I want to preface this post by saying I am not a professional photographer. I wish I were a photography enthusiast, but alas: I can do much more with a calligraphy pen than I can with a camera. That said, if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that if you are in a creative field, it’s sink or swim when it comes to photography. For that reason, I have laid out five tips for taking photos of artwork and calligraphy that have worked for me. These tips should help your work to stand out, whether the final goal is personal satisfaction or creative business success!
1. Lay It All Out
The overwhelming majority of photos of artwork and calligraphy that I take are snapped from above. In a lot of cases, it’s the most compelling and informative angle because your viewers can see the entire piece (or a good majority of it). There are about a million things you can do with the layout; while sometimes the piece alone can be sufficient, it’s never a bad idea to add props. In the photo above, created for the Amy Style worksheet set, I centered the coffee cup, which is the main subject. To further evoke the idea of a coffee/latté, I scattered — okay, carefully placed — a few coffee beans on the left. When what I was seeing through the viewfinder of my camera still looked “off”, I put a spoon on the right and piled more coffee beans inside. That gave me good balance and harmony. Sure, it’s totally staged, but it got your attention, right?
There’s really no set formula for balanced photos. As long as it looks good to you and you’ve put some thought into making it visually interesting, then you’re good to go.
In general, it’s not a bad idea to make sure your subject is centered. Also, when you look at the photo you have taken, make sure that your eye goes straight to whatever you want your viewers to see. This can also be achieved by mixing and matching backgrounds , or strategically laying out props, as demonstrated in the photo below.
Side views are also a good way to show off your piece, but only if it’s not important that your viewers have a clear view of your entire piece. The Amy Style envelope below, for example, doesn’t give you a perfectly crisp view of the whole piece, but it still has a lot of visual interest.
Props are another important part of a layout, and they help you to communicate with the person seeing the photo. In my experience, people like “serving suggestion” photos — that is, photos that give the person an idea of how the piece was created. The George Style and Janet Style envelope below, for example, is modeled with Finetec Gold and an oblique pen. That can be valuable information for someone who aspires to make something like this envelope art!
Props aren’t just for inspiring others; they can also be used as a marketing tool. It adds an air of authenticity to the service you are offering. Let’s say, for example, you’re selling custom calligraphy on Etsy or a similar site; people like to see the tools you are using. I think in a way, too, it says, “Here are the tools that I use; they require a specialized skill set.”
Your props don’t have to solely consist of the tools you are using to create, though. The photo below features a necklace, lace, and leaves (in addition to a calligraphy pen and a paintbrush) to visually balance the watercolor calligraphy envelope.
Bottom line? As long as the angle you used to take your photo looks good and the props you used are eye-catching without taking center stage, your photo will get some attention!
2. Use Good Lighting
You may think good lighting means investing in expensive light bulbs or a light box. While those could do the trick (and I couldn’t tell you either way, since I’ve never used them), the photo above shows you my set-up. Yep, all I do is lay a white sheet of paper down on a desk near a large window, and open up a (white) sketchbook to bounce light back at the window. This “bounced” light ensures that my subject is well-lit. To keep the sketchbook pages from splaying out when they are propped up, I use a clothespin and a paperclip.
The first rule in DIY photography is just use what works. For me, that’s a used sketchbook. For you, maybe that’s two sheets of styrofoam-core poster boards taped together. What I’m showing you isn’t what you should seek to specifically do (unless these materials are convenient for you to use); rather, it gives you an idea for a way to achieve an ideal lighting situation.
3. Consider Your Equipment
Full disclosure: I have a DSLR camera (a Nikon D3300 plus a couple of lenses). If you aren’t sure what a “DSLR” is, basically, it’s the kind of camera that has interchangeable lenses and takes really high-quality photos. That said, I never used a DSLR in my life until the second week in July of this year (2015). That means that every single blog post on TPK before the “Learn Calligraphy the TPK Way” (July 7, 2015) post was created using photos from a point-and-shoot camera … this point and shoot camera:
If you’re confused about the difference between a DSLR camera and a point-and-shoot camera, this is a great article to read. You can tell from the photo above that I’ve used my point-and-shoot camera to death; it’s seen better days, but still works great. The camera is a Nikon Coolpix S9100; I bought it used on Amazon for around $80 three years ago. I was able to take great photos with it, like the one below:
Now that I have a DSLR, I can tell a difference for the better, but not enough to recommend you start with a DSLR if you’re just starting out. Honestly, though, an expensive camera does not a photographer make. I am glad I learned on the point-and-shoot because it helped me learn how to edit photos, and it makes me appreciate the DSLR more.
