Photographing Your Art Collection

By Mark Skeffington

Everyone should photograph their art collection.

Taking digital photographs of every valuable art piece you own provides a record of your art collection that can be useful if:

1.       Your art is stolen

2.       Your art is damaged

3.       Your art needs to be valued or appraised

4.       You pass away

If, for example, your art was stolen or lost in a fire, what record would you have of what you owned? How would you prove to an insurance agent that you owned a valuable work of art by a particular artist? Would you be able to describe your art fully, accurately?

How to Photograph Your Art, blogpost

FineArtCollector’s Mark Skeffington demonstrates how to take a photo of an artwork, by putting it on the floor and shooting down, holding the camera out over the art.

Some insurance companies may require you to have photos of your art collection, especially if you have a separate policy for your art. But everyone should have a record.

Written Inventory

It is useful to have a written inventory of your art, including name of artist, name of artwork (if titled), size, description, provenance, and what you purchased it for and when/where it was purchased (if applicable).

Keeping purchase receipts is advised. Receipts can be scanned in to create an electronic file if the original paper copy is lost or destroyed. It is also common these days for galleries and auction houses to email invoices or receipts; these can be saved in your email account.

But photographs of an art piece are just as important as a written inventory – probably more important. Ideally you would have both.

Owners should take the time to photograph their art and save the images to an USB drive or external hard drive. This drive should be stored in a safe, fire-proof place such as a safety deposit box or safe. To be extra safe, store a second copy online, such as to DropBox, Google’s Cloud, Microsoft’s OneDrive, Apple’s iCloud or similar free file hosting service.

What Photos to Take

When taking photos, take more than one shot of each artwork.

Take photos of:

1.       The artwork

2.       The artist signature

3.       Closeups of several areas of the painting

4.       The back of the painting, with closeups of any gallery, artist or auction house label, and closeups of any writing, including title, date painted and an artist’s signature

How to Take Photos

Many people have trouble taking good quality photos of their art, so here’s some helpful tips:

1.       A digital camera is better to use than a cellphone. A point-and-shoot digital is fine.

2.       Don’t use flash. Take photos using natural light. Taking a photo in bright sunlight can sometimes throw off the colours, making a painting look brighter than it really is, so try to avoid having the art in direct sunlight.

3.       Take the art off the wall to photograph.

4.       Instead, try laying the art on the floor (or even on a neutral coloured sheet or towel outdoors) to take a photo.

5.       Stand beside the art on the floor and hold the digital camera out over the painting with both hands, and shoot down, trying to hold the camera level. Take a few photos and check if the images display well. You may have to try it a few times to get used to how to hold the camera. You can also try using a tripod to hold the camera.

6.       Watch out for shadows. You may have to change your standing position or move the artwork to avoid shadows.

7.       Hold the camera just above the painting to take closeups of the signature and some detail. Most cameras will adjust automatically to do closeups. For some cameras you may want to select Macro mode to take these photos.

8.       Turn the painting over and take photos of the back, including closeups of any labels or writing.

Photographing smaller artworks is easier than taking photos of large ones, so you may not have to go through so many steps.

Photographing Art Behind Glass

Taking quality photos of art behind glass such as etchings and watercolours is tricky, since it’s difficult to avoid glare or a reflection unless the glass is conservation glass. In this situation, it is even more important to avoid direct sunlight or overhead light. Sometimes it even works best to try to take the photo on a cloudy day. Take multiple photos.

Once you have your photos, download to your computer and name each one, preferably using the artist name and artwork’s title in the file name, such as this:

John William Beatty oil painting Woodland Interior, 1915, 8 X 10 inches
John William Beatty painting Woodland Interior – signature
John William Beatty painting Woodland Interior – closeup1
John William Beatty painting Woodland Interior – RCA exhibition label

Then save your photos to an USB drive or portable drive. Decide what safe place you’re going to store it. You can store a written inventory of your art in the same place. Upload the same photos and inventory to an online storage service to be extra safe.

Taking photos of your art, labelling and saving the files takes time, but it could prove to be well worth it at some point. Your art is important to you; having a written and photographic record of your collection is another way of taking care of it.

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