Digitizing Original Paintings for Print & Archive

UPDATED: 2012 JUL 9

SYNOPSIS — Two-dimensional artists, such as those who paint with oils, acrylics, water colors and other media, are increasingly discovering the need to digitize their work, either for archives, or for reproduction.

NOTE: Since many painters know some of this, those individuals can use this as a reference guide. If you are not experienced, it’s best to read the entire article. It’ll save you grief and possibly money.

For many, it’s daunting, and for many more, they don’t know it’s daunting.

As a photographer with skills in both areas, I am sharing a very general and basic overview of what’s needed, both in equipment and skill. This is meant to give you a foundation and help you head in the right direction for you. Considering that, it is still a fairly long article.


THE PROCESS OVERVIEW

There are two distinct tasks to obtaining a high-quality digital replica of your two-dimensional medium.

• THE FIRST TASK

The first task is the capture — the act of simply getting your work off the canvas and into your computer. Primary tools: a digital camera or a film camera with a scanner There are two types of scanners: reflective (i.e., the most common, also called a flat-bed) or a transmissive scanner for film (e.g., slides preferably). Some believe that this is the only task … and for them, it could be. Many tasks can be considered “completed” by doing only the bare essentials, just to get by. The results will usually reflect that.

• THE SECOND TASK

The second task, in my opinion, is no less important than the first task. It is where magic is applied. Task Two combines art and science to create a virtually flawless replica, as well as providing the capability of moving beyond replication entirely. Primary tool: state-of-the-art, graphics-capable computer with lots of memory and storage.

In the previous paragraphs, I used the words "simply" and "simple," yet to achieve that level of success, I’ll be very candid: there’s nothing simple about it.  


YOUR OPTIONS

You have three, or as I like to think, two and a half options of obtaining that digital replica of your artwork:

  1. Have someone else handle it — a person with years of experience and the skill so you don’t even have to think about it, let alone spend all the time.
  2. Handle it all yourself — you’ve done it before. You know how your own experience has increasingly improved your abilities.
  3. Split the tasks — you may not be able to find someone who masters both skills, but they do one task very well. So, you find someone else to do the other task, or maybe that’s the one you can do.

Keep in mind that the majority of the time in photographing your original art is in the set-up. It’s a big thing to consider — if you are going to photograph one painting at a time, and let’s say an average of maybe one a month, I’d suggest some serious thought before you invest any money. It’s one thing to spend the set-up time to shoot 10, 20 or more originals, but another world entirely setting up for an hour, and then take three minutes to make the actual exposures.

Also think about the tax ramifications. If you itemize and file as a business, buying equipment will allow you to depreciate that huge capital investment over time. On the other hand, paying someone else to do it allows you to apply that expense directly to that project, and benefit immediately, as in that tax year.

Disclaimer: don’t listen to me about taxes — I know slightly less than diddly squat. But you may want to speak with a tax professional. Just a thought.


Option #1: “I think I’ll have someone else do it.”

For many, this may be your best plan.

Now you have just one main challenge: finding someone locally who has the necessary experience, both photographically and digitally. Patience for your search is critical, since it may not be easy to find someone quickly. Although most everyone has a camera, as well as a computer, it’s the skill-set you are looking for. You may end up using two people: one who excels in one skill and one in the other.

Beware: only split it as a last resort, otherwise the potential arises for finger-pointing. But you may find two people who often work together on such jobs, so the risk is less. It’s best when the final product is one person’s responsibility.

You want to find someone locally to do the digital capture because it requires your original, but since you’d be sending the digital files for retouching, you can use someone just about anywhere for the second task.

WHERE TO LOOK

Not the yellow pages. Word-of-mouth recommendations would be the best. Placing calls to local galleries should help provide leads. When you get a good lead, physically check out their studio/work area, see some samples, and most importantly, ask for references.

If quotes reflect quality, then expect to pay. Saving money here is a bad idea. By reading the section below on doing it yourself, you may gain some insight on what to look for when you do that initial on-site inspection.

And lastly, if you decide to try that person out, make sure to insist that your original is photographed while you wait. No matter how much they tell you they’ve been doing this for years, just remember Murphy’s Law: It will be your painting below the freshly-watered house-plant that the cat knocks to the floor.


Option #2: “I think I can do this myself.”

