How to photograph watercolor paintings

I am often asked how to photograph watercolor paintings. This involves a number of topics such as the right camera and lens, placement of artwork, lighting, and how to adjust the final image. This article covers my equipment and the key points only.

As I take a lot of step by step photos as I progress through a painting – so I can post the watercolor demonstrations on this site and in my book(s) – I needed a setup that would allow me to take photos quickly and of wet paintings.

My equipment

Digital SLR Camera: Sony Alpha 77V

Lens: Sony SAL1650 16-50mm zoom lens

Remote: wireless Sony model RMT-DSLR1

Camera support: Modified lighting reflector stand to support camera over my painting.

I have a very good Sony SLR camera and lens which I use to photograph my work. I am able to take my photos inside under fluorescent lights. I can then adjust my work using my image editing software.

My setup showing how to photograph watercolor paintings

Camera set up showing how to photograph watercolor paintings

Camera set up showing how to photograph watercolor paintings

The biggest challenge I have found has been how to keep my camera steady. Even though I have quite steady hands, there is always some camera shake when I press the shutter button on my camera. Because of this I would have to take a number of shots of each image so I could select the sharpest. I solved this problem by using a modified studio lighting reflector stand.

Using a lighting reflector stand, to which I attached the head mechanism from a camera tripod, I am able to shoot my watercolor artwork from directly above. I bought my lighting reflector stand from a local photographic shop, in Australia; however Amazon appear to sell a lighting reflector stand similar to the one I used. They have a number of such stands of varying quality no doubt. I did not need the actual reflector, I just wanted to re-purpose the arm and stand.

You can see in the image below how I attached a photographic tripod head onto the reflector arm. I needed to do a bit of cutting and used a couple of pop rivets to attach the two to each other.

Image showing how the camera tripod head attached to reflector arm

Camera tripod head attached to reflector arm

I place my watercolor painting on the floor in a section of my studio that provides light from above and the side so there are no shadows falling on my work. Because of the weight of my camera and depending on how far I extend the arm I sometimes need to place some weights on the tripod legs to keep the unit from toppling over.

I then set up my camera on the end of its support arm so that it can shoot my work with a minimum of distortion. I find a focal length setting of 50mm on my camera works best to minimize lens distortion.

I shoot my images in RAW mode which collects the maximum amount of image data. If your camera cannot take RAW images then just take them in the highest resolution possible. Should you want to know all the reasons why you should shoot your photos in RAW instead of JPEG please have a look at this article: 10 Reasons why you should be shooting RAW on the Photography Concentrate website. Unfortunately RAW images are quite large which can be a problem if you do hot have plenty of hard disk space.

Instead of manually pressing the shutter button I use a camera remote. Mine is wireless operated which means absolutely no vibration affects the camera. I find that with this setup I get great photos every time. If you do not have a remote for your camera maybe you can shoot using your camera’s timer.

Wireless remote used to photograph watercolor paintings

Wireless camera remote used to reduce camera shake when photographing artwork.

I let my camera shoot the image on auto mode – as I am not a professional photographer. This generally provides a good quality image and I don’t have to spend time trying to manually set my camera to the correct settings. My main interest is to get as sharp a photograph as I can, adjusting lighting and color as needed with software. My software is ACDSee Pro which not only allows me to modify my image if needed, so that it more closely matches my artwork’s colors, but also is a great tool for cataloging and cross indexing all my photos. There are a number of other similar software packages you can purchase, this just happens to be the one I use.

I think using a camera remote and support mechanism as I have described above, are two of the most important tools you can use – you just can’t hold the camera steady enough in your arms. Having the support arm I made also lets me shoot my photos from directly above my image, reducing any distortion.

I hope this article has given you some ideas as to how to photograph your own artwork. Professional photographers may use other tools and lighting but I have found with the above system I can photograph watercolor paintings quickly and quite accurately.

2 thoughts on “How to photograph watercolor paintings

  1. Angela Fehr

    This is very similar to how I prefer to photograph my paintings, however I don’t have the stand which I am going to buy right away! It will replace the gimmicky set up I use to film my watercolour videos.

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