Documenting Your Work

Introduction – Basics of Photographic Documentation

For the past few years I have specialised in the photography of historical objects, documents and artworks. During this time I photographed items as varied as paintings, sculpture, and art installations. I have found that, while creating images that convey the atmosphere of an exhibition or installation can sometimes be difficult and challenging, the documentation of individual works can be a very straightforward process. In this piece I will endeavor to point out the minimum equipment needed to make adequate photographic documentation and most importantly the basic techniques to help you get consistent results. The following represents the minimum equipment needed to make a start:

* Manual SLR camera
* Tripod and cable release
* Spirit level
* Metering system
* Light source

Equipment You Will Need:

Manual SLR Camera
There is an abundance of 35 mm cameras available on the market – both new and used. I would recommend a second-hand model preferably a Canon, Minolta, Olympus or Pentax. Any of these models should be available either on the Internet or in camera shops for well below 200 Euro. A standard 50mm lens would be a good starting lens.

Tripod and Cable Release
My advice would be to allow the largest part of your budget for the purchase of a tripod. Do not buy a cheap lightweight tripod – it will not work efficiently and it will be difficult to position precisely. With a decent tripod soundly in position a cable release will trip the shutter without causing any vibration to the camera.

Spirit Level
Using a spirit level is the best method for leveling your camera. It is possible to buy a very small spirit level, which fits into the accessory shoe of an SLR camera. Alternatively a cheap decorator’s spirit level will suffice.

Metering System
To meter accurately I would suggest the use of a hand held or ‘incidental’ light meter, which measures the specific light actually falling on the subject. However if working on a budget, your ‘in camera’ meter can be employed in conjunction with a grey card* (see ‘Determining the Correct Exposure).

Light Source
Electronic flash would be my first choice as a light source for artworks,while tungsten lamps and even daylight can also be used. But one has to understand the limitation of each light source* (see the section on Photographing Installations and Exhibitions).The above 5 items are the absolute minimum that one would require to attempt to make any reasonable documentation of artworks. If you find yourself trying to document artwork without the above you should be aware from the start that you will not achieve consistently usable results. Your time will be wasted and the expense borne will be in vane.

Traditionally 35 mm slides, (or transparencies as they are also called) were all that an artist needed to promote their work as they where universally accepted by all galleries. Added to these there are now several more ways of communicating with galleries, institutions and organisations. Every day now we access websites, send e-mails, and write CDs and DVDs. These newer methods of communication are a perfect vehicle for digital photography. Once captured, an image can be infinitely copied at no extra cost, and can be sent by a number of mediums to an even greater number of people.

Digital cameras of sufficient quality with a reasonable level of control are still very expensive especially for the professional SLR models. The cheapest I can think of would cost roughly €1000. In addition to the cost of the digital camera you would also need to factor in the cost of a computer and software on which to download and edit images. If you are tempted to make the change to digital, do not be tempted by lower-priced models. Although offering high-resolution, lower cost point-and-shoot cameras cannot be controlled manually and therefore will not yield adequate results.

Determining a Correct Exposure 
Determining a correct exposure for artwork can be tricky business. However, if the metering system employed is properly understood, the job of accurate metering can be made very easy and repeatable. The reflective metering system of an SLR camera works in the following way: Light reflected off the surface of the artwork passes through the lens of the camera and falls on a light sensitive cell. The intensity of the light determines the shutter speed and aperture set on the camera. Different tones and colours quite obviously have different levels of reflectivity where the darker colours reflect less light and lighter colours reflect more light.

Through their exhaustive research, camera manufacturers have determined that the average scene reflects only 18% of the light that falls on to it. All camera meters therefore are calibrated to reflect this discovery and so are only useful for average scenes. Over the years all kinds of additions have been made to camera meters to make them more accurate in a varied number of conditions, but still the most effective means remain the old faithful ‘grey card’.

Kodak manufactures a piece of grey card which magically reflects only 18% of the light which falls on to it. So if we placed this card between the camera and our subject and take a reading using the in camera meter, set the shutter speed and aperture suggested on-camera and then make our shot (minus the grey card) and presto – we have an accurate exposure! Effectively what we have done is overcome the camera’s inability to see differential tones within a scene and we have set an exposure that will definitely allow accurate reproductions of a predetermined grey tone (the camera meter is trying to measure for the scene that we have provided for it).

A separate hand held light meter (which meters the ambient light, i.e. the light falling onto the subject rather than that being reflected from it) is another alternative and proves in all cases to be far more accurate than any light meter situated within a camera. This would be my preferred tool for exposure readings.

