Wouldn't it be easier to scan paintings for making prints rather than to photograph?

Discussion in 'Lighting Equipment' started by jeff_z., Jun 25, 2009.

  1. In reading the many and detailed posts archived on the best way to photograph oil and watercolor paintings, this is the first question that comes to my mind. I'm probably being naive judging from what others seem to be doing.
    I was asked by two local painters to photograph their works (both oils-on-canvas and watercolor paintings) so that they can then make prints from the resulting files. The only thing remotely similar that I've ever done was to photograph a few oils-on-canvas for a friend a few years ago. I'd done this particular job outside in good, subdued natural light, and they turned out well.
    But to do this for reproduction work really gives me the jitters, when all the various factors one must take into account are considered, and corrected for, and moreover, I do not own studio lighting. I have access to it, but if scanning them on a flatbed would make this so much simpler, wouldn't that be the route to go..? I guess the biggest reason I posted in this forum is that so many seem to use lighting methods for this purpose judging from the number of threads.. But wouldn't scanning eliminate all or most of the various concerns that one would have in photographing works such as these? Thanks for any help you can provide.
  2. First, you might need a very large flatbed scanner, or the patience and skill to carefully scan sections of the work at a time, and stitch them together in post production.

    Second, the scanner's light source travels with the sensor. It can do some very odd things when it encounters the 3D texture of the oil paint. Alas, a carefully lit photograph generally looks better - even without regard to the fit-it-on-the-scanner isssue.
  3. How big is the painting? Most flatbed scan letter or A4 size document, some are a bit bigger. Are you going to stitch them in photoshop?
    I suggest to get Light, Science Magic to get some idea of light placement and such.
  4. Matt, Thank you! Is there any hope for my doing the photography outside with natural light? I know of a local gallery owner who is doing this (but as of right now, I do not know his technique), and also, a painter. The painter told me that she has been doing this for awhile with a moderate megapixel 35mm digital camera! I am experienced at scanning 35mm film and making gallery quality prints, and was impressed with her results, but again, I do haven' inquired into the specifics yet.
    If doing this outside in the right light is viable and advisable, what focal length lens might be best? I don't have specialized macro lenses, but do have a full range of the most used focal lengths, both prime and a couple of zooms (with "macro" settings). Many thanks!
  5. A, Thanks. Yes, this was a next logical question for me should the scanner route be best. I was aware of the most affordable, quality flatbeds being only letter sized, and was told about the "stitching together" method in p.s. Is this complicated and involved?
    Most are on 16" by 20" boards and paper, with the image sizes averaging about 13" by 9.5", but a lot of variation. Some are larger, on 18" by 24" boards and paper, with correspondingly smaller image sizes.
    Just wanted to add, that while I respect very much what Matt said, I've seen a file made by a friend that was made on a several year old 3-in-one type scanner, and it seemed to be very good; I'll have to find that and look at it again.. This was a scan of one of her relatively small oils, and I actually printed it on EEM and was impressed, fwiw. Again, I intend to find that today and take a closer look, as I know that the print I made was only about 4" by 6", but the appearance surprised me.
  6. Many paintings would be damaged by placing them on a scanner surface.
    Think of someone who layers paint on very thick to create physical texture. Lots of oil-base paint to get that physical texture means months to years of drying time to fully cure. So the suface may seem dry but the paint could still be soft underneath. Like the Earth's crust and molten lava inside.
    Plus too much contact tends to either polish hardened oil paints or crack them depending on the age and dryness of the elements.
    So it's safer to shoot.
  7. James, Thank you, that sounds like a good point. I noticed that with a few of the canvases, they were slightly warped, and I would think that this might be a problem as they would have to have pressure applied to give a flat enough surface for scanning..?
  8. Jeff: outside can work, if you have the good fortune to have either a very overcast day, or circumstances in which you can use large reflective surfaces to "glow" some light indirectly onto the work from more than one direction. Evenness of the lighting can be tricky, but it sounds like you're working with (comparatively) small works, so that makes life a lot easier. You do need to make sure you're getting a good white balance reading on the camera, though. Follow your camera's instructions on shooting a custom white balance target, or if you're shooting in RAW, then make sure you shoot a white target along with the paintings so that you can correct after the fact.

    Lenses? If you're on a digital SLR with an APS-C (cropped format) sensor, then you should be able to handle 16x20 pieces while two or three rungs up on a step stool using a simple 50mm prime. But if you don't have a lot of light, you'll need to rig up a solid camera support to avoid motion blur. A cable release or the self timer can help out, in that regard.
  9. Matt, Sorry, I should have mentioned that I shoot film. The experience I mentioned from a few years ago was with overcast conditions, and made with a Nikkor 70-210mm f4.0, on Kodak 100 speed E-6 transparency. I can't remember the actual approximate focal length setting, but think it was around 70, so that would seem to coincide with your suggestion to use a 50mm on the cropped format digital SLR(?).. But, I'm really not sure what length I selected.. something makes me think that it could have been around 105mm, too..
    Choosing the right focal length would seem to be critical for the perspective of getting the print right, wouldn't it..? This was actually one of the major factors that led to my thinking about scanning. I'll have to experiment with this, and see if one or the other looks "right", I suppose.. Any suggestions on this?
    Yes, the cable release and tripod seem like a must.
    Really good to know that doing this outside is possible, but I definitely see the problems with getting the right light.
  10. On a 16x20 work, you should still be able to get properly scaled, flat shot with a 50mm lens, Jeff. The full-frame 35mm camera isn't a handicap in that sense. You do need to get your camera absolutely square to the working surface, though.

