I want to make this as simple as possible, and it’s a subject that invites you to dive in to all manner of techno-vortices of Color Science.  It’s really a simple question, though.  Does it matter which light source I use to illuminate artwork for reproduction?

I’ve argued that the color and quality of the light source is crucial in reproducing the vision of the artist.  I think I’ve demonstrated pretty well how the light quality affects the texture and surface of the canvas, but I’ve been struggling with a good way to demonstrate how the light color affects the perception of the various tones and values in a painting.  I’ve been tempted to go into a deep, technical discussion of it, but then realized it’s really a very simple thing.  Show how the colors are different with three basic light sources – tungsten, strobe and “full spectrum” fluorescent.  The simplest way to show that is with a Colorchecker.

Basically, think of it in terms of throwing something at an object, and getting what bounces back.  You can’t get back what you didn’t toss in the first place.  If you’re not throwing red, for example (in the case of a fluorescent, specifically), you’re not going to get red bouncing back to the camera.

First, the video:

Now, the details.

The “Tungsten” version was shot using halogen gallery-type floods, the camera set to 3700K, and shooting RAW with the Nikon D800.

The “Strobe” version was simply changed to 5000K, and the “Fluorescent” version was 5000K as well.  The fluorescent bulbs are so-called “continuous spectrum” 5000K bulbs, which is really a misnomer, a fact you can see by simply looking at a spectral response graph of any good bulb of this type, including those used on the Cruse Scanner and other similar devices.

The files were processed using Adobe Camera RAW, and a click-gray balance was made on the lighter of the two center gray patches.  The shadows and highlights were adjusted slightly so the shadow and highlight points on the histograms would match up well.  The files were cropped to the target, and processed with the default Adobe camera profile.  The Working Color Space is Adobe1998.

Remember.  The primary objective of the entire science and technology of CCD development and Color Management is to replicate the human visual experience of color.  Color management tools’ job is to take these colors we see above and try to correct them to match the known colorimetric values of the target.  They can do that a lot better and bring the colors closer to what we perceive if they have a starting point closer to where they’re trying to end up.  If they don’t have the colors, they have to make them up, or stretch the colors they do have into the space they need to be.

The conclusions are pretty obvious to the eye, but even more so when you look at the histograms.  Each light source is indeed different.  The intensity of each of the color patches on the Colorchecker is rendered in a slightly different way in some cases, in others, the differences are pronounced.

So, yes, each is different.  That begs a few questions.

Which one is more “accurate”?  That question will send you down another vortex of Color Theory.

Which one is more faithful to what the artist saw?  That question is simple.  The light source that the artist used when creating the work can only be the most faithful to the artist’s vision and intent.

A painter’s view of light, color, and their importance in reproduction of paintings:

Warren worked closely with me in developing the technique I use for Fine Art Reproduction…  inspiring me to develop and refine the process and the tools – the X-Y Easel.

We’ve seen some samples of the difference between standard copy-board lighting and what is pretty typical for an artist’s studio. Let’s take it a step further and look at what we can do using basic lighting techniques.  If you’ve been the victim of one of my lighting classes, this is going to look familiar.


Painting by Nellie Ashford:  “Best Friends”

This is an example of what you’d typically see in an artist’s studio or a gallery.  It’s lit with a “Main” that’s a halogen spot from above, and has all the characteristics of that type of lighting – lots of texture, rich colors, deep shadows, bright highlights.  There’s a very slight amount of cooler fill, spilling from the surrounding walls.  This is “hard-edged closed shadows”, that is, the shadows have a hard edge, but are closed up, or dark.


This is the same light, but simply adding fill.  “Hard-edged open shadows”.  Take a good look, the shadows themselves still have a hard edge, but they’re now brighter, and show color and detail.  This is pretty typical of what you’ll see from a modern artist’s studio, often a combination of North light and halogen spots.  The fill in a studio like this is often far more cool that what we’re seeing here, though.


These last two examples are lit with a very soft, very diffuse light source.  Typically a “North Light Studio” without any additional spots would look like this, but the first one has no fill in the shadows.  Thus, it’s called “soft edged, closed shadows”.  We still get a fair amount of texture and the appearance of relief, but the effect is less dramatic, more flat, with the overall contrast lower and less saturated colors.  It’s more forgiving, but has far less impact.


Finally, we take soft, diffuse lighting and add fill.  This almost completely flattens out the work, showing very little texture, very diffuse colors, and very low contrast.  You’d use this if, for example, you had an original that had major surface flaws that you didn’t want to call attention to.  This is how an artist’s studio would look if they had North light, and very bright walls, floors and even ceilings.  It would be a fairly rare thing to see an artist working under these conditions.

Go ahead and click on each image to take a good close enlarged look.

These are what I consider to be the four basic building blocks of lighting.  What gets interesting is where you start working with degrees of these techniques – starting with hard-edged closed lighting and adding just a little fill…  controlling the degree of softness in soft-edged closed shadows – or any combination of types.   Not only do I get 4 basic flavors, but I can mix and match and hit somewhere in between.

