Taking great photographs for your smArt Appraisal

An object is worth … what an appraiser can see from your pictures

An accurate appraisal begins with reliable source information. In the case of a smArt Appraisal, that information includes the photographs you submit.

Yes, words count for a lot, but images are often the most important descriptors you can provide for us to determine an object’s age and origin, culture and history.

A good photo will help us identify nuances such as the texture of a surface, paper fibers and the width of a margin on a print. It will reveal markings, impressions, quirks, signatures and other clues of authenticity. Enlarged, a photo can reveal traits that signify whether an object is rare or common, exceptional or ordinary.

In short, photos matter.

They do not, however, have to be intimidating. You don’t need to be the next Irving Penn or Laura Letinsky to take quality still photos of the objects you’d like appraised. However, to best serve you, we do need clear photographs that realistically depict your object.

This guide will walk you through the process of taking photographs of your objects that yield the most accurate appraisals.

Before you start shooting

A little sprucing goes a long way

The object will photograph better if it is clean. Gently remove excessive dust and dirt but be careful not to do anything that would damage the piece.

Papers, please

When submitting object photos, don’t forget to snap a shot of whatever paperwork you have that accompanies the object. Sales receipts, invoices, other correspondence that references the object’s value, as well as any provenance.

Also, shoot in color. Full-spectrum photography is necessary for evaluation. (Save the black-and-whites for art.)

When you're ready to shoot

Get illuminated

Even, natural lighting is essential for a good appraisal. To ensure the lighting is even, place it above the object. Good, natural light is not too bright, not too low White light, such as that from an LED bulb, is preferable – it will reveal  textured surfaces and other significant features.. When in doubt, just remember this rule of thumb: Frontal lighting flattens the surface texture while angular light emphasizes surface detail.  

To avoid glares and reflections when photographing objects beneath or behind glass, shoot in a well-lit space and turn off the flash setting on your camera.

Never photograph an object in direct sunlight. It’s bad for the object and bad for the photography. It’s just bad.

Lastly, examine your photos for shadows and hotspots. These may obscure characteristics of the object that are critical in assigning an accurate estimate of the object.

 

Show us the scale

Scale can be conveyed in a photograph through the inclusion of a ruler, tape measure or even a standard-sized object like a quarter. All of these will help put the size of the object in perspective.

 

Focus!

Focus should be as sharp as possible (so if you “occasionally” wear glasses, this is a good time to don them).. Some cameras have an autofocus feature that helps keep images crisp. The main image should include the object within a tightly focused frame and without cropped edges.

Avoid including other objects in the photograph, if possible. Plain white walls or a sheet of white paper/poster board are helpful backdrops. (Unless the object is white; see more below.)

 

Square it up

Make the main image of your object an overall, square-on shot.  

By capturing the object square-on with right angles to the center of the piece, specialists can identify irregularities of shape.

 

 

Give us some background (but not too much)

If the object is framed then by all means include the the frame in the main image. Sometimes a period frame can provide our specialists with clues that could change the value. Background colors/tones should not obscure or clash with the object. If background is plain white or in contrast to the object it can help the specialist distinguish the object’s overall form.

 

Tell us the story

Choose a viewpoint – or viewpoints – that allow you to capture the maximum amount of information about the object. While the main image should be taken square on, additional photos are helpful to paint a more complete picture of the object’s character.  

When photographing three-dimensional objects like furniture and sculpture, viewpoints should capture the object square-on and in three-quarter view.

In short, Specialists should be able to look at your photos and see the object from multiple angles.

 

Bottoms up

Always shoot the underside of an object, even if there is not an apparent mark.

Example: the bottom of a vase, or underneath a table or chair. Photographs of the underside reveal construction details that help specialists identify the age, origin and means of manufacture – critical details to know when valuing the object.

 

Include distinguishing features – they  can make or break your evaluation

Be sure to capture distinguishing features that identify the object uniquely, such as:

 
  Signatures

Signatures

 
 
  Markings

Markings

 
 
  Labels

Labels

 
 
  Irregularities

Irregularities

 
 
  Damage

Damage

 

Such markings should be magnified in the photograph as much as possible. If you have a macro setting on your camera, apply it.

 

Choose substance over style

We rely on you to submit  photographs that portray the object in its present and natural form. See a chip or crack?  Show it in your photograph. A strange marking or scribble? Snap a photo and send it along with your submission. Don’t doctor photos with editing software  – and don’t get too hung up on imperfect photography conditions. Do the best you can with what you’ve got.

The litmus test: Does the image accurately represent how this object appears? Would it convey its character to someone who has not seen it in person? If yes, then you’re well on your way to yielding the most informative and useful valuation from the pros.  

As appraisers, we obsess over the smallest quirks, cracks and inconsistencies in an object – because working with large collections in the super-selective art market programs us to think this way. We want our appraisals, our words, to be worth as much as possible to you. And that often starts with a photograph.