Image Capture for Fine Art Reproduction

  • Nov 28, 2019

Unless art is created in a digital environment, it must be scanned or photographed before a reproduction can be made. How that scan or photograph happens has a significant impact on the quality of the final product. You probably know that Reno Type operates one of the last old-school high-end scanners in the West, and that we still have trained scanner operators with the experience and skill to get the most out of that equipment.

When a piece of art must be photographed, we do not do it ourselves. Rather we work with a professional who has the best tools and the appropriate skills. Photographing your artwork with your own camera, or even by a higher-end digital camera will not yield professional results all on its own. You can get a snapshot for 20 bucks, but you can’t get a professional quality high-end photograph suitable for reproduction for anything close to that. It might be that your artwork does not need high end reproduction. It’s possible that you, or the people you’re selling to don’t know the difference – or care about it. Assuming you DO care, here are some things that matter when photographing artwork for fine art reproduction.

  • The Camera. Resolution, measured in megapixels, is frequently cited as the defining characteristic of a camera. But in and of itself, that measurement is nearly irrelevant. Just because a camera has a high resolution does not mean it will return professional results. In fact, it frequently means the opposite. Digital cameras use something called a “CCD,” or “charged couple device” to capture light. CCDs exist in an array on a chip. The more of them in a given space (the smaller they are) and the lower their light-gathering ability. Larger CCDs mean lower resolution, but they will be able to capture more contrast and tonal range, bringing out detail in very dark areas that another CCD might not be able to detect. You don’t need super high resolution: you need the RIGHT resolution. Cameras that are appropriate for art reproduction don’t come from Best Buy. They are professional tools that cost upwards of $50,000.
  • The Capture. Consumer cameras are designed to take a quick photo. Push the shutter release and you get one image, all of it at once. The CCD is left to figure out exactly what color any individual pixel is. High-End Cameras, Like the Imacon used by our preferred studio, do things quite differently. It takes as many as 16 individual shots, stitching them together to achieve the best resolution and color fidelity. It shoots Red, Green and Blue SEPARATELY, and then takes a fourth shot, using the green channel to improve sharpness and correctly reproduce luminosity. This results in incredible color fidelity: the reds are captured by the red shot, the blues by the blue, etc. This more accurate color capture also yields superior sharpness, as the system can perfectly detect where one color stops, and another begins. Its CCD array is actually quite low resolution (remember… lower resolution means greater light gathering potential!) but has a micro-motor that MOVES the ccd a tiny bit between as many as 16 shots to allow a high resolution capture. It’s the best of both worlds: Big ccd light gathering ability and high resolution.
  • The Lens. To do fine art reproduction properly, one must use a fixed-focal length flat field lens. This is the only way to ensure sharpness from corner to corner. A typical lens (or worse yet, the zoom lens an unskilled person would likely use) is just not designed for reproducing something that is flat. They are made for capturing things that exist in three dimensions. Fixed focal length lenses always produce sharper results than zoom lenses, and this adds another twist:
  • The Studio. Because every piece of art has a different size, the camera must change position in order to fill the frame with the artwork. This is not easy as the slightest change in camera angle or position relative to the work being shot will cause focus and geometry problems. A simple camera-store tripod is not up to the task. Levels and precise measurements from the corners of the piece to the center of the lens are required to ensure perfect geometry. This difficulty is why many people will leave their camera in a fixed location and zoom with a lens. If only A zoom lens could capture as sharp an image!
  • Artwork is frequently reflects light. Varnishes and finishes vary, or the piece might be behind glass. The cheap and cheerful workaround is to use a polarizing filter. This does eliminate glare, but it changes color reproduction too. The correct way to eliminate glare is through proper lighting. A couple of strobes and umbrellas can help, but they are not enough. Our preferred studio has a 20’ x 20’ white silk diffuser on the ceiling that can be raised/ lowered and tilted as required to get the lighting perfect off, plus scores of strobes, screens and reflectors. Simply put, a cheap photo service just CAN’T do this: they don’t have the room.
  • The Photographer and their assistant. There are a lot of variables, and it takes an expert to manage all of them and bring them together. This skill does not come easily of inexpensively, and it shouldn’t.

A print studio with the correct equipment and skills must charge appropriately for their use. A single shot of art will take about an hour, use 1000 square feet, employ a $50,000+ camera with a several thousand dollar lens and lots of lighting equipment. All of it overseen by a professional with decades of experience doing nothing else.  You can’t get that for 20 bucks. And more importantly, you shouldn’t want it.