Sweat the Details for Photographic Success
November 25, 2014
Philip Cohen has photographed my sculpture, jewelry, Judaica and installations for 26 years. Every time I leave my work in his photo studio, our focus discussion is about what Phil calls the "money shot."
The "money shot" is the one shot that captures the art work's best aspects. Why just one shot? Because so often you only get one image on a postcard, one image in a magazine, or one image on a website to capture the viewer's attention.
It may be surprising, but sometimes the "money shot" is an image that is not the full view of the art work. Sometimes, a special angle, close-up, or detail shot becomes the "money shot."
For this post photographer Philip Cohen offers his own words of experience for how he finds the money shot in the detail for a wide range of art work and media.
Advice from photographer Philip Cohen:
When photographing artwork, I’m always looking for the “money shot” - the one angle that sums up the work most succinctly. However, quite often the only way to show what’s really happening is to shoot details, images from a different angle, or close-ups, even very close shots. Taking the detail is all about "sweating the details."
I never count on creating my detail image by cropping from the full view shot in Photoshop. This will not produce a quality image. You won’t be showing anything new, the image won't be large enough, and the focus will be off. So learn to shoot the details while you are photographing the overall shots.
When shooting details of 2-D work, select an interesting composition within the composition to reveal something about the artwork that the overall shot can’t show or doesn't reveal. Shoot these details “full frame” to maximize clarity; cropping in Photoshop later won’t work as well. Note: Getting close also reveals dust, cat hair or fuzz, so make sure the artwork is flawlessly clean.
“Two Cities 6”, oil on canvas by Maya Kabat. Seen as a whole, this painting has an abstract geometric composition. The detail photo reiterates the formal composition and....
...the detail shot let’s us touch the paint. We can see the hand of the artist with the brush stroke, palette knife, drips, and texture of the canvas.
“Life #1”, Clay Print on Wood Panel by Zahava Sherez. In the full view we can only focus on the movement of color.
The detail points out woven objects on the printed surface, something that was easily missed in the overall picture.
The objects embedded into the surface were also used to print color onto the piece, thus the matrix became part of the print.
Details of 3-D work can show an alternate mood, message, media or personality. The detail becomes the “money shot” and can completely re-define the work.
“They Paved Paradise #1”, a found materials assemblage by Cynthia Jensen. The overall shot is dominated by the antlers and by default the empty space of the background. As a result, much of the photo lacks information.
Showing a detail of the “face” at a slight angle (shown below) points out the different bas-relief aspects of the found form, lifting it away from the background. The closer angle also makes the image more engaging. The rusty steel has a granular surface and the antlers have texture not visible in the full view.
“Pick Up Your Pencils, Begin” a repurposed materials installation by Harriete Berman.
The huge curtain is over 28 feet wide and represents a statistical graph in the shape of a bell curve.
Some images need scale as an indication of size. This installation fills the room at 28' feet wide, but this is really hard to determine with the full view.
The detail view from one side has a young girl to indicate scale. In addition, the angle shot reveals the thickness and ethereal qualities of a curtain.
But the close-up detail is a revelation: the whole installation is made of pencils!
“Paper, Dreams…”, shadow box by Sandra Ortiz Taylor. Shadow boxes generally need to be shot from straight on so that nothing is hidden by the sides of the box. Lighting is tricky and objects in the box may obscure each other.
A detail shot (below) from another angle can isolate some of the objects showing them to a better advantage and pointing out some of the drama of the piece.
Shooting for a artist's website gives an opportunity to present a number of views of the product, both overall and detail shots, but essentially one image will be used to represent the work.
“Moana Manna” by Nathalie Leseine. Below is one of Nathalie’s Tahitian carved black pearl pendants from her Moana Manna series. The photos were taken for her website. The overall shot is seen on a page with the whole collection. While this shot shows the entire necklace, the pendant occupies a small area in the overall shot. Too much background, not enough information is a common problem when photographing necklaces.
A closer view of the pendant fills the frame. Now we really understand much more about this pearl pendant, the most important element of the necklace.
A very close detail from behind reveals the structure of the pendant bail (below) and shows how the pendant attaches to the necklace.
The shot below the two-part clasp is a practical view revealing both form and function, important information that might sell this jewelry.
The basic problem in photographing artwork in any media, whether for reproduction or exhibition, is captuing the best representation in a single image. This is contrary to the visual impression from direct experience where the mind’s eye can assemble a number of viewpoints.
In person, you can walk around the sculpture. When viewing a painting one can see the whole thing from a distance, then walk closer to see the details clearly. The mind’s-eye impression is actually what the photographer is trying to capture in one image. Sweat the detail shots for photographic success.
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