How to take great sketchbook photos

Published by Nela Dunato on in Sketchbook, Tips for creatives

One of the things that makes me sad is seeing great art photographed in such a way that you can’t appreciate its true beauty. The images are blurry, unfocused, grainy and yellowish, so it’s hard to see the details and the colors as they really are.

No technology can replace seeing the art in person, but there’s a huge difference between a good photo and a bad photo representing you online. I’m not a professional photographer, but I know enough to be able to take clear photos that look good on my website and social media – and today, I’ll share some of my tips with you.

(Side note: if you’re still not using a sketchbook to capture your creative ideas, read my post Why I Think Every Visual Creative Should Keep A Sketchbook. I’ll wait.)

How to take great sketchbook photos

Photos versus scans

I used to scan all my sketchbook drawings and crop the sketchbook boundaries, which left me with a clean and crisp image of my drawing. Here’s an example:

Cthulhu's Daughter colored pencil sketch

The downside of scanning your sketchbooks or work-in-progress art is that the context is lost. You’re sharing the artwork itself, but you’re stripping away the atmosphere around the creation process. I didn’t understand this at first, so I’ve been scanning all my work for years.

Later, I’ve noticed that when I was looking at other people’s work (especially on Instagram), I loved the look of photos that included both the art/sketchbook and sometimes a bit of surroundings, too.

Scanning and cropping your work is great when it’s finished—when you want to use the image to present it in your portfolio, make prints, etc. But when it comes to work in progress and art that isn’t meant to be polished, photos tell a better story.

For this reason I’ve changed my approach, and now I mostly share photos of my sketchbook on social media, instead of scans.

What photo gear to use?

The short answer is: use what you have. There’s no point in splurging on an expensive camera, if all you’re going to do with it is take photos of your sketchbook. You can do that with your phone, too.

I used to take photos with my phone, edited them with an app like Aviary, and shared them instantly on Instagram. I rarely do that nowadays (only if I really want to make a quick update) because I have a good camera and the photos that my phone makes are not that great, especially in low light.

[UPDATE 2019/02/02] A few months after publishing this post, I switched to a Samsung Galaxy phone which has a much better camera than my previous Moto G, so from that point forward I often posted sketches directly from phone to Instagram. I still take photos with a camera when I’m at home, but I’m often sketching away from home and in that case I’ll use my phone. The Aviary app has shut down in December of 2018, and I now use the app Photoshop Express (it’s free as well).

Having a tripod is useful, but when the light is good you don’t need it. I rarely use it because the time it takes me to set up the tripod is not even worth it when I only need to snap a photo of a single drawing. What you need is good light and a good background.

You can learn more about the exact photo equipment I use in my article: My complete list of creative, business & productivity tools.

The importance of good lighting

Lighting is the single most important differentiating factor between a good photo and a bad photo. You’ve probably noticed that your phone camera produces pretty crappy images in artificial light.

When there’s too little light coming into the camera sensor, photos become blurry and noisy, and the colors blend together. When there’s plenty of light reflecting off your art, the photos are clear, crisp, and more true in color to the actual artwork.

Good light can be easily achieved by taking photos in daylight next to your window. If you don’t have a table anywhere near your window, this is something you’ll need to resolve. Another alternative is to take photos outside, but not in direct sunlight—overcast sky, or in the shade works best.

Sketchbook photos - light comparison
Photos taken with my same Moto G phone with a crappy camera

The above 3 photos are taken with the same phone, have the same resolution, and are pulled straight from the camera (no editing or filters applied) so you can see what a difference the light makes even with the most basic photo gear.

  • The one to the left is grainy, blurry, low contrast and has a reddish tone. There’s not much I can do to make it better.
  • The middle one is much clearer, though a bit dark, so I’d increase the brightness and contrast before uploading to Instagram.
  • The one on the right is light, crisp, and has a bluish tone. On this one, I’d increase the contrast and dark tones (to make it look less washed out), and balance colors toward red-yellow.

If you want to be able to take great photos at any time of day, think about investing in good artificial light with a full-spectrum (or “white light”) bulb. I’ve purchased a LED bulb for my old desk lamp, and now I can take pretty good photos and shoot video even when it’s dark outside.

Another prop you might need when taking photos indoors is a light bouncer. I now have one of those 4-sided bouncers with a white, black, silver, and gold surface. I use white when I take closeup photos of my art, and silver when I record myself talking on video. Before I bought the bouncer, I used a large sheet of styrofoam that my furniture was packed in, a large white sheet of paper, or a blank painting canvas. A white wall can act like a light bouncer too.

Lighting setup for better sketchbook photos - top view

View of my sketchbook photography lighting setup from above. Some glare is visible since my desk lamp doesn’t have a diffusor.

Lighting setup for better sketchbook photos - side view

View of my sketchbook photography lighting setup from the side.

Choosing a background

Ideally, you’ll take photos at the same desk that you create your drawings on—that is, you’re going to take photos of the scene as it appears in your real life, so your fans can get a glimpse of your work environment.

