Quality tattoo photography means a lot more than just a nice picture. Knowing how to photograph your tattoos is key to building your client list. In fact, you can land several new clients before they even set foot in your shop — sometimes all it takes is an attractive Instagram feed.
Fortunately, there’s no need for thousands of dollars of equipment or a full-fledged photo studio. Nowadays, it’s easy to take amazing shots of your own work without much more than a smartphone.
No matter what you’re working with, here are our guidelines for amazing tattoo photography.
Choose the Right Equipment for Tattoo Photography
When it comes to tattoo photography, you’ve got a few options for snapping incredible, Insta-worthy photos.
Option 1: Use Your Phone
Counting on your phone may seem like “the easy way out,” but easy doesn’t mean low-quality. In fact, there are tons of benefits to using your smartphone for tattoo photography.
Nowadays, newer smartphones have feature high-quality cameras for professional tattoo photography. And can be one of the best options for beginning tattoo artists who either don’t want to (or aren’t ready to) invest the time and money in a pricy DSLR (digital single lens reflex) camera. For artists who do eventually want to make that switch, phone cameras are an excellent gateway tool until budget, know-how, and experience allows for an equipment upgrade.
Here are just a few great qualities you can get from a smartphone camera:
- Grid mode for laying out photo composition
- Manual adjustments for focus and exposure
- Photo timers
- High-quality video features for slow-motion, high-resolution shots of large tattoos
- Portrait lighting to highlight your subject
ProTip: ProTeam artist Kasey Gonzalez recommends using a polarizer lens filter on your phone to reduce glare:
“[Using a polarized lens filter] is pretty much like looking through sunglasses. […] if you’re looking at a lake with the sun hitting it, if you have polarized glasses on it, [the light] doesn’t have that blinding whiteness to it. But all it really does is take [the] glare out to show the tattoo truer to how it looks in person.”
Option 2: Use a DSLR Camera
If you’d like a high-quality print portfolio, you’ll want to consider using a DSLR camera. DSLR cameras give you more control over your tattoo photography than even the most advanced iPhones can offer you. That’s simply because these cameras give you way more settings and adjustment opportunities for the perfect shot.
If you choose to make the switch to a DSLR camera, we recommend finding one that offers plenty of adaptations for low light (but this depends largely on the amount of light available in your studio).
Investing in a DSLR camera takes a little time, research, and care, but can give you truly amazing results. Read more about what to look for in a DSLR camera for tattoo photography here.
It’s All in the Lighting
Lighting is key. In fact, it’s the most important part of tattoo photography. That’s because the skin is reflective, especially when it’s just been tattooed and it’s shiny with fresh ink. So, to get the best photos of a fresh tattoo, you’ll want to avoid glare and high reflections with your lighting.
ProTip: ProTeam artist Kasey Gonzalez has his own trick for making the lighting work for him:
“I have [my clients] stand to where I can manipulate the light that actually hits the tattoo. But in the background, it still shows light. It makes it look more like a natural photo.”
Here are a few other great ways to reduce glare in your tattoo photography:
- Use a diffuser box (or softbox) to soften light from your flash.
- Cover your studio lights with polarizing film.
- Take advantage of indirect natural lighting. If you’re using a smartphone, this is an excellent way to reduce glare without a ton of equipment.
Find Different Light Sources
Different lighting works better for different tattoos. Experiment with all kinds of lighting according to your style or the type of tattoo you’re photographing. Along with natural lighting, you can try tripod bulbs, ring lights, and spotlights. Some tattoo artists even recommend using an LED light panel. LED light panels give you soft, continuous lighting that isn’t harsh or excessive.
Editing and Lighting Go Hand in Hand
You’ll want to take care when editing your photos. Things like color correction and sharpening tools are often necessary. That’s because light can alter the color of your finished tattoo, and you might need to adjust the color back to its truer hue. And sharpening for contrast can bring out subtle details you want clients to see in your black and gray work.
However, bear in mind your tattoo photography should look as close to real-life as possible. Over-editing can sometimes be a pitfall that makes your tattoos look unrealistic. And, after all, the focus of the picture should always be the tattoo.
Keep the Focus on the Tattoo
Tattoo photography is a showcase of your work — so make sure the tattoo is the focal point of every picture. And since it’s the focal point, here are a few tips for making it look its best.
Let It Bleed
After you’re finished tattooing a client, give the fresh piece some time to bleed and cool down before shooting your Instagram photo. You’ll also want to give it a good wipe to remove any residual blood droplets.
While the tattoo is definitely the focus, you want potential clients to see how it flows with the body. So, don’t overcrop your photo so it only shows the tattoo — show where it sits on the body as well, and how it compliments and/or works with other existing tattoos on the skin.
Sharpen Things Up
And speaking of existing tattoos, some clients have a lot of them. Make sure to highlight the new tattoo in your tattoo photography, so it stands out against older tattoos. You can use your preferred editing software (or your phone) to sharpen the new tattoo and blur the older ones.
Don’t Forget about Healed Work
It’s always a great idea to take healed shots of your tattoos, so potential clients can see how well your tattoos stand the test of time. Coordinate with your client to get an after-shot a few weeks after their tattoo. Then, when they come in for their shoot, make your healed work shine. Products like Recovery Tattoo Salve or Mad Rabbit Tattoo Balm are perfect for enhancing a healed piece and making it look camera-ready (but remember not to have too much glare — see above).
Time to Put Your Tattoo Photography to the Test
Stick to these tips and you’ll have a killer portfolio to attract potential clients near and far. Also, remember that experimentation is key when you’re just starting out with tattoo photography. Try different editing techniques, lighting, and framing that are appropriate for each unique tattoo; and always do what works best for you. In the meantime, check out Kasey Gonzalez’s full video on tattoo photography tips here.
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