I have become convinced that there are two opposing objectives when you are collecting photographic reference material for creating art works. Firstly the documentary aspects, the objective recording of important visual details, form, shape, lighting etc. An aide-memorie. Such tasks are really performed well with a digital camera or smart phone. However there is a second subjective/expressive side of how you feel about the scene, the atmosphere or your connection to the place. Single photographs will seldom capture these things. Whereas a sketch or small plein-air painting probably will.
I suspect ignoring the second component when painting from a single photo is why they so often look bland and lifeless.
I had already come to recommend to artist wishing to collect photographic reference that they should make at least an tonal/compositional sketch in the fields and take at least 5 photos to support it. Actually it’s better to take 10. By coincidence this ties in nicely with capturing both the objective and subjective aspects. A great metaphor is to use your hands to remember what to photograph.
- Take the obvious snap shot.
- What is the main subject, get as much detail as possible.
- Take a wider view.
- Evaluated the tonal balance.
- Textures and surfaces
Its quiet normal to pick a snapshot type view of any new vista, It might actually be what you are going to paint to take the shot, get it out of the way. It could also be the scene you sketch, that’s fine you’ve already got a photo to copy. However now you need to look for a bit more detail of the scene. In particular detail of the main subject could really help future drawing or painting back in the studio. Therefore zoom in on the important subject details, or walk up and take some closer photos. Similarly it is wise to take a wider view, zoom out or walk back, or use a wide angle lens. Even take a few over lapping images to stitch or cut an past together. This will help you understand what part of the scene makes the best framing and composition. The last two items have a lot to do with the quality of the light. The tonal aspect are a very important in realistic art as they help the eyes more that any other visual features understand the three dimensionally of what we see. This is a bigger topic than I can even begin to cover here in a single blog post but you want to avoid just have one photo with a bleached out sky (or other highlights) and solid black shadows. It might be best to take one exposure of the sky and another of the shadows (or use HDR style exposure bracketing) or even take one photo without and with a flash providing fill light of any close subject. Perhaps you might look at using black & white to better understand the tones. The eye is also interested in edges, texture and the small detail of surfaces that help our brain identify an object, However it often ignores other information once its has found itself a satisfactory explanation. so it is a wise option to get some documentation of the dominant textures usually requires very close up detailed photo(s).
- Include a photo your plein air work
- What interests you most in the scene.
- Look for main abstract shapes .
- Main colours and mood
If you have not made a sketch you won’t be able to photograph it. However a photo of your work in position with the scene in the background can be a great help in putting your sketch and colours in context, this cross reference will be a big help back in the studio. It is also a wonderful way to establish provenance, works in progress posted on social media are a better way to promote your work than yet another selfie. The next two items to attempt to photography are similar to items 2 & 3 in the documentary set but know you need to focus on what interested you the most. It may not the the old house but the path disappearing behind it. To the tree but the show it cast across the path beside it. Take you time to understand what attract your view don’t just assume it was the subject you first choose in the snapshot. Next you should look for the larger abstract shapes , They are probably defined tonally and the small composition sketch many art make are perfect here, another well established trick is to squint. However a camera can be a great help here. Deliberately put your camera out of focus. The main shapes of dark and light design will jump out at you. The final items are also related to the quality of the light but you need to consider how they affect you and what mood they invoke. Despite all the colour matching and calibration technology perception of colour can be a very personal thing and strongly connected to emotions. This is a bigger issue is not just white balance and colour temperature, but extends to colour harmony and compliments (classic colour theory). Another important aspect to remember is few experienced master painter fill there creations with endless detail a lot of the images was left with a suggestive colour, tone, texture and our eyes filling in what it thought it saw, where as way to many photographer's are obsessed with tack sharp focus and copying such photos doesn’t excite our eyes and brains so take a few photos of the distant mist, the heat haze or sun glare.