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How to photograph sculpture


How to Photograph 3D Artwork with Dimension and Detail

“May/September” by Rob Ley. 2014. Eskenazi Hospital, Indianapolis, IN.
Photo courtesy Eskenazi Health, Photo: Hadley Fruits.

We recently posted How to Photograph Your Artwork: Professional Photos Without the Cost, which focused on photographing two-dimensional works. This week we’ll cover how to photograph sculpture, ceramics and other three-dimensional art.

Photographing 3D works has its own unique challenges. How do you best capture the dimensionality and volume of the art? How do you capture its texture and avoid losing details? We’ve broken down the process into simple steps.

Step 1: Position your art
  • Place the art on a flat surface with a neutral background.
  • If you don’t have white or light gray walls, buy a roll of seamless paper and set up a sweep. What is a sweep? It is a smooth and continuous backdrop formed by paper in an arc shape. To form an arc with the paper, tape it to the edge of the table/flat surface and sweep it to a vertical point behind the table/flat surface.
  • Don’t place the art too close to the background; give it some space. If using a sweep, don’t place the artwork where it starts to sweep up.
Step 2: Light the art
  • If you want even, diffused light, position two lights 45 degrees away from the art. Learn how to easily accomplish this in our post about photographing 2D works.
  • If you want contrast and shadows, use two lights and play with moving one of the lights around (adjust distance and angle from object). Avoid competing shadows that will make it hard for the viewer to focus on the work itself.
  • Add a third light if you need more dimensionality.
  • If photographing ceramics, it is recommended to use only one light, and to place it directly over the subject so the light shines down onto it. This creates a shadow under the bottom edge and grounds the object.
  • Adjust the softness of the light by raising or lowering the light. The closer the light is to the subject, the larger and softer the light will be. Soft light lessens the harsh edges of shadows and creates smooth gradations of tone and color.
  • Use a diffuser. A diffuser is made of translucent material and is placed between the object and light source to soften the light and shadows.
  • Shape the light with cardboard. Place the cardboard between the work and the light and play with angling it to create preferred gradients.
  • Tip: Strong shadows create a sense of weight to a piece, which allows a potential buyer to imagine how it would feel to be held.
Step 3: Set your camera settings
  • Set the camera to shoot in RAW so you get the most digital information in your image.
  • Be sure to set the ISO to 100 to reduce the “noise” in the image.
  • Set the camera to Aperture Priority and set the aperture to f/8 or higher to get your entire work in focus (if you want it in sharp detail). You want a larger depth of field when shooting a work up close – more depth means more details.
  • Set your white balance. Our earlier post walks you through the process. If you want to set a custom white balance to get your whites absolutely white in challenging light situations, we recommend using a gray card. Never used one before? Here is an article describing how to use a gray card.
Step 4: Position your camera
  • Place your camera on a tripod or a secure platform like a shelf to avoid camera shake and blurry photos.
  • Play with angling the camera to capture different perspectives of the work – shoot straight on or from above.
  • Place the tripod so that the art fills almost the entire frame. Avoid distortions by zooming.
Step 5: Snap away
  • Make sure to photograph your work from multiple angles.
  • If you’re not using a tripod, use your camera’s timer so that your pressing of the shutter does not create camera shake – it doesn’t take much!
  • Shooting an installation? Use a wide-angle lens to capture the entirety of the work. Wide-angle lenses allow you to get more in the frame.
Step 6: Edit your photos
  • Crop the image.
  • Adjust color, focus, and contrast if necessary.
  • Save as a JPEG or TIFF. You can make derivative JPEGs from your TIFF to match upload requirements — like CaFE’s, which just changed to make your life easier! Read about the CaFE Update.

More of a visual-type of person? Watch this YouTube video by Dan Meyers to get more advice and techniques for photographing your 3D work.

Now start propping, lighting and snapping professional-looking photos of your 3D works and get it uploaded to your CaFE portfolio so you can start submitting wow-worthy photos of your art.

Written by Elysian Koglmeier

4 Steps To Photographing Statues And Sculptures

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Statues and sculpture range broadly from historical figures, modern abstracts in a variety of materials to mass produced replicas of the real thing. Photographing sculptures and statues (we'll use these interchangeably) is an artist's view of another artist's work.

When photographing a sculpture, it can tell a story. It can also be ‘just another sculpture photo that does nothing other than document its existence.

We'll explore different techniques and images for inspiring your own creative view when you photograph sculptures. When photographing ‘art', a simple shadow could be the difference of making an impact, or being a distraction.

Before we get into the steps involved in photographing statues and sculptures, we need to know where to find them, so they can be photographed.

