Taking photographs of monumental works doesn’t have to be a daunting feat.
We collected recommendations from public artists and administrators on how to create impressive and memorable images of public art projects without breaking the bank.
Here are 11 helpful tips:
Your photograph is an interpretation of the artwork (context is key).
Caitlin Martin, Media & Communications Manager for the Association for Public Art (aPA) councils suggests, “we must remember that when we photograph an artwork, we are in a way interpreting that work.”
Remember that your image may be a viewer’s first experience of the work. Martin recommends sharing the context and site of the work.
“Show how the space is used where the sculpture is sited—which usually involves people, light, architectural elements, etc.”
These elements also portray the scale of your piece, which isn't always obvious when the work is photographed alone.
Symbiosis by Roxy Paine. Photo credit: James Ewing Photography
Take photographs of the public interacting with the artwork. Interaction can be both observing the work or engaging with the space in which the work is sited (walking a dog, playing frisbee, etc.). These images will also showcase how your work enlivens a public space.
The images of Firmament, a vibrant canopy of 21,600 LED lights by Burning Man artist Christopher Schardt, is a wonderful example of using public interaction to highlight the awe that the work invokes in viewers.
Visitors gather under the structure on Houston’s Discovery Green and watch a display of celestial, psychedelic, abstract images in the night sky.
Avoid distracting backgrounds.
This is the time to celebrate the artwork and show it in its best light. Avoid distracting or competing elements like a billboard. Just shuffling your feet a few steps can make a huge difference.
Similarly, significant parts of the environment that contribute to the work.
Tell a bigger story with a wide-angle lens and panoramas.
Using a wide-angle lens will allow you to get much more in the frame—meaning you don’t have to walk hundreds of yards away from your subject to capture it fully. If you have a DSLR, consider using a wide-angle lens. If you’re not ready to purchase one, you can rent a lens from your local camera store.
Caution: distortions occur at the edges of a wide-angle lens so zoom in a bit.
We have incredible photographic power in our pockets with our smartphones. Download a panorama app like Google Street View and capture ALL of the work, and then some, with a cohesive panorama.
Showcase the work at different times of the day.
Sunrise and dusk are typically the best times of day to take photos since the light is softer and the wind is lighter (so you don’t have to worry about adjusting shutter speeds for rustling trees unless motion blur is a look you want). People are usually not out and about at these times, so if you want to focus on just your artwork and the environment, now is the time.
If you want dramatic shadows, shoot in the middle of the day when shadows are the most prominent from the sun being high in the sky.
Take a lesson from Patrick Marold who showcases his work Contrails at different times of the day to demonstrate how the light changes the experience for the viewer.
If your work utilizes light as a primary material, borrow or rent a camera that will give you excellent low-light images and allow you to show off the wonder of your work at night—like Fireflies by artist Cai Guo-Qiang, commissioned by Association of Public Art.
Contrails by Patrick Marold. Photo credit: Patrick Marold
Invest in a tripod.
Avoid the camera shake and get crisp photos of your work with a tripod. A tripod will also let you take impressive shots in low light or with a high aperture (which means longer shutter speeds).
If you don’t have a tripod, find a secure object or platform, or even hold the camera against a wall to secure it.
Offer a variety of perspectives.
The magic of photographing your art is that you give the viewer the feeling of being in its presence—without being there in person. Capture the work from a variety of angles and positions, allowing the viewer to visually “walk around the piece".
Try to make the photography of the work as accessible as the work itself.
Martin recommends capturing perspectives that the public may not necessarily see. The Association of Public Art has been working with drone videographers and photographers to capture different views.
Fireflies by Cai Guo-Qiang. Photo credit: Jeff Fusco Photography
Go beyond the snapshot.
We just mentioned drone photography, which is a modern way to present your artwork. You can also consider taking a time-lapse video.
The Rose F. Kennedy Greenway Conservancy captures the monumental process of painting a mural on a multi-story air-intake structure in downtown Boston. Here is a time-lapse video of Mehdi Ghadyanloo's Spaces of Hope on The Greenway Wall at Dewey Square Park.
Conceptual artist Matthew Mazzotta speaks to how he perceives the use of video in a Mass Cultural Council article: “When I make a video I try to hit three different types of ways people perceive the world—experiential, mass culture, academic. I want to make sure that if someone is seeing the work with no understanding of art that they can still find something intriguing and captivating about it.”
Don’t forget the details.
Public art and large-scale installations are usually impressive in their sheer scale, but the details behind the work are worth highlighting. Make sure to showcase the texture, color, and other unique qualities of your work in your photography.
Symbiosis by Roxy Paine. Photo credit: James Ewing Photography
Get those details sharp (depth of field is your friend).
If you want the environment or a building part of the shot, use f/16 or higher to get a deep depth of field so that all details are sharp. If you’d like to focus on just the artwork, set the aperture to something like f/5.6 and focus on the work so that the background is blurry.
Hire a photographer.
We’re not saying you can’t take a great shot. But, public art administrators like Liz Keithline recommend you get a professional to photograph your work. Why? They will bring fresh eyes. Chances are, you are too close to your work. A photographer serves as a curator of sorts; they provide a new perspective.