Tuesday 10 January 2017

How do you photograph watercolours?

This is the answer to a question asked of me by another colleague and friend. I thought it was worth sharing. So how do I approach photographing a watercolour painting like the one below?

Watercolour by Alan Attlesey. Photo Chris Thomas for book "A View from the Lodge"

The first thing to remember is – that the final photo never quite matches reality and will always look different on screen (an RGB colour space) and then in print (a CMYK colour space).

The best you can do is make a good photo that does a fair representation of the original, without under or overselling it.

I recommend the following steps:

  • If you can, avoid having the paintings behind glass.
  • Choose even lighting:
    • either two lamps illuminating the picture from angles of more than 45 degrees from the perpendicular.
    • Or natural lighting in the shade from a bright sunny day – e.g. at a window on the shaded side of the house.
  • Adjust your white balance for the location, exactly where the pictures will be photographed.
  • Place your watercolour on the place to be photographed.
    • You may have to weigh down the edges if there is paper curl.
    • If it’s in a mount, check for unwanted shadows and adjust lighting accordingly.
  • Set your camera lens to a 55 mm focal length (for full frame camera) or greater for each picture to photograph (this avoids curvature distortion).
  • Make sure your camera is absolutely perpendicular to the picture to avoid keystone distortion - the picture sides should be parallel top and bottom and side to side (unless the artist has changed the proportions).
  • Determine the best exposure to include all shades of darkest to the brightest. Watercolours normally have a limited contrast range, so you should be OK.


  • Photograph the watercolour.
    • Take several shots.
    • Bracket exposures if you can.
  • Photograph a colour reference pattern, that you will have available later, at the same location, with the same settings. 
  • Or if you have a linear colour reference, include it in the photo of the watercolour if space allows. I do this for museum work.
  • If you can, check that the photo(s) are all in focus and that there is no unexpected lighting gradient from light to slightly darker from one side of the image or from top to bottom.


  • If you can, colour calibrate your editing screen (it will never be perfect but at least you can minimise colour casts etc.)
    • This can be done automatically, e.g. with a calibrator like Spider Pro.
    • Or by checking your colour reference pattern against the image on screen.
  • If the Watercolour photo looks flat, adjust:
    • The contrast slightly.
    • The vibrance slightly (if you do not have vibrance, carefully use saturation)
  • Sharpen the image slightly (I use the unsharp mask).
    • Ensure you are not introducing bright or dark borders by oversharpening.


  • The images should NOT look BETTER than the original
  • When you send the images to the client, they will always look different on their screen.
  • They will always look different if compared directly to their artwork.
  • If you want to have a reference of how you would like the pictures printed, see below.

If you need prints of the images – Use a printer you can really trust and who will let you have a say in the adjustments of the images for printing.

I hope that this helps!

Best wishes,


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