Best cameras for photographing artwork
Lots of the images of art either online or in print are simply not good enough! They don’t do the work of the artist justice; fuzzy images, oversaturation, bad lighting – there are numerous ways to make a great piece look mediocre.
And of course there are just as many subtle techniques for getting the best possible images (check them out in our article Tips for photographing artwork). But buying a good quality camera to capture stunning shots of your art is a fantastic starting place.
In this article, we’ll take a look at the different types of cameras for photographing artwork available and discuss the pros and cons of each level of device.
Who is this article is for?
I’ve written this article with artists in mind, not photographers. Wading through the ocean of information available from online reviews and forums can be arduous and confusing, especially if you don’t know your shutter speeds from your focal ranges. My aim is to make the choice as simple as possible for artists on varying budgets wishing to purchase a camera to shoot their own work.
Which is the best camera for shooting artwork?
It depends entirely on what you need to do. When photographing art, the aim should always be to make the image as sharp and representative of the actual piece as possible.
But if you need images mainly for use on the internet or to use on small art prints, some of the less expensive options (like compact
and advanced compact cameras) will be just fine. If you want to capture photographs of a high enough quality to reproduce on medium to large-sized prints, you’ll be looking at investing a little more (on either a DSLR or an interchangeable lens semi-compact camera).
With that in mind we’ll review the pros and cons of each category of camera and suggest specific models.
Fathoming the features
So that we’re all on the same page and to help you understand the online reviews when you’re doing your research, let’s take a look at what some of the jargon means:
- Sensor size: As a general rule, the bigger the sensor size, the better quality the images will be. The downside of a big sensor is that it requires a larger lens, meaning the price and practicality may be affected.
- Megapixels (MP) and resolution: Megapixels represent the number of dots in an image; the more megapixels, the higher the resolution. High resolution doesn’t always equate to high quality, but it does mean more detail and a greater potential for cropping in on the details of your artwork. Low-res images will look pixelated when zoomed in on. A 12MP camera or above is ideal for photographing artwork.
- Image stabilisation (IS): Although I would always suggest using a tripod when taking photographs of artwork, image stabilisation features help to reduce blur caused by vibration.
- OVF/EVF (Optical viewfinder/Electronic viewfinder): As well as an LCD display screen, some digital cameras also have viewfinders. Optical viewfinders (found on DSLR cameras) offer a far more accurate idea of what the camera is actually seeing (and what the final image will look like) than the LCD screen. Electronic viewfinders are also more representative than the live preview in that they reduce ambient light.
- Zoom lens/Prime lens: Zoom lenses offer a lot of versatility in that you can zoom in and out, but the images captured are only ever really great quality in the mid-range of the zoom. Prime lenses don’t zoom at all, but always produce better quality shots.
- Focal range: This is the range of the zoom – how far in and out you can go with particular cameras. The tricky thing here is different manufacturers use different ways of measuring it!
- Shutter speed: How quickly the image is captured. A very fast shutter speed means a very slim moment of time in which to capture the image. As visual art is normally still and you will probably be using a tripod, super-fast shutter speeds aren’t essential; they’re really only necessary for capturing razor sharp action shots.
- RAW files: This is the unprocessed image data of a photograph and allows you to process it in a software programme yourself. Many modern cameras can be set in RAW mode, which has its advantages, such as greater detail, more potential for editing and correction, and the production of better art prints.
OK, let’s take a look at TextileArtist.org’s recommendations for cameras to take great photographs of your art.
Digital compact cameras
Recommended for: Artists on a budget who don’t need high quality prints of their work
All compacts are fixed lens cameras, meaning that they are extremely handy, easy to use, cheap and versatile (with good zoom range).
They do however have drawbacks when aiming to give your images a professional edge (which is part of your goal when shooting artwork). Small sensors produce lower quality images and colours can look unnatural (not giving an accurate representation of the shades in your work).
I would suggest these cameras are perfect for taking reference shots or small photos of your art for web-display, but don’t produce high enough quality for print reproduction.
All the cameras featured in this category cost under £200.
- 30x optical zoom
- 20.4MP sensor
- Optical SteadyShot image stabilisation
- See Sony DSCHX50 Compact Digital Camera on Amazon UK
- See Sony DSCHX50 Compact Digital Camera on Amazon USA
- High resolution Lens
- 20x optical zoom
- 16.1 Megapixel High Sensitivity MOS Sensor
- Panasonic Lumix DMC-TZ35EB-K Compact Camera
- See Panasonic Lumix DMC-TZ35EB-K Compact Camera on Amazon USA
- 20x optical zoom
- 12.1 Megapixel CMOS sensor
- Intelligent IS for sharp shots
- See Canon PowerShot SX280 HS Compact Digital Camera on Amazon UK
- See Canon PowerShot SX280 HS Compact Digital Camera on Amazon USA
Advanced compact cameras
Recommended for: A great camera for artists with a little more to spend who have the space to shoot their art without the need for an extensive zoom-range. This category of camera is also great for producing small to medium sized prints (with a little editing).
Advanced compacts are the compromise between the basic point and shoot cameras listed above and interchangeable lens cameras or DSLRs. They are a good option for general purpose, affordable and convenient.
They generally trade large zoom capabilities for higher quality, which means their sensors are bigger than most compacts; this offers a significant improvement in sharpness and colour (meaning images are generally far more representative of the ‘in the flesh’ artwork). Another advantage over their cheaper counterparts is that many offer filter capabilities, making them more versatile.