This is true photographic lighting, and why it’s so powerful in redering artwork in a way that’s faithful to the artist’s vision.  It’s possible through no other process – no scan system or copyboard lighting can achieve these kinds of basic results, and certainly not in any combination.


Here’s a look at some work that’s a little different that what I’ve shown here in the past.  Yet, it’s exactly what I’ve been trying to show.  This mixed-media work by Shannon McDonald is a rich example of dimension.  Look closely at the edges and wrinkles, but look particularly at the gold leaf at the top of the painting.  Light that material with traditional copyboard lighting, and it will turn to brownish gray.  Light it as you would any three-dimensional object, like jewelry?  You’ll see all the sparkle and shine, as well as the true color, of the gold leaf. Click on the image to see it full size.

Here’s another example.



This remarkable piece has a rich texture of found objects making up the subjects headpiece.  Again, we approached the lighting duplicating the artist’s studio.  The relief and modeling on the work is precisely as she created and intended the piece to feel.  Look closely at the grain and relief of the wood, especially in the light areas at the top.  Also important is how the blue translucent panel reads in the image.  Copyboard lighting would have made it a confusing mixup of overlapping shadows from unnatural directions.  The shadow here is simple, clean, and is identical to how the piece is intended to be seen.

See more of Shannon’s work at her site: Shannon McDonald Fine Art.


Let’s work from a basic premise: a painting, and even a drawing, is not a 2-dimensional subject.  It has depth and texture.

If you accept that premise, you can only conclude that to reproduce it well, you have to light it and photograph it like any other 3-dimensional subject.  Most Fine Art reproduction is using traditional copy-board lighting technique, which places light sources on either side of the work, at equal distance, at 45º.  This introduces some familiar effects, such as specular glare and highlights, as well as fairly uneven lighting.  Learning correct methods for copy lighting is the process of learning how to correct these effects.  Techniques involve precise aiming and flare of the lights, polarizing the lights as well as the camera lens and other practices. As the original work gets larger, the technical issues multiply.

Here’s a standard copystand:


For absolutely flat, featureless artwork, this method is practical.  For any subject with texture of any sort, it produces a lighting effect completely different from what we see when we view the work. Virtually no artwork on public display, or in the artist’s studio  is viewed with this type of lighting.

Does it really make a difference in how a painting is reproduced, how it appears to the viewer, and it’s fidelity to the original work?  Yes.  Profoundly.

Here’s a very simple demonstration.  This is a detail of the painting above, photographed with the lighting that the artist uses in his studio:


(Please click on any of the posted images for full-sized versions.)

The light is as the artist prefers it.  It is predominately from above, but with some soft “North Light” fill from the side, as well as behind the camera. The texture of the canvas is evident, yet simple and clean, and readable.  More importantly, the brush stroke is also readable, and is rendered in exactly the same way as the artist saw, and intended it.  It also is very similar to the environments in which the work is ultimately to be displayed- in a gallery, museum, or residence.

This detail is taken from a photograph of the same painting with conventional “copy-board” lighting:


The texture of the canvas is now confused – we don’t know how to read it.  There are specular highlights all through this highly-varnished piece, and again, more importantly, the stroke is now rendered in a completely different way than what the artist saw in his studio.

What also becomes painfully clear is that the tone and color of the copy-board photograph suffers as well.  Color hue and saturation is intimately related to the quality and wavelength of the viewing light.  Standard copy-board lighting changes how we see not only texture, but the subtle relationships of the very essence of the work: the palette.

The tradition of photographing artwork using copy-board techniques is firmly rooted in film-based photography.  Many of the issues we faced when shooting with film are simply no longer issues when using digital tools.  We can, for the first time, see, and reproduce the work as the artist intended the work to be seen.

We can be faithful to the vision of the artist.

Visit The Atelier Print to learn more.

To read more on the techniques and practices of Fine Art reproduction, see “On Fine Art Reproduction… (or: You’re Doing It Wrong)

For art reproduction, I’ve put a lot of stock in past posts on using the same lighting that the artist uses in creating the work.  Here’s why.

Take a look at these charts showing the output of various light sources on the visible spectrum, from the Olympus Microscopy Resource:

Note a couple of things.  The curve of daylight – or Noon Sunlight – is full, and smooth.  The curve of tungsten is similarly smooth, but not as full.  Every other artificial source is comprised of extreme peaks and what are, essentially, gaps.  The white LED curve is the only source that is even remotely close to daylight.

Now, here’s the comparison between what’s now referred to as “full spectrum” fluorescent, speficially, from the NLPIP Lighting Resource Center:

Two conclusions here…  first, “full spectrum” is marketing BS, and not supported by the data.  Second, fluorescent sources, of whatever type, have dramatic peaks in their output.

