Professional Photos of an Oil Painting Without Glare

I’ve been dealing with bad photographs of paintings on my blog for a while now. Finally I did something about it, and hopefully this post will help many other artists.

As you know if you read my blog or look through all my posts you will see that I take a photo of my work after each session. In most cases the paint is still wet and there is a ton of glare all over the painting. I have contended with this for most of the blog, actually all of the blog, until now, March 7th 2017 post to be exact. I was just going the cheap and easy route up until this date. I would finish my session, pull out my iPhone and take some snap shots.

But, it soon got more complex. I wouldn’t just use the photos that I took with my phone directly on the site. I would have to do some post processing to fix a lot of the issues. Eventually, when I saw my blog on larger monitors I was less than impressed with the photo quality. Truthfully, I’m not super interested in showing the most perfect photos on my blog. There comes a point where you have to make some concession for speed versus quality. But, I still felt that the photos on my blog are lacking at least the basic quality necessary to show my work accurately. This is what led me to spend close to $1200 on photography equipment.

The purpose of this post is to go through several options on how to take pictures of oil paintings. Ranging from the cheapest with the worst quality to the most expensive and the best quality. I will say that this is my first few weeks in experience with photography so bare with me here. I don’t know a lot yet, but I’m think I have enough experience to have a discussion about possible scenarios that any artist can take advantage of. And the great thing about writing this on my blog is that I can update it as my knowledge grows.

For this post I will be using one of my more favorite paintings that I did in January. This painting is already dry and it doesn’t have a coat of varnish on it yet. I’ve adjusted my current site so if you have a large screen the images will show at full size. Of course I edit my website every so often so I’m not sure if that will hold true for the future.

EDIT: Surprise! My website now has a new design. At the expense of load speed all the images show HUGE, as long as you are on a big enough monitor. If you’re viewing this post on a phone, sorry your missing a ton of detail.

Cheap and Easy

My Equipment for the cheap and easy route

iPhone Single Light Straight Shot

This first shot is the cheapest and fastest way of getting a photo of an oil painting to the web. I used my iPhone with the same light source that I was painting with and shot the photo as straight on as possible. As you can see below the photo has a lot of glare to it and the quality is not that sharp. There is also a high chance of getting a blurry photo. The upside to this is that it took me no time to get the photo and I don’t have to do much adjusting in photoshop to get it online.

I also used the HDR option with my iPhone. In my experience this only helps to even out some of the hot spots and in some cases takes an extra photo that may be less blurry.

With most new smartphones you can actually adjust the exposure a bit by tapping the screen. For the iPhone, a yellow box will appear and the phone will do an auto adjustment based on the area where you tapped. Then you can further make your own adjustments by dragging your finger up and down on the screen to see the exposure change. This is helpful for adjusting exposure a bit but, it does nothing to get rid of glare.

iPhone SE, Single light, Straight shot, HDR

I would never suggest using an iPhone for taking images of large paintings. Even with one of the latest generations of iPhones the quality is too low for paintings much larger than 24 inches on the longest side. Besides, once you get that big you really need a better lighting setup to get even light over the whole work. Even for this small painting 12″ x 16″ I find that the quality is too low even for my website.

Cheapest way to fix glare

My Equipment for the cheapest way to fix glare

You may scoff at the price for the Adobe CC Photography plan at 10 bucks a month, $120 a year. But considering, before they started creative cloud you would have to purchase Photoshop alone for $1000+, if I remember correctly, and would have to pay for upgrades, this is a much better approach. Considering with this plan you will get Lightroom and Photoshop the two industry standards for professional photographers I think it is money well spent. In my case I touch Photoshop daily, so I get my money’s worth.

So to fix glare in the most cheapest way I can think of you must do some post processing. In the image below I’m still using my iPhone to take the photo but I move it to a different angle to take the shot. The angle depends on how you lay your paint on and where your light source is. For my basic setup I find that taking the shot above center and to the left works well.

iPhone Single Light Angle Shot

Shooting a photo at this angle will distort the painting and prevent a lot of the light bouncing off the edges of paint to pass into the lens of the iPhone. So we get a lot less glare but now we have to fix the distorted angle of the painting. Here is where Adobe comes in.

Once you have imported your photos into your Lightroom library you can choose the distorted photo and go into Develop mode. This is by far the best way to fix any angle distortion with two dimensional works. We will be using the transform tool, but before that Lightroom asks us to enable Lens Correction. Open the lens correction area and check “Enable Profile Corrections”, for my iPhone SE the profile is already there so it seems to work well. Honestly I can’t tell that it really did anything.

