Monday, November 7, 2016

Taking Reference Photos

I've carried on and on about painting from life, but in reality most of us are going to paint from photos at least some of the time if not all of the time.  The plein air movement has gained so much traction that I think painters sometimes are made to feel that it is wrong to paint from photos and if they do they shouldn't admit it.  Reference photos can be invaluable.  Try painting a chicken from life and you'll see what I mean.

If you are a skilled photographer who has mastered Photoshop, etc. you might want to skip to the list at the end of this post.  The following paragraphs are for painters who usually paint from their photos just as they are.  I know you are out there and I used to be one.

Learning to take good reference photos is yet another skill on the list for painters to acquire as if we didn't have enough going on already.   We know that the camera cannot do what our eyes can.  In high contrast photos the shadows can look completely black and the bright areas may be white-outs.  If you paint outdoors enough you can learn to interpret your photos with this in mind.  If you are a really good photographer (I'm not) you may know how to correct much of this when you take the photograph.  But you can also do it on your computer in the photo app under "edit".  You can lighten shadows and darken the the light. I have an iMac so I'll show you how to do it on that device.

Before-  The shadows are way to dark, the sunlight maybe a bit too bright.

Under "edit" in photos select "adjust".  To lighten shadows move the shadows bar to the right, to darken the highlights move the highlights bar to the left.  Hit "done" and that's all there is to it.  You can revert to the original if you don't like it.  Click on the image below for a closer look.

After-  This looks much more like the actual scene.  You can now see the low lights and objects in the room.

With respect to composition you can crop photos to evaluate different formats.  I love a square format so I often try cropping them that way.  You can compare vertical vs horizontal crops.  Of course it's a good idea to try shooting them different ways in the field but you can explore endless options on the computer later.

In my March 20th post I showed examples of the files I keep of other artists' work to study.  I do the same thing with my reference photos.  Anything deemed to be a "keeper" goes into my "Art Ideas" folder, grouped by genre.  I have my iTunes set up to transfer new photos in these files to my iPad which I now use in the studio instead of printed photos.  Every time I back up my iPad my reference shots are updated.  When those dreaded days of not knowing what to paint come along I open those files and looks around to see what grabs me.  Something usually does.  Other benefits- I've saved a fortune in printing costs, I prefer the image on a computer screen (don't have to deal with bad prints) and when I go to workshops that require reference photography I have everything with me- as long as I don't forget my iPad.

In closing I have another list for you.

1.  Do paint from your own photos.  There are many reasons for this.  Barbara Jaenicke posted a very helpful discussion of this and I encourage you to read it.

2.  Check the camera screen for composition before and after you take each photo.  Try different formats in the field and on your computer.

3.  After you take a photo, look at the image in your camera.  Then study the real life subject and notice the differences.  If you need to, take a few notes to help you remember later.

4.  Best of all worlds- paint a small field study to document values/color temperatures in the field AND take a photo.  (More plein air propaganda...)

5.  However you decide to do it, organize your photos so they are easily accessed.  Cull through them periodically.  If you haven't used a photo after many months or years, the memory of that scene is long gone.

Happy shooting!

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