Finding statues is mostly easy and they can be found in many public places like parks, libraries, museums, churches, town and city squares, etc. Historical. political and government buildings commonly have statues in remembrance or to celebrate their lives. Sculptures can be found in parks and areas where sculpting works are done. You can also find sculpture parks where sculptures are made and exhibited which will make a great place for photographing sculptures.

Once you find a good place or places to photograph statues and sculptures, you need to know ways to photograph them. There are some important factors you need to consider when photographing statues and sculptures.

We'll look at

  1. Lighting
  2. Perspective & Angles
  3. Attention to the Details and lastly,
  4. Telling the Story from Your Eye.

by William Warby

1. Lighting

Lighting is important in any form of photography and has a huge impact on your photographs in terms of setting the mood, adding depth and feeling to photographs. Light may or may not work in our favour all the time. 

Cloudy, overcast days minimize harsh shadows for more evenly distributed lighting. On bright, sunny days statues with intricate details, curves, crevices and angles can easily be overpowered by harsh shadows but choosing to shoot at the right time of the day like morning or evening (especially during the golden hour) can help with the details adding to provide more depth and meaning to statues and sculptures.

If you're on vacation and have just a few hours, you have to work with what nature provides. Slightly overcast, even lighting provides the most flexibility in photographing a total statue.

If there are a lot of shadows due to unfavorable lighting, use those to your advantage. Harsh shadows and details may be further enhanced in post processing to convey age and drama. If allowed, you may try using a reflector to fill in light in very dark shadow areas or in very low light situations, if you have a flash, you could bounce it off a reflector to create a soft light to illuminate the statue or sculpture.

Light and shadow can emphasize unique features that may have gone unnoticed in the total statue but are no less interesting on their own. Backlighting can offer silhouettes. Side lighting brings elongated shadows. 

by takomabibelot

If you are photographing statues at night or indoors in low light, try to use a tripod where possible and shoot at the lowest possible iso for good quality images. A cable release would help in these situations. If using a tripod isn’t possible, open up the aperture and increase the iso to get the shot.

2. Perspectives & Angles

If you're just getting started with photographing sculptures, consider starting with the same techniques as you would in your other work. As a portrait, look at the subject from a ‘person' perspective to get the creative eye going.

Image by Marvin Meyer

If you're an event photographer, try starting with what's happening around the statue. For nature photographers, consider zooming into the statue's features.

With statues, you are most probably going to be shooting from a lower point of view as statues are usually raised up on top above eye level. In situations like these, make sure you shoot from a desirable distance and zoom in to avoid weird distortions and to get a more realistic image of the statue. If you can by any means get the image of the statue from eye level by climbing on to something to get the shot, then by all means do that.

A few ideas:
  • If you're working up close, step back to re-survey the scene. If working from a distance, move in. Either case, moving your feet, going lower and looking up or standing on an elevated surface to reach eye level will change what your eye sees.
  • Work with a shallow depth of field to illuminate the feature of interest and soften surrounding details of the sculpture. Fill the majority of the frame with the point of interest.
  • Try photographing only part of the statue. It can make for really interesting images.
Image by Andrea Leopardi
  • When taking in the total statue, some of the surroundings include too many people, unattractive buildings. Take the photo anyway!
  • Use a tripod and neutral density filter to capture motion as it happens around the statue for a natural blur frame or create a blur surrounding in post processing. Tripod and cable release needed for this one – see the photo below by Mike Warot.
  • Study other photographer's sculpture work. If there is a specific statue/sculpture that you have in mind – trying googling images to see what photographs have been taken (and what angles to avoid).
  • Taking a full frontal shot will document that you were there.
  • Walk around the statue and around the area in general to find the best light (direction of light), perspective, background and framing that will enhance the look of the image.
Image by Shot by Cerqueira

Try minimalism as it can be a powerful way to make your statue or sculpture stand out and bring more importance to it in the frame.

3. Attention To Detail

While surveying for perspective, also look for distractions. If your statue is in a city or town, are street signs and street lights in the frame? Are there wires and cables overhead? Some distractions can be corrected in post-processing.

It's better to eliminate distractions before you get to post processing when possible.

Trees and branches may provide a nice framing element to your subject. Trees and branches could also look like a distraction ‘hat' if right behind the statue's head.

Statues made with materials that have reflections or glare may have blown highlights in various lighting conditions. Check the histogram to look for blown highlights. Bracket your photos to have multiple conditions to work with in post processing. If working in brighter times of the day, trying using a circular polarizer to protect and enhance color saturation and minimize glare.

Image by Ramón Castillo

4. Telling The Story

As the photographer, how do you envision representing the art? The creator of the work had a vision. That vision inspired you to want to take a photograph.

It may be the surrounding elements that caught your attention, the overall work itself or the lines and angles. Part of the story happens when you snap the shutter, the other in post processing.

