A great piece of art can very easily be let down by poor photographic documentation, however hiring a professional to photograph your work can be expensive. If you have access to a good camera and have a basic knowledge of photography, these tips can help you get started.
These tips assume you have some basic knowledge of digital photography!
1. Only photograph your work
Don't photograph your work on your kitchen table or above your fireplace. Most artworks should be photographed in a clean, well lit space with no extraneous details. Try to avoid photographing framed works or works behind glass unless you're showing them in a gallery or installation context (using a polarising filter on your camera can reduce reflections of works behind glass).
2. Use a DSLR or a good mirrorless camera
Use the best equipment. If you don't own a DSLR or mirrorless camera, you can hire one quite cheaply or you may know someone that owns one that you can borrow (or who can take the photographs for you!). Basically you need a camera with a good lens, which allows you to set the shutter speed, lens aperture, ISO and white balance (see below).
3. Use the right lens
The kit lens that usually comes with a DSLR should be sufficient for photographing artworks, but be aware of the focal length you use. Too wide and your images can suffer from barrel distortion (where straight lines curve inwards at the top), too telephoto and they can suffer from pincushion distortion (straight lines curve inwards in the middle). Software such as Photoshop, Lightroom or Adobe Camera Raw can correct lens distortions.
As a general rule a focal length of between 50mm to 80mm should be okay, but it depends on what you're photographing and the focal distance (i.e. the distance between the camera and the object you're photographing). If you're photographing a whole room then you need a wider angle lens/shorter focal length such as 18mm. Take some test shots and see what works (after all, film is free with digital cameras).
4. Set the white balance
Be aware of the lighting conditions you're taking your photographs under (e.g. daylight or indoors with tungsten or fluorescent lighting). If you don't set the correct white balance, your images can come out too blue or too yellow/orange. Most DSLRs give you the option to set a custom white balance by photographing a white piece of paper or 'grey card' or by dialling in a specific colour temperature. If you're shooting in the RAW format (see below) then you can amend the colour balance in Lightroom, Photoshop or similar software.
5. Set the correct shutter speed and aperture
If you're using a DSLR camera, set the dial to manual mode (usually indicated by the letter 'M'). This allows you to manually set the shutter speed and aperture and obtain the correct exposure. The size of the aperture also affects the depth of field so if you want everything in focus (e.g. a room full of artworks), use a small aperture such as f/11, a wider angle lens and a slower shutter speed. If you want to photograph a small object or a detail and have some areas in focus and some out of focus, use a larger aperture such as f/2.8 and a longer focal length.
Always shoot at the lowest ISO possible (i.e. ISO 100), the higher the ISO, the more visual noise will start to appear in your images.
Once you've set the aperture and ISO, set the shutter speed to ensure the correct exposure is achieved. You'll need to mount your camera on a tripod for slow shutter speeds to avoid blurry images.
6. Use a tripod
Even if you're shooting in good light with a high shutter speed, putting your camera on a tripod will ensure your images are 'tack sharp'. Switch off the image stabilisation on your lens when your camera is mounted on a tripod, as this conserves your camera's battery power.
7. Make sure everything is straight!
Make sure the tripod is on a flat, level surface and at the correct height. Some cameras offer built-in grid overlays on the camera's LCD monitor which help you compose your image and check vertical and horizontal lines within the frame. Avoid the 'keystone effect' where vertical, parallel lines appear to converge. Check for lens barrelling or pincushioning (see tip 3 above).
8. Focus manually
The auto-focus systems on DSLRs and CSCs are pretty sophisticated these days, but can still focus incorrectly, especially in low-light situations, or on things that don't have much contrast. Switch auto-focus off and using the camera's LCD screen, zoom in to an area of the image that offers some detail or a clear edge and focus manually.
If you're photographing a room or gallery and you're using a small aperture (e.g. f/11) for a large depth of field, a good rule of thumb is to focus on something that's a third of the way into the frame, this will ensure everything in the room is in focus.
9. Don't touch the camera
Believe it or not the act of pressing the shutter release on your camera can cause minor vibrations and actually blur an image. To get around this, put your camera on a tripod and use a remote shutter release or the camera's built-in self-timer (most DSLRs or CSCs should have this).
10. Bracket shots for areas with different exposure levels
If you're photographing artworks in a room with a window, the window can sometimes appear overexposed or 'blown out'. One way to get around this is to take two or three photographs at different exposures (i.e. one where the room is properly exposed and one where the window is properly exposed) and then blend these into one image in Photoshop, Lightroom or similar software. This method is also useful if you're photographing video/film works or works that emit a lot of light.
11. Shoot RAW rather than Jpeg
The RAW format is basically an unprocessed 'digital negative' and contains the maximum amount of information captured by the camera's sensor. Like a photographic negative, RAW files require 'processing' in software such as Photoshop or Lightroom. Using this software you can make a whole host of adjustments to the image including lens corrections, colour temperature, sharpness, contrast and noise reduction.