This assumes you have more than just a basic understanding of photography, and much more than a basic understanding with computer graphics programs. It would be difficult to suggest a minimum length of experience, but if the word “months” is used, I’d be a little concerned.

Hardware Requirements — Image Capture:

Scan Your Painting (originals up to legal size, maybe tabloid):

  1. Legal size. If your originals are smaller than 8.5-in x 14-in (21.5cm x 35.5cm) there are many flat-bed scanners (reflective) for you to choose from. With a little experience, you can scan larger originals by the scan and slide method. That’s only half the trick. The other half is piecing the puzzle together on the computer.

  2. Tabloid size, 11-in x 17-in (28cm x 43cm) scanners are also available, but expect a huge price jump over a legal size scanner. Pricing begins at about $2000.

  3. Recommendations: The Epson Photo series is a good starting point for quality flat-bed scanners. I would look for a minimum of 9600-ppi (optical resolution) with a Dmax of 3.2 to 4.

  4. If you shoot film, you’ll need a film scanner (transmissive, not a flat bed scanner). At least a 4000-ppi optical scanner for 35mm & 120 chromes. Nikon sells film scanners.

Photograph Your Painting (originals of any size):

  1. Camera Options
    1. Digital Camera, single-lens reflex, with megapixels based on the size of your originals. In any event, I would consider 12Mp to be the very minimum. 40Mp would be nice (available as backs for larger 120-size cameras).
      Calculate Your Camera Needs

      Let’s say your original is 4 x 3 feet (48″ x 36″). You want to be able to sell prints at the same size as the original. Our result will be in mega-pixels (Mp). Note: Mp does not equal MB. Here’s how we factor:

      Full size prints, 48″ x 36″ inches:

      Calculate height & width (ideal size):
      48 x 200 = 9600 pixels long
      36 x 200 = 7200 pixels wide

      Calculate surface area (need):
      9600 x 7200 = 69,120,000 pixels (69.1Mp)

      Calculate height & width (minimum size):
      48 x 100 = 4800 pixels long
      36 x 100 = 3600 pixels wide

      Calculate surface area (get by):
      4800 x 3600 = 17,280,000 pixels (17.3Mp)

      Half size prints, 24″ x 18″ inches:

      Calculate height & width (ideal size):
      24 x 200 = 4800 pixels long
      18 x 200 = 3600 pixels wide

      Calculate surface area (need):
      4800 x 3600 = 17,280,000 pixels (17.3Mp)

      Calculate height & width (minimum size):
      24 x 100 = 2400 pixels long
      18 x 100 = 1800 pixels wide

      Calculate surface area (get by):
      2400 x 1800 = 4,320,000 pixels (4.3Mp)

      At 200ppi, that’s 40,000 pixels per square inch.

      As you can see, the demands quadruple when you double the size of a print. If you are experienced, you can shoot-and-slide, but your set-up must be close to perfect. Hence, you can take that 18Mp camera, shoot the left 60% of the painting, slide it, shoot the right 60%, and with skill, “stitch” the two halves together to create your 35Mp image.

      As of this point in time (2011 Jan), I would suggest a 15-21Mp camera, and higher as the technology brings prices down and pixel-density up.

    2. Film camera, the larger the film size, the better. Single-lens reflex 35mm, 120, and 4×5 view. Shot on reversal film (i.e., slides) ISO less than 400 (specifically on 35mm). With film, you will also need an optical scanner (see above).

  2. Lens. Budget wise, you can get away with a 100mm lens, and it doesn’t need to be very fast. What would be the benefit of a slower lens? Answer: the front element would likely be smaller, thus requiring a smaller filter size. One zoom that provides 85mm to 150mm would be ideal. Remember, you get what you pay for. For this use, you do not need to pay for a lens with image stabilization.

  3. A rotating polarizing filter. This is where you’ll see the benefit of a smaller filter size, as this would screw on the front of the lens. Price-out polarizing filters and you’ll see how quickly they get very expensive. I recently saw a high-quality 72mm polarizing filter (that’s a large filter) costing about $400. Remember the “weak link” paradigm: don’t pay for a good lens and then place a cheap filter in front of it.

