Photographing and Preparing Digital Files for Art Exhibitions

The Basics

Photographing artworks for exhibition consideration can be broken down into essentially two basic parts each with multiple steps. First, capturing an image of the art and second, adjusting the resulting file on a computer to look it’s best and meet the requirements of the prospectus. The first step will require a digital camera, preferably one with a reasonable amount of manual controls. A DSLR is preferred. Use of a tripod is also recommended. The second part requires both a computer and some type of digital image editing software.

Setting up the digital camera before you take any photos…
Begin by selecting a low ISO setting. The lowest possible ISO will generally produce the best results. This is usually around ISO 100 for most cameras.

If your camera allows you to shoot RAW files, and your image editing software can decode them, and you are familiar with using this feature then by all means use the RAW setting on your camera. Otherwise, use the highest quality JPEG setting for your camera. A JPEG file will typically be the file format you are asked to submit anyway.

Some cameras have adjustable “color spaces”. They may offer you the option of Adobe 98 or sRGB. For the purposes of exhibition submission, choose sRGB as this is still the most commonly used color space for computer monitors which is typically how your submitted images will be displayed and judged.

Choose the correct white balance for the conditions under which you will be taking the photos. Many cameras have multiple white balance settings for situations like shade, daylight, overcast sky, fluorescent light, etc. They typically also will have an “Auto” white balance setting. I suggest not using the “Auto” setting unless your camera has no other options. It is also useful to place a piece of white or neutral gray paper in your shot so that you can use it to fine tune the white balance using your image editing software later on.

The exposure mode you use to capture your image really does not matter too much so long as you know how to make adjustments to exposure (lighten or darken) if need be. I would not use “Scene modes”, but rather the usual “P” mode, “Av” mode, “Tv” mode, or manual mode. Be sure to disable your camera’s built in flash if it has one. Once you take a photo with your camera, you will use the camera’s LCD and/or histogram to judge overall exposure accuracy. Then make any exposure compensation adjustments “+ or -” to render an even better good exposure if need be. Hint: if your subject has a lot of light tones and colors, you may wish to increase exposure somewhat as the camera’s light meter may tend to underexpose causing the image to look too dark. On the other hand if your subject has a lot of dark tones or black areas, you may want to decrease exposure somewhat in order to be sure the blacks are rendered correctly as the camera’s light meter will often tend to overexpose dark subjects. Final adjustments will be made in your image editing program once your photos are transferred from the camera to the computer.

If the camera you are using has a zoom lens, choose a setting towards the middle or longer end of the zoom range. Lenses typically have a bit less distortion in this part of the range which is especially important for square or rectangular two-dimensional subjects.

Make sure you have a memory card in the camera with enough space on it to shoot a few exposures of each piece of artwork you intend to photograph. If you have a blank memory card in the camera or a brand new memory card, format the card before using it.

Making the shots of your artwork…
Choose a suitable location for photographing your artwork. Unless you have access to fairly sophisticated and controllable indoor lighting, this is probably going to be an outdoor location. Some people get good results in bright direct sunlight, some people prefer to use shade. If your artwork has a lot of texture and crisp fine details then direct sun may work best. Beware of possible glare or unwanted shiny “hotspots” from the sun. And if you do use direct sunlight, try to photograph your artwork around mid-day as this will generally produce the most neutral colors and require less white balance adjustments later on. If you prefer to use shade then pick an area of shade where it is uniform such as shade from a building. Avoid areas of “mottled shade” such as under many trees. Days with a thin cloud overcast but still cast hazy shadows also work well. Remember to set your camera’s white balance according to the lighting you are photographing in. For best results, remove any glass between you and your artwork.

If you lean your artwork up against a wall or use an easel be sure to try to match the angle of the camera on the tripod to the angle of the artwork. You want both the camera and the artwork to be in the same plane to avoid distorting the artwork. You will want to photograph the artwork straight on and “square” to the camera. Also be sure it is centered and leveled in the camera’s viewfinder or on the camera’s LCD screen when taking the photo. I suggest leaving enough space around the edges of your artwork that you can include a small piece of white or gray paper in the shot. You will crop and straighten the final shots later.

