Whilst there is a school of artists that still insist the only landscapes are those painted plein-air. The vast majority will finish their big painting in the comfort of their studio, a few from just sketches but the majority will use photo reference. I love to sketch and paint outdoors but time and the light seldom let you finish a big work outside. However I know that when you try to slavishly copy all the detail in a photo it can make a painting look very flat. Whereas a sketch hurriedly dashed off is more likely to be dynamic and truly capture the sense of the place. So my take on this is to spend time to do a sketch or small composition painting to capture your impressions of the view, and record the important aspect you see. Do this on site. I like to use a watercolour wash, then add the the detail with a soft pencil afterwards (I’m not filling in a detailed sketch with colour, I’m putting down the area of colour and main composition elements then adding a bit of detail.) Or alternatively I just sketch monochrome in pencil of graphite stick.
So My First Rule of taking reference photos is
Start with a sketch
- Put your camera down
- Do some compositional sketch to capture you what you first see and feel. Just the main elements
Whilst I wait for the watercolour wash to dry enough to sketch without damaging the paper. I find this is a good time to pick up the camera and take those reference picture because you now know what is important in the image. The first photo being the obvious, the same view you are painting. This is where a camera with a zoom lens comes in handy because it is likely that your composition will not match a snapshot from your camera. You will probably have to zoom in or out. In my example I have taken two images side by side and then stitched them together, using Austostitch, because my sketch is a little wider than by camera can handle (alternatively I could walk back behind me before I took the scene, assuming their is room and the full scene if not obscured)
However don’t stop there, take at least an additional 4 views, zoomed in (or walking close) to key aspects of detail that will help you finish or zoom out to get the broad feel of the place (you might like to add some slightly out of view detail or subject into your composition). If there are large areas of colour or texture photograph them, they could be the key to visual appeal in your photo.
So My Second Rule of taking reference photos is
- The composition you intention to paint.
- Plus 4 details zoomed in or out, or concentrating of a key texture or colour
The biggest limitation of trying to copy a photo religiously happens with tonal issues. Whilst modern digital cameras are great they still have limitations with Dynamic Range and photos typically look flat compared with what you saw as you where sketching. There are two approached here that can help here by they may require a upgraded camera.
The first approach if to take a bracket set of images (many but not all point and shoot cameras can take a set of three EV settings, older camera usually don’t have this built in but there are several camera apps that add this capability. The bracketed set gives you an underexposed version (to focus on the highlight) a normal exposure and an over exposed version (which will give you a lot more details in the shadows). These three images should give you the ability to play with the tonality to suit your composition. If you want to take the tonal representation further you could investigate processing this bracketed set as a HDR image and refine the tonal mapping to bring out the tones as you remember. HDR is an advance post processing technique that requires specialist software but it will give you a lot of freedom adjusting the tonal range.
The second approach is to take RAW format images (probably as well as jpeg). This require software that can handle RAW images (like Lightroom, Aftershop Pro, OnOne or RAW therapy). The advantage here is the raw format records everything recorded by the camera sensor and it is possible to “pull” extra detail out of the shadows and often bring back the highlights. This requires learning how to use this software and extra time to refine the RAW images. However the ability to refine tonality and colour can be wonderfully inspiring. I started to like having the overhanging tree as part of the composition.
So My Third Rule of photo reference, if you have the technology to do it, is
Why not Take Ten?
- Use Bracketing
- Take and Process RAW images