  4. Tripod. Something solid. Keep in mind that your expensive camera and lens will be at the mercy of a cheap tripod. Most quality tripods do not come with a head, and must be purchased separately. Weigh your camera and your heaviest lens together. Tripods will list the maximum weight they can hold safely. Allow at least $100-$200 complete, tripod and head. NOTE: that’s for a digital or 35mm camera.
    Tripods for larger cameras, such as 120s and 4x5s, will cost more, since they weigh more.

  5. Remote shutter release. Also known as a cable release with film cameras. Not expensive (<$40) but very important. It prevents any slight camera movement during exposure (i.e., causing blur) by allowing you to make the exposure without touching the camera.

  6. Light meter. Your camera’s light meter makes a best guess based on an 18% gray card. If you photographed a large white card (filling your viewfinder), and then photographed a large black card — both exposures made with the built-in meter — the resulting captures would be identical — neither white nor black, but at 18% gray. A hand-held light meter registers the amount of light hitting your painting, much more accurate than the built-in meter reading the light reflecting from your painting. A hand-held meter will also tell you what your eyes can’t: if your lighting is even. There are many types of light meters, the one you’ll need is an incident meter.

  7. Tungsten Lights (3200 K). I will not attempt to cover all the possibilities, but in general, the larger your originals are, the more lights you’ll need — always in pairs.

  8. A solid easel-like appliance that can hold the painting vertically (not tilted back).

  9. A hot-shoe bubble level, which slides onto the flash mount. A level on the tripod does not fulfill the need.

SUGGESTIONS FOR SET-UP

Your Photo Studio (make-shift or otherwise)

A large room. As a starting point, you should be able to set your camera about 10-20-feet away from your painting — as the painting gets larger, so does the distance required. You use the lens (~100mm) to fill almost the entire frame with your painting. All four edges of your painting should be parallel to the viewfinder. If the edge of the painting looks curved, you need to move back. For printing purposes, you would eventually need to crop-out everything but the painting itself — no easel, no frame, no family pet, etc.

A dark room. When your camera lights are out, the room should be dark. You would most likely use ‘hot’ lamps (3200° K) along with the tungsten setting on your digital camera. If using film, you would use tungsten-balanced film (preferred), or tungsten-filtered daylight-balanced film.

Our brains balance the light we see, but film and digital cameras record color as the source sends it. Daylight is about 5500° Kelvin, compared to tungsten at 3200° K. If daylight was ambient enough in the room, your entire painting would need color correcting. That’s not very difficult when shooting RAW digital images, but on film or non-RAW images, it’s not easy, and may not even be noticed until you hold a print next to your original.

If you cannot block-out all extraneous light, then plan on shooting at night.

Light placement. Lights should be placed at a 45-degree angle on both sides. The larger the painting, the more lights are needed. There should be no visible hot spots, just smooth, even lighting. You must polarize the light entering the camera, and have it adjusted properly.

You should use a hand-held light meter, moving it all over the painting’s surface, corner-to-corner, to confirm that all areas receive the same amount of light.

Camera, your choice of film or digital. There are pluses to both, especially in relationship to the size of prints you want to produce. Either film or digital, you need to polarize the light coming in, either through a rotating polarizing filter, or polarization filters over the lamps.

If your goal is to sell large prints, then film may be your best bet. Digital cameras have one resolution, i.e., 8-megapixels, 12-megapixels, 22-megapixels, etc. Producing large prints requires many megapixels. Those new cameras and lenses are pricey.

If you do shoot film, then by all means, shoot chromes: Ektachrome, Kodachrome, etc. They produce slides, the positive image in the first generation. Also, most film boxes indicate the color that the specific film shifts or leans to. Kodachrome comes in a red box, Extachrome in a blue box, etc. So, if shooting a landscape painting, you’d probably want to use Ektachrome.

Film, though, does not have a built-in resolution — the resolution is based on the quality on the scanner. Kodachrome 25 and 64 are the finest films ever produced. I shot all my images on Kodachrome in the 70s-90s. But unless Kodak made a change, Kodachrome only came balanced for daylight, so it would require filtration — probably not your best option.

My film scanner optically captures film at 4000-ppi and a 48-bit color depth. That means my scanner captures billions of colors, while any PC display can show only 16.7 million colors. Even though my screen may not see any of the additional color, a printer does utilize the extra color data in a 48-bit color image.

