Image Is Everything

There are many good reasons to photograph your artwork: simple archival record keeping, assembling a portfolio or submitting art for publication. Reproducing the art accurately for these purposes is almost as important as any artistic decision you can make. In fact, when it comes to choosing art for publication, gallery or commission consideration, or even for competition awards, the quality of the images you submit can play a large role in the decision-making process. After all, editors, gallery owners, clients and jurors can judge only what they can see.

As the art director for The Artist’s Magazine, I field a lot of questions about whether it’s better to shoot a digital reproduction (a picture file typically shot with a digital camera) or one with traditional film (ranging from 35mm slides to 8×10 transparencies). The short answer is that both formats have advantages and disadvantages. Whichever route you choose, the key is to follow a few basic guidelines to achieve high-quality results.

Characteristics of a Good Reproduction
Before I get into the film vs. digital debate, I’ll start you off with a few basic characteristics that any reproduction needs. I’ll use film terminology here, but the concepts apply to digital media as well.

Size and Position: The larger an image appears on a slide, the larger—and more clear&#!51;it will appear to a competition judge, and the less an art director will need to enlarge it in the printing process. Try to fill as much of the image area with the painting as you can (figure 1) and avoid leaving large spaces on all sides of your artwork (figure 2). In a similar vein, it’s not generally necessary, nor desirable, to show the frame of the painting. Also, make sure the surface of the artwork is parallel to the picture plane. Parallax error is a distorting of the image shape that occurs when the artwork isn’t shot straight on but slightly from the side, top or bottom (figure 3).

Sufficient Lighting: Your art should be neither underexposed (too dark) nor overexposed (too light). Many artists bracket their shots, shooting once at what they determine to be the correct exposure, shooting again at a slightly increased amount of exposure and a third time at a slightly decreased amount of exposure (figures 4-6). Bracketing provides you with a margin of error in the event that the first shot wasn’t exactly the correct amount of exposure.

Even Lighting: Your artwork should be lit consistently over the entire surface. When lighting the artwork with a single light source, such as a lamp or the camera’s flash, often a section of the art will be spotlighted while the edges of the painting are dim (figure 7). One way to get even lighting is to go outdoors and set your art in indirect atmospheric light, such as what you would find on an overcast day.

Color Balance: Different light sources cast light of different wavelengths, the mixture of which can effect the color of the light as it reflects off a flat surface. If you aren’t able to shoot your artwork in a light that incorporates all wavelengths (full-spectrum lighting), you may fall victim to color shifts. Specific kinds of film exist to compensate for these shifts, though you must pay special attention to the kind of film you’re using and where you’re using it. Film intended for daylight will exhibit a shift toward orange if used with indoor (tungsten) light (figure 8). Film meant for indoors will exhibit a shift toward blue when used outdoors (figure 9). Standard fluorescent lighting should be avoided altogether, as it commonly produces a very unpleasant shift toward green (figure 10), regardless of the type of film you use.

Film Reproduction
Transparent film reproduction—that is, slides or larger transparencies—has a long history and is responsible for most of the best printed representations of many great artworks. (Technically, slides and transparencies are both transparencies, which means they’re shot on special film that creates a positive image on the film instead of a negative one. When art directors refer to transparencies, however, they’re talking about images taken with medium- or large-format cameras that produce 2 ?-inch, 4×5 or 8×10 images. These transparencies generally show greater detail, and they’re preferred over slides for their potential to be enlarged more without additional image-quality loss.)

Both slides and transparencies offer many advantages. The range of colors producible by high-quality transparency film is rather vast. With a color-balanced light box or slide projector you can easily verify how true the reproduction is to the original. Professionals in the competition, gallery or publishing fields with the same equipment will see exactly what you see, no matter where they are. Film transparencies also provide a wide latitude of enlargement possibilities: A well-shot, high-quality slide can be enlarged up to 1,000 percent and still exhibit impressive detail and clarity. Any printer or publisher will gladly accept slides and transparencies for years to come, despite the increasing digitization of our world.