With your camera on a tripod, you will minimize the risk of camera movement ruining your exposures, even if a slow shutter speed is required. To further minimize this risk, consider activating the shutter delay (self-timer) feature that most digital cameras have. If your camera does not have this feature than carefully and slowly press the shutter button to avoid wiggling the camera a while on the tripod.

Remember to include a white or neutral grey piece of paper in the frame, preferably next to the artwork being photographed. Next proceed to do a series of several more shots adjusting the exposure compensation as needed until you are sure you have at least one good exposure. The better the initial exposure, the less adjusting you will have to perform in your image editing program.

Optimizing and sizing your digital files…
It is assumed that you have a working knowledge of getting the photos from your camera to the computer. Once downloaded you now must begin the steps necessary to make your digital images look their best and also meet the requirements of the particular exhibition you plan on entering.

Even if you have done everything correctly up to this point, there are still some potential problems that can arise. One of the biggest challenges, is getting the color to look right on the computer screen. Unfortunately this is nearly impossible without a properly color calibrated monitor using a colorimeter and calibration software. Most computer monitors inherently display colors incorrectly. Perhaps not too important for viewing text documents, and spreadsheets, but for displaying artwork, it is a problem. Sometimes it may simply be a brightness/and or contrast adjustment, while other times the monitor can be displaying a distinct color cast that may or may not be even be noticeable to the eye. Laptop monitors are still more of a challenge as even a slight change of the viewing angle can cause an image to go from looking good to being too light or dark or having some strange color shift. Best not to use a laptop for adjusting your artwork files if you can help it. As to regular desktop monitors, since it is beyond the scope of this document to get into color calibrating monitors, just be aware that you can only control so much, but the more careful and deliberate you are in preparing your files, the more likely they will display reasonably well on most modern monitors.

From the multiple shots you took of each piece of artwork, select the best exposure and open the file. Next I suggest re-saving this file with a different name so that your original file will be preserved should you ever need to refer back to it.

It is now time to optimize and resize your images using the image editing software you have on your computer. Since image editing programs vary considerably in how they implement their controls, tools and functions, you must become familiar enough with the software to be able to use your particular set of controls. My experience is primarily with Adobe Photoshop so my references may seem familiar to those who have also used Photoshop or perhaps Adobe Elements.

I like to begin by first getting the color looking as close to the original artwork as possible on screen, accepting some of the limitations we have already discussed concerning most monitors vs. properly calibrated displays. Your image editing software can probably display a histogram similar to the one you may have seen or used on your digital camera. Knowing that the histogram is a visual representation of the tones depicted in your image one can often adjust the tonal values of the digital file by using either a “levels” or “curves” adjustment. Basically what this does is re-set the brightest and darkest values of your image. It should give the image a bit more “snap” and can also increase contrast. Once you have made the appropriate levels and/or curves adjustments it is time to fine tune the color balance. If you selected the correct color balance on the digital camera when you made the exposures, this adjustment may be fairly minimal, but is still important. I again defer you to the levels or curves adjustment tools where you will find a series of “eyedroppers”. Black, White and Grey. Choose the Grey eyedropper and click on the white or grey piece of paper in your shot. If the color balance was close to being spot on, you will see very little perceptible change on the screen. If it was “off” a bit you should see the image change to appear more neutral. The theory being that if your neutrals are correct in the file, the rest of the colors will naturally fall into place as well. There, you have done the most basic of color corrections to your image file and it should look better than the original file straight from the camera. Be sure and re-save your files after performing each adjustment.

Note: when saving JPEG files, Photoshop and other image editing programs will offer you different choices (numerically) as to how high the quality is when you save it. I suggest choosing a high quality setting, but not necessarily the highest. This is a good compromise between helping keep the file size a little smaller (through compression) and retaining sufficient quality for viewing and reproducing the file if need be. In Photoshop, that means selecting a number in the range of 8-10.

Next comes cropping and resizing the files. You will need to crop the files to fit the correct format of your original artwork. Proportions vary among different digital camera formats as well as do the shapes of original artworks. So now you must make the file match those proportions.