Now, lets transform. Open the transform tool and choose “Guided”. Now when you hover your mouse over the image you will get cross hairs and a loupe. Use the loupe to put the cross hairs on the very edge of the painting then click and drag a line down the side of the painting. You don’t have to create a guide down the entire side of the painting but go most of the way, make sure the cross hairs are still next to the painting edge and let go. The first line does nothing but as you create more lines around every edge of the painting it will begin to straighten out.

Adobe Lightroom Transform

The second way of transforming is very similar to Lightroom, but using  Adobe Bridge. Navigate to one of your distorted photos in adobe bridge, then right click the image and open in camera RAW. Here you can choose the transform tool at the top and draw the same guides as in Lightroom. To accept the transform just hit enter.

Adobe Bridge Transform Tool

The third and hardest way of transforming your distorted image back to normal is by using Photoshop. First you have to know the exact dimensions of the painting. Then you need to crop the original down so that it has the same ratio as the painting. You can do this by setting your select tool to a particular ratio. For this painting the ratio will correspond with the image size in inches, 12 x 16. I just set my selection tool then drag a box over the painting so all the corners of the painting are contained then choose Image > Crop.

Once the image is cropped down we are basically going to pull the corners of the canvas to the corners of the document. Make sure “snap” is off while your doing this, it makes it a bit easier. Then go to Edit > Transform > Distort.

If it is not available then you image is either not a layer or not the right image mode. Usually the image is a Background when initially opened in Photoshop, so just double click the background layout and click ok on the dialog that comes up. This will change it to a regular layer and Distort will be available.

In Distort mode the image will get a box around it with handles at the four corners. Just drag each handle so the corner of the painting matches exactly with the corner of the canvas. Here is what it will look like if done properly. The corners of the painting have been dragged and distorted to meet the corners of the document. The entire image boundaries as you can see now extend well beyond the canvas, but the result is a figure without distortion.

Adobe Photoshop Transform Tool

In the end, whichever program you use the result should be similar to the image below. You may have to take multiple shots with your smartphone and go through a bit of trial and error, but at least this option is fairly cheap.

iPhone SE, Single light, Angle shot corrected in post, HDR

Dual Light Setup

My Equipment for the dual light setup

The dual light setup is important. Its may not be needed for a paintings this small but any larger than this and you will get uneven light over your canvas. Actually, even when I take photos of an 18″ x 24″ drawing I still get some uneven light over the surface with these two lamps. So depending on the size of your paintings you may want to get more lights.

Dual Light Setup

Just like with the iPhone shot with the single light, here I’ve taken the shot with the iPhone straight on as best as I can line it up. As you can see there is a bit more glare than the first photo with just the single light. We have a lot more light hitting the paint so there are a lot more opportunities for the light to bounce all over the place.

iPhone SE, Dual Light, Straight shot, HDR

The next shot is from the iPhone again but I took this one at an angle and fixed the distortion in post processing. It’s interesting that I still have a lot of glare on the painting even after this. See the shoulder on the right, glare city.

So, if you have a larger painting then you’re going to need more lights to get even light over the entire painting. But the introduction of extra lights makes it almost impossible to remove all the glare with our angle shot technique using the iPhone. So to fix this we need to get polarization involved.

iPhone SE, Dual Light, Angle shot fixed in post, HDR

Beginning with Polarization

My Equipment for the dual light setup

What is polarization? I could attempt to give you the scientific explanation, but I found this great Khan Academy video that describes it in detailed scientific terms.

For my simple explanation, we are taking light that comes from these lamps. Light that is bouncing around in all kinds of directions and organizing it into one direction we can manipulate.

Dual Polarization Setup

So far I have determined that having really expensive lamps is not necessary. But, with the addition of these polarizing films the light coming from the bulbs is greatly reduced. The bulbs I currently have in these lamps are LED’s emitting 1600 lumens each. I’m trying to find brighter bulbs but after 1600 lumens the bulbs begin to get ridiculously huge. So maybe the better option is to purchase a third or forth lamp with the same bulbs. It would lend much more light on the canvas and be a little cheeper as I can cut the polarizing film sheets in half.

