by Liz Georges

Sometimes the detour becomes the primary route. At least, that’s how Greg Staley became one of DC’s best photographers of art objects. “I went to Pratt Institute for a couple years and started shooting work for students there as a favor almost. And I got pretty good at it. And then I moved back to Washington, and when I started a business, I found that this was the bulk of the work I was doing. It took a while, but I shot for museums and artists and galleries. There was much more of a demand for it at the time because it was pre-digital, so people needed film reproduction,” he says. Now that many, if not most, photos done of artwork are digital, Greg Staley is still shooting fine art and jewelry for clients like the National Gallery of Art, The Phillips Collection, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, as well as for auction houses, galleries, collectors and artists.

Even with the greater ease afforded by digital files, shooting artwork can still be a challenge. “I remember shooting several pieces that were basically made of a couple hundred razor blades,” He says. “I remember having to lift them on and off the wall, and I cut myself. The images were excellent but I really wished I’d had some gloves available.” Although Staley’s business is built on shooting artwork, he understands that often artists either don’t have the time or the money to pay for professionally done photos of their work, and are often in the position of having to shoot their work themselves. What’s the biggest mistake that artists make when they try to shoot their own work? “Mainly not knowing as much about their own cameras as they should, and because they don’t know enough about it, settling for a file that is too small or isn’t shot correctly, and thinking they can just go into photoshop and solve all the problems,” he says. “Increasing the size when it shouldn’t be increased, and using contrast and color values to correct for bad color that completely blow out the color range.” “People think they can save money and download images off of a point-and-shoot at 72 dpi, and they end up being disappointed,” he continues. “They’ll have saved a little bit of money but wasted a lot of time and the work ends up not being seen the way it should be seen.”

What can an artist do up front to assure success? According to Staley, it’s less about fancy equipment and professional lighting so much as about making good use of some basic tools. “If you’re going to shoot outdoors, make sure you have a tripod. Make sure you have a decent day to shoot – not a lot of wind. It shouldn’t be a brilliant bright sunny day. A cloudy day is best,” He says. “In a room, if there is a lot of light in a room, get to a place where there is the most even light. And then make sure that you know enough about your camera, read the manual and have the largest file size possible that you can use. If you can get a color checker, which is just a color bar that helps you when you get on the computer screen, put it next to your piece. If you can do all that, and make sure obviously that you focus well, and try to keep everything straight within the frame, you’ll be in good shape.” Even three dimensional work, which many find challenging to shoot, Is not too difficult if the artist is willing to take the time to set up the work properly to assure success. “For two dimensional you just want a really clean, color correct, sharp image, glare-free. It’s a lot easier to shoot two-dimensional work -- I can control light for that, and can control glare issues. But if you’re going to shoot three-dimensional work, it’s best to use a seamless backdrop,” Staley advises. “It’s easy to buy that at the photo store. You can also buy graded backdrops that aren’t that expensive, just set your piece on top of it on a table and drape it back, behind the piece. You can use available light, too, you don’t need expensive light. It’s just a question of preparing for it. You might want to get a reflector to bounce light on the less lit side. And all of this is available at most photo stores or online.”

Though Staley firmly believes that most artists can shoot their own work with enough proficiency to meet most of their needs, there are some instances where one should just spare the trouble and seek a professional from the outset. “Paintings that are dark and heavily glazed is very difficult work to shoot. I wouldn’t recommend shooting that type work on your own, because you probably won’t be successful,” Staley says. “Some types of ceramics, raku for example, are difficult to shoot, because they have glazes that are very reflective. I would not try to shoot those on your own. If you get a good enough shot you can do something in Photoshop with it but not everyone can do that.”

Over the years Greg has helped dozens of artists use photos to prepare for calls for entry, residency and grant applications, jury shots and other instances where an artist’s work is judged. He’s usually happy to work with artists to help them get the best shot of their work. His advice for artists in this situation is fairly concise. “Make sure the images are readable online. Some objects are stronger in real life than when you see them online. Some work just reads better, the lines, the aesthetics, and composition. And it’s important to know that up front,” He says. “Shoot more than you need to shoot and edit later. Take an extra angle. A lot of it is about editing. But make sure you have something worth editing.”

In the end, however, he shares the opinion of many who offer advice to artists in the application process: “I’d include the best work you have, that’s really the most important thing.” Greg Staley will be teaching WPA’s “No Artist Left Behind” workshop, “In Your Best Light: How to Photograph Your Work” at Arlington Arts Center on Monday, March 12 from 6:30-8pm. The workshop is currently full. Please contact Greg Staley at for more information about his services.

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March 8, 2012