Have you ever tried to take pictures of paintings in a museum? The chances are pretty good that you found it a little challenging. Now imagine trying to take photographs of art on a living, breathing human being—that’s going to be even more challenging. So exactly how does one go about photographing body art? Read on to find out.
Tattoos are a unique kind of art because they are not only displayed on a multi-dimensional surface, they are also displayed on a moving multi-dimensional surface. This means that a tattoo’s shape can literally change as the person moves, and it also means that the shape of your subject’s body and the position you photograph him in are at least as important as the tattoo itself.
The very first thing to keep in mind about tattoo photography is that the way you choose to light your subject is extremely important. Skin can actually be a quite reflective surface, which means that bright, direct light may obscure some of the tattoo itself. You need soft, filtered light to highlight the art in the best possible way, and you need to make sure that it’s coming from an angle that will not produce any reflections. Because a three dimensional surface has many different planes, this can be pretty tricky since each one of those planes could potentially reflect light back to your camera.
To avoid this, what you need is filtered light. I suggest starting with window light—place your subject next to a window with good, indirect light and use a large reflector to bounce light back onto the shadowed side of your subject. If you’re finding that the light from the window still isn’t soft enough, you can diffuse it with a simple sheer curtain. This technique will give your photograph a more three dimensional look, which is important when photographing bodies—but be aware that some of the tattoo itself will fall into shadow. If you want the tattoo to be very evenly lit, you’ll need to use front light, but the drawback to front light of course is that you’ll lose some of the depth of the human form because the light will be too flat to highlight dimension. You can still use a window to produce front light, you’ll just need to place your subject directly in front of the window instead of at an angle, so that the light is falling evenly across the entire tattoo. I suggest maintaining a slight angle so you don’t end up with a completely flat image.
Open shade is also a great place to shoot a tattoo, or you can wait until an overcast day. The key to really showcasing a tattoo is to have even light, and both of these outdoor lighting situations will give that to you. When you’re shooting in an even natural light you can focus on the tattoo itself and on your subject, which is a plus if this sort of photography is new to you. But again, one drawback to both open shade and overcast sunlight is that, like front light from a window, the light can be a little too flat. You may need to make some post processing adjustments to improve the contrast whenever you shoot in a very diffused lighting situation. Or, you can use a reflector to add some highlights on one side of your subject and give him that little bit of added dimension.
Alternately, you can shoot indoors with a pair of professional soft boxes, which is going to give you a little more control over the light but does require some initial investment. Place one light in front of and on either side of your subject, but at a very slight angle, so that the light from the soft boxes are just a little less than parallel to your lens. Again, try not to make the light too even. You want some very subtle differences between one side of your subject and the other, so that you get some slight shadow that’s just enough to make your subject look three dimensional without obscuring the tattoo itself.
Ask your subject to stand in various positions and watch what this does to her tattoos. If she has a large tattoo on her back, for example, you can have her cross her arms and lower her head, so her back alone draws the viewer’s attention. Or you can have her raise her arms—remember that the difference in muscle action between these two poses can actually change the way the tattoo looks.
Tattoos on backs are in general a lot simpler to photograph than tattoos on extremities, for the simple reason that a person’s back is a nearly-flat canvas, while a person’s arm or leg is more or less a cylinder. To photograph a tattoo that covers an entire arm, you may need to take pictures of it in sections, and make a composite image to accurately show your viewers what the tattoo looks like in its entirety.
El conejito de mi pierna! Tattoo by Flickr user Miss Hask ▼▼▼
Think also in terms of how you can showcase multiple tattoos on the same body—crossed arms are one way to bring two pieces of art together for the same photo. Try different poses and be creative about the ways you ask your model to stand. Remember this is not the same as portrait photography, so those poses are going to be a little more unusual or extreme than the poses you might ask from a typical portrait subject.
It is important to capture the tattoo in such a way that the body it appears on is equally showcased, However, don’t think this means that you can never shoot the details. Sometimes the details of tattoos are really intricate and beautiful, and it’s impossible to capture that complexity if you don’t get close enough to show off the details.
When you get up close to your subject, make sure that the tattoo appears as natural as possible, or in other words, that it looks as the artist intended it to look. This means that the subject should relax and orient the tattoo so it is parallel to your lens, that way there will be no distortion caused by camera angle or by the way that the person is standing or posing.
Detail from currency by Flickr user Shannon Archuleta
You can shoot the details or you can simply fill the frame with the entire tattoo, but keep in mind that the location of the tattoo is still important—if it appears on your subject’s shoulder, you should try to include just enough of the shoulder so that your viewer can identify the placement of the tattoo—the exception, of course, is if you’re trying to include only the detail in a small part of the work.
Use a smaller aperture (larger f-number) as you get closer to your subject—remember that at macro ranges you still get a very shallow depth of field even when you’re using the smallest available aperture, so it’s important not to skimp. Use single point autofocus and lock on to the most important part of the tattoo. You want your photo to look just as sharp as the tattoo does in real life.
Tattoos look great when they are high-contrast, so don’t be afraid to adjust the levels in post processing to make those blacks just a little bit blacker, and the highlights just a little bit brighter. A little extra saturation doesn’t hurt either, but don’t go overboard.
A final tip
Tattoo photos can be portrait-like, especially if you include faces, but that’s not really what they are. Try to maintain an equal importance between your subject and your subject’s tattoo, rather than letting your subject and his or her personality dominate the image. For the most part you can use portrait tips when shooting tattoos, as long as you keep that balance in mind. Now, that doesn’t mean you can’t shoot portraits of people who have tattoos, of course, but when you do you’re always going to be emphasizing personality over the work itself.
Just as with any portrait, it is really important to isolate your subject from background distractions. Choose a location without a lot of color or other distractions, and make sure that you shoot with a largish aperture (f/5.6, for example) to help blur out objects in the distance. Zooming in is one other way to eliminate distractions, and you can also angle out unwanted background elements or simply place your subject against a plain backdrop.
Tattoos can be amazingly intricate works of art, full of color and detail. So make sure that you’re getting close shots of them as well as long shots, which means constantly switching up your camera angles and trying different things. Don’t be afraid to do some black and white conversions, too, especially if the tattoo you’re photographing is monochromatic or does not depend on color for its impact. Above all, remember that you are shooting art, so you need to showcase the art itself—but also remember that it’s not just a simple matter of capturing the detail of the work itself. The canvas for that piece of art is a living, breathing person, and is of equal importance as the tattoo itself is. Give equal consideration to both the art and the canvas and you’ll end up with some very successful photographs.
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