Ok, back to our iPhone. I shot this photo as a test. I wanted to see if there was any difference in glare from the previous shot if I just used the polarizing films and no filter for the camera. As you can see below there is no difference, we still have glare.

iPhone SE, Dual Light, Polarizing Gels, Straight shot, HDR

This next shot was taken at an angle and the distortion was fixed in Photoshop. This photo is also a good example of one of the biggest issues with taking photos from a hand held device. As you can see it is blurry in some places, this is due to camera shake. I’m sure the tendency for blurry images has increased here because the scene is darker due to the polarizing films.

iPhone SE, Dual Light, Polarizing Gels, Angle shot fixed in post, HDR

Dual Polarization with an iPhone

My equipment for dual polarization using a smartphone

Dual polarization is where we really see a dramatic change in the removal of glare. We have films over the lights and as the light passes through these films it is linearly polarized. Then when the light hits the painting and reflects off, it looses some of its polarization and is reflected back with many different angles. Now we add a linear polarizing filter in front of the lens to bring the polarization back. This is my non scientific explanation of what is happening, it may not be 100% accurate.

This shot was quite difficult to take. As I’m using a 52mm polarizing filter with an iPhone I didn’t have a way to attach it to the phone. So, I’m holding the phone with one hand and the filter in front of the phone with the other. Then it gets even harder as I need to rotate the filter to get the glare to disappear. I had to ask my wife to come in and hit the button on the iPhone for me.

I must say that rotating that filter and watching the glare go away was like magic. It takes some fiddling to get it in the right spot but when you do the difference is dramatic.

iPhone SE, Dual Light, Dual Polarization, Straight shot, HDR

Just to take it a step further. Form my last shot I’m holding my iPhone with the polarizing filter up at an angle to the painting. Then I fixed the distortion in Photoshop. I’m thinking the difference here is slightly better.

iPhone SE, Dual Light, Dual Polarization, Angle shot fixed in post, HDR

 

iPhone Shots Compare

Here it is, a side by side comparison of the differences between all the different processes up to this point in trying to take good photos of my oil painting with minimal cost and setup. On the left is just a straight shot with my iPhone, no extra lights, no filters, no films, as cheap as I can get it. The center shot is similar but I’ve positioned the iPhone at an angle to help remove the glare, then fixed the distortion in post. The shot on the right is dual polarization with an iPhone, so all the films, filter and lights.

The difference here is clear. The left shot is obviously not useable with that much glare. The center shot is better but there will be some glare in parts of the painting. The shot on the right is the best with zero glare on the painting.

You will also notice that introducing the polarizing filter has increased the saturation of colors a bit. This could be good in some cases but I really want to have a photo the represents the painting almost exactly. So, there will be some color correction needed in post processing after taking a dual polarization photo of my painting.

Getting Serious with DSLR

My full equipment list for DSLR shooting

So I didn’t just spend all this money to take photos of my artwork. My wife and I both have great plans for this camera and all its accessories.

Canon EOS Rebel SL1

I splurged a bit on the tripod. After talking to a guy at the local camera shop I decided that I wanted to get a tripod that would last me longer than the camera. The Sirui tripod was around $150 and I feel is well worth the money.

Sirui W-1004 Tripod

I’m a novice at photography, yet right away I knew that getting a quick release and ball head for the tripod is a must. After only a week or so of using this tripod and ball head I can’t live without it. The ability to quickly remove the camera or point it in any directly in a matter of seconds makes the whole of the tripod completely viable in any situation.

Tripod head (not sure of manufacturer)

So let’s get back to taking photos. For the sake of science I’m going to take the first photos with the Canon very similar to the first photos with the iPhone.

This first photo doesn’t have any extra setup. No polarization films or filters. You can see below that I have just as much glare on this shot of the painting with the Canon DSLR as I would with the iPhone.

Canon DSLR, No polarization, 1/30 4.5 100

Ok, so now lets just add the polarization filter to the camera, but without any of the polarization films over the lights.

Below is a photo of the filter attached to the camera. It screws on easily and the front part of the filter will rotate easily.

Here is a tip for any novice photographer out there. Screw the filter on LIGHTLY! Don’t try and tighten it down with bruit strength. I did this, and I thought I was going to break my lens trying to get it off again, YIKES!

Linear Polarizing Filter

So here is the photo with the Canon and the polarizing filter. No matter where I rotated the filter to, the glare was not removed. This is a good example of why the polarizing gels are so important, without them the whole glare removal setup doesn’t work.

