Photographing Encaustic Art

Capturing good photographs of encaustic is difficult.

You may have heard, or discovered, that encaustic is notoriously difficult to photograph. The deep, ghostly layers of pure medium on top of a black and white photo collage go on for miles to the naked eye, but a camera lens can't seem to capture that depth. Glass-like coats of wax with a glossy sheen don't render properly in a film or digital image. The textural shifts of color in a thick stroke of paint have a magic in them that you can only see in person. This makes it a challenge to capture all aspects of an encaustic piece.

Is scanning the answer?

I asked a photographer friend of mine how they achieved a particular photograph they'd taken of an encaustic collage. It looked like an encaustic collage. You would have noticed that, too. There was something tactile and tangible about the depth achieved in the picture. The secret? "I scanned it," my friend said. "Good luck finding someone with a high-end scanner who will let you do that." So far, I have asked one person, and they laughed. Scanners are expensive, but they can achieve more depth in an object - most encaustic pieces have an object-like feel to them - than any camera I've seen.


Tips for Photographing Encaustic Art

We've compiled some of our methods for photographing encaustic work.

General Rules

  • Bright, non-diffused overhead lighting is too harsh for encaustic photos.
  • Cloudy, indirect sunlight or cool light is often the best lighting.
  • Use diffused side-lighting to get rid of shadows, but don't be afraid to play around with shadows for more textured pieces.

Methods

  • The zero-equipment method: Photograph your piece outside on a cloudy day to achieve the best results. 
  • The light box method: Use rice or tissue paper taped over a clamp-light or standing lamp with a daylight bulb to create a make-shift light box. Clamp lights and daylight bulbs (at your desired coolness) can be found at hardware stores like Lowes or Home Depot.
  • The scanning method: Celebrate your luck that you have, or someone let you use, their high-quality scanner! Lay piece face down on glass and scan. 

Post-shooting tips

  • Adjust over/underexposed pictures in your phone's built-in photo editor.
  • Use the sharpen tool to accentuate line work.
  • Increase saturation to add color.

Have you discovered any tricks for photographing encaustic art? Let us know in the comments!