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How to Photograph Your Art for Websites
and Other Online Purposes
The Internet has forever changed the way artists get exposure for their art. Conventional ways of getting the word out about your art can reach nowhere near the numbers of people that an active online presence and social networking can, and for you as an artist, expanding your audience is becoming increasingly dependent on how well you craft and manage your online profile. A large part of that profile has to do with the way you organize, write about and present your art, but the most important part by far is your visuals, images of your art. Your goal is to interest people enough in your work to take some kind of action-- contact you, ask questions, start dialogues, offer you shows or exposure or other art-related opportunities, and the best of all possible outcomes, make sales. If the images of your art don't look their absolute best and most compelling, those outcomes are significantly less likely to occur.
In spite of this reality, one of the most consistently frustrating aspects of looking at art online is that you can't tell much about it. Many artists do surprisingly little to convey the visual richness of their work. Maybe they mistakenly assume that because their images make perfect sense to them, they automatically make sense to everyone else, and that no further effort is necessary. Maybe they think that doing what everyone else does is enough. Whatever their reasons, they often do little more than the minimum and leave it at that. If all you offer are cropped images against plain backgrounds like so many artists do, only people who are already familiar with your work and understand the details will get it; the rest of us will stay pretty much clueless.
You have to remember that looking at art online is not like looking at it in a gallery where you can ask questions, get answers, move from side to side, back up, zoom in and really study it from a variety of perspectives. Online viewers are handicapped from the start not only because they can't experience the physical presence of the work, but also because they can't easily speak with anyone about it as they're looking. The only way for you or any other artist to rectify this situation is to provide as close to an in-person viewing experience as possible. You want anyone who lands on your website, whether they know anything about your art or not, to get an up close, in depth and quality experience of what it's like to see it in person. The good news is that they can.
If you still think showing your art online is always going to be inferior to seeing it in person and use that as an excuse not to make it look its best, think again. With increased Internet speeds and advances in digital photography, the opposite can often be the case; the online viewing experience can not only be as good as in-person, but sometimes even better. Online, you control what viewers see and direct their attentions like you've never been able to direct them before, possibly even more so than in galleries. You decide what people should look at, when they should look at it, what order they should look at it in, what specific areas or physical characteristics you want them to focus in on, and more.
For example, people often overlook significant details when viewing art or miss them altogether, and if you're like most artists, you've likely had to point those details out to viewers on multiple occasions. Many people either don't have a lot of experience looking at art, they don't know enough about particular artists or works of art to know where or what to look at or look for, or they're simply afraid to look for too long or stand too close. Online, you can now solve all these problems by controlling what people see in order to make sure nobody misses anything ever again. Here's how....
Rather than show straight-on single images of each work of art like the overwhelming majority of artists do (and which at worst can raise more questions than answers), present a series or sequence of images, a complete viewing experience, a guided tour so to speak. You be the curator here. You know how your art looks best and what details or characteristics are most important for people to see and understand, so take them on an image-by-image tour that shows all that. You don't necessarily have to do this with every single work of art on your website; providing a handful of representative examples is usually enough make your points and get viewers in touch with the most outstanding aspects of your work. But sometimes doing it for each and every work is best. You decide on that.
Model your online viewing experience after the way you and other experienced lookers typically approach and look at art-- either your own art or that of other artists-- where you take it in bit by bit in order to achieve a complete understanding of the whole. You probably have plenty of experience looking at art and if you're like most artists, you also have plenty of good solid feedback and data from your fans about how they specifically look at and examine your art, and what they like best about it. So combine your knowledge with their input. Depending on the art, image sequences will likely vary from piece to piece and artist to artist, but begin the way you normally do, with a good quality introductory image that shows the complete composition (and frame if necessary). That's what people almost always want to see first-- the whole thing-- how the art looks straight on in its entirety with no interference. In other words, the exact same way you likely show your art on your website or social networking pages now. Keep that format and organization the same.