The disadvantages are few. But a full set of bracketed shots of your life’s work can take up a lot of space. In addition, professional film processing can be expensive—though you’ve probably spent more on a single tube of cobalt blue than you would for one batch of slides.

Digital Reproduction
With the growth of the Internet and its possibilities for the artist, digital reproduction techniques are understandably becoming a very attractive option. The advantages are hard to ignore: Respectable-quality digital cameras continue to be more affordable, and the high cost of film processing is replaced by the modest cost of CDs. Digital images take up space not in your filing cabinet, but on your computer hard drive or in your CD rack. And these images are easy to transmit around the world in the blink of an eye. Most printers and publishers need to convert artwork to a digital format before it can be transferred to the printed page anyway, so format compatibility is rarely an issue. And professional-quality digital cameras produce color ranges that rival those of film transparencies.

But where issues tend to arise is in the artist’s ability to proof a digital image of his or her work. Computer monitors and printers are anything but standard—what may look perfect to you can look completely different to the person you send the image to. You also need to be careful about the size of your digital files. A low-quality image (resolution of 800×600 or less, with maximum compression) will take up minimal space on your hard drive and can be e-mailed quickly. But while that’s fine for your vacation snapshots or cataloging purposes, a low-resolution image is of no use for professional reproduction. The type of image typically required has a resolution of 1600×1200 or greater with no compression; it can eat up at least 7.5 MB on your computer’s hard drive, and you (and your recipient) need high-speed Internet access to send and receive it via e-mail. Also, once you’ve saved an image at a certain physical size (in pixels), it’s more or less fixed at that size. It can only be enlarged at the risk of losing image quality.

For the Digital Diehard
If you’d still like to go the digital route, there are a few things you must keep in mind. All the concerns of good artwork reproduction apply, in terms of lighting, color balance, size and position. And the better and more accurate you want your digital images to be, the more money you’ll need to spend. Also try to follow these guidelines:

Bigger Is Better: A 3.1 megapixel camera will give you better shots than a 1 megapixel camera. Obviously, it has more pixels, which are the little image segments that make up a picture. The more pixels dedicated to a shot, the higher the resolution and the sharper the image. Many cameras allow you to take any number of shots in one session, but they have a limited amount of memory to dedicate to the whole “batch.” (In other words, the more shots you take per batch, the lower the resolution and/or quality will be for each image.) Therefore, take only a limited number of pictures at the highest quality setting, then save those images to your hard drive before “clearing” your camera and continuing with more shots.

Artists with access to an image-editing program such as Adobe Photoshop have probably realized they can take something that’s only 800×600 and “resample” it to 1600×1200. But this practice doesn’t increase the amount of information in the digital file—it only increases the space between pixels, then fills those spaces with pixels of similar colors. The result is an image that’s technically “high-resolution,” but blurrier than it should be (figures 11-13). Again, always start with the highest quality, largest image possible. A tiny reproduction of a complex painting isn’t going to work for publication, because no one will be able to enlarge it from its fixed size without compromising quality.

Compression—Less Is More: Compressing a large image, most commonly done by saving it as a JPEG, can be a handy way to make a file size more manageable. However, the more you compress an image, the more you compromise its quality (figures 14-16). A high-quality JPEG will have the least amount of compression but the highest amount of original image integrity. A low-quality JPEG will have the most compression and the lowest quality, often visible as “artifacts”—strange boxes or lines. Use compression as sparingly as possible, and never compress an already compressed image.

The Bottom Line
Unless you really know your stuff when wielding a digital camera, you’re probably better off going with slides or transparencies when reproducing your art. First of all, anyone with eyes and a light source can look at them, which means you won’t have to fret over whether or not the recipient is capable of giving them the consideration they deserve. The most important point when reproducing your work, no matter which format you choose, is to take the shot properly in the first place. Follow our guidelines and you can be assured that publications, galleries, clients and competition judges will be able to evaluate your paintings in the best possible light.

Frank LaLumia is a signature member of the Plein Air Painters of America (P.A.P.A.) and the National Watercolor Society. He is the author of Plein Air Painting in Watercolor and Oil (North Light books).

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