Photographing Your Work

Photographing your work:

This is where teaching an online class becomes difficult. I cannot take you through the practice of photographing your work in person with proper lights and a camera. I want to point out to you that there are amazing opportunities on Alfred’s campus. Cohen Gallery has been sponsoring some incredible hands-on workshops including, photographing your work, frame construction, crate building, pedestal making and many more. Keep your eyes out and attend as many of these as you can!!!

An important practice to take up as an artist, whether or not you end up using the images, is to document absolutely everything you make- from finished work to works in progress-or works you do not plan to exhibit. This practice can help you  learn so much about your own progress. Begin a practice of saving all your images. *We will discuss managing your digital files in another post.

Many times, documentation is all that is left over from non-permanent work, like temporary site-specific sculpture, happenings, social practice projects, performances, etc. In cases like these, the documentation will be the only thing that survives, and can actually become the work itself. This is why it is very important to plan how you will document your work ahead of time.

Documentation is vital for success. In many cases, images of your work are the first and only contact people have with your work. They create a first impression. High quality images show your work in the best possible light (pun intended) and they also show that you care about the work.  A  good image can make or break an application. How you document your work determines everything from how it is reproduced in print publications to how it is seen online. Visual documentation will often be the only thing curators, writers, or grant panels will see of your work, and good documentation can mean the difference between getting a grant or securing an exhibition, or being rejected and passed over for opportunities.

Next to the original physical work itself, good documentation is the best long-term investment you can make in your art practice. It will be the backbone of your art archive, and the primary factor in how your entire practice is viewed long-term. Remember that just because you may have strong work doesn’t mean that it will be perceived that way through your documentation. Bad documentation = bad work.

It is best practice to document all work- and with consistency. For most things, if you only have a phone to take images, that’s OK (just make sure you have the high definition setting on). If however you want to use those images for print, you will not be able to print larger than 2″ x 3″ without losing images quality. The typical iPhone photo using the HDR setting will make an image file that’s a little larger than 1MB. For print, it’s best to have a minimum 2MB image.

Photography is both an art and a skill. It takes an extraordinary amount of time to learn the intricacies of taking good images. As I said earlier, the quality of a photograph can make or break an application. Unless you are VERY skilled in photography it is rare for a perfect shot to come directly from the camera with little or no software processing needed. This rule applies to amateurs and pros alike. If you enjoy taking photographs, and have found that you take good images- wonderful. If you have a hard time with it, or you do not want to take the time away from the studio to learn this skill, I recommend hiring a professional photographer. I cannot stress enough how important having good images is. You may find as so many do, that hiring a professional is a worthwhile investment. You must weigh the pros and cons for yourself.

I’m going to date myself here a bit but I want to point out something important. Technology changes so fast, particularly in photography. When I was taking images for graduate school applications, I did so using slide film which was incredible expensive. Three years later, I turned in my graduate thesis in slide form as well (though admittedly, it was the last year that my program asked for physical slides). As a sculptor, I struggle framing images within rectangles. I think in terms of space, not in terms of flat rectangles. For me, hiring someone is the option I have taken since wasting thousands of dollars on slide film early on.

This brings me to another point which I just alluded to. Photographing sculpture is tricky. Whether you hire someone else or take your own images, framing 3 dimensional art and/or installation requires the ability to frame a story about that object. If you do decide to hire someone, take a look at their portfolio of work. It might not for example make a ton of sense to hire a food photographer to take images of life sized figures. Conversely, it might not make sense to hire a portrait photographer to take images of pots. Every individual work of art requires a unique kind of documentation. Accurate documentation can vary with lighting conditions, the kind of work you are photographing, and how you want your end product to look.

Now- my own ineptitude taking images paired with the speed at which technology changes and the fact that we are not meeting in person, makes this section of the class the hardest for me to teach. I spent the last semester researching best practices so I could update the content from the last time I taught this class. I also recently set up a home studio and purchased a photo setup. Note that much of what I tell you here may be out of date in just a few months. That said, much of what I will share with you will stay true for quite some time.