What you add are detail shots. With a painting for example, you might include an image of the edge to show depth or how clean it looks, a shot of the back to show stretcher bars or the quality of construction, one or two close-ups of the surface to show texture or detail or brush strokes or color gradient, and whatever other close-ups you deem necessary based on the specifics of the art. With a sculpture, show different perspectives; take the viewer on a 360-degree tour in either stills or video. Include images of the base, the signature, close-ups of compositional details, a view from the top looking down or the bottom looking up, and so on. Add any other views you believe will enhance and enrich the understanding and appreciation of your work, with the endgame being to make viewers feel like they're practically holding it in their hands, standing directly in front of it or walking around it. Four to eight detail views of any work of art should be more than adequate in most cases.
Additional points to keep in mind:
* Label all images with essential information like title, medium, materials, dimensions and any other particulars that contribute to understanding and appreciating the art as a physical object and not just a picture on a computer screen.
* Scale the art. Most people have a hard time imagining exactly how large or small a work of art is when viewing it online even when you give the dimensions (ask someone to show you how long two or three feet is with their hands and you'll see what I'm talking about). A good way to solve this problem is to photograph the work in an interior setting next to a common object like table or chair. Always include enough in the way of context so that size and physical appearance are easy for viewers to grasp.
* Make your art look important. Photograph it on a clean blank wall just like it might look if it was hanging in a gallery (maybe even ask a gallery if you can borrow some blank wall space to shoot your art.) If you do this well, the online viewing experience can approximate that of seeing the art in a gallery. The fact that the viewer sees your art on display in a gallery-type setting can have the psychological effect of increasing its (and your) credibility, not to mention that they'll have an easier time imagining what it might look like in their homes or offices.
* Before you put your images online, show them to other people. Ask for feedback. How large do they think your art is? Have them demonstrate with their hands. Ask how they think it looks up close. Ask if they have any questions. Ask if they'd like to see certain parts of it closer. Take a survey; find out what they notice, what they miss, and fill in the blanks with a better or more extensive selection of images. Your goal is to make sure viewers see everything you want them to see.
* Choose your close-ups wisely. Here's your big chance to zoom in on aspects of your art that people might otherwise overlook or inadvertently gloss over. With the quality of today's digital cameras, you can show any feature of any art object larger than life, and better than any naked eye can see. Do a good job and people will be able to appreciate your art in ways they never realized were possible. You know what your strengths are; make sure you have them covered. For example, if brushstrokes, meticulous workmanship, or areas of exceptional detail are important aspects of your art, show those. Quality impresses; it's just that simple. Here again, make sure to scale your close-ups. For example, you might use a ruler or common small object like a coin for comparison purposes. The better viewers are able to understand and appreciate the time, effort, care and hard work that go into creating your art, and how difficult and challenging it is to make, the more inclined they'll be to buy.
* Make sure all of your images look professional. This doesn't mean you have to hire a photographer but rather that everything's in focus, vertical and horizontal lines are straight, the lighting is even, there are no flashes or reflections or glare or shadows, colors are true, there's no interference from objects in the background, and so on. Your art should be accurately represented in terms of what it looks like in real life, and most importantly, it should look it's ABSOLUTE BEST. Remember-- strangers who have no idea who you are or what your art is about will be seeing it for the very first time; this is your big (and often only) chance to impress and win them over.
* Keep file sizes reasonable-- not too large, not too small. Note somewhere on your website that if requested, you'll be happy to provide larger or more detailed images of either an entire piece or specific areas.
* Last but not least, do not compromise the quality your images. Some artists are so obsessed with trying to keep people from stealing their art, they end up making images too small, reducing the resolution to the point where viewers can't see detail, blind-stamping their names across them, or using other techniques to purposely degrade their appearance. You want your art to look its absolute best, not its worst. If you do any of these things you'll only be hurting yourself. It's better not to show your art at all than to purposely make it look bad. Always remember-- your goal is to make your art look worthy of display in the world's great museums-- or at least in the homes and offices of viewers who happen upon your website and like what they find. Never disappoint them.
(art by William T. Wiley)