Image by Vidar Nordli-Mathisen

From a personal perspective, I took the below photo a few weeks after a young family member had passed away. She loved dancing and music as do her children. When I walked up to the statue, the position of the statue's face led upward to the beautiful summer sky. It immediately reminded me of the song “Is there Dancing in Heaven?” that reflected the emotions we were all feeling at the time.

by Sheen Watkins

Take creative liberty with exploring subtle adjustments to the dramatic. Over-saturate a color or colors, desaturate a color or colors. Push the limits on your choices of clarity and contrast, exposure, highlights, shadows.

Go for black and white. An average photograph in color may move to ‘wow' when converted to black and white.

Image by Juan Giraudo

Statues and sculptures also represent the ‘perfect poser' giving you ample time to survey lighting, finding perspectives and paying attention to the details. It's up to you as a photographer to tell your eye's story of another artists' work.

Further Resources: 
  • 7 Quick Tips to Make Photos of Statues a Little More Interesting
  • 37 Statues Brought to Life With Great Photography
  • Why This Shot Works Commercially and Has Sold Many Times
  • Tips for Photographing Outdoor Sculpture
  • How To Approach Statue Photography In 5 Easy Steps

How to photograph sculptures correctly | Creative photo workshop ArtDomik

Regardless of your preferences and tastes, you will definitely come across sculptures that attract attention and simply make a person shoot them with a camera.

They can be both ancient statues and completely modern metal abstractions, it doesn't matter at all, because there are specific techniques that allow you to create extremely memorable and interesting photographs. First you need to decide for yourself that these both approaches have the right to life, but it is recommended to constantly and everywhere add your own vision so that the photograph becomes something more than someone else's photograph, albeit a very talented work. If you take this kind of approach, next time it's better to spend some time developing the main idea of ​​the photo. Look around, study the statue from different angles, find its characteristic features, which particular details stand out and may be of interest to you. nine0005

And only after all these actions you need to proceed directly to shooting. Do not be afraid to use unusual and original angles in your creative work. And it is not necessary to remove the entire sculpture. It is possible, and in some cases necessary, to focus on a specific area and forget about the rest. The sculpture is a three-dimensional construction, and it is necessary to try to depict this directly in the photograph.

And it is good lighting that plays the key to adding unique depth to a photograph. Frontal lighting perfectly captures the feeling of volume, because long shadows are effectively thrown back, definitely highlighting all the details and marking the contours of the entire sculpture. The best time for this kind of lighting is sunset and sunrise, when the sun is low in the firmament. nine0005

If you do not have the ability to choose the type of lighting, then you must remember that you have the freedom to move the sculpture or to select the most attractive viewing angle and shoot from it. When choosing the composition of a photo frame, you also need to remember about the background - it is extremely sad if you shoot any fantastic frame, but when you return home, you notice, for example, a distracting green tree in the background. Naturally, such a phenomenon will be very unpleasant for you. nine0005

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How to properly photograph your artwork

Choosing equipment

A good photograph of an artwork should correctly reproduce all its colors and shades, as well as its appearance. The tricky part of photography art is that you need to be very careful about lighting and getting the right colors.

For a clearer image of the details and texture of the artwork, it is recommended to photograph with a tripod (any photo or video tripod will do). nine0005

To avoid glare, never use flash when photographing paintings. It is the best to photograph artworks in daylight. The light should fall on the painting from the side. If your work is large in format, then there is a high probability of its uneven lighting. This can be corrected by placing a white sheet of paper at the unlit edge of the painting. Avoid falling shadows from foreign objects on the painting.

If an artwork has texture (for example, it has raised brush strokes or traces of other tools with which it was created), lighting should emphasize that texture so that the object in the photo does not differ from the original. A good photo should look exactly like the original painting! nine0005

Preparing the painting and equipment for photoshoot

If the painting is in a frame that you do not want to photograph, just remove the frame. Since shooting through glass is challenging due to glare and reflections, removing glass or other protective material is never superfluous.

Mount the painting to a wall or easel and place a tripod directly in front of it. Set the camera at a sufficient distance. This distance depends on the size of the artwork you want to photograph. Aim the camera lens at the center of the painting. The plane of the camera lens must be parallel to the plane of the painting. nine0005

Place two light sources: the painting should be evenly lit and not contain either too bright or dark places.

If you do not have the necessary skills to adjust the shutter speed and aperture of your digital camera, set the settings to auto detection and disable the flash.

If your skills allow you to fine-tune the camera, use the white balance setting. Select the most suitable white balance according to the characteristics of the light sources you are using. almost all digital cameras have an option to set the white balance that matches the sunlight. If your camera is capable of measuring white balance for specific lighting conditions, this function will often give you the best results. nine0005

Shooting

If you have positioned the camera correctly and have taken some test photos, make adjustments if necessary, and then take two or three final shots.


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