I love visiting museums and galleries which feature works of fine art – be they contemporary or classical. I consider museums and galleries to be an immersive experience, looking at each work of art, getting in touch with my emotions to understand what about that piece that attracts me to it. In fact, I named my photography business Atma (“Soul” in Sanskrit) because I wanted to be able to deliver this kind of a soul-bearing experience to my audience – a tall order for sure, but I am working on it.
Getting back to the works of fine art, over the past couple of decades as I have been taking photographs of these works of art, partly as a learning experience but mostly for posterity. I have formulated a few simple rules and I follow them to take some really good and interesting photographs of these works of art.
Disclaimer: I do not condone copying works of art and as such I want to state upfront that taking photographs with the idea of reproducing such works of art is really a bad idea and ethically questionable if not entirely illegal.
Rule 0: No Flash Photography
Plain and simple and it is rule 0 because this is a MUST DO. A dear family member happens to be a staff person at the Roosevelt Presidential Library and one of her pet peeves is that people don’t usually follow this rule. She further says that each flash hitting the works of art is tantamount to a few days of direct sunlight, which damages them significantly and does injustice to the art.
Rule 1: Look, Emote, Analyze
Silly to say this, but before a photograph is taken, it is essential to look at the work of art. And beyond looking, it is also essential to understand what kind of an emotion in stirs in you and analyze what in the work about this work of art stirs that emotion. This is essential because without knowing this, it would be impossible to present to your audience, your perspective on this piece of art.
The amazingly beautiful statue of Cupid and Psyche at the Louvre. Notice the love pouring out of Cupid's gaze and Psyche's reaction.
Rule 2: Avoid the temptation to get wide-angled
If Rule 1 is not followed, there will be a temptation to get wide-angled and get the entire piece of art in your frame. While just showing the whole piece of art, may be your true intention, in my opinion, the photograph is more interesting when it presents your unique perspective on the piece.
Zoomed out view of Winged Victory - photographed with a random tourist to provide perspective.
Zooming in - reveals details on the wings and the fluttering clothes providing the effect of a bird soaring through the wind.
Rule 3: Zoom in on the details
The corollary of Rule 2 – if you are not wide-angled, then zoom in. This is where the analysis done in Rule 1 makes a difference because it helps establish what you want to zoom in on. It is crucial to realize that artist has used specific composition techniques (colors, lighting, perspectives, etc.) in creating the work of art – so it would be good to pay attention to that to get an interesting photograph.
The surprised nymph - zoomed in to focus on the eyes, hair and necklace.
Further zooming in reveals how the eyes were painted in great sharp detail, whereas the hair was painted with broader strokes revealing a soft-focus like effect
Rule 4: Work with the ambient light
Museum displays are created with specific lighting and shadow effects so as to allow the audience to enjoy the work of art as the creator had intended it to be (of course, subject to the curator’s interpretation, but we have to assume that the curator knows about the work of art, in fairly intimate detail). Pay attention to the lights/shadows, the ambient light level and surrounding detail. This will help set your camera’s aperture setting. Typically using a large aperture (low F-stop, the lowest F-stop setting on your camera) would ensure that you get (a) maximum light exposure on the work of art (which means that your chances of taking the photograph without blur is higher as you can set a faster shutter speed) and (b) allow shallow depth of field (which means that the subject of the photograph gets full focus and other details in the background get blurred away). Note that many museums/galleries would not allow you to set up a tripod, so relying on a tripod may not be feasible, but if it is, then go ahead and use it to avoid blur.
First Funeral statue in the Buenos Aires Museum of Fine Arts photographed with a very shallow depth of field revealing no details in the background.
Rule 5: New angles provide new perspectives
How many times have you looked at a statue lying down on the floor? Not many, I am sure. Partly because it is somewhat silly to do this, but how many times have you gotten down really low to take a photograph? Definitely, more times than lying down on the floor to look at a statue, I am sure. These new angles add interesting perspectives which can help present your take on the photograph assuming that it is what interests you about the piece of work.
The Kiss - where is the kiss? It is hidden by the arm.
The same photograph shot from below to reveal the kiss. This almost begs for photographing from various angles.
By using these simple rules as guidelines, you can convert a simple photograph of a work of fine art, into a statement about your perspective on said work of fine art. Happy clicking…