documentation for artists

Next to the original physical work itself, good documentation is the best long-term investment you can make in your art practice. It will be the backbone of your art archive, and the primary factor in how your entire practice is viewed long-term. Remember that just because you may have strong work doesn’t mean that it will be perceived that way through your documentation. Bad documentation = bad work.

How you document your work determines everything from how it is reproduced in print publications to how it is seen online. Visual documentation will often be the only thing curators, writers, or grant panels will see of your work, and good documentation can mean the difference between getting a grant or securing an exhibition, or being rejected and passed over for opportunities.

Many times, documentation is all that is left over from non-permanent work, like temporary site-specific sculpture, happenings, social practice projects, performances, etc. In cases like these, the documentation will be the only thing that survives, and can actually become the work itself. This is why it is very important to plan how you will document your work ahead of time.

This section does not go into specifics with in regard to the kinds of cameras, film/digital options, or lights you should use to document your work. Every individual work of art requires a unique kind of documentation. Accurate documentation can vary with lighting conditions, the kind of work you are photographing, and how you want your end product to look.


You need a good graphics program. The industry standard is Adobe Photoshop, which, sadly, costs a pretty penny. Other alternative and free options are available such as:




While graphic tools like Photoshop make it very easy to retouch images after they are taken, it’s always best to get the right shot the first time around. So make sure you have the right camera, lighting, background, framing, and formats for your photographs. Adobe now has a subscription service for all it’s applications, which now run on the cloud. At least it makes it more affordable for artists.

The Camera

It used to be that all applications required slides, which meant work had to be photographed in slide form and then these slides had to be duplicated. The process was time consuming and very expensive. Thankfully, the art world has moved past slides and into the digital age. In general, you don’t need to shoot slides, and instead should always have high-quality digital images of your work. This means you need a digital camera that can capture images in a  raw format. Raw format is the original, unaltered format a digital camera processes. This large file allows for greater freedom when editing the image in post production. Usually any DSLR (Digital Single Lens Reflex) camera that takes photos at 8MB (minimum) or more will do the trick. The most important thing about this kind of camera is not just that it can take very high-res images, but that it lets you manually adjust exposure rates, white balance, and a host of other features. Most cameras now come with automatic settings, which means you can skip the manual settings. These cameras are not cheap ($500 and up), but considering that the cost of photographing, developing, and duplicating images just a few years ago could run you way more than $500, the digital route seems to be a bargain. Take your time when buying a camera for documenting your work. Ask around and buy used or refurbished cameras from your school, other artists, or students.

Another option is to shoot with an analog camera and digitally scan in the film, but this is getting difficult since slide and negative film is no longer produced by large companies and is harder to find.  For the purists, this may produce a more rich and detailed image than its digital counterpart. This is a great option for artists who use their documentation as the physical work itself, such as performances and site-specific/time-based projects. However the analog-to-digital method does require money, time, skills, and the equipment. If you are looking to simply document your work, store it on your hard drive, and be able to print an 8 x 10 inch photograph, then a digital camera is your cheapest and fastest option.

When you are shooting with your digital camera, you should, in general, use these suggested guidelines:

Set the ISO (International Standards Organization) to its lowest setting. This will reduce “noise,” or graininess, in the final photo. This means the camera is more sensitive to movement, so a tripod is always recommended. The lowest ISO is  best used for objects that are not moving. If you are capturing a dance performance, a higher ISO may be needed.

Set the camera to capture the image in the highest, most memory guzzling format it can. If your camera can shoot in raw format then use that setting. Many cameras give you the option to shoot in raw format in addition to a large file. This means you will have a raw file to edit in post production, as well as a smaller file to email or archive for reference. Many of these options can chew up memory quickly so consider buying a card that can hold more memory or a card reader to quickly dump files on your computer.

Don’t use the zoom function. Zooming in causes your camera to interpolate, which is like making up information for the photo. Instead of zooming, move your tripod closer, or use the optical zoom function, especially when you are using a light meter on a work. You can zoom out to read the ambient light and then zoom in to frame in the work. This tricks the internal light meter and will take an even photograph.

