Photographing Art

Medieval POC has a post today about one of the works I photographed in the Gemäldegalerie. It’s not a photograph I’m especially happy with, suffering from a lot of reflection and over-exposure along the upper half, especially visible in the closeup. My fault for not buying a circular polarising filter. But! Not writing excuses here.

Mpoc (yeah, I actually say, “Em-pock” in my head) compares that photo, Sebastiano Ricci’s Bathsheba with the one on Wikipedia. The latter is much darker, slightly more saturation, and bonkers amounts of contrast. So here I am, writing about photographing art and what I try and do.

Let’s dispense with the assumption I have a fancy camera (as much as I’d love a Canon 5D (Mk III, DS, whatevz) or … OK, I shut up). I took many photos I love, and learnt masses about photography with my Sony Ericsson K750c, a now ten year old unsmart phone; went from that to a Panasonic LX3 which taught me masses about working with a fully manual camera, and then to my current LX7. The LX series, not quite a compact camera, nor a mirrorless interchangeable lens camera, though when I first picked up a 5D Mk III, it was strangely familiar. I shoot mostly in Aperture mode, occasionally in Shutter if the light is too dim and I think I can get away with fixing a dark image (nope, not bloody likely). I use Available White Balance because even if the artificial lighting is the same in every room, the colour of the walls, the size of the room, even the position of the painting on the wall mean I’ll end up with something far further from reality if I try and be fancy and set it any other way. Oh, and I shoot in RAW. Probably the single thing that makes the most difference.

Having a stupidly amazing f/1.4 lens wide-angle lens (24-90mm, 35mm equivalent) means lens distortion, so I set the zoom around the middle, walk back and forth until I find the right framing (filling the frame with a bit of space to allow for cropping), then usually walk around again to find somewhere without reflected light glare. Being pedantic here, I hold my camera with both hands, like a two-handed gun grip, use the electronic level, and breathe out. I take as long as I like before squeezing the shutter, because half a millimetre off on the monitor corresponds to “OMG! WTF?!” once it’s on my laptop, and because museum lighting is deceptively dim so even with all that f/1.4 it’s a dance between limiting ISO to 400 and trying to keep exposure time faster than 1/30s. Describing it like that sounds slightly disturbed, but all of this is habit. This year already I’ve taken 4000 photos and probably half of them I’ve gone through this dance.

If I’m shooting details, I almost always use square format, otherwise I swap between 4:3, 3:2, and 16:9, whatever fits the painting or sculpture best. Something I’ve also been trying recently, and not quite sure if it makes things better or worse, but certainly allowed me to get presentable images out of the Alte Nationalgalerie is using exposure lock. Rather than letting the camera automatically set the exposure (and simultaneously white balance) on the painting, which particularly in works with a lot of dark colours or varnishing end up looking nasty, I set and lock the exposure on a neutralish spot on the frame and wall to one side, then move back to the painting. All this is of course relying on the LCD being remotely accurate to what the camera is doing. It’s not, but over the years of using these and other cameras, I have (I pretend to myself I have) a vague idea of the correspondence between what I’m seeing and what the camera sees.

What else? For particularly long or tall or large works where distortion is an issue (when a painting finishes 4 metres above my head, it’s an issue), or where reflection or light hot spots make a single image messy, I take multiple images and make a panorama from them later. Lots of work, yes, which is why the museum visit itself is not even half the process. But it is a museum visit. I’m going to see art just like everyone else, and part of that deal is not to be an obtrusive wanker, with or without a camera. I spend far more time looking at the pieces, reading the captions, listening to the audio guide than I do taking a few snapshots.

Home and sorting. I’m still using Aperture despite Apple canning it. Photos (the iPhoto replacement) doesn’t cut it, even though I only use Aperture for managing and not editing. Then to the Photoshop! I don’t do anything in RAW conversion, probably I should learn, but I find the tools in Photoshop itself better for the task.

