Monday, February 13, 2012

Carrying a Camera

I’ve talked about taking regular “field trips” out of the studio to help keep things fresh and interesting. While writing that previous article, I wanted to touch on using photography to supplement your drawing and sketching, but I felt like the topic deserved an article all it’s own. More than just a way to quickly record what you saw, photography can also help you think about composition, light, color, and a whole host of other things. I find that as I strive to improve my photography, my observation, painting, and drawing improves as well.
It’s not always easy to find the time, or the space to draw directly from nature. Some things happen to quickly, or in areas where you can’t reasonably draw or paint. Stopping and really observing closely, and taking some photos to remind you back in the studio is the next best thing. Even if you don’t like to work directly from photos, and there are good arguments that support that view, having them as a way to refer back to certain details is still extremely valuable.

What kind of camera should I be using?
For simple recording of what you see, a lot of times the smallest and most convenient camera is the best one. Let’s face it, an expensive and fancy camera is useless if you don’t have it with you. On the other hand, a small pocket camera that is simple and easy to keep with you is the one you’ll have when that amazing image opportunity comes up unexpectedly. Driving home and see some amazing clouds? That phone camera is suddenly much more useful to you than anything you left at home.

Which isn’t to say that that a phone camera is all that good, only that it’s better than not getting a shot at all. A better option is a dedicated pocket sized point and click digital camera. The specs on these are getting better and better each year, and the prices on them are pretty darn reasonable these days. For right around the $100 mark (a little more or less depending on the brand and model), a small camera is an excellent investment. There are downsides of course, mainly in that options to control the final result are limited compared to higher end cameras. Still, as mentioned above, the convenience factor is an important one.

What if I want something even better?
With some practice and knowledge, a better camera does potentially take better pictures. Beyond simple camera specs, the biggest thing better cameras offer is more control. Moving up to a Digital SLR (Single Lens Reflex) means you have  variety of controls to play with how light enters the camera, and thus the final image. They also give you many options by means of using different lenses, which gives you yet more options. An entry level DSLR kit right now goes for around $500. It’s an investment, and in my opinion a good one, IF you will take advantage of it and really learn how to use it.

That $500 entry may be just the beginning though. It’s easy to start “needing” more. A good tripod would be a big help. Another lens or two (most kits start you with one general purpose lens). Maybe a few lens filters, some additional memory cards, maybe a flash you can move off camera... like art itself it’s a hobby that can quickly start adding up.

So, what will this camera do for me in the grand scheme of things?
Admittedly, suggesting photography to improve your art seems a little like suggesting that you learn french in order to cook french food. It’s learning a whole other skill to improve your main goal. Still, it’s not as silly as it may seem.

The DSLR is the camera that really helped me start thinking more closely about control of light for the sake of taking better photos. It didn’t take long for the lessons I learned in photography to start influencing decisions in my painting as well. It made me start considering the role of light more carefully. It helped to show me that it was ok to lose detail in areas that were not the focus -literally. Looking through the view finder of the camera, and then walking around the scene to find the most interesting angles made me realize that I wasn’t doing that enough in my illustrations. I played more with both high and low vantage points, or playing with foreground/background elements. These are all things you can learn on your own in art of course, and some will probably come naturally to you. Others however, might be learned more easily by experimentation in photography, and you still gain the very nice additional benefit of really good photos to work or learn from.

And now, a few words of caution
Photographs are not to be trusted. Oooh, sounds dire and ominous doesn’t it? Well, it actually is true. Photographs are made with lenses, and a lens does distort the image. It may not be readily apparent, but that is because there is a bit of psychology involved. We believe photographs in ways we wouldn’t believe a piece of artwork that was drawn the exact same way. Shoot too close to a model, for example, and the lens will distort the proportions. Shoot a cityscape and try tracing the perspective lines. Don’t be surprised when you find they don’t line up well, and lines you assumed were straight are actually curved due to the lens.

Camera’s also shoot a narrow range of the visible light. Depending on your camera settings details may get “blown out” due to a light source, or you may lose all detail in shadows. The human eye is much more adaptable on the fly, and thus sees a far better range than a camera can capture. When you paint from a photo, you will find many of the decisions about relative light and color are made for you, and it’s tempting to use what the camera gave you. When you paint from life, you need to do that work on your own, and you will probably make better choices.

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