Get Your Stuff Out There, Part I: Taking Photographs

You’re making something–paintings, art dolls, quilts, jewelry, sculptures–and you’re looking pretty good. Your family and friends have started urging you to show your work. Galleries, they say. Magazines! Books! You’re maybe not really sure you’re ready, but you would like some feedback from someone not so biased in your favor. What can you do?

"Java Voodoo," mixed media on canvas

The very first, Most Important #1 Thing you need to do, before you do anything else is:  learn to take good photographs of your work. Don’t panic: this doesn’t mean you need an expensive camera or fancy lighting or a class in Taking Good Photographs. What it means is that yes, you need a camera. You can get a perfectly acceptable digital camera for less than $200–sometimes quite a bit less. Checking this morning on, I see Canon Powershot cameras, 12.1 megapixels, in “like new” condition starting at $80. I have a 10 mp Powershot, and it’s all I need for taking good, clean photographs of, well, almost everything.  Never mind all the fancy photo blogs that tout new SLR cameras and an impressive collection of expensive lenses. Sure, my husband has several fancier cameras, and while I’m not nearly as good at taking photos as he is, my little camera can take shots that are just as clear. It’s really more about the photographer than it is the camera. And, with patience and practice, you can become a pretty decent photographer of your work. I took both of these photos myself, out on the front porch with my little point-and-shoot, when I was in a hurry. They’re not bad. Think of how much better your photos with be with a little practice.

The three most important parts of taking good photographs of what you create? Good light, a clean background, and a steady hand. Set up your work where it will be lighted by natural light, if possible, but not hit directly by the sun. Think a room with lots of windows or a shady porch. If that’s not possible, try to set it up in a room where you have several sources of light–overhead, a couple of lamps. You don’t want glare or shadows, so play around. Move lamps, tilt shades, use dimmers or reflected light. Take lots of different shots of one piece of work, moving it from room to room and from the table to the mantle to the window sill, and then compare those photographs. That’s the beauty of digital photgraphy: you can take hundreds and hundreds of shots, look at them on your computer, and discard the ones that don’t work, all without any expense. Long gone are the days when you’d have to take film to be developed and then wait to see if you were going to have to start over and re-shoot the whole lot from scratch.

"Molecular Voodoo," mixed media on canvas

Clean, uncluttered backgrounds can be as easy as some posterboard or a solid-colored sheet. If you’re comfortable with things like setting the depth of field on your camera, you can use that to blur out the background, but it’s not necessary. Draping a sheet or piece of solid-colored fabric over a stack of boxes or books can work just fine. Experiment. Go to artists’ websites and look at how they present their work. Notice what’s effective and what you’d do differently.

To get a clean background for this photo of me, Earl used a screen we found at a garage sale.

A steady hand. Some cameras have image stabilization, and some don’t. Some of us have steady hands, and some of us never will. Fortunately, you can get a simple, lightweight tripod for around $20 (this morning there are mini-tripods on for $.01 plus shipping. Yeah, that’s right: a penny. With shipping, that’s around $5.

And this isn’t even about image adjustment once you’ve taken the photos. With a simple image adjustment program, you can fine-tune your images, although you don’t want to do too much with them–resist the urge to make them neon or sepia, please. And if you’ve got Photoshop? Well. You don’t need to be listening to me telling you about photographs–get in there and experiment!

Set aside a couple hours one weekend when the light’s great and you’re not in a hurry. Start with your most recent work, the pieces you’re still excited about and that you’d like to show people. Photograph them in a variety of positions from a variety of angles. Look at the shots, then take some more. Repeat until you figure out a method that’s simple, quick, and will produce consistent results. If you know that all you need to do is set up your tripod behind the rocking chair on the front porch and prop your canvas against the white wall opposite and take a couple of photographs between 2 and 4 pm when the light is really good there, it will encourage you to take photographs of all your work because you won’t have to reinvent the wheel every time. Set aside several days to photograph your work, stopping when you get tired or the light’s not quite right. Keep a file of photographs and a list of work that still needs to be shot, and then get into the habit of taking photographs of a piece as soon as you finish or, if that isn’t feasible, on a specific day once a month, when you can photograph everything you’ve done since the last session.

Next time we’ll talk about what to do next in Getting Your Stuff Out There.

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4 Responses to Get Your Stuff Out There, Part I: Taking Photographs

  1. Kimberly says:

    Great article! And so true. Thank you Rice for the encouragement and motivation.

  2. busesrkool says:

    Thanx Rice for the great article.

  3. Rice Freeman-Zachery says:

    Thanks, y’all. Now I just wish I’d take more time with my own photographs. I think patience is what I’m lacking (either that, or I’m just a lousy photographer–thank goodness my husband loves it and has TONS of patience).