Now, let’s consider the process that gets color to our camera.  Light falls on our subject.  Our subject reflects that light, but, by virtue of the idea of “metamerism” doesn’t reflect necessarily the same wavelengths that fall on it.  (Look metamerism up, if you think it’s simply a color shift that your prints make under different light sources.  Besides being misleading, in a lot of cases the term is used flat-out wrong.)  Our lens takes that reflected light and filters out some of it – even the best lenses – and our sensor filters the light again, breaking it up into R, G, and B values as well as luminance (measured with a second G channel).

The goal of Color Management is to get your colors, after this long trip and the many transitions, to a known, and predictable place.  We want stuff we see as red to be red once they get to our computer, then finally to our print.  Most importantly, we want a neutral point – gray – that remains gray throughout the process, and maps all out colors from that starting point.

So here’s the process.  The artist is working away in the studio, with that nice broad spectrum of daylight streaming in from the North light studio window and skylight.  As is often the case in modern studios, there are halogen or tungsten down spots shining on the work too.

The work reflects this broad spectrum in a fairly complete way, but with it’s natural limitations of the pigments being used in the paint.  Let’s pick on purple.  The pigments may not really reflect the exact wavelengths around that color accurately…  but, it will reflect them in a consistent way.   And that is what the artist sees.

If you light the work with a source that doesn’t “have” that range of wavelengths, the one around that color purple, for example, how can the work possibly reflect that wavelength?  Those gaps in the fluorescent chart are what I’m talking about here.  Every peak and gap represents colors that are too strong, or simply not there, in the starting point of your color journey from source to print.

The goal of Color Management is to adjust for those gaps and peaks, but, it can only do so much.  In the case of the purple, our system is going to measure our purple patches, see they’re reading as very low, and adjust them by literally adding value in a simple lookup table.  It’s not working from actual data, it’s simply looking at some numbers, seeing they’re low, and adding to them to smooth out the curve that it’s looking to build.

Good Color Management, especially camera and scanner input profiles and the RAW processing “profiles” of the X-Rite Passport system can get you consistent results from a consistent light source.  It can iron out specific characteristics of your particular lights and lenses and sensors, and bring them into a range of the industry standards.  It can’t, however, make a perfect match between a light source that has a full and complete spectrum and one that has dramatic peaks and gaps in it’s spectral response.

For a nice, simple visual demonstration of this, see my post here: Light Sources and Color Spectrum, Simply.

Which begs the question…  if you’re trying to reproduce artwork, and want to be faithful to the visual experience of the artist, then why would you start by limiting your palette of illumination?  You are, at the very beginning of your process, assuring that you will never have the same colors to work with as the artist had.

Here, for reference, is the NLPIP Lighting Research story, the last page, which has comparison graphs.  Read the whole post, it’s very, very interesting.

Here’s the thing.

At 300ppi, the D3x frame, for example, measures out at about 13×20″.  Even my little D5000, at 180ppi, figures out to around that.  I’m going to just keep it simple, and standardize on a 16×20 frame across cameras and platforms, but here’s the point:  Most DSLRs, today, will give you around 16×20″ at 300ppi, so for even the stodgiest (is that a word?) of skeptics, you can say that, at 16×20″ the camera is shooting at 100%.

Keep something in mind.  Outside of the world of art reproduction, we routinely size a DSLR file up, often to a remarkable degree.  With Bicubic Resampling in every version of Photoshop from CS3 on, it does a great job, and is pretty much a standard operating procedure.  If you don’t agree with that, you can just turn the page now…  but it’s well demonstrated.  So even at 16×20″, the typical DSLR is actually not even pulling a sweat.  If you print at 180ppi, then you get even more.  (Again, well documented, if you don’t agree, fine, but all I can say is run your own tests and I’ll buy you a beer if I’m wrong.)

This is what I’ve been talking about in previous posts.  If you understand how to work with a DSLR file properly, it’s more than a match for a tri-linear CCD device from Days of Yore.

So, given that, let’s say we want to reproduce art at 100%.  We only have to shoot a 16×20″ frame.  If you do it the way you’ve always done it, then you set up a big painting, light the whole thing, and then move the camera around, carefully keeping it square, and at the same distance, and then merge the frames together.  If you do it using an x-y device, then it’s a different story.  Using some sort of x-y easel, you can keep the camera stationary and consistent, and simply step and move the art.  You only have to light one small area.  The 16×20″ frame.

This is a lesson learned from my explorations with the Cruse Synchron system.  The real secret to the Cruse is the fact that it takes a sample from a very small slice of the image at any given time.  Using an x-y easel applies this to DSLR, and other, capture.  See the graphic at the top of the page.  That’s what we’re doing, except with a 16×20″ frame, not a narrow slit.

What exactly is an x-y easel?  It’s a simple easel that allows you to move a platen up and down, and side to side – on an x and y axis – much like a CNC machine tool moves.  It is precise and repeatable, and ultimately, pretty simple.  The camera frame remains static.  The work moves through the frame.

Stay tuned…  more to come!