You can get a used film camera for dirt cheap (e.g., 35mm, or better yet: 120), shoot chromes, and have them professionally drum scanned. Those who operate drum scanners usually know how to make the most of your scans. They scan chromes for billboards, transit ads, etc. A drum scanner may go up to 16,000-20,000-ppi, or more. From there, they would hand you a file on a CD or DVD. You’d finish it on a computer.

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WAS THIS HELPFUL?
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© 2009-2011 Lar Matré

 

22 Responses to “Digitizing Original Paintings for Print & Archive”

  1. How to Photograph your Art for Reproductions | Imagekind Blog | Buy, Sell, Create and Discuss Art Says:

    [...] You can read his full post here: Digitizing Original Paintings for Giclee-type Prints. [...]

  2. Tammi V Says:

    Thank you for sharing this information! Getting good quality photographs of my oil paintings is very important.

  3. Lar Says:

    You are quite welcome, Tammi. I was hoping it would help at least one person before the year was up. ;)

    BTW: I took a quick look at your paintings on FineArtAmerica … very nice!

  4. Randi Says:

    THANK YOU!

    After reading your article, I was able to finally achieve results that truly honor my originals. I couldn’t be much happier right now.

    Where’s your donation box?

    R

  5. Ron Says:

    I wish you had gotten to the second half, where you post process, archive, and print the captured image. Thanks.

  6. Lar Says:

    Ron,

    I believe you mean the other 95%.

    What you mentioned is very complex, as well subjective — subjects that would require books to cover fully. I wish it were much easier.

    Thanks and good luck.

  7. dbWarrior Says:

    Thank you very much for this useful information. A couple of questions: 1) Why is it better to use a long (200mm+) lens as opposed to photographing closer, and 2) Why do you recommend polarizing the light coming into the camera?

  8. Lar Says:

    Hi dbW,

    To answer #1: scroll up to the very first graphic you see (the last one in the article) with the red circle over the blue. If you click on it, you’ll get an idea from the top and next image down what you’d be looking at. With a short focal length lens, you would need to get much closer to fill your frame, and because of that, you would add distortion. With a long lens, preferably a zoom, you can move far back, still filling the frame with the subject, but it being virtually distortion-free.

    To answer #2: My preference is for the camera because you would only need one, it’s glass, it will last you forever (or until you upgrade your lens), and it’s easy to adjust. Over the lights: you need one for each light — add lights, buy more filters — they are not as easy to adjust, and they are not as durable as glass.

    I hope that helps.

  9. Nancy Says:

    Your instructions are very helpful.

    I’ve just been asked to photograph an extensive collection. It will be my first paying gig, and of course I want to do an exellent job.

    Thank you for taking the time to share your knowledge.

  10. Lar Says:

    Nancy,

    Thank you for taking the time to send some very kind words.

    I wish you the best!

  11. Kerry Says:

    Great information, thank you. However, wouldn’t you want your images to be archived and printed at 300 ppi, not 200? I’ll be doing 300 at any rate, this is what I’ve been doing with photography and graphic design work for years. Otherwise, fantastic article.

  12. Lar Says:

    You’re welcome Kerry … and thanks for the kind words. For archiving, you are correct that you want to save at the highest resolution possible. And 300-ppi “used” to be the print standard, though primarily for lithography.

    But with today’s Epson printers — in use by most POD services (Imagekind and FineArtAmerica, etc.) — they really only require 200-ppi on the high end, and they can get away with printing at 100-ppi. I know, it sounds pixely.

    They really don’t take into account the ppi you save it as, since if they did, your image would only print at one size. But submit your finished image to a POD, and you’ll probably see that they offer it in larger sizes (i.e., less pixel density). Or not. ;)

  13. Karen Says:

    Thanks for the information. I am entering an art competition for the first time online and this should help. However I found it almost impossible to actually read your article, the dark gray background is so close to the actual text color that there’s almost no contrast between the two, IMHO. Have a great day.

  14. Lar Says:

    Karen,

    You’re welcome and thank you for the suggestion. Although the text was not far from white, it could have been closer. So, I just up’d the wattage, and made it white. It should be easier to read … just in case you skimmed over a section or two. ;)

  15. Lea Says:

    This is an excellent article. I’ve struggled with setup and lighting before, especially when photographing large-scale work. Your description is splendidly detailed and clear and this setup is very effective, even with large paintings and a small working space.

