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Vivid Light Photography, digital and film photography online
Camera Equipment & Accessories for Photographing Artwork
by Mark D. Thellmann

Today's artist needs top quality slides to document their creations, gain access to juried shows, and produce printed promotional pieces. But, what kind of camera can produce these slides leading to shows and sales?

Any fully manual 35mm SLR (single lens reflex) camera, coupled with a sturdy tripod will do the job. "Fully manual" means that you have full control over the selection of shutter speeds and f-stops. Semi-automatic SLR cameras and most rangefinder cameras don't allow this. The rangefinder camera adds another complication in that the viewing window is separate from the lens, resulting in a cropping problem known as "parallax" when doing close-up work.

It's a misnomer that a certain brand of camera takes better photos than another. Although accessory features may differ and some brands are noted for sharper lens optics, the additional bells and whistles are a matter of choice (and budget) and the lenses being manufactured currently are sharper than the human eye!

Most SLRs are sold with 50mm lenses; however, these lenses are limited because their focal range only allows you to get so close - somewhere usually around 2-3 feet. If you are photographing small objects, you're sunk.

If you are purchasing a new camera, trade the 50mm lens for a lens with "macro." This feature, sometimes called "micro" depending on the manufacturer, will allow you to fill the frame with an object as small as your thumb, while still functioning as a "normal" lens. I use a 55mm, f3.5, micro Nikkor flat field lens, which is designed to photograph flat surfaces like paintings without distorting. It has a broad focal range and is very sharp.

If you purchase everything new and shop around a little, a fully manual SLR coupled with a macro lens and a sturdy tripod will run around $500 on up. You could pay less buying used, but make sure a warranty is included. Ask for thirty days with free repair, full cash refund or full trade-in value if something goes wrong.

Accessories Besides using a flat field copy lens for close-ups there are some additional items that will make your slides even better when photographing artwork.

A sturdy tripod is imperative. Shutter speeds slower than 1/60th of a second are difficult to hand hold without picking up some camera shake, and it's almost impossible to keep the edges of a painting parallel in your camera's viewfinder without one.

A cable release helps prevent shaking the camera when depressing the shutter release button. Some cameras have a "mirror lock-up" switch, which further reduces vibration by preventing the mirror from slapping up out of the way when the shutter release button is pressed. Employing this feature makes a tripod mandatory, for when the mirror is locked up everything goes black.

Kodak makes what is called a "gray card," as an aid to perfect exposures, but I have always found this term misleading. This card just happens to have been printed a neutral gray color, but more importantly it is a surface that reflects exactly 18% of the light that strikes it. 

Many other colors can do this if they are of like density, not just the color gray.

Although your in-camera light meter may give you perfect exposures most of the time, it only measures reflected light. A hand held light meter, which measures incident light, can be used to measure the relative brightness of every light in your lighting setup. This is very handy when two lights have to be of the same luminosity as when you copy flat, two-dimensional artwork like a painting. You don't want one half of your painting brighter than the other half, unless you painted it that way.

A sturdy easel is probably the most logical piece of equipment to use in displaying flat, reflective artwork, such as paintings. Place a piece of white foamcore, larger than the painting, behind the painting for support. This will also give you a white background in case the dimensions of the painting are not the same ratio (2:3) as the 35mm frame. This sure beats seeing the wallpaper and knickknack shelf in the background. White foamcore also makes an inexpensive light reflector, so you should invest in some for that purpose also.

Black velvet is great for almost total light absorption. It serves as a nice background for jewelry. If you desire black borders around your artwork, throw a big piece of it over the foamcore behind your painting. Watch out for dust! Pick up a lint roller.

When photographing for printed reproduction: post cards, business cards, greeting or note cards, catalog sheets, posters, etc., the printer loves to have a reference point. If you place the Kodak Color Control Patches in the scene, he will be appreciative and you will have an even better chance of obtaining accurate color reproduction on your printed piece.

These items will help make your slides look much more professional and at the same time make photographing your artwork much easier. The black velvet can be purchased at a fabric shop, the foamcore at an art supply store and everything else at a professional photography store.


Introducing Mark Thellman

Mark D. Thellmann has been an art photographer, fine artist, and photography instructor for the past 25 years. He has recently produced a video entitled, "Take Perfect Photos of Your Art and Craftwork" which discusses and demonstrates the necessary camera equipment, lighting, film exposure and methods of photographing paintings, sculpture, woodworking projects, fabric art and jewelry.

A second video entitled, "Alternative Photographic Processes with Polaroid Films" (Time-Zero film manipulation, image transfer and emulsion transfer) reveals the techniques Mark uses to create fine art. These fine art images can be found in the Polaroid Museum Collection and on greeting cards and posters throughout Europe, the U.S. and Canada.

The videos are available from Show & Tell Communications for $29.95 each plus $4 postage and handling. To order, contact Show & Tell Communications: 856/488-9093 or by email at NJ residents, add 6% sales tax. Credit cards are accepted.

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