Focus When Photographing Art

We tend to spend a lot of time on color and the importance of proper color management. This should not be ignored when it comes to printing one's artwork or photography. But we sometimes gloss over the topic of "focus" and clarity. I had the privilege of speaking at the Greater San Antonio Camera Club (GSCC) last week providing the members some tips on how to get great prints, especially on fine art papers. One of the things I mentioned was how crucial it is to making sure your shot is in focus. When printing with us, this is more likely to become an issue since our photography customers are usually seeking us out to print something relatively big like a 16×20 or larger. But focus is not just something photographers need to consider. Artists who are photographing their work to create reproductions need to be even more aware of this.
My favorite "fine art" photograph that I ever took is a picture of a sunflower sitting on the gray weathered arm of a wood park bench. I loved how the aged wood texture came through and how the flower provided a nice contrast of color and life. In my opinion after looking at it on the screen the photograph was exactly what I wanted to capture with little modifications needed other then adjusting the white balance a little. Once that was done it just needed to be printed and framed. I wanted to do something large so I had a 24×16 canvas print made. But when I got it disappointment set in since the details of the flower were out of focus. The focal point was not on the center of the flower like I had wanted so it came out too soft. I did not know this when I had my print made because I had not bothered to look at the image zoomed in at 100%. I only reviewed it in Photoshop, zoomed out the way Photoshop had opened it which was at around 25% or less of actual size. Since I thought no editing outside of some global adjustments were necessary I faied to zoom in and look at it in detail. Sadly this favorite photograph of mine could never be printed much larger than a 12×8, and even then, the out of focus flower tends to detract from what I wanted to convey with the image.
I bring this up because sometimes this happens with the images we are given to print. And when it does happen most of the time it is with photographed artwork. Admittedly many of these cases the artists submitting the file for printing no longer has the original to rephotograph. This means they are stuck in having to make the most of it. The good news is next time you photograph your artwork to get it ready for reproduction, getting an out of focus print is preventable by inspecting your image closely before you submit it for printing.
If you do your own photographing of your artwork, you need to make sure that the entire painting is within the area of focus. Don't just examine the image in one spot and assume everything is okay. Even if the shot appears in focus at the center of the picture, it may not be in focus on the outer edges. For you photography buffs this may mean that the aperture was too low and the shot was not wide enough. If you don't know how to adjust this and are using one of the automatic settings on your camera you may be able to trick the camera into doing this by simply making sure you have a lot of light and are zoomed out so the shot is a wider angle. My advice if you are using an iPhone or other smart phone: don't. Use a camera with a decent lens because ultimately that is going to impact the quality of the picture when you zoom in to review it on your screen.
Below I have included a couple examples to illustrate this:
This is an example of what you might see when you open an image in Photoshop or other image editing program. You would think that the two are in focus because they almost look exactly alike.
This is actually what you would be seeing if you were to look at it at 100% or zoomed into it all the way. Notice how the shot which is in focus shows better detail including the texture of the canvas. The one on the right might not look as good for a reproduction unless you were to print it much smaller than your original.
Probably the most important lesson that should be gleaned from this is the necessity to inspect your artwork's image file closely before you send it to printing. Even if you have the artwork photographed professionally still do this. It's easy to assume the photographer who photographed the artwork knew what they were doing. That does not sound unreasonable, right? Surprisingly we have seen it happen a number of times in which the artwork was not in focus like the artists assumed. So still inspect your image files.
Last, if you have no choice because you sold your original and only have an out of focus file to print from, make sure you test the results of printing it the size you want before you put it out there on the market. You may find that it does not look that bad or you may discover that you need to print it smaller then you originally intended. It's actually quite easy to do this without having to print the image. The following video shows you how to inspect your image size in Photoshop and then come close to looking at it to scale.

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