A simple trick for photographing art under glass

As part of the work I’ve been doing recently for Newark Town Hall Museum, I was asked to photograph a framed print with glass in front of it.  As they didn’t particularly want to take the print off the wall (it was screwed onto it) I agreed to have a go while it was still hanging, knowing that it almost certainly wouldn’t work.  There was reflected light from a window alongside it, plus spotlights shining on it from behind, and a mix of natural and artificial lighting.  This is typical of what you get when you try that sort of thing:

How not to photograph glassed artwork

Note my tripod reflection on the left, the reflections of other paintings on the right, and the generally uneven light all over the frame.

There was no doubt it would have to be taken down to be photographed, but even then it was going to be difficult.  If you happen to own studio lighting, softboxes, and suchlike equipment, then the problem is easily solved (assuming you also have enough knowledge of how to use lighting).  However, I don’t own any of those things and had to figure out how I could work with what I already have.

After spending a while on Google, and finding very few results that didn’t involve large quantities of studio lighting and complicated set-ups, I had an idea of my own.  I have a framed and much treasured photo of my last dog, but it’s faded now and a few years ago I decided I’d like a digital version that I could work on so that I could get a fresh print made.  Unfortunately the photo was stuck to the glass of the frame and I couldn’t remove it without damaging the picture.  Not thinking it would work, I scanned it while it was still in the frame and it came out beautifully.  Why not see if the same thing would work with the Newark print?

I experimented at home with another glass fronted print and it worked really well, so I emailed the Town Hall Museum to ask if they had a scanner big enough to take the print and frame.  They did, and here’s the result:

Print of Newark Market, Town Hall Museum, Newark

Pretty good, isn’t it?  A scanner is really just another kind of camera, and the resolution is equal to that of many ‘proper’ cameras.  In this instance the frame of the print sealed off any light sneaking in from the side (you can’t fully shut the scanner lid when you do this), but if it hadn’t done that then I’d simply have draped some dark cloth over the whole thing.  You are, of course, limited to using this for whatever size of artwork your scanner will take (usually A4 for a home scanner), but it is possible to scan in sections and use Photoshop to stitch it together again.

Had scanning not worked, my next ploy would have been to buy the biggest piece of black card I could find, cut a hole in the middle for my lens to poke through, and then to hide behind it as I took the shot.  This should be enough to eliminate any reflections caused by light coming from behind, and the only other thing to look out for would be side light glancing off the surface.  But I think I saved myself a whole lot of bother and came out of it with a better result, simply by using a scanner instead of a camera.

If you’re interested in other approaches to solving this problem, this article:

http://www.dallasartsrevue.com/resources/How-to-Photo-Art-behind-glass.html

was one of the most useful and innovative that I found, and includes details of the black card approach as well as many others.  Doesn’t mention scanning, though!