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Camera Pointers

Most people who paint in the 21st Century will use a

camera at some point as an aid to completing their art.

Sketch books are invaluable to develop skills and to make quick notes, but in a busy situation a few photos will support your memory. Not everyone likes standing or sitting in a very public space painting or drawing, anyway. When we use a camera as a notebook we do need to be aware that everything it tells us afterwards may not be strictly correct. The camera is ‘one eyed’ after all and gives an imperfect impression of depth. The camera lens can distort. The camera settings can give an incorrect reading of colour. We can lose definition of detail in shadow which the eye can see. Similarly we can lose detail in brightly lit areas when the camera sets iself automatically for the overall scene. The individual topics below are a fairly random set of notes that cover camera concerns I have been asked about over the years. Suggestions about software are only valid for the five minutes after the topic was written. I find that as fast as I make a suggestion, a package of software disappears or is subject to wild variations in price.
USING A CAMERA for References You will realise fairly quickly that there is a constant battle going on between those who paint using photographs as a reference (and I am one of those) and those who regard the use of photographs as a SIN and require all painting to be from life or from sketchbook images. Like most of life there is a middle way.  Yes, the use of a sketch book ensures that you will have studied the actual scene and logged it into your memory as well as on to paper. And Yes, one of the aims in producing a work of art is to make an interpretation rather than a photo-realistic image that might just as well have been printed from a photograph.            However, if we could ban photo realism (and we can’t !), we will remove a style that the Public like and also a style that encourages new artists to ‘have a go’. What are the problems of using photographs and how can we avoid those problems and still make use of a useful tool? 1/ Relative Size Distortions If you are drawing a still life or part of a room interior from a photograph you should be ready to re-size elements nearer the camera which may loom out unnaturally large.  Things a little further back may likewise seem a little too small in the photo.  The one eyed camera compresses and flattens the space between articles.   Your picture layout should allow for any adjustments required. 2/ Lack of Subjectivity No lens sees the subject the same way that we do.  The lens shows things exactly as they are. We emphasize and de-emphasize as we draw.  If you look at a portrait copied exactly from a photo, the eyes can appear to be too small.   We accept the photo as correct as it is a photo. An artist drawing freehand will put more emphasis on the eyes and the area around them as they are one of the most important clues to character. 3/ Photographic modelling of form The light and shade in a photo are not the same as the light and shade used in art for modelling form and creating volume on a flat surface. Form that is copied or traced without adjustment will appear flat and two dimensional. 4/ Exaggerated highlights   The camera lens and the film (or digital film) generalise the value range. Photographic highlights occupy more space and contain less subtlety of grade than those we see in real life.  Sometimes whole areas are bleached out.   Dark areas can reveal no form.   When painting, we need to be prepared to add areas of gradient to extremes of tone. Look for shape in shadow and restate highlights where necessary. 5/ Generalised Colours The range of colours in a photo can be quite narrow.   Colours can be too vivid, and surfaces without any texture. Look for colours in white and emphasize them where necessary. 6/ Converging Verticals and Barrelling   Don’t get too wound up by this – these are photographic terms denoting the effect of a round (spherical) lens in pushing vertical lines out of true.  In a photo we accept this as normal and allow for it.  In a picture we expect surfaces known to be vertical to be so.  Barrelling refers to the rounding effect we get from some lenses. 7/ Excess of detail   If we work from life or from sketches we mentally prune the scene and set about putting in those parts which are the most important.  This way we get a true skeleton to hang our picture on. A photo gives a mass of detail and we can be at risk if we just copy the photograph. Our picture will become a mass of detail and no structure Photographs are very compelling sources of information.  Digital cameras enable us to take a host of views at virtually nil cost and delete those not required. We can also use the images virtually immediately. BUT All this having been said, the use of a camera opens up a wide field to painters, particularly when we want to paint a picture of a scene in adverse circumstances ( in rain, snow, wind or at night). Coloured Pencil takes time to generate a picture.   To paint a CP flower from life would possibly involve either very speedy work, or a  Photo  of the flower taken at the ideal moment in it’s blooming life. Coloured Pencil artists sometimes need the frozen image to give them time to work. Provide we are alert to the possible problems, there can be no sustainable objection to using photos – particularly where the artist would never have even started to paint the picture had he (or she) had to rely on drawing in a sketch book first.  The Photo is a great motivator.