Don’t use your camera’s built in flash. It will distort the color and shadows. To achieve a balanced tone in your photograph, diffused natural light is the best.  If you are working in a studio,  be sure to use the proper lighting set up to achieve the same evenly lit results.

Fill the frame with as much of your work as possible without cropping anything out of the picture. This will let you get the most detail in your shot.

Always take “detail” images of any work. This includes capturing textures and all sides of an object. 

If you are documenting an installation, interactive project, or kinetic sculpture, be sure to photograph a viewer or audience member interacting with the work. In a pinch, you can be the subject of your documentation if you set your automatic timer on your camera. Otherwise, ask a friend or colleague to interact with the artwork so you can document how it functions with human intervention. The same goes for kinetic sculpture and other similar projects. It is important to show the object at rest and equally important to show it in motion. Again, the work will not always be in front of a review panel, curator, or collector. You must capture your work in a photograph or series of photographs in the best way possible for the viewer to understand the artwork. It is never acceptable to simply say: “My work is impossible to document.”  Remember that ALL work must be documented if you want to apply for anything in the art world, receive press, or distribute your future retrospective catalog. 

The Tripod

If possible, always use a tripod to photograph work. Failure to use a sturdy tripod will often result in unfocused images and a splitting headache. Invest in a lightweight but stable tripod, preferably with a built-in level. If you are shooting a lot of flat or 2-D artwork, it might be a good idea to invest in an attachable horizontal boom arm to position your camera directly above your work.  

Most, if not all, digital cameras shoot HD video along with still images. Therefore, it is a good idea to invest in a tripod that can double as a video tripod. Meaning, the tripod head has consistent fluid movement when filming. You don’t want to buy a tripod that sticks or jams while you are trying to film a moving person or object. 


Make sure you light your work evenly and brightly enough so that all relevant aspects can be seen clearly. The sun is the ultimate light source, it’s what our eyes adjust all other light for and it’s the easiest light to use when photographing work. So if you can photograph your work using diffused natural sunlight, primarily 4 p.m., sunlight (not noon or in complete shade), you are in luck! A cloudy day may be a bummer to some but it is a photographer’s paradise. Cloudy weather conditions provide a perfect atmosphere for soft, even light while avoiding harsh shadows and “hot spots” from the unforgiving sun.

Although you may have great lighting conditions outdoors, be mindful to not confuse the work with a cluttered outdoor background. The same goes for any documentation of your work inside a controlled studio. You may really love Leopard print but it will be downright annoying to someone attempting to view your work. Stick to a neutral black, grey, or white seamless background. This will ensure that your viewer is looking at your work and not everything around it. 

If you can’t photograph work in natural sunlight you will need to control two things: the lighting source and the white balance.

If you can afford it, invest in studio strobes, modeling lights, or florescent filming lights on C-stands or tripods, attached to umbrella reflectors or a diffusion soft box. One of the best things about photographing work digitally is that you can instantly review photos once you have taken them. Always set your white balance (auto or manual) that best suits your working environment. Be sure to experiment with shutter speed and aperture to adjust clarity, depth of field, and exposure. If you can, review a few test shots on a computer screen for accurate color and lighting. Often time a photograph will look entirely different from the tiny, on-camera LCD to your computer screen.

If you are photographing 2-D work, use two lights positioned 45 degrees from both the artwork and the stationary camera. Make sure the lighting is even over the entire work. If you are photographing 3-D work leave one light at 45 degrees from the work and position the other light closer to the work, at less than 45 degrees. If applicable, photographing with this light source will heighten the shadows and texture in your work. There is a delicate balance between a stylized photograph and documentation. You want to document the artwork in the most straightforward and clear manner. You do not want to take liberties with experimental camera angles, circusy lighting gels, or glittery backgrounds.

Saving and Archiving Your Images

Once you have taken your photos, you will need to save them in your computer or external hard drive. 

