Photographing Flat Art, or ... What do You do with Kids' Artwork?

Kids, especially young ones, can generate a large volume of artwork. Sources include school, home, church and other events. When this art happens, the question in parents' minds becomes: "What do I do with these treasures?" While these memories have tons of value, that value may not be high enough to justify a room addition to the house just for art storage. The solution? Implement an artwork workflow that first involves digitizing.
 
Photograph the artwork (scanning also works great for flat art sized within the scanner's capabilities). Once the artwork is in digital format, the uses for it are nearly endless. Load the images into a digital picture frame or other electronic device for playback in a slide show. Print a collage from large numbers of these art images. It might be fun to pull this print out for display at a graduation party or other life milestone event. Put the images into a scrapbook (paper or digital). Memorialize life.
 
The digital artwork files take up nearly no space and they can be available for a lifetime and beyond. A large benefit to digitalized art is that it can be backed up, providing resiliency to the original artwork and, if backed up to an off-site storage location, resiliency extends beyond the house should something terrible happen.
 
Once the art projects are digitized, implement a FIFO (First In, First Out) art posting workflow utilizing the refrigerator, a door or any surface that works well in your home. As the available space fills, the oldest work of art enjoys a quiet, parent-guilt-free trip to the trash can (when the creator is in bed or away). Keep a few of the most-treasured pieces and enjoy the photos of the rest.
 
Once the kids start creating long-term-display-worthy art, you may need to up your game also. A more advanced approach includes capturing high resolution images permit reproduction at a high quality level. But, more advanced, does not have to mean complicated.
 
My daughter (Brittany) has developed a drawing skill over the years and, when she puts a bigger effort into a project, I make sure that I get a photo of it. My light source is the first priority. I want the art to be very evenly-lit. Because of light fall-off, this means that I minimally need equal light from at least two sides or even better, a light source so far away that the light fall-off is no longer noticeable across the paper. The latter, in the form of sun, is uncomplicated, easy and what I usually use for flatwork.
 
Some considerations for using the sun as the light source include the angle and the color temperature of the light. Shooting too early or too late in the day may cause your art to take on an undesired color warmth. The camera angle (directly in line with the art) must be such that reflections of the sun are not a problem. The light angle on the art must not over-emphasize the texture of the material, and a cloudy day may be needed to photograph 3D works of art using this light source. The latter may work best outdoors, but I shoot flat art placed on the floor where the sun is shining directly through a window or door, often in the mid-late afternoon (depending on the time of the year).
 
With the artwork in place, setting up the tripod is the next task. Care must be taken to not cause any hint of shadows on the art. This means that the sun is shining between two of the tripod legs. The higher the tripod is raised, the less likely the legs are to influence the lighting. To avoid any perspective distortion (including keystoning of rectangular art), the camera must be positioned directly over the subject.
 
Note that a tripod with a center column that can be adjusted to horizontal orientation makes positioning a camera straight downward easier. Also note that a camera positioned on a horizontal column can easily become unbalanced – use this feature with care.
 
Selecting a lens is another important step. In addition to good sharpness across the entire frame (keeping the corners of the art sharp), lack of linear distortion is important as barrel or pincushion distortion will change how the art appears. The choice of focal length is also important, but since the tripod can be raised or lowered to achieve optimal framing, there is often a range of focal lengths that work well. A prime lens is often the best option. If using a zoom, select one that has low or no distortion at a focal length that can be used for ideal subject framing (use our lens distortion tool to find this). Note that gaffer taping the zoom ring in position may be necessary to prevent gravity zooming when the camera is facing straight down.
 
While a flat piece of paper photographed from directly above requires very little depth of field and permits a very wide aperture to be used, most lenses are at least modestly sharper when stopped down and most show some vignetting or peripheral shading when used at their widest apertures. Thus, using an aperture narrower than necessary for adequate depth of field may be beneficial (use our lens vignetting tool to find the ideal aperture). While narrower than max aperture is likely desired, using a too-narrow aperture may result in a less-sharp result. Try to use an aperture that is wider or not too much narrower than the diffraction-limited aperture (look for the DLA spec for your camera in the camera specifications tool). If unsure about aperture selection, use f/5.6 or f/8.
 
With the aperture selected, the proper shutter speed for a desired-brightness at ISO 100 should be determined. Note that a mostly white paper is going to need an exposure that is brighter than the camera calls for. Ideally, shoot in RAW format with the brightest RGB (Red, Green or Blue) color value captured being at the right side of the histogram. Then adjust the brightness as necessary during post processing.
 
To capture the image without any camera motion, select mirror lockup with a 2-second delay in One Shot drive mode, use the 2-second self-timer drive mode with mirror lockup enabled or use Live View with 2-second self-timer drive mode selected. A remote release can be used in place of the 2-second self-timer, but ... I don't usually bother getting this accessory out.
 
Focus and take the picture. Review the result, making any adjustments needed.
 
Once setup, many similar-sized works of art can be photographed in rapid succession. I will often setup for the larger piece of art and not change the tripod height for modestly smaller works unless they are deemed very important.
 
Modern DSLRs produce a very accurate color balance when photographing under direct sunlight, but capturing a photo of a custom white balance target at the same time as the art may be good idea. This is an especially good idea if under cloud or shade lighting or using alternate light sources. This CWB image can be used to properly adjust the color balance later if needed.
 
If you are documenting the work of more than one child, consider having them sign or initial their art prior to photographing it. Otherwise, you may find it hard to differentiate between artists' work in 20 years.
 
Start now. Make plans to photograph the artwork around your house and begin your own artwork workflow.
 
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