Showing your handmade books in a juried exhibition or in a gallery show is one of the most important steps you can take to get your artwork out into the world. Whether you are a seasoned veteran bookbinder or emerging book artist the steps involved in building an exhibition history, making sales and just gaining exposure for your art are very important to your success. One step vital to that success is documenting your work with photographs.Photographs of your books will be used for judging in juried shows, documenting your work history for your web site and approaching dealers or galleries for representation. Generally speaking, there is no substitute for professional, exhibition-quality or gallery-quality images. Many otherwise outstanding artworks have been passed over because the photo did not do them justice. Two practical things to keep in mind:
- Gallery owners see lots and LOTS of work. If you’re hoping to catch their attention, submit only high-quality images for consideration.
- The same goes for jurors and show curators. Often they will screen hundreds of entries and might not have time to analyze and guess to figure out if your book is blue or black, what materials are used, or other critical details that may not be obvious due to poor photography. The beauty of your work must come through in the photographs. In this case, a picture really is worth a thousand words, so consider photographs your PR rep, the photo must speak for you.
Photographic Criteria for Submitting Artwork Most artists will tell you, especially in this digital age, one of the most difficult and frustrating aspects of showing and selling their work is photographing it for submission. In the good old days, a portfolio was created with the help of a professional. This was pretty much the status quo for most artists. Now, thanks to the accessibility of computers, digital cameras, and photo editing software, most creatives aspire to the DIY approach.
Whether you are using a photographer to shoot your work, or you are doing it yourself, keep these basic details in mind:
- First and foremost: find out the size and resolution requirements for the show or gallery submission. Some venues require only web-ready images, which are much lower resolution than print-ready images. If a juried show will be producing a print catalog, as is very common these days, they may require “hi-res” or print-ready photographs. Web-ready images will generally be 72 dpi or ppi (dots per inch or pixels per inch, which are used interchangeably). Print-ready photographs will need to be 300 ppi.
- Remember one important item. Using your computer software, you can always make a photograph smaller in size or resolution, but you cannot increase the size or resolution of a photograph in your computer. The quality of your image degrades noticeably when you attempt increases. You must capture your image with sufficient resolution and size and then size it down to what you need. You might consider having hi-res photos shot every time, even if the current show only wants web-ready images. A future opportunity might require print-ready photos.
- To achieve print-ready images, your photographs must be shot with a camera that captures 8 Megapixels or higher. Any less than that and your image may not be properly editable for printed catalog reproduction.
- Lighting is critical. Each type of lighting is interpreted differently by the camera. Natural light (overcast or sunny), incandescent or tungsten (regular light bulbs), fluorescent—all can drastically change the quality of the image by creating a “color cast” and each requires a different exposure adjustment. Modern LED bulbs have various color temperatures as well. Here is a good article explaining how to choose your bulbs: https://www.digitalphotographyformoms.com/the-best-light-bulbs-for-photography-at-home-review/ Two top points to remember. Use “Daylight Balanced LED” lights and make sure all the bulbs in the room where you are shooting photos are the same. Mixed color temperatures are impossible to fix in Photoshop.
- Keep it simple. A busy background, cluttered vignette, anything that competes with your artwork, is distracting and takes away from the art. Avoid shadows, reflections, wrinkles, background surprises, awkward angles, dust, dirt, etc. Speaking of backgrounds: gray or white backgrounds are best. Avoid black backgrounds. Below is a good example of why a backdrop is important.
- Depending on the piece, it may be better to photograph directly head on or from above. This helps reduce distortion and foreshortening of the object. Experiment to see what works best. The image below left is distorted and it looks like the book is falling over. Watch out for “lens distortion” as shown in the photograph below right. Many digital cameras these days create a rounded or pinched look with lines (such as the edges of a book) that should be straight. Also be sure that you don’t cut off part of your book or crop your image too closely. A bit of white space around your image is a good thing.
- Quality counts! Out-of-focus photos are common even in today’s auto-focus world. Additional sharpening in photo-editing software may be required to adjust sharpness. Also, watch out for image “noise.” We used to call this “film grain” but these days it’s noise and it really detracts from your image. View your image at 100% to judge noise and focus.
- Does the image meet the requirements for size and resolution?
- Is the image shot of a grey or white background?
- Are the colors you see on screen neutral? Are the whites white?
- Is the book object straight?
- Is the photograph in focus?
- Is the image noise under control?
Examples of Good Photographs
I know, I know, the first thing you’re going to say is “how much?” My response, is how much is your time worth per hour? You may find the services of a professional are cheaper than you think. Look at it this way: the return will be good exposure (no pun intended) and perhaps a sale that you might not otherwise have made. Check around and find out who is doing this type of work in your area. Try to get some idea of prices and go from there. This way if you are experiencing frustration while photographing and editing your own work, you’ll be better able to weigh the financial pros and cons of delegating this to a professional.
When searching the web for professional services start with the terms “photography services, advertising, commercial, or product photographers”. This should get you pointed in the right direction. Ask other book artists for references. One of the benefits of book arts is portability. Perhaps you can ship your books to a photographer if you don’t have one nearby. Another option would be to check art schools in the area for students that might be looking for the experience and to add to their portfolio. Through school they probably have studio access as well.
Remember with all these above options there are pros and cons, but keep focused on your real objective to have your work presented as strongly as possible. Put your best foot forward. You never know who might see (and purchase from) that web site or print catalog even years down the road.