1. Transfer the raw photo files to your image archive database. You will probably want to peruse your photos and weed out any sub-par or blurry images. 

2. Separate the good images by individual works. You might want to rename the files with the artwork’s inventory number and the word ORIGINAL. If you have questions about how to assign inventory numbers, check out the Artwork Inventory section of this manual. 

3. Put the selected images in a Hi-Res Images folder on your computer. You might want to make a dedicated ORIGINALS file, nested in this Hi-Res folder. Once you have the original files in this folder you never want to alter them, ever. These are like your negatives, the ultimate archive of your work. Altering the images decreases the image integrity, and can lead to things like pixilation, interpolation, etc. When you need to color correct these files, resize them, crop them, etc., you will want to use the Save As feature and save these in a Lo-Res Images file nested in your Archive folder on your computer.

Additionally, you will want to save each image in your archive in the following formats:

Archival raw image (we addressed this before)

300dpi JPG file used for prints. Make sure it is no more than 8 x 10 inches. (This can also go in the Hi-Res images file). You will use these for your portfolio or send them to press that request images.

72dpi GIF or JPG file used for Internet images. Make sure it is no more than 800 pixels wide. (Save this file in your Lo-Res folder.) This size is also ideal to send via email for a quick reference. 72dpi is never recommended for printing due to pixilation and other forms of digital noise.

Video Documentation

Consider hiring a professional videographer or a skilled friend to shoot your work, as well as direct and edit the footage. A poorly shot video is a waste of time and money, and you may have lost the opportunity to capture your best work. Do not skimp on the quality of your documentation.

If you are documenting the work yourself make sure you have a high-quality HD camera and adequate lighting. If you are filming something relatively short (around 15 minutes or less) you can usually get away with using cameras that are equipped with a typical flash memory card. If you are filming something that requires more time, such as a live performance, you might have to resort to a camera that uses high performance flash memory, digital video tape media, or connection to an external hard drive.

Similar to still photography, don’t rely on your camera’s light source. Remember that poor lighting can ruin any documentation.

Keep the focus on your work and on documentation, do not try to make the portfolio of your performance into an artwork itself. There is nothing more distracting than trying to see a tape of a performance with so many flourishes that the work itself is not fully represented. Simply document your work, not your directing abilities.

Shooting at rehearsals can be important. This gives you the opportunity to see how your work translates onto video. The conditions may be just right for the performance but not right for the camera. 

Include the entire work on the tape or in the digital file just in case your audience wants to view more. If you are burning your video to a CD or DVD always label it with your name, title, length and date of the work, unless otherwise specified. 

Always credit your filming collaborators, if any. Including but not limited to: director, editor, director of photography, and any other person who directly assists in the creation of the documentation.

Scanning & Archiving

If you have an old slide archive sitting around or you are a photography film purist, you should consider scanning all the slides and negatives of your work and importing these images into your database. 

If you do not have the money, time, skill, or equipment to perform this task, you can always hire a professional. Although this will guarantee great results, hiring a professional can be extremely costly. Alternatives include contacting an art school’s photography department, or GYST-Ink offers this service that is provided by other artists such as yourself.  

Here are some things you may consider scanning:


Film negatives


Printed photographs

Important documents like contracts, forms, etc. that are not available as digital documents

Articles and printed material about you and your work.

Printed research and photos pertinent to your practice

Scanning work and documents makes this physical information readily available and potentially protects your materials from an accident. Digitized work is permanent, doesn’t degrade with time and the elements, and if you back up your digital copies, you will always have a comprehensive archive of your practice. If your work is small and 2-D, you might consider scanning it as a form of documentation. You might get better image resolution and save time and money on lights and camera equipment.

The Scanner

Scanners range in cost depending on their resolution and quality. For basic scanning a less expensive scanner costing $50-$200 will do you just fine. Some scanners just scan reflective surfaces while other costly scanners ($200-500) offer the option to scan film negatives and/or transparencies. A professional scanner ($1,000 or more) will produce the highest quality scans, but can be expensive to buy and usually requires regular maintenance.

