This page will walk you through a few simple ways to take a decent photograph of your painting using a camera phone or an automatic "point & shoot" camera. If you have a camera capable of shooting in RAW format with manual controls and want to learn how to take full advantage of it, click here for the Advanced Photography Guide.
The #1 problem with most photos is that they are overexposed. With a manual camera, you can adjust the settings so that the photo is exposed correctly, but because you're using an automatic camera, you will need to find another way to get a good exposure.
But first, what is a good exposure? Let's take a look at this painting:
And now let's compare that to three exposures on this camera phone. The first one is overexposed (too bright), the second one is underexposed (too dark), and the third one is a good exposure.
If you're an enrolled student in the Online Course and you send a photo of your painting to me that is exposed incorrectly, I will let you know if your exposure is too bright or too dark and you can learn by trial and error.
Now that you have a better idea of what a good exposure is, how do you adjust the exposure when taking your photo? Below I will go over two simple methods you can use to adjust your exposure, and then at the bottom of the page I will go over some other important things you should be aware of. Please read all of it!
METHOD 1: Tricking Your Camera
When a camera tries to automatically determine how to expose a photo, it does so by analyzing the brightness of the scene. When taking a photo of your painting, the only part of the image you care about is the painting, but the camera will also analyze the background around your painting. For example, if you hang a bright background behind your painting , the camera will darken the exposure to compensate.
Knowing this, you can trick your camera into changing the exposure so that the painting in your photo is exposed correctly. Because the vast majority of cameras tend to overexpose photos, you will generally be tricking the camera into darkening the exposure. Different cameras may behave differently, so you may need to try a few different things for this to work. For example, you could have someone hold a white piece of paper next to your painting, and include more of the piece of paper in your shot if you need the exposure to be darker, and if it gets too dark, include less of the piece of paper.
If you're ever unsure whether your exposure is correct or not, always err on the dark side. A slightly underexposed photo is better than an overexposed one.
Here's another way to do this that will work on some cameras, including the iPhone: try tapping on different parts of the screen before taking a photo to focus on different parts of the scene. If your camera supports the feature and has it enabled, tapping will adjust the exposure depending on what you tap on. For example, if you tap on a very bright part of the image, the exposure will get darker, and if you tap on a very dark part of the image, the exposure will get brighter. If you're taking a photo of a finished painting, you probably have a whole range of values from very dark to very bright in your painting, so you can try tapping different parts of your painting until the exposure is correct.
If you're taking a photo of a stained canvas or an unfinished painting with just the dark values painted in, you won't have many values on the canvas itself that you can tap on. While you could tap on different values in the background behind your easel, the problem with this is that wherever you tap, the camera may focus on that spot. Because the background behind your easel is further away from the camera than your painting is, this could result in your painting being "out of focus" (blurry). But you tape or prop up a piece of paper above your painting, like this:
You can tap on the piece of paper to make the exposure darken. Because the paper is the same distance from your camera as your painting is, your focus will still be correct. If this method darkens your painting too much or doesn't darken it enough, you can try cutting the paper to be smaller, or try including more or all of the paper in your shot. Sometimes it can be tricky to get the camera to cooperate.
METHOD 2: Exposure Compensation Controls
Some cameras (and camera-phone apps) have an "Exposure Compensation" control which allows you to adjust the exposure directly. The control is usually labeled with the icon or the abbreviation "EV" (short for "Exposure Value"). Usually this control is limited, only allowing you to adjust the exposure by a few increments, so you may need to combine this method with Method 1, depending on your camera. However, if you do have access to this control, it may be all you need to obtain the correct exposure.
If you're using an Android phone and your default camera app does not have an Exposure Compensation control, there is a great camera app you can download for a few dollars that usually solves this problem. The app is called Camera FV-5 and you can find it in the Google Play Store. While not all camera phones allow the app to control all of the camera features, Exposure Compensation usually works. With Camera FV-5, you can control the Exposure Compensation by clicking the icon or by dragging the little red bar in the bottom-corner of the screen to the left or to the right.
There is a free version of the app, called Camera FV-5 Lite, which you can use to see if the app works on your phone without spending any money. The Lite version is exactly the same as the full version except the photos it takes are too small. The full version can take photos that are as large as your camera phone will allow, which you will need.
Other Important Considerations
When taking photos with a camera phone, turn the screen brightness up to maximum. This will make it easier to avoid overexposing your photo.
Never use the flash on your camera when taking a photo of your painting as it will create glare. The flash function is usually labeled with the icon. Make sure to disable it. Also, wear dark clothing or, if you're using a tripod, stand to the side when you press the trigger so that you yourself don't create any glare in your oil paint or varnish. If your studio is set up as recommended on the Getting Ready for the Course page, you should be able to take a photo of your painting on your easel without getting any glare.
Do not take your photo from an angle. You can ensure your photo is being taken straight on by walking up to your painting, holding your camera just in front of the painting pointing straight forward, and then stepping back until your painting fits within the shot. If you need to, take an extra step back to ensure you don't accidentally cut part of your painting out of the photo.
If you're using a camera without a moving lens (this applies to almost all camera phones), do not zoom in when taking the photo. Stay zoomed out all the way. Cameras without a moving lens cannot truly "zoom". Instead, they have a "digital zoom" feature which merely crops the image, making it smaller or degrading the quality. If your painting is not taking up most of the photo and you would like it to be bigger, you need to move closer to the painting.
You can take photos of your painting while you're working on it and right after you finish it, but you should varnish your painting with gloss varnish before taking your final photo that you will be using to showcase your work.
If your photos are coming out blurry, it may be that your painting was out of focus when you took the photo, but there are other possibilities. With camera phones, it's common for the piece of glass that covers the lens to get dirty or oily from being handled. Before taking your photo, breath hot air onto the lens cover and wipe it with a soft cloth (I use my shirt), the same way people clean eye glasses. Another common problem is motion blur if you're not holding the camera still enough when taking the photo. Try holding the camera as still as possible. Ideally, use a tripod or even a small table and a stack of books so that your camera is not affected by shakey hands.
If your photos are coming out too small, be sure to check the image size setting on your camera. It should be at the maximum quality/size setting.
Problems with Color Shifts
If the overall color of your photo is wrong (for example, if it's too blue or too orange, like the images below), this probably means your "White Balance" setting is wrong.
While this can easily be fixed in RAW photos from a manual camera, many automatic cameras don't have adequate controls for this, so you may not be able to do anything about it with your camera without getting into more advanced techniques.
If your camera or camera-phone app has a White Balance setting, it is usually labeled "WB", although sometimes other icons are used. The default setting is "Automatic", which may be abbreviated "AWB" or "Auto". While taking your photo, try changing this setting to the other options offered and choose the one you judge to have the most accurate colors overall.
A full explanation of White Balance and how to use to it is beyond the scope of this simplified walkthrough. For more information, read the Advanced Photography Guide.
If you're an enrolled student in the Online Course and you're having trouble with this guide, please email firstname.lastname@example.org with your Student ID and any questions you have.
If you would like information on taking photographs to paint from, click here.