On that note, whether you are using a point-and-shoot or a DSLR, the trick to taking amazing photos is keeping the camera perfectly still. When I purchased the DSLR last month, I also purchased a tripod with a horizontal arm to achieve crisp aerial photos. This is the exact tripod I got off of Amazon (sadly, it’s now out of stock, but you can find similar models!). You’ll notice that to keep it from toppling over, I have tied a weight to it … like I said, whatever you can rig up, go for it!
Before I had the tripod and the DSLR, here’s what I would do: I would stand perfectly still and hold the point-and-shoot directly over my subject. With as little movement as possible — I mean, like, I’d be holding my breath! — I’d snap multiple photos of my artwork or calligraphy. 90% of the photos turned out slightly blurry, but the other 10% were fine to use. Just make sure you take a lot of photos, and that way if you have “duds”, that’s not a big deal: you’re bound to take at least one acceptable photo.
Now that I have the tripod, none of my photos are blurry, which means I no longer have to go through 20 photos of the same thing and decide which one is the least blurry.
4. Use Lightroom and Photoshop
I may not have been able to get away with using a point-and-shoot had it not been for Lightroom and Photoshop. I want to shout it to the rooftops: I love Adobe! A subscription to the Lightroom and Photoshop software (the “Photography Plan“) costs $10 per month, but it is $10 well-spent. For example, take a look at the original photo taken for the “7 Ways to Stay Motivated When Learning Calligraphy” post:
It’s a bit dark and drab, and certainly couldn’t be described as “crisp”. Now, take a look at the photo post-editing:
There are free photo editing programs like Gimp and Paint.net, but I can’t speak to their effectiveness because I have never used them. Lightroom and Photoshop are super-effective, and I use them for everything from adjusting lighting to modifying addresses for privacy purposes. For example, the envelope below contains the original address (which — as a side note — is fine to share as it’s addressed to a public company):
And the address below has been modified. Can you spot the differences? Hint: I changed four numbers and one letter!
If you ever post mail art, Photoshop comes in handy for modifying addresses. It’s never a good idea to post someone’s address online, but sometimes you want to show off your genuine, not-made-for-a-fake-address mail art. With a bit of copying and pasting and using the clone stamp tool in Photoshop, your envelope can become safely anonymous.
If you’re thinking, “OK, that’s all good and well, but I have NO idea how to use Photoshop or Lightroom”, don’t get discouraged. I started off not knowing how to use it, too. I learned how to use the programs by watching Adobe’s free tutorials and third-party YouTube videos. If you can’t figure out how to do something, e.g. increase the sharpness in your photo, Google it (“how to make photo sharper Photoshop”)! Chances are, someone on YouTube has created a tutorial to help you. But really: do yourself and your photography a favor, and get the Adobe suite. You get a free 30-day trial, so you’ve got nothing to lose!
5. Post Smart on Social Media
When I take a photo, I try to consider which social media outlet I will be sharing on. For example, if you are sharing on Instagram or Craftgawker, you’ll want to make sure your photograph has a square-friendly orientation, like the photo of the DIY retro thank you card below:
You’ll also want to ensure that your viewers can see the entire subject (or most of it, at least). You may wonder how to post photos taken with your camera (not your smartphone) on Instagram; my hack for that is emailing myself the photo. That’s right: I take the photo with my DSLR, edit it in Photoshop and Lightroom, email it to myself, save it to my iPhone, then post it on Instagram. I suspect many people do this because I see a lot of impeccable-looking photography on Instagram.
If you’re posting on Facebook, any photo size will work. My only word of advice would be to caption the photo in an interesting, personable way. Tell people how you made the piece, where they can buy it (if applicable), and any other fun facts about it!
Privacy: In this blog post, I’ve touched on keeping addresses private on the mail art you take photos of and post on social media. I consider this to be very important because it shows respect for the recipient. If you want to post a photo of a cool envelope you have created and you aren’t sure how to use Photoshop to modify it, you can use the “cover-up trick”. Use a pen, paint pan, piece of ribbon, or whatever, to cover up the important part of someone’s address as shown in the photo of the Janet Style envelope below.
Lighting Variations: You will find that at certain times in the day, the natural lighting looks better than other times. The times depend on where you live, the location of your window, and the season. If you are having trouble taking a good photo in the morning, wait a couple of hours and try again: the lighting will have changed, and the photo may look better.
Improvement: If you don’t like your photos now, you will improve. Take a look at the photos below: all of those were taken when I first started The Postman’s Knock. You can see that the composure and lighting is way off, and while I’m no photography expert now, there is a big difference between these photos and the other photos in this post! (I apologize, too, that the photos are tiny! My photos back then weren’t very high resolution.)
As I have reiterated throughout the post, I am no photography expert; but the five tips for taking photos of artwork and calligraphy enumerated above helped me to start taking nicer-looking photographs of my work. It is my hope that they will help you to achieve the same feat! If you have any questions for me (and/or suggestions), please comment!
Thanks very much, and enjoy the rest of your week!