Since you also need good light for drawing, your drawing desk should be well lit, so there would be no need for finding a different place for taking photos. However, if for some reason your drawing desk doesn’t work well as a backdrop, feel free to find another place in or outside your home where you can take nicer photos.

Your table should not be taking away from the drawing itself. Clear out the mess and make sure that only the things you want to be seen when you share your photos are in the view. (No ashtrays, handkerchiefs, food wrappers, etc.)

If you don’t have a nice table and your tablecloths are all grandma style, buy a large sheet of neutral colored paper to use as your background (white, beige, black, dark grey). I use this method in jewelry photography, but I also sometimes like to use a contrasting red background, because red is one of my brand colors (and it does help that I have plenty of red surfaces and props in my home).

Sketchbook photos - red background

You can also take photos in a fun environment, such as your garden, or with the motif of your drawing in the background (if you’re drawing from life). Here are some examples:

Sketchbook photos - plum bloom

Sketchbook photos - Lake watercolor sketch

I’m a bit annoyed with the current style of office photography where people are arranging golden paperclips and washi tape all over the desk. To me it looks fabricated, and not at all like someone was actually doing any creative work on that desk.

If you happen to like that style, go ahead, but I’m leaning more towards the actual working desk look. This means that the only things I’m going to use as props are those that I actually used during the drawing process itself.

For example, sometimes I’ll line up all my drawing tools in view, like on the photo below:

Medusa sketchbook drawing - ink and gel pen

I may or may not show the cup of tea I’ve been drinking, or other things that have been lying around on my desk, depending on how I like the composition, and how large I want the drawing to be in the photo.

Shooting tips

Use paperclips and white tack to keep things in place

Most of the time I draw on a slanted drawing board, so when I try to take photos, things slide down to the bottom of my desk. To deal with this problem, I stick pieces of white tack to everything and stick it to the board.

Sketchbook photos - using white tack

There, now it’s all set in place.

Sketchbook photos - using white tack

If the pages of your sketchbook won’t remain fully open, use paperclips, as in the photo above. If one side of the sketchbook is causing you trouble, use a larger clip to weigh it down, and then crop out that part of the photo.

Sketchbook photos - using clips

Take several photos from different angles

I use my sketchbook photos as blog post images, as well as social media updates, so it’s important to have several image orientations to choose from. Square crop works best on Instagram, horizontal crop is better on Twitter, vertical is best for Pinterest, and who knows what Facebook prefers these days.

For my blog post images and video covers, I like to leave plenty of white space on the side or below the sketchbook so I can fit in the text. White space can literally be white, or any other more-or-less uniform surface.

Sketchbook photos - whitespace

Test different angles and orientations for your photos and see what works. I’d suggest trying out the following:

  • View straight from the top
  • Angle from down and to the right side
  • With white-space for text
  • With or without tools in view

Editing your photos

Unless the auto settings on your camera are so amazing that they capture your sketchbook exactly as you see it, you’ll probably want to retouch your photos a bit before publishing.

You can use a free app like Pixlr or PicMonkey. I personally use Adobe Creative Cloud for all my work, so Photoshop is my go to image editing program. On my phone I use the app Photoshop Express.

I always increase the contrast so the white of the paper appears white, and the black is black. Depending on my light and camera settings I may need to fiddle with color balance a bit to get the colors right. If there’s a bit of dirt or dust on my desk or the paper, I’ll use the clone tool to remove it. (Phone apps call it “spot removal”, it’s the same thing.)

Sketchbook photos - before and after editing

RAW format (which most good cameras support) enables me to fine-tune many different settings, so I always shoot my artwork with a camera in RAW. I use Adobe’s Photoshop Camera RAW plugin for editing my photos, but you can find RAW editors for free, such as RawTherapee or LightZone. They’re a bit advanced compared to regular ol’ photo editors, so if you’d rather not bother with too many settings, stick to regular JPEGs.

How much editing is too much?

This one is down to your personal philosophy on what is legitimate use of digital tools, and what is “cheating”. I’ve meet artists from all sides of the spectrum: from purists who think digital editing is ruining photography, to people who embrace any tools at their disposal to make their work look better. I fall into the latter camp, so I don’t mind if people use filters, or fix mistakes made during drawing or painting that stick out too much in the final photo.

If I’ve made a mistake on my drawing and it’s showing up really obviously when I resize the photo, I’ll fix it. That’s not because I want to fool people into thinking I can draw better that I really can, but because it makes the photo itself look worse. I don’t want people’s eyes to focus on stray lines and splotches of white where I tried to fix something, I want them to appreciate the photo as a whole. Frankly, it only happens rarely, so I’m not too worried about that. I’m comfortable using any tools at my disposal to achieve the vision I have in my mind.

Your mileage may vary, so go with what you consider fair. And well, if you want to judge me for fixing my art digitally, feel free to judge.

Final thoughts

The things I mention above came up for me because I was testing different methods for years, and tried to find solutions to the problems I’ve had. My process may or may not be ideal for you, so don’t be afraid to stray from it.

