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New to photography? Using manual settings on a DSLR camera can seem daunting at first- but don’t let that put you off.

This comprehensive guide breaks down the 4 main settings that you need to be concerned about. We explain in basic terms why we recommend these settings for 2D artwork, and how it works.

Grab your camera now and take the first step by taking it off auto mode- go on!

Setting the ISO

The ISO setting is the first setting you want to get right. This is all about the light level. Just be aware that if you’re outside, the light intensity is likely to change, so you may need to fine tune this later.

Go to settings and turn off Auto ISO. This setting is all about how much light the camera lets in. A high ISO lets in more light, but if this is too high, it can make the photograph grainy.  At the other end of the scale, a low ISO in dim lighting can also produce a grainy shot. When you double the ISO, you are essentially doubling the brightness of your photograph.

Generally speaking, it’s best to have as low an ISO as possible for sharper, richer colours.

For artwork photography, a low ISO in bright lighting is definitely your best option. A studio shot is often about ISO 100. However, it’s essential to get your lighting correct first before changing any settings. Otherwise, you will have to keep changing your manual settings to respond to the light changes.

If you haven’t perfected your room lighting, go and read our article on The Best Lighting Set-up for Artwork Photography before you continue.

If your shots are still coming out too dark, keep reading to rectify this using your aperture and exposure.

iso camera

Aperture control: F-stop

The F-stop setting on your camera controls the aperture. This allows you to control the depth of field. In other words, you can choose how much the camera focuses on. A low F-stop focuses on a single point with a blurred background, and a high F-stop brings the entire scene into focus.

When your artwork photograph fills the entire frame, keep all the details sharp by choosing a medium aperture (f 8-11). Select ‘Aperture Priority’ to select your F-stop.

If you are photographing your artwork in situ (for example, above a settee) you will want a higher F-stop to allow both the surroundings and your artwork to be in focus.

If you want your artwork to be in surroundings, but the background blurred to focus solely on the artwork, choose a low F-stop and adjust the focus on your artwork.

Exposure Compensation

Exposure compensation allows you to manually adjust the brightness levels of your photograph if the camera has been adversely affected by harsh lighting.

For example, if your artwork is hanging on a bright white wall, your artwork may appear dark due to the exposure being affected by the bright wall. You can adjust this by using the black and white  +/- button to manually override the exposure settings

shutter speed camera

Shutter speed

This next setting is less important, but it’s worth double checking to avoid the frustrating blurred photo.

Select ‘Shutter Priority’ mode and choose a high shutter speed of 250 (1/250 second). The higher the  number, the faster the shutter speed. A very high shutter speed (500+) is not required as the object isn’t moving.

The high shutter speed captures a crisp and sharp photograph. You will want to avoid a long exposure which could blur your image if the camera moves.

Try taking a few test shots and make sure that you’re happy with the result. If the photograph is too dark, try decreasing the shutter speed slightly to 100.

The perfect spot

If you’re happy with your manual settings- well done! Now it’s time to use a tripod and prepare for the final photograph.

One of the biggest challenges is capturing your artwork straight on. If the camera isn’t positioned centrally, it will create the unwanted keystone effect and produce a trapezium shaped photograph.

This can be corrected afterwards during editing, but it can lose some definition (and definitely not worth the hassle).

The most accurate way to centre your camera is by positioning your artwork vertically and using a spirit level to make sure that the camera is perfectly horizontal.

Once this is in place, we need to fix the height of the camera. I’d strongly recommend a tripod for this. Measure your artwork height and divide by two. This should be the height of the centre of the lens.

Lastly, measure the width of your artwork and divide this by two. This is the midpoint of your artwork; place the camera on this centre line to achieve the perfect camera position.

Tips and Tricks

You’re ready to take your photograph! I’d recommend using a remote-control clicker, as this avoids the unavoidable wobble as you physically press the shutter. If you don’t have one available, try using the timer function. 3 seconds will be more than enough.

The beauty of digital cameras is the ability to take almost limitless photographs (memory card permitting). Use this to your advantage and take multiple shots, experimenting with the settings. The exact settings will depend on your lighting and environment, so make sure to preview your test shots before taking the final photograph.

Reviewing your photographs

You’ve taken your photograph with even, white light, and at the perfect angle. Congratulations! Now it’s time to review the colours captured on your camera.

Our eyes view colour by comparing them to colours around it. This makes it very easy to look at a photograph of something white and think, yep, that’s white all right. But when you take a piece of paper and hold it next to it, you realise that the colour you were convinced was white is actually grey. And quite a dark grey, at that.

When you’re assessing the colours in your photograph, it’s worth using white as your reference point. If you have something white in your artwork, double check that it is also white in the photograph. If it isn’t, revisit the lighting and camera settings, or accept hours of editing.

Hopefully, you’ve achieved the perfect photograph. Keep experimenting, keep practicing, and soon you’ll be a pro. And if it all goes wrong, at least there is a handy smartphone camera, which aren’t half bad these days. Just don’t tell the pros.