Most scanners come with scanning software that allows you to change the settings, resolution, size dimensions, bit rate, sharpening and dust, and to select the type of flat objects you are scanning). The typical settings are as followed:

8 bit (48-24bit), 300 dpi, optional pixel dimensions/ sizes 

When scanning, it’s always good to scan files as TIFFs, that way you can always downsize your files for web images, emails, or even changing sizes for digital printing, etc.

It is important to keep your work area clean, especially if you are scanning slides, film negatives, or transparencies. Dust can be a major problem and cause more work time trying to get rid of all of it picked up by the scan, so properly clean your scanner and workspace before use to increase efficiency. Some useful things to invest in are a dust free cleaning cloth (specifically used for film and electronics), a can of compressed air, professional photo gloves, and a photography loupe.

Remember to always keep a back up and/or burn your images files to a disk or to your hard drive to make safekeeping and archiving easier.


Slides are quickly becoming a thing of the past as everything becomes digital. Nevertheless, many artists still have slides that need to be taken care of. Having good quality slides, and expensive transparencies (taken with a large-format camera), can be a great tool when you are reproducing work large-scale or in print. So, for artists who use slides or transparencies, this section is for you. Artists also still use slides as a part of their artwork. 

About Slides

Slides are actually bits of 35mm film exposed in the camera. One side of a slide is a bare acetate base, while the other (the image side) is a complex, multi-layer film of gelatin and dyes. Both sides are delicate.

Always view slides on a light table before paying for processing or taking them home. Oftentimes, dust and debris accumulates on slides, which can be removed with canned air that is 100 percent ozone safe. This product can be found at electronic stores or camera shops.  

To properly store slides, slip them into archival slide pages that hold 20 slides each. If non-archival slide pages are used, the slide emulsion will adhere to the surface of the plastic and peel off. The best way to archive slide pages is in three-ring binders stored upright. Pages stored flat press the plastic against the emulsion, which is bound to cause problems. Always keep slides protected from heat, light, moisture, and dirt. To safeguard against loosing a set of slides in a fire, rent a safety deposit box or buy a firebox and keep your master slides there.

Caring For Slides

Preservation of slides or any analog film media is crucial to your archives. Plastic slide mounts are preferred because cardboard mounts will bend and split. Bent slides or slide mounts that are too thick will jam a carousel and may destroy your slides. Slide-film has a shelf life expectancy of 25 years which is why it is crucial to not only know how to shoot slides but how to care for them.

Labeling Slides

There is no universal slide-labeling format. The information on the slides is crucial to your archives because it is a historical record. If possible, do not handwrite labels, for poorly labeled slides can lead to problems and misunderstandings if your handwriting is illegible. Create professional looking labels by using word processing software and Avery 5367 or 8167 label sheets. 

Using professional photographic silver tape to mask out an unwanted backdrop is acceptable. Silver tape can be purchased at a photo supply shop or through mail order. Silver tape is not duct tape. It is the only tape that will block 100 percent of the light. Mask carefully and keep edges straight.

Check your slides periodically to make sure that they are labeled properly and that the labels are not sticking to each other. Also, project the slides regularly to check for damage.

Slide Orientation

For artists who project in exhibitions or lectures.

Clearly mark the slide so that the person putting the slides in the carousel tray or projector knows the front from the back and the top from the bottom.

A signal dot (usually red and marked with a pen, not a stick-on dot) should be placed in the lower left hand corner of the front side when it is in the correct position for hand held viewing. Once the tray is loaded, all the red dots will be visible and positioned so that the dot is seen in the upper right hand corner. Using arrows as well as a red dot to clearly mark the top is appropriate. Add the word “front,” if need be.

For multiple views of 3-D work, label with numbers and A, B, C, D, or detail-A.

Each slide should have labels that provide the following information:           

Your name.