Find the cropping tool in your image editing program and select it. If there are pre-set dimensions entered press the “clear” button so that the dimensions are now blank. Drag the cropping tool across your image to make a rough selection of where the crop will take place on all sides. Most programs then allow you to modify this selection by moving the entire rectangle, sliding in one or more sides, expanding the sides, rotating the selection, etc. the idea is to crop away all of the image except what you want to show up in the final image file. That means the frame, mat, and any background that may have been present in the original shot. You want to present just the artwork itself. Always try to keep cropping of the original artwork to a bare minimum. With careful selection using the cropping tool, this should not be too difficult. Once your crop is made, use the “Save as” function of your editing software to save this version as a separate file from the uncropped version.

Now you have a “working” cropped version of the file you will be submitting. The next step is to re-size it to fit the parameters defined in the exhibition’s prospectus. These requirements vary, but VAST uses a pretty straightforward and easy to follow set of rules. It should be noted that digital cameras often use different default resolutions when first creating the image files. If you are shooting RAW files, you can define what ppi rating is assigned to your image file at the time the file is decoded. If you are shooting JPEGs you must make sure it is correct or change it before you submit the final image. Not doing so may result in disqualification of your artwork even if you have done everything else correctly.

Now you will want to find the “Image Size” menu in your image editing software so you can modify your file to fit the exhibition’s requirements. Opening the “Image Size” box in Photoshop reveals what may be one of the most confusing parts of this whole process for some people. Don’t feel bad. As a “math challenged” artist myself, it took me awhile to catch on, too. The upper part of the box lists the “pixel dimensions” which describe the total width and height of your image file in pixels (or what is left at this point after cropping away part of the image in the previous section). Just below this information is the “Document Size”. In this section are the editable fields you will use to transform your file into an acceptable size for submission. You will notice that there are width and
height fields here just as there are in the “Pixel Dimension” section. There is also a third field labeled “Resolution”. This is where it’s easy to get lost. Resolution defines how densely packed together the pixels are in your image. Different uses of images require different resolutions. For example, printing magazine quality output typically requires about 300 ppi or higher resolution. Whereas, viewing images on a computer monitor usually requires lower resolutions such as 72 ppi.

In Photoshop, there is also a “Resample Image” box in this window that can be “checked” or “unchecked”. Initially you will want to leave this box “unchecked” as doing so will allow the editing program to “do the math for you” once you have typed in the proper size for your submission. Regardless of what width and height dimensions and resolution are showing in the “Document Size” window at this point you are going to be making some changes. For VAST shows, the longest dimension on any side of your digital file is 6 inches at a resolution of 300 ppi. So depending on which dimension of your artwork is larger (width or height), you will now change that dimension to 6 inches. When you do this, the other dimension also changes as does the resolution (assuming you left the “resample image” box unchecked as you should have).

Okay so now you have a file that still contains the exact same number of pixels that it did before, but the width, height, and resolution numbers are all different than what the file was originally. If you look at the upper part of the box showing the Pixel Dimensions, they are still unchanged. The resolution, however, in the Document Size part of the window should be much higher than it was before.

Now remember the VAST requirements ask for files to be at 300 ppi. At this point you will go down to the “Resample Image” box and “check” the box. Then go up to the Resolution field and replace whatever number is there with 300 ppi. You may have noticed that now your Pixel Dimensions in the upper part of the window have decreased considerably. The new dimensions are now there and the the largest one should be 1800 pixels which represents 6 inches at 300 ppi (6 inches x 300 pixels per inch = 1800 pixels). It is also important to have the “constrain proportions” box checked. You now have some choices as far as how Photoshop will resample the image down smaller. Use “Bicubic”. You may now click the “OK” button and your image will magically shrink down to just the size required for submission to the VAST shows.

Almost done. When an image editing program shrinks a digital file down it may lose a tiny bit of sharpness in the process. So as a final step before saving, I suggest going to the sharpening menu (under Filters) and either use Smart Sharpen (in Photoshop) or the Unsharp Mask to add back that little bit of lost sharpness. Finally you are ready to save this last version of your color corrected, cropped and resized file. Remember to choose “Save As” and this time you will need to name the file according to the naming convention prescribed in the prospectus for the exhibition you are entering. Different entities use different naming conventions, so be sure to name your file correctly.

That’s it, you are all set to enter your file.

Tom Judd
Thomas Judd Photography
© 2009. Tom Judd – Thomas Judd Photography. All rights reserved.