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The Art of Copying

Your grandma just left you an oil painting and you need a few copies; one for appraisal purposes and two for your siblings who would love to have a copy, too. A trip to the professional photographer involves a set up fee, print cost, and a negative that is unavailable for sale. The painting is too big for a flat bed scanner so digital copies are not feasible. One solution is to copy it yourself.

A good 35mm SLR camera or DSLR with a normal lens will probably focus to two and one half feet. This is equivalent to photographing an eleven by fourteen or larger oil painting. Critical is the correct use of lighting. Allowing the surface texture to show in your copies prevents displaying the true color and values of the picture. Ideally, two identical incandescent lamps in reflectors will do the job. Place the painting vertically and line up the camera on a tripod exactly perpendicular to the painting. Use the graph lines on the LCD viewer or ground glass for checking alignment.

Fill the view finder to about 80% of the area and check to see that all edges are parallel. If available, superimpose a graph of squares on the viewing LCD. The circle of light cast by the lamps determines the distance to the picture. Make sure all of the painting surface is evenly lit. Use an 80B filter or digital equivalent with an outdoor setting. A filter is not needed if electronic flash is the source of light. Electronic flash must be metered with a flash meter or calculated using the guide on the back of the flash. The sun at a thirty degree angle can be used as an alternative light source if no reflector lights are available. If shooting through glass is necessary, a large piece of black paper pasted on a panel of cardboard will eliminate any reflections. Equalize the distance from each flash to the center of the painting. If incandescent lights in a reflector are used, aim the center of the reflector to the far side of a vertical original. Bracket your exposure one stop over and under the recommended F stop. F8 or F11 are the sharpest F stops. Digital lenses are often sharper one stop from the widest opening.

The resulting proofs are NOT a good guide to choosing the negative with the best quality. When viewed over a well lit white surface, it is not too difficult to choose the negative with the best color and contrast. If a digital cameral is used, choose the exposure showing the most black and white spread in the histogram. An ISO setting of 50 or 100 will produce the best results. A slight increase in contrast is generally considered a plus. When done properly, it will be difficult for the average person to tell the difference between the copy and the original when viewed from a normal distance.

© 2006 Kenneth Hoffman Articles available with limited rights for distribution upon written email approval. A link back to this site is a requirement. Contact Ken for permission.
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