There are many different ways in which we use images; from social media to catalogs. All of these files have different properties. Images for print need to be much higher resolution than do images you use on your website, on social media or even when you are applying for various opportunities. I am going to give you some advice. First, in an ideal situation, you will take all your images using a high quality DSLR camera and proper lighting. From there, you will be able to resize your images for all applications. Now, that’s an ideal scenario. Less ideal, yet more likely is that you will be using your phone for much of your documentation.

When photographing your work using a DSLR, be sure to take RAW files. I recommended using the highest resolution available to you. Your camera most likely has several “image quality” settings. These settings directly determine the image size and resolution of your images.  Check the manual of your camera to find out how. If you hire a photographer, ask for the RAW images. Often, photographers will give you two sets of images, RAW of Tiff and jpegs. *We will talk about this more in the Managing Digital Images post.

When documenting your work using a phone, as I said earlier, make sure you have the high def settings on. The larger the image, the more you be able to do with it.

“Enough about how important it is, how do I photograph my work?” you might ask. I strongly recommend taking a photography class while you have the opportunity to in school. In the meantime, I’ve compiled a list of helpful sites. Please read through these and bookmark the links for future reference. There are a bunch of really super tutorials here with lighting diagrams etc. Lighting is key to taking a good image. If you invest in nothing else (even a camera), buy some lights. As for how to use your camera, I hate to say this, but read the manual. Each camera is different.

Tutorials/ articles/ books: Please read through the tutorials and articles. If you want more, you can find the book listed on Amazon.

Just Creative Tutorial Fantastic step by step how to

Tech tips: photographing 3D work UC Boulder Tutorial

Tech tips: photographing 2D work UC Boulder Tutorial

Photography Basics article by Ayumi Horie

4 Steps to Photographing Your Art Like a Professional Artwork Archive

How to Photograph Your Paintings for Print Reproduction Canvas Giclee Printing

Avoid These 7 Mistakes When Photographing Art Artsy Shark

4 Steps to Photographing Sculptures Lightstalking

Light Science and Magic: An Introduction to Photographic Lighting. Fourth Edition


It used to be that all applications required slides, which meant work had to be photographed in slide form and then these slides had to be duplicated. The process was time consuming and very expensive. Thankfully, the art world has moved past slides and into the digital age. In general, you don’t need to shoot slides, and instead should always have high-quality digital images of your work. This means you need a digital camera that can capture images in a  raw format. Raw format is the original, unaltered format a digital camera processes. This large file allows for greater freedom when editing the image in post production. Usually any DSLR (Digital Single Lens Reflex) camera that takes photos at 8MB (minimum) or more will do the trick. The most important thing about this kind of camera is not just that it can take very high-res images, but that it lets you manually adjust exposure rates, white balance, and a host of other features. Most cameras now come with automatic settings, which means you can skip the manual settings. These cameras are not cheap ($500 and up), but considering that the cost of photographing, developing, and duplicating images just a few years ago could run you way more than $500, the digital route seems to be a bargain. Take your time when buying a camera for documenting your work. Ask around and buy used or refurbished cameras from your school, other artists, or students.

Another option is to shoot with an analog camera and digitally scan in the film, but this is getting difficult since slide and negative film is no longer produced by large companies and is harder to find.  For the purists, this may produce a more rich and detailed image than its digital counterpart. This is a great option for artists who use their documentation as the physical work itself, such as performances and site-specific/time-based projects. However the analog-to-digital method does require money, time, skills, and the equipment. If you are looking to simply document your work, store it on your hard drive, and be able to print an 8 x 10 inch photograph, then a digital camera is your cheapest and fastest option.

When you are shooting with your digital camera, you should, in general, use these suggested guidelines:

Set the ISO (International Standards Organization) to its lowest setting. This will reduce “noise,” or graininess, in the final photo. This means the camera is more sensitive to movement, so a tripod is always recommended. The lowest ISO is  best used for objects that are not moving. If you are capturing a dance performance, a higher ISO may be needed.

Set the camera to capture the image in the highest, most memory guzzling format it can. If your camera can shoot in raw format then use that setting. Many cameras give you the option to shoot in raw format in addition to a large file. This means you will have a raw file to edit in post production, as well as a smaller file to email or archive for reference. Many of these options can chew up memory quickly so consider buying a card that can hold more memory or a card reader to quickly dump files on your computer.