    Here's my favorite trick: place a small mirror (say, two or three inches around) dead center on the flat surface that will hold the work. When you look through the viewfinder, you'll only see the reflection of the camera if you're properly parallel to that surface. That will cut down on keystoning, and on the necessary fixes in post production.
  11. Thanks Matt! Both of the things you just addressed should prove to be very, very helpful!
    I guess I'm tentative about this in large part because of the instilled idea of always favoring "first generation" reproduction, or as close to this as possible.. I don't have those examples I'd mentioned from a few years ago scanned, but was happily surprised at the results. However, they were done casually, so I didn't know what to think.. But I've actually seen another example of a moderate quality digital photo that was printed, and was amazed, so I'm sure this is doable, at least intellectually, that is:). It probably won't sink in until I actually see the results:)!
  12. A lot of painters shoot the work with natural light. If you have the ability to adjust the color afterwards if needed, that is a good way to do it. Otherwise a few very small flashes will do the job. Do not scan oil paintings. It might work for small drawings and watercolors.
  13. Thanks Bruce.
    Afraid I have to get ready for work, but I'll be very eager to see any other thoughts. I really appreciate all of the help with this, especially Matt's! Jeff
  14. Photography is a more flexible technique than scanning for copying artwork, even flat artwork, than a scanner. (1) It is non-contact. (2) it is not absolutely necessary to move the work, from the wall for example. (3) There is not limit on the size of the work. (4) You have control over the lighting.
    Item (4) is particularly useful when the artwork is highly reflective, or has texture, which you can preserve or hide as much as appropriate. The straight-on lighting of a scanner is prone to unwanted reflections in either case, best suited to smooth, matte surfaces like watercolor paintings or lithographs.
    The copy medium, film or digital, is immaterial. In fact museum-quality copies are often made on 4x5 or larger film. Stitching would be a last resort, but an option for film or digital. A true macro lens is best on any camera, as it is optimized for a flat field at close distance. A shorter rather than longer focal length is useful to keep the copying distance reasonable.
    There is an excellent discourse on lighting artwork for copying in "Light: Science and Magic", by Hunter, Biver and Fuqua. You should have a copy.
  15. Really, "L: S&M" should be in every photographer's library.
  16. Edward, Thank you very much! I gained a lot of insight from your answer! I will definitely try to get that book.
    Thanks Michael.
  17. The best way to copy a painting is with polarized light sources, and a cross-polarized objective lens. Otherwise, you will get glare galore with reflections off the paint texture from the lights. The best camera to use is a scanning back and apochromatic lens, but a high end DSLR and distirtion free lens are a close second.
    Shooting outside or without polarizers -- very ill advised.
  18. If you are using a scanner or some type of scan copy machine, a scanner by its very design nature does, in fact, stretch the image of the object when the light bar goes past .Also the colors, red will come out darker and yellow may be washed out.
    Photographing is faster, easier, and you wont handle the painting and damage it. Plus you can control the lighting the camera sees , but not with a scanner.
  19. Luke and Mike, Thank you. Afraid I'd put this on the mental back burner of late, but am now close to going ahead with this project.
    Something new has presented itself: I have the opportunity to borrow a Nikon D80. Although I am a fairly experienced film photographer, and scan and print digitally, I've never taken pictures with a digital body. That said, do you think it smarter to do the photography with the D80, or with my Nikon F3 and 100 speed Ektachrome? I'm very comfortable with the F3, but the allure of seeing results immediately would seem to be pretty powerful for this possibly challenging work. Also, and a related facet: would the D80 have enough resolution for this job, as I think Luke mentioned using a top of the line DSLR?
    Then, there is the issue of optimal lens choice, and optimal focal length to use for photographing these paintings. I have the 105mm f2.5 (which, in doing some fast reading about the D80, it seems this AI'd lens might not meter?); a 50mm f1.8 AF Nikkor; a 35-105 f3.5-4.5D AF Nikkor; and can borrow a 55mm f2.8 AF Micro Nikkor.
    Additionally, do you really think one or another of these lenses would ultimately produce a noticeable difference in the prints? These are relatively small to mid-sized paintings; no actual image sizes are greater than about 12 by 18 inches, and many are slightly smaller. I definitely want to do the best I can within reason. I've used all of these lenses a lot except for 55mm Micro, and all seem to be quite good, at least at their optimal apertures. Thanks very much for any insight you might be able to provide on any or all of this! Jeff
  20. You want a lens that has a good flat field and low distortion. The 55 micro is probably ideal for you, whether on the F3 or the D80. For life-size reproduction, the D80 should give you superb results.
    Most important is what I described. Use two strobes, or halogens angled in from the sides at 45 degrees to the surface of the painting. Get a sheet of Rosco Polarizing Gel, and hang one sheet over each light, set to polarize vertically. Use a polarizing filter on your camera lens, oriented horizontally. You can see as you dial it in, the reflections off the paint surface will phase in and out. Don't worry about metering on your camera. Use the camera's histogram to determine the correct exposure. Be sure you get the white balance correct.
  21. Luke, I really appreciate it!

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