The drawback is that they can be a little cumbersome (for compact cameras some of them aren’t very ‘compact’).
- 12.1 Megapixel CMOS sensor
- 5x zoom lens in a compact body
- Intelligent IS for ultra-sharp photos
- Wi-Fi for printing and instant sharing
- RAW data capabilities
- See Canon PowerShot S110 Digital Camera on Amazon UK
- See Canon PowerShot S110 Digital Camera on Amazon USA
- Wide 24x optical super-tele zoom lens
- Powerful image stabilisation system
- Built-in WiFi
- See Olympus Stylus 1 Compact Digital Camera on Amazon UK
- See Olympus Stylus 1 Compact Digital Camera on Amazon USA
- 20.2MP back-illuminated sensor for amazingly crisp detail
- Tiltable LCD screen
- NFC One-touch sharing
- See Sony RX100M2 Advanced Cybershot Digital Compact Camera on Amazon UK
- See Sony RX100M2 Advanced Cybershot Digital Compact Camera on Amazon USA
DSLRs (Digital single lens reflex cameras)
Recommended for: Artists looking to get professional-standard shots when photographing artwork for printing and digital display. There may be somewhat of a learning curve for the novice photographer but it will be worth it.
DSLRs are the preferred type of camera for most professional photographers. They have a mirror that allows you to look through an optical viewfinder and see exactly what the camera sees (giving a very realistic impression of what the artwork will look like in the final image). The mirror then flips out of the way when the shot is taken. Hundreds of models are available starting at entry level and going through to pro standard; there are huge variances in quality and price too.
In general though DSLRs have a much larger sensor size than compact cameras, which means they produce much higher quality images at much higher resolution. DSLRs also offer a lot of versatility because they boast a range of high quality lens options. They are capable of capturing super-sharp images suitable for very large print reproduction. In short DSLRs do everything better except extreme zoom.
There are other drawbacks. If you want the highest calibre, it comes at a premium price and the cameras themselves aren’t easily portable; as a general rule, the heavier and more cumbersome the machine, the better the images.
If you are on a budget, it might be worth considering buying a used DSLR; these can offer amazing value for money and there are plenty available on Amazon.
- Incredible sharp images from an 18MP sensor
- Excellent guide for quick pain-free product familiarisation
- Vari-angle preview screen to shoot from any angle
- 14-bit DIGIC 4 image processor
- Lens kit included
- 24.3MP sensor
- OLED viewfinder
- Translucent Mirror Technology provides high precision, single lens reflex quality performance
- 3-way tilt screen
- A great camera for art photography
Interchangeable lens cameras
Recommended for: Artists looking for a great all-round option; great image quality for web and print, convenience and versatility
Interchangeable lens cameras are often referred to as semi-compact and I believe they are the best option for taking photographs of visual art.
They are smaller, lighter and more practical than DSLRs because they do away with the mirror and use an electronic viewfinder or sometimes just the rear screen to preview images. The photo-quality offered by interchangeable lens cameras is far better than its compact counterpacts due to bigger sensors and higher mega-pixels. They offer comparable versatility to DSLRs because of their multi-lens capability.
When researching interchangeable lens cameras, it’s important to spend just as much time researching the lenses; most of the time the camera will come with a starter kit of lenses but these are normally not the best quality.
Downsides include the added expense of multiple lenses, how much weight lenses add to the camera body, and the fact that, although they often come close, the image quality will generally be marginally lower than DSLRs due to slightly smaller sensor size. But worry not! You’ll still be able to get great quality images of your art suitable for print reproduction with these cameras.
- 16MP Micro Sensor for incredible picture quality
- Brilliantly high resolution tilting electronic viewfinder
- Tilting LCD Screen
- Advanced focusing features; Magnification (upto x10)
- Image Stabilisation
- Panasonic Lumix DMC-GX7KEB-S Compact System Camera
- See Panasonic Lumix DMC-GX7KEB-S Compact System Camera on Amazon USA
- The world’s fastest auto-focusing system
- Tilt LCD screen
- Ultra-responsive in-body image stabilisation
- High-resolution electronic viewfinder
- 16.1 megapixel Live MOS sensor
- See Olympus OM-D EM-5 Interchangeable Lens Camera on Amazon UK
- See Olympus OM-D EM-5 Interchangeable Lens Camera on Amazon USA
What other equipment do I need?
Almost as essential as a good quality camera for photographing artwork is a decent tripod. Without one the investment you make in a camera will be a waste of money; you’ll be taking photos that are blurred, tilted and off-centre.
The good news is that tripods don’t require nearly as much consideration or research as cameras and you can pick one up very cheaply.
For the lightweight compact and advanced compact cameras you won’t need any kind of heavy-duty bracing.
For DSLRs or interchangeable lens cameras you will require a slightly heavier duty tripod. Make sure you check your camera’s weight and that the tripod you select is capable of bearing the load.
Velbon DF-61 Heavy Duty Tripod
DURAGADGET ‘No Shake’ tripod
Hama Star 61 Tripod
Have you produced great images photographing your art with a particular camera? We’d love to see the results. Post a link to a picture of your work in the comments below and don’t forget to help our other readers out by telling us the make and model of the camera used to capture it!