The first thing is taking care of lens distortion. Even the sad mess of Hendrick Heerschop’s Die Mohrenkönig Caspar (it’s worse in the gallery) scrubs up surprisingly well. Usually a bit of vertical (and occasionally horizontal) alignment, removing barrelling, and slight rotation brings even what look like hopeless cases into line. Then there’s the skew transform to fix up the corners, and occasionally warp transform for asymmetric barrelling and pinning. It’s a lot of unavoidable manual work. I’ve tried plugins that claim to automate somewhat or speed up the process but the results are sad.

Cropping time. I always crop out the dark edges where the painting frame has left a shadow, they cause too many problems in the next steps, and anyway, doing this fifty or eighty times per museum when I already have a tendency to take things too far, it’s not like pissing around over 20 pixels is going to do the end result any favours. All this is only for the full painting or sculpture; for details photos it’s straight to ‘colour balancing’.

Inverted commas, yes. Photoshop’s default automatic contrast, tone, and colour balancing work on the assumption that skin colour is Teutonic. (Or it’s an automatic “LOL! Blackface!” generator, in which case, my bad, works perfectly.) Going manual is honestly no better (because the same algorithms underlie the process). Anyway, I try and do as little as possible, seeing I’m not working on images photographed with a colour chart and so only have my poor memory of the artwork to work against. First thing then, duplicate the layer. Knowing what I’m going to do later, mostly the auto contrast I can get away with, and auto tone about half the time (and half of that needing its own duplicate layer to wreak ‘balancing’ on). Auto colour though, oh am I laughing. Its interpretation of gilt, which there is no shortage of in mediæval art is something approximating copper when it’s oxidising and turning green. Then I drop the edited layer’s opacity down to zero and scrub back and forth until I’m not too appalled. Mostly between 27 and 36%, though depending on the conditions as high as 63%. It’s reasonably minimal. I’m trying to clarify what the camera saw, compensating for its slight under-contrast and colour softness, rather than making something up from my memory, or creating an idealising artifice. Sometimes it works, sometimes it turns everything to shit.

Save as tif, close, next. Repeat until finished. Unless …

Sometimes parts of images even without reflection end up with odd, horribly blown-out parts, or the upper half or one upper corner is significantly lighter. In that case, it’s duplicate layer time once more. I’m going to mangle things. I use curves and the ‘darker’ preset. Often twice. Then a layer mask to hide everything, and brush back in only the upper part. Then that opacity-scrubbing thing again until I work out approximately where the stygian upper parts match the original lower parts. More brushing and erasing on the layer mask, and repeat with more layer as necessary. There are some improvisational tricks I pull to deal with extreme reflected glare also, but eh … it’s kinda desperate and the whole time everyone in the painting is whispering, “Just fucking buy the fucking polariser already. Fuck’s sake.” and giving me the side eye.

It feels somewhat mindless, but without the luxury of being paid to do this, setting up softboxes, using colour charts, amazing camera and lenses, doing the editing next to the painting on a balanced monitor, the whole doodaa, this is what it takes me to turn what often look decidedly average coming out of the camera into something occasionally I look at and know what I’ve done isn’t fooling myself, and I’m like, “Yeah, that’s it, that’s what it was, that’s what I felt when I looked at it, that’s how awesome it was, that’s fucking art.”

… and!

Comparisons. First: Sebastiano Ricci’s Bathsheba as I photographed it, followed by my edited version, followed by the version on Wikimedia. (I’m not sure mine’s an improvement over the original RAW, but the real painting is nothing like Wikimedia version.) I’m often surprised how little contrast and how soft the colours are in so much art, and how seductive it is to bump but the contrast and saturation. Second: Hendrick Heerschop’s Die Mohrenkönig Caspar. A truly beautiful painting made nearly worthless by its glass covering and being hung opposite the windows, so all the subtleties in the dark golds and browns of his clothing, in his skin, in the background even, are lost.