Title of your work. All titles should be italicized or underlined. If your labels are handwritten, simply         underline the title.

The medium. Be reasonable in your choice of terms. Slide label space may affect your word choice, so         select your terms well.

Date of completion.

Dimensions. Whenever you provide dimensions for a work of art, you must use the following conventions:

3-D works: Height x Width x Depth (always in that order)

2-D works: Height x Width (always in that order)

Keep your units of measurement consistent. Within the U.S., measurements are typically recorded in feet         and inches. Outside the U.S. the metric system is normally used. Both are acceptable.

Whichever system you select, be consistent.


Correct               6 ft. x 2 ft. (ft. = feet)

Correct               6’ x 2’

Correct               72 in. x 24 in. (in. = inch)

Correct               72” x 24”

Incorrect            72 inches x 2 feet (don’t mix systems of units)


To convert centimeters to inches: 1 in. = 2.54 centimeters (cm.)

Location. If the work is part of an important collection or gallery show, name the gallery, and if it is a site-specific piece, indicate the location.

Condition. If the work has been removed or destroyed, that should be indicated.

Contact information: phone number and/or email.

Additional Tips on Submitting  Images of Your Art

Keep in mind that jurors, museum curators, art dealers, and art administrators sometimes look at thousands of images at one time. Make sure that the information you provide answers any possible questions that they may have.

Some of the questions that come up when viewing images are:

“Where is the art in this image?” or “Where does the art start and end?”

If your background image overwhelms the art it will be hard to see the work. As we suggested previously, use neutral grey, white, or black backgrounds, and avoid fancy backdrops. Do not set your painting on a chair in your yard, and include the chair and yard in your image. If you must do this, then be sure to crop the image digitally before submitting it.

“Is this the same artist?”

Try not to confuse the viewer with work that is so varied in nature that it looks like multiple artists made it.

“Whose image is this?”

Always include your name on the title of the file unless otherwise instructed. 

“What is this made of?”

If you can, include this information on the annotated image list. Include the materials if at all possible,         don’t just write “mixed media.”

“What size is it?”

You may be surprised at how often a viewer cannot tell the size of a work. Be sure to include this             information if it is not clear in the image. This is why some artists will include an installation view with a         person in it for scale.

Always follow directions.

If the application asks for 10 images, send ten and only ten images. Sending more means you cannot         follow directions.

Only submit requested materials. DO NOT submit additional materials.

Never send original images. Duplicate your images and send copies.

Documentation Alternatives

Although we mentioned that your work should always be documented, we didn’t say it has to be a photographic or moving image. Presenting your work in photographs and video is the industry standard and preferred by most of the art world. These methods provide a clear representation of your work without seeing it live and in the flesh. That being said, sometimes projects require primary or secondary unorthodox documentation. Whether you are documenting a site/time-specific project, happening, participatory meal, social practice interaction, or performance where cameras are not allowed, you can provide various alternatives to photographs or video. Many artists use “write-ups” and other text-based storytelling to document work. These artists find it to be more beneficial to the work to describe the project rather than represent one moment in time through a photograph. Many times artists will render drawings and sketches that depict what transpired, controlling how the viewer will perceive the work. Other alternatives include ephemera from the event, happening, or performance.  This can include menus, texts, sheet music, maps, etc. Be careful using alternatives to photography or video and always consider the best documentation method to represent your work.

Using these strategies will clarify your archives, and might be a good practice to start. Keeping a short paragraph about the work at the time you make it, or complete it will help when you are asked about the work years later, or you do a retrospective. Using software to keep track of al these items is a smart way to go as everything will be in one place and it is easy to back up and save, and you know where to find it.

Feel free to share this article with other artists.

An article on documenting your artwork at

An article on documenting your artwork at

See all our other articles in the navigation menu on the left, but we have more blog articles under GYST News.

You can also get our popular book for artists, Getting Your Sh*t Together: The Ultimate Business Manual for Every Practicing Artist, which includes all of this information and more here.