Studio Photography: Copying Artwork

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by John H Siskin

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Set-up with umbrellas
© John H Siskin
All Rights Reserved

You might need these if your lights are close to the original, as you move the lights further back, they don’t matter as much. I generally use them, but then I already have them. I will usually use the lights directly, to reduce the chance of reflection. If I am photographing a piece of art with an irregular surface I will probably use umbrellas to reduce the shadows on the irregular artwork. If I am including the frame in the copy I will also use the umbrellas to reduce the harsh light on the frame.

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GretagMacbeth ColorChecker
© John H Siskin
All Rights Reserved

The kinds of lights for copies are also important. The easiest lights to use are strobes. Strobes have a color balance that is the same as daylight; this is a big advantage if you are using film to make copy slides. You can use strobes in a room that has existing light; the room light will be so much less than the light from the strobes (if your have reasonably powerful strobes) that the room light won’t affect your shot. If you can remove existing light from your location (including daylight) you can shoot with quartz lights. These lights are designed for photography and they have the qualities to make good copies. I would avoid the tungsten photo bulbs that look like regular light bulbs; they change color too quickly. I would not use any fluorescent lights for copy work, although digital cameras can balance for them reasonably well, they do not have a continuous spectrum. Consequently you will probably have problems achieving accurate color everywhere in your image.

Whatever light source you decide to use you will need to do a color balance if you are using a digital camera and a color test if you are shooting transparency film. The key to doing a good balance with a digital camera is to use an accurate grey sample. I use a GretagMacbeth ColorChecker, to keep things accurate.

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Side Arm Covered With Duvateen
© John H Siskin
All Rights Reserved

I use the grey samples on this card to set my balance on the digital camera and the whole card to test my film. Getting the color set accurately is a very important part of copying, so it will be important to check the best way to do this on your digital camera.

There are popular copy stands for doing small copies, say 11X14 at the largest. These are faster than using than my tripod set-up. If you are copying a large amount of originals from 4X6 inch to 11X14 inch you should check these out. However if you are doing larger originals or doing copy work less often you should consider a Side Arm attachment for your tripod. I use a Bogen/Manfotto 3059 with my Gitzo tripod; you can mix and match in this area. The side arm mounts on the tripod legs and then the tripod head mounts on the side arm. I cover the side arm with black Duvateen fabric when I am shooting products under glass or very glossy originals.

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Surface Levels
© John H Siskin
All Rights Reserved

There can be enough light spilling onto the side arm for it to reflect in the picture. The key to keeping your copy square is to be able to get the original parallel to the camera back. Before you do the leveling get the camera into about the right position, because if you have to move the camera you may have to level it again. I use two surface levels to make the camera parallel to the original. I place one on the original and one on the camera back. This is generally a part of the procedure that requires some patience. The object is to get the two bubbles in precisely the same place.


I have used several different types of levels over the years, these little round levels work pretty well. The key is to not be in a hurry, and to double check if you move the camera. Remember you can move the original as well as the camera. If you are copying an original mounted on a wall, then the levels won’t help you. The way to get your camera positioned is to make the original square in the frame by moving the camera. This also requires patience.


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