Photographing Paintings and Prints 
For copying two-dimensional items such as paintings or prints, align the camera so that it is perfectly parallel to the plane of your artwork. Use your spirit level to maintain levels on your artwork and your camera and lastly use your eye through the viewfinder to check that the subject is perfectly square.

* The lighting needs to be even over the entire subject area and you do not want any part of the light source to be reflected back into the camera, as this will cause “flare”. The best possible situation is to have two light sources each 45 degrees to the subject pointing to the opposite corners. See diagram:

* Use your light meter to determine the evenness of your lighting and adjust if necessary.

* To determine an exposure setting using your meter or grey card, make the setting on your camera, depress your cable and there you have it, your copy.

* If using daylight to capture your copy it is important to note that the value of light can rise and fall very quickly and must be constantly observed.

* If working outdoors with flat artwork it must also be noted that colour of daylight can be affected by colour and reflections of the environment, only work in neutral coloured areas so as not to pickup colourcasts from colour walls, grass, etc. Also the colour of daylight changes through the day and can be colder in the morning then in the evening.

* While working under a blue sky the blueness can be reflected in the artwork as a blue cast. A cloudy and overcast day may be the best choice for making images in daylight.

Photographing 3D Objects
Images of three-dimensional objects are easier to make indoors. If outdoors, I would advise that a background of some kind be employed. Black, white or a light grey paper backgrounds seem to work best in most cases but this is a matter of personal taste. They are available in 9ft rolls for large objects and 4.5ft rolls for small objects and can be purchased in large camera shops.

* If using flash or other supplementary lighting, careful composition and positioning of lights to bring out the subjects character is important.

* Shooting on large and medium format cameras should be considered if you are making work specifically for reproduction in high-quality publications. As the cost of cameras in this class is a lot higher I would suggest employing a photographer to make these images where necessary, unless of course you have already in your possession a large or medium format camera and you are able to use it easily. The reason I have chosen a 35 mm camera as a base level camera is because it can produce 35 mm slides, the stock in trade for visual artists.

Photographing Exhibitions and Installations 
When working in a gallery space one has to take on a different approach and mindset to when undertaking straightforward documentation of individual works. You are no longer trying to make an exact copy of your work; instead you are now trying to make a reasonable representation of your work within a particular space. Paying attention to the particular ‘feel’ of an exhibition space requires that you consider a number of things:

* The relationship between your work and the space
* Color of lighting
* Level of lighting

Unlike our previous examples where we lit the work specifically for purposes of reproduction, we are now faced with the situation where the work is already lit for the viewers in the gallery. Introducing any additional lighting would create a false impression of how the work actually appeared in the gallery space.

In most indoor situations lighting levels are generally low and a tripod and cable release must be employed. After composing an image that shows the piece (or pieces) within the space in your viewfinder, consideration must be given to the color of light which is predominant in the exhibition space. There are several possibilities:

A) The gallery is completely artificially lit with low-level tungsten background light and additional lighting to draw the viewer’s eye to the pieces on exhibition.
B) The gallery is lit by daylight with supplementary tungsten light to highlight the objects on exhibition.
C) The gallery is lit by daylight with supplementary fluorescent strip lighting and tungsten lighting to highlight the objects of exhibition.

Case (A) is the easiest situation to cope with. As there is only one form of lighting (tungsten) we can choose a film that is balanced to this tungsten light source. My personal favourite would be a Fuji 64 tungsten balanced slide film. In a situation such as the above, the object to be photographed usually has the highest level of lighting by way of spotlighting. It is very important that the exposure is made for the highlight within the complete image. To ensure that this is the case the meter reading must be taken from the brightest part of the scene. Once a meter reading has been taken we are ready to make our exposure. Using available light usually means a slow shutter speed and this is where your tripod and cable release come into their own. The resulting image shot on tungsten film will have a very neutral tone with no sense of that yellow to orange glow we get when shooting on the daylight film under tungsten lighting.

Case (B) however presents us with the problem in that the piece to be photographed is illuminated with tungsten light, but the background light source is that of daylight. If we choose tungsten film in this instance the artwork may have a correct tone but the overall tone of the image will have an uncomfortable blue cast (the result of shooting daylight on to tungsten film). In this instance we must allow our artworks to look warm and choose a daylight film so that the overall effect will be much more pleasing to the eye.