Don’t use the zoom function. Zooming in causes your camera to interpolate, which is like making up information for the photo. Instead of zooming, move your tripod closer, or use the optical zoom function, especially when you are using a light meter on a work. You can zoom out to read the ambient light and then zoom in to frame in the work. This tricks the internal light meter and will take an even photograph.

Don’t use your camera’s built in flash. It will distort the color and shadows. To achieve a balanced tone in your photograph, diffused natural light is the best.  If you are working in a studio,  be sure to use the proper lighting set up to achieve the same evenly lit results.

Fill the frame with as much of your work as possible without cropping anything out of the picture. This will let you get the most detail in your shot.

Always take “detail” images of any work. This includes capturing textures and all sides of an object.

If you are documenting an installation, interactive project, or kinetic sculpture, be sure to photograph a viewer or audience member interacting with the work. In a pinch, you can be the subject of your documentation if you set your automatic timer on your camera. Otherwise, ask a friend or colleague to interact with the artwork so you can document how it functions with human intervention. The same goes for kinetic sculpture and other similar projects. It is important to show the object at rest and equally important to show it in motion. Again, the work will not always be in front of a review panel, curator, or collector. You must capture your work in a photograph or series of photographs in the best way possible for the viewer to understand the artwork. It is never acceptable to simply say: “My work is impossible to document.”  Remember that ALL work must be documented if you want to apply for anything in the art world, receive press, or distribute your future retrospective catalog.


If possible, always use a tripod to photograph work. Failure to use a sturdy tripod will often result in unfocused images and a splitting headache. Invest in a lightweight but stable tripod, preferably with a built-in level. If you are shooting a lot of flat or 2-D artwork, it might be a good idea to invest in an attachable horizontal boom arm to position your camera directly above your work.

Most, if not all, digital cameras shoot HD video along with still images. Therefore, it is a good idea to invest in a tripod that can double as a video tripod. Meaning, the tripod head has consistent fluid movement when filming. You don’t want to buy a tripod that sticks or jams while you are trying to film a moving person or object.


Make sure you light your work evenly and brightly enough so that all relevant aspects can be seen clearly. The sun is the ultimate light source, it’s what our eyes adjust all other light for and it’s the easiest light to use when photographing work. So if you can photograph your work using diffused natural sunlight, primarily 4 p.m., sunlight (not noon or in complete shade), you are in luck! A cloudy day may be a bummer to some but it is a photographer’s paradise. Cloudy weather conditions provide a perfect atmosphere for soft, even light while avoiding harsh shadows and “hot spots” from the unforgiving sun.

Although you may have great lighting conditions outdoors, be mindful to not confuse the work with a cluttered outdoor background. The same goes for any documentation of your work inside a controlled studio. You may really love Leopard print but it will be downright annoying to someone attempting to view your work. Stick to a neutral black, grey, or white seamless background. This will ensure that your viewer is looking at your work and not everything around it.

If you can’t photograph work in natural sunlight you will need to control two things: the lighting source and the white balance.

If you can afford it, invest in studio strobes, modeling lights, or florescent filming lights on C-stands or tripods, attached to umbrella reflectors or a diffusion soft box. One of the best things about photographing work digitally is that you can instantly review photos once you have taken them. Always set your white balance (auto or manual) that best suits your working environment. Be sure to experiment with shutter speed and aperture to adjust clarity, depth of field, and exposure. If you can, review a few test shots on a computer screen for accurate color and lighting. Often time a photograph will look entirely different from the tiny, on-camera LCD to your computer screen.

If you are photographing 2-D work, use two lights positioned 45 degrees from both the artwork and the stationary camera. Make sure the lighting is even over the entire work. If you are photographing 3-D work leave one light at 45 degrees from the work and position the other light closer to the work, at less than 45 degrees. If applicable, photographing with this light source will heighten the shadows and texture in your work. There is a delicate balance between a stylized photograph and documentation. You want to document the artwork in the most straightforward and clear manner. You do not want to take liberties with experimental camera angles, circusy lighting gels, or glittery backgrounds.

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