Photographing Your Work For A Critique

Article by Darren Rousar.


Online art students face numerous challenges and the most daunting is providing their instructor with photographs of their setup to be used for a critique. This is all the more critical when the artwork is being done in Sight-Size. Succeeding with the task is not difficult, but it does take some preparation and attention.

To overcome the challenge, ideally you would have a professional camera and the knowledge to properly use it. Furthermore, you would have an understanding of Photoshop, such that you could edit the photographs to the point where they matched your naked-eye view of the source.

Few students can meet those ideals. But don’t worry. You have alternatives.

Fortunately, today’s smartphones are also incredible cameras. That said, this is not simply a point-and-shoot operation. You do need to learn how to use your phone’s camera functions. At a minimum you’ll want to be able to make sure that the camera focuses on your intended target and that you can adjust its exposure. More on that a bit later.

The next hardware requirement is the ability to securely mount the camera at your vantage point and at the height of your eye. This means a tripod and a way to attach your phone to it.

Tripods can cost anywhere between $20 and hundreds. As long as you can extend it tall enough to reach your eye when standing, an inexpensive model will work just fine.

Attaching your phone is done through various purpose-built mounts. A popular one is called the Glif, though there are many others. The one I’m using in the photographs for this article is an early version of something called the Beastgrip. Again, the Glif or equivalent is fine and will be far less expensive.

You will also need a small, plastic bubble level.

levelUsing a bubble level to make sure that the phone is level in all directions.

When it comes to taking the photograph, it is helpful to understand the differences between your eye and the camera (there are many) so that you know how to compensate. One difference is orientation.

Unlike your eye, the focus area in a camera is a flat plane. This means that when you tilt the camera up or down from perfectly vertical, vertically oriented items in the scene (like a static plumb line, the sides of your drawing board, etc.) will not photograph as vertical. They will converge.

A similar problem occurs when the phone is panned side-to-side. If the slab of the phone is anything but perpendicular to your line of sight when at your vantage point, all horizontally-oriented lines will converge to the left or right.

The phone should also be at a 90 degree rotation to the floor.

Solving all three issues is accomplished by using a level. Once your phone is placed on the tripod and at your vantage point, level the phone in all orientations. You can see me doing that in the pair of photographs above.

static-plumbA cast with a static plumb line in front of it.

A Static Plumb Line
A static plumb line is a line suspended in front of your subject. This helps you to consistently align your position, side-to-side, when back at your vantage point. While not used in all ateliers, when it comes to providing photographs of your setup it can be indispensable.

As you align your phone’s lens to somewhere near that of your eye, you will need to make sure that the static plumb line appears to be in the same place relative to the cast with both your naked eye and through the camera.

If your phone gives you the ability to manually focus, use it. If it does not, that’s probably ok. The lenses in smartphones have fairly large depth of fields. As such, focus may not be an issue.

You’ve likely noticed that your phone’s camera takes pictures at a wider angle than you actually see. So, when setup at your vantage point and on your tripod, your drawing and cast will appear to be farther away from you than they really are. Compensating for that with a DSLR is done by using a proper lens (usually a 50mm to 60mm one). With a camera phone you have three options:

  1. Move closer
  2. Zoom in on the screen
  3. Ignore the issue

Avoid moving closer because doing so will also change your angle of view. Instead I suggest numbers 2 or 3. Both have their own issues, but neither are so problematic that the teacher cannot compensate to a workable degree.

Optical Distortions
There are other issues, many of which are too complex to go into here. The most insidious one is the result of the curvature of the camera’s lens. Although you may not notice it unless you’re looking for it, all lenses have either barrel distortion or pincushion distortion. Unfortunately there is very little we can do about it. Yes, software editing programs can use your camera’s lens profile to compensate, but that’s a bit beyond most students. Your teacher should understand that.

The solutions above help you compensate for shape issues. Next we’ll look at value issues.

Exposure is the term used to describe how much of the light on the subject gets into the camera’s sensor. There are dozens of online tutorials about this for all smartphone models. A good one for iPhones is here.

Usually you would tap on an area of the screen from which you want to adjust the exposure. Then you would use your finger to rotate a virtual dial.

Relative to our purpose, properly exposing your drawing and your cast in the same photo may well be impossible. This is a bit less problematic with a DSLR and a good lens. However, you can compensate with your phone’s camera.

How? By taking two differently exposed photographs of your setup: one with your artwork properly exposed and another with your subject properly exposed.

You can see examples of this below.

expose-over-underOn the left, the cast properly exposed. On the right, the drawing properly exposed.

Notice that both photographs are identical – except for their exposures. I did not move the camera between taking the two photographs, nor did I readjust its focus.

If I received those photos from a student I would combine them into one (using the properly exposed sections) and therefore have the best chance at providing a valid critique.

There is no doubt about it. Color is complex. An abridged list of just a few of your color challenges is:

  • The temperature (color) of your light source
  • The amount and type of compression your camera uses
  • The calibration of your monitor
  • The calibration of your teacher’s monitor
  • And so on.

Ultimately you’ll need to rely on the fact that we all see color, generally, in the same way. As an example, though peaches and apricots look different, the differences can be very subtle. Still, most are able to visually discern those differences in a photograph.

A Caveat
I think it obvious that nothing can reproduce an in-person experience exactly, and if you are studying online you know that. Nevertheless, you can still derive great benefit from such critiques.

In addition to providing your teacher with properly photographed examples, you need to keep one other thing in mind. That is, never completely accept a critique until you can see it yourself. In other words, if I tell you that your drawing is too large, look for that error yourself before you go about blindly making changes.

And that’s one of the areas where in-person learning has an advantage. A competent teacher may correct your drawing for you, at least in part. In doing so he or she in effect allows you to better see your error.

To compensate for that with my online students, I tell them both what the error is and how I found it. That way they can use the same process to discern it for themselves. In fact, that’s the best way to teach whether online or in-person. Teach not only the what, but also the how.

It’s Your Turn
In summary, if you’re sending a teacher photographs of your work, follow the steps below in order to give them the best opportunity to give you a valid critique.

  1. Properly align your camera:
    • At your vantage point
    • At your eye-level
    • Perfectly vertical
    • Perpendicular to your setup
    • In line with the static plumb line
  2. Provide two photographs:
    • One with your drawing properly exposed
    • One with your subject properly exposed
  3. Receive the critique in such a way that you see the error(s) yourself
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