Your studio plays a huge role in how you shoot your photos, so adapt your photography to it. A crammed, dark room (or having no studio space at all) may push you to stage creative photo shoots outside of your home where light is abundant, and the surroundings is much nicer. This may lead to a recognizable photography style that will attract even more viewers to your work.

For a creative person such as yourself, it’s easy to turn obstacles into your strengths.

What’s next?

Now that you’ve learned how to take great photos of your art, you’re ready to learn how to use them to make beautiful blog visuals—read my post Artist’s guide to designing attractive blog images.


Some blog articles contain affiliate links to products on Amazon. I’ll get paid a few cents if you buy something using my link, and there’s no extra charge to you.

17 responses to “How to take great sketchbook photos”

  1. So many great tips here Nela! It took me a while to get to grips with it, and I still have a bit to learn, but just knowing a few of the things you’ve shared in this post would’ve been so helpful to me early on. Have pinned it. :)

  2. Thanks Tara, glad you like these! And your studio looks like a terrific place for photographing art, so much natural light :)

  3. Hi Nela, this makes so much sense and gives your sketchbook such life.
    Thankyou I have learnt a lot from your site

  4. Wow Nela! This is a great post!
    Sometimes I’m a bit anxious/tired and upload the pic before it’s ready. I realised I was leaving them dark and not very nice. Mostly because I took the pics at night and the light wasn’t as good has daylight. I will take good notes of your process. Thank you very much!

  5. @Lanta, I’m so happy to hear that – thank you! :)

    @Ame, thank you!
    I get what you mean – I’ve been fast on the “share” button myself many times :) but the difference in image quality is just so striking, and I don’t want to share grainy images anymore.

  6. Hi,im a fellow Croat,I am 14 years old.You have inspired me a lot,I never knew Croats can be this succesful,how long have you went to school for graphic design and when did you start thinking about it seriously.My parents are saying how my life depends on this decision,and I’m pressured…is this the right way,do i have good chances?I love drawing and i can’t imagine my life without it,its my oldest memory…and the only dream i wish for next is to be able to make a living out of it.I mean…you get that in Croatia that isn’t as easy

  7. Good tips! I totally agreed that the fabricated scenes that have been popular on Instagram are tiring. I like the simplicity of your shots and I appreciate you commenting on my pictures.

  8. Hi Matej, welcome! :)
    I’m so glad to hear that you’re inspired to pursue a creative career.
    Don’t tell your parents I told you this, but I think they’re wrong ;) You see, I’ve never went to art or design school, I’ve learned everything by myself, at home. I started designing when I was a little older than you (15 maybe), and I didn’t dream of doing this for money back then. I just loved to create pictures, that’s it.
    I only realized I want to do it for a living when people started offering me money to design their websites. I was 19 at the time, and I’ve already gone to electrical engineering. I thought it was too late for me to study art or design, so I never did.

    If you have the passion (and it seems to me that you do), then your chances are good. If this is something you can’t imagine yourself NOT doing, then do it.
    And if sometime later you change your mind and want to switch careers, you can do that too. Don’t let your parents tell you otherwise. They grew up in a different society than you and I live in. My parents were pressuring me as well, but I’ve realized that things have changed, and the rules are different now.

    And yes, it is possible to make a living as a creative person in Croatia. I do, and I know many other artists and designers who do, as well.
    No career choice will guarantee you that you’ll make more money, so choose one that will at least make you happy.

  9. Hey Andrew, thank you! :)
    I’m glad you’ve enjoyed the tips. Haha yes, the fabricated tables trend will sure blow off soon. Art is what matters.
    Will keep an eye on how your work evolves over the 100 days ;)

  10. I’m so happy to hear that, Questing Lee! :)
    Lovely work you did with that dragon. In my opinion, your coloring page photo looks much better than many other photos featured in that gallery.

  11. Hi Nela, Thank you for this clear and inspiring write-up! I’m relieved that I can use my Samsung Galaxy phone, and I’m glad Aviary is gone (it was convenient but very limited). Pizlr is an excellent replacement.

  12. Thank you for this post. I’ve got some wireframes on a sketch pad and they turn out horrible every shot I have taken. It’s not white paper but I want the background as white and clean as possible. I’m just a beginner for photography and am clearly doing something wrong. It looks white on my screen but not when I get to the computer. Hopefully I can get it right after trying out your tips.

  13. You’re very welcome, Teresa! I hope these tips help. When it comes to design sketches (logos, wireframes, etc.) I prefer scanning them since it’s much easier to get the background white that way. Although I know many folks just take photos with their phone and then edit.

    If you want the background to be white in the end, you need to be even more mindful of the lighting. You need the lighting even across the entire page, not in a gradient fashion from lighter to darker, because then as you edit the photo your drawing in the lighter parts of the photo might get washed out. This is pretty hard to do without some photo equipment. But if you use a desk light on one side and a large white sheet (paper, styrofoam, whatever you have on hand) you can put it on the opposite side to bounce some light. You’ll need to experiment a bit with the angles to get a proper even light across your page.

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