Canon DSLR, Polarizing filter, 1/15 4.5 100

Professional Photos of an Oil Painting Without Glare

Here is where the magic happens. The photo below is with the full setup. The Canon camera, the polarizing filters, the ploarizing films, and the tripod.

Just to let you know, this is actually the second set of photographs I’ve taken for this post. Several weeks ago I took a bunch of photos right after I purchased the Canon Rebel. Then a week went by and I began to learn how to use the camera and realized quickly that I was doing it all wrong. I didn’t know enough about ISO, aperture and shutter speed to take a good exposure. Like with everything I’m learning by doing, failing and trial and error. Since then I’ve done a lot of research. Youtube is a great place to learn about photography, and anything for that matter.

ISO

The first thing I set is ISO, I set it as low as this camera will allow, which is 100. This will ensure that “noise” is at a minimum or as low as I can get it for the Canon SL1. Now, because of the lens being covered by a filter and my lights being covered by films the amount of light reaching the camera is greatly reduced. So I have to make up for this reduction with shutter speed.

Shutter Speed

I set the shutter speed pretty low. In the photo below I’m down to 1/4 and this makes the tripod 100% necessary. I remember, either on a youtube video or in a book I was reading, that anything below 1/60 shutter speed makes it almost impossible to not get a blurry image while holding the camera. I even take it a step further. I set my camera to a 2 second timer. This way I can hit the button and remove my hands from the camera before it takes the shot. I also stay where I’m at, I don’t walk away from the camera or move as I’m sure I could vibrate the camera with any movement and get a blurry image.

Aperture

The other reason why I set my shutter speed so low is so I can get some play in the aperture. If I set my aperture after my ISO I would be down to 2.8. Which is the lowest my 40mm lens will go. But, I want to be able to bracket my shots by adjusting my aperture. This is where the whole “F Stop” terminology comes in. To bracket my shots I need to shoot several photos with higher and lower aperture. But, if I start out at the limit of my lens’s capability I can’t get enough range of shots.

I’ve found that if I can get my initial shot somewhere around an aperture of 4.0 after setting the ISO and shutter speed then I’m good. This gives me a very good range to try some higher and lower exposed photos. So the first shot is at 4.0 and the rest of the shots are done a few F stops below and above that.

Maybe it would make more sense the set the aperture after the ISO considering I have a target I want to shoot for, 4.0. Hmm… yep, I’ve still got a ton to learn.

The photo below was taken with an ISO at 100, Shutter speed at 1/4, and aperture at 4.5. I picked this photo out of at least 6 that I took with different apertures as it was the best exposure that matched what I see when looking at the painting directly.

Canon DSLR, Dual Polarization, 1/4 4.5 100

Detailed Comparison

This is the best part of the post. The culmination of much trial and error and weeks of work. Below is a combination of the best shots with my most cheap setup and my most expensive setup.

On the left half of the image below is the Canon EOS Rebel SL1 with the tripod, and dual polarization. I would say it is the best shot I can get of my painting. On the right is the iPhone with no tripod, the films over the lights and me holding the polarization filter in front of the lens.

Basically, the left side of this image cost me close to $1200 for all the equipment. The right side of the image cost me, if I don’t include the price of the iPhone, close to $100. So, is it worth it? Yes, I think it is. Especially when I consider all of the other projects I have planned for this professional photography setup. Now, if I was only posting low resolution photos on my website and didn’t care about showing my painting anyplace else, then I think I would go with the cheap alternative.

Here is where the Canon and professional setup really shines. For the first time I can actually see brush strokes in the photographs of my paintings. The iPhone shots on the right are just blobs of color, and kinda blurry.

Conclusion

I hope that this post will give you some options with taking photos of your oil paintings without glare. I went through a wide range of possible scenarios and I hope that one fits your needs and budget. If you have any ideas of other scenarios you would like me to demonstrate let me know in the comments. Or if you have any pointers on how I can take better photos please let me know, I still have a ton to learn.

4 thoughts on “Professional Photos of an Oil Painting Without Glare

  1. That was insanely in-depth, but I can see the usefulness in different aspects. We didn’t have the budget for such a costly (even if necessary) purchase before, but I’m glad we made this decision. Again, I’m no art critic, but even I was amazed at the side by side difference between iPhone and Camera. I can even see the individual hairs on the arm!
    Hopefully the camera will work its magic with my ideas and projects as well.
    Thanks for sharing. You’re becoming quite the writer, here.

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