    I did do an adjustment in light of those two constraints. A photography professor I contacted suggested that I take multiple overlapping detail shots and stitch them in Photoshop in order to get a high quality capture. (I paint 8′x6′ banners and sell prints.) That modification also worked well for me because I only have a 10mp camera. I imagine it wouldn’t be as successful for those wanting to photograph some varieties of abstract work.

  16. Lar Says:

    Hi Lea,

    Thank you for the kind words. I’m glad that my post offered you some value.

    The shoot, shift and stitch method is a very viable solution for large art, but it does take additional skills that most people, I don’t believe, possess.

    But for those who do, it’s a good option.

  17. Laura J. Says:

    Thanks for summarizing this process. After switching from painting on paper to canvas, I now have a harder task to reproduce my paintings faithfully. The main problem I’m having is with glossiness of acrylic paint, even varnished with semi-matte. Will try the polarizing filter idea, see if it works.

  18. PKD Says:

    I do my own architectural renderings of my designs. After decades of perfecting traditional media, including ink, markers and pencil, I have to make sacrifices to keep reproduction in budget, and usually get adequate quality out of flat beds, if the drawings are small enough.

    My system precludes advantages of digital design modifications afforded by rendering digitally to begin with. Hence the dilemma: invest in better reproduction system or in learning curve plus hardware & software for high tech graphics?

    Thanks for your well focused discussion, a topic at the edge of my dilemma.

  19. Robert A. Jones Says:

    Thanks for your great article.
    If I understand you correctly, you’ve recommended 200 dpi. Others recommend 300 dpi for fine art work. Is there really a noticeable difference in making a giclee? I would appreciate your response. Thanks!

  20. Lar Says:

    Robert,

    I’m glad you enjoyed it, and I appreciate the kind words.

    The answer is really yes and no. I come from a career of print and broadcast advertising, and the standard was 300ppi for all lithography or web. Those are completely different processes than the ink spray of a Giclée. Look at any photo in Architectural Digest  with a loupe, and you will see dots. CMYK dots give the illusion of continuous tone. You should not see any dots on a Giclée print because technically it is continuous tone.

    Imagekind (or FineArtAmerica, etc) will take my image with a width of 6400 pixels and they will sell you a 60″ wide print of it. If they were printing that at 300ppi, the width of my image would need to be 18,000ppi, not 6400.

    They achieve this through interpolation. I’m no mathematician, but my image would technically be printed at 107ppi … and most PODs offer a money-back, satisfaction guarantee. I’ve never been disappointed with Giclée printing, and I have prints more than three-feet wide, scanned from a 35 mm slide, and with beautiful gradients. Bigger is often better, but there’s a limit.

    FineArtAmerica will take my 6400 pixel wide print and print it out at six feet.

    Don’t you just love technology.

    Please let me know if I answered your question.

  21. TomD Says:

    This was a very good read; thank you for taking the time to explain.

    But…(there’s always a but :D), I wish you would have spent a paragraph or two on the actual mounting of the art work.

    I’m currently consigned to do some reproductions and I have a 16″ x 20″ piece that will not fit in my scanner (Epson V700…GREAT scanner!) and I will have to photograph it.

    I have the studio, lights, tripod, lens, et al, but I’m not exactly sure how to display the piece without marring it with pins/tacks, or make it uneven using mounting putty. Plus, I’d rather not use anything against the piece.

    It’s not a “work of art,” rather a family tree that needs to be reproduced, so I’m not all that worried of a pristine repro. But the closer I can get to it, the happier I’ll be, and thusly my client will be ;)

    I’ve spent the past half an hour searching for an “upright” or “vertical” easel without luck……any suggestions?

    I know this topic hasn’t been responded to in a while, but it seems valuable enough to resurrect?

    Much thanks!

    -Tom

    p.s. I do not own a tilt-shift, but I might be able to get my hands on one…..

  22. Lar Says:

    Hi Tom,

    Your easiest solution may be a ladder. If you can lean back the original just enough so it will not fall, then figure your 90-degrees up the ladder, if you know what I mean.

    I confess, I did draw that vertical easel figuring that there were none that could be bought like that, but one could probably build something not to complex. I’d try the ladder first. Hopefully you have high ceilings.

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