly both horizontally and vertically to keep all vertical and horizontal lines true, but the distance the camera is to the artwork is equally important. Too close and you end up with a type of barrel distortion, too far away and you get a sort of pin cushioning effect. Both can be corrected in post processing, but why not get it right in camera first. The Hasselblad lenses I use allows for distortion free imagery.

NZ Art Print News: Do you have to take the painting out of the frame?

Bret Lucas: Ideally I'll take the picture out of the frame, but if that's not an option I can work around it as I have a very thorough understanding of light and how it works on surfaces.

NZ Art Print News: Do you photograph in your studio or where the painting is hung?

Bret Lucas: I have a 5000 square foot studio and shoot all types of work from cars and large sets to paintings. I have no problem shooting paintings on location but prefer total control over the environment so favour in studio shooting.

NZ Art Print News: What equipment do you use to photograph paintings?

Bret Lucas: I used to only shoot with a professional DSLR camera and still use it outside the studio but for all work in studio I use a Digital Medium Format Hasselblad camera. It has many times the resolution of a DSLR camera and provides perfect colours right out of the camera. A good example of where a DSLR falls short is how it captures reds, they are often overcooked and look nasty. The sharpness of a DSLR is also a compromise and is soft in comparison to medium format photography. The Hasselblad is the perfect camera to shoot art work and will guarantee perfect results every time. My lighting equipment is Profoto. The colour of the light is perfect from shot to shot and doesn't shift like many other brands of inferior studio lighting equipment.

NZ Art Print News: Once the painting is photographed is further processing of the image required before you hand the file over to the printers?

Bret Lucas: I use a tethered shooting process which involves hooking the camera up to a large monitor and viewing the images on the screen as they are captured. This allows for quick and easy post processing. I'll jump into Photoshop for the last bit of retouching.

Mt Eden View Artist: Simon Williams
Fine Art Canvas Print 450 x 275mm
Bret went on to tell us that although he has always photographed digitally he "found it hard to find professional photographic lighting courses that went into immense detail on lighting. New Zealand and Australia just didn't cut the mustard so I spent 5 years learning light on my own. Four years ago I purchased my own warehouse and now work from the studios I've built on a variety of projects." Bret's dedication to understanding the way that light affects the way a camera photographs a painting certainly shows when you view the brilliant new series of canvas prints from Simon Williams that illustrate this article.

As an artist having your painting photographed correctly by a professional photographer is a critical part of the process of reproducing a painting as a print, particularly with the extremely high resolution giclee prints and prints on canvas that print buyers are becoming used to buying.

More about the artworks from Simon Williams that illustrate our how to photograph paintings article:

Simon Williams has printed a selection of fine art canvas prints of his most admired paintings from a decade of successful solo exhibitions held mainly at Auckland's prestigious International Art Centre. "The contemplative beauty" of paintings by Simon Williams, writes International Art Centre's Director Frances Davies, "quiets the mind and refreshes the soul, reminding us of what we love best about New Zealand".  You can purchase Simon Williams' new prints exclusively from the canvas prints collection at New Zealand's favourite art print store.

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