Case (C) is a little bit tricky. We must use daylight film because of the daylight component in the overall lighting scheme. The best plan in this type of situation would be to make a multiple exposure on one frame of film. If the windows of the gallery space are shuttered or have blinds – the following would be possible. With the shutters or blinds open and all the other lighting switched off an exposure is made of the exhibition space. The shutters or blinds are then drawn. The camera shutter is cocked without advancing the film, and a second exposure is made with just the fluorescent strip-lights turned on. For this exposure a 0.5 magenta filter is placed over the lens to cancel out the green cast created by this type of light source. The camera is then cocked again without advancing the film and a third exposure is made with only the tungsten spotlight turned on, a blue filter is placed over the lens to cancel out cast created by the warm colored light. To enable this method of shooting to be successful it must be possible for the photographer to make test shots and see them immediately – to facilitate this a medium format camera with Polaroid back or a digital camera with computer, is necessary. As you can imagine from the above, it can take some practice before one can accurately assess the lighting in any given exhibition space.

Video / Projections
Documenting video work and projections can also be tricky business, but there are three basic issues:

* It is useful to create a screen grab (freeze frame) to work with

* Remember that your projection is also a light source – it should be your primary exposure

* There may be other elements within view that you may wish to capture within your shot and you must allow for these to be included in the exposure also.

These issues are addressed by making multiple exposures on one sheet of film. Finding a balance between all light sources is usually achieved by making several test Polaroid’s or using some other instant test system.

Outdoors / In the Public Realm 
To photograph outdoor artworks I would recommend a simple approach. Always use your tripod and cable release. Photograph at a time of day and when the sun is behind you illuminating your object to be photographed. It should be possible to photograph outdoor artworks at any time of day if the day is an overcast one (but try not to use sky as background). If you have purchased a hand held light meter – use it all the time. Camera meters can always be fooled, but not so your hand held light meter.

Digital Photography
I have used the image below as an example of how digital cameras can be employed to great effect. Again I have to say, use the best you can afford. An SLR type camera which can capture a RAW type file would be my preference. A RAW digital file is the actual data gathered from the sensor of the camera, and as such this data has not been processed or manipulated in any way. If you take a file like this into an image editing program you can work on the exposure, colour balance and contrast,
with great ease and control ensuring that nothing is left to chance. A camera that produces a jpeg or similar type file processes the image in camera disregarding information that it regards as non critical. This is fine if the resulting image does not need any further adjustments. However if it does need further adjustments the missing information now becomes critical and any adjustments made have a degrading effect on some part of the image.

Colour correction would be the most important correction to be made on a file and I can safely say that if you colour correct a RAW file it has no noticeable effect on the quality of the file. To make a digital documentation of a space, as in the image above, I would suggest the following steps.

1. Make a test shot with a grey card or colour checker (this can be used as a colour correction tool later)
2. Multiple exposures can be made from the same tripodded spot.
3. After colour and exposure correcting, elements of each of the images can be composited together to make an image which would be close to a viewers perception of the space.

The scene in the image has 4 essential zones which need to be extracted from the 4 thumbnails on the left

1. the over all environment.
2. the video screen in the foreground.
3. the items in the display cases and
4. the illuminated panel right in the centre of the picture.

All of these items are correctly exposed in one of the four thumbnail images on the left and after careful colour correction they are composited together using layer masks in Photoshop a precise explanation of how this is done can be found from pages 26 to 29 of this document – painting_pixels.

This case is an extreme one but it proves the point that extremes do exist. If lighting is reasonably even overall in an exhibition space a single photo might suffice but it is worth mentioning that colour balance and exposure are crucial, and digital camera’s make these particular variables very easy to capture.

By David Monahan
David Monahan graduated from the Dun Laoghaire College of Art and Design with a qualification in Photography in 1997. Since then he has worked for several National institutions including The National Library, National Museum and the National Photographic Archive. He recently worked on two major exhibitions for the National Library of Ireland (James Joyce and Ulysses, and The life and works of William Butler Yeats) where he completed a large share of all photographic works. His general photographic practice has touched on areas such as artwork documentation, portraiture, architectural, and interiors His personal work has appeared in shows in the Gallery of Photography, Dublin and the National Photographic archive. He lives and works in central Dublin.

By continuing to use the site, you agree to the use of cookies. more information

The cookie settings on this website are set to "allow cookies" to give you the best browsing experience possible. If you continue to use this website without changing your cookie settings or you click "Accept" below then you are consenting to this. You can review our Privacy Policy under the menu above: About VAI > VAI Privacy Statement