Friday, March 25, 2011

Painting from Photos

Daniel Smith Fine Quality Artists' Materials

See the end of this post for special discounts on Photomatix software. Photomatix helps you make HDR photos the easy way.

When it's too rainy and cold to paint outside, I often paint using a photograph as my reference. One thing I like about photos is that you can crop them to match the picture you want to paint. Also, you don't have to worry about your subjects moving all around on you or shadows and light changing as the day progresses.

More problematic is that the camera distorts the view. Depending on the type of lens you have, the scene can look more or less "deep" than it really is. (You can see an illustration of this in my Depth of Field post.) To compensate for this, you can take sketches in the field at the same time you take the photo. (When taking portrait photos this gets really critical, and you want to be sure to use the right focal length on your lens. This discussion is a bit more than I want to bite off tonight, though.)

Another issue is that the camera lens can only record a slice of the total range of light and dark that is quite a bit smaller than the slice the human eye can see. This is the most noticeable on a sunny day where the scene is brightly lit because this creates a very broad range of light and dark for the camera to record. You have to adjust the camera exposure to keep the photo from being overexposed (too light), but then the shadows are too dark, and you can't see into them in the photo like you can in real life. If you expose for the shadows, the light parts of the photo so bright you can't see the details, or possibly much of anything at all.


There are several ways to deal with this. One, you can decide that you don't care about the overexposed lights or the underexposed shadows, that the photo is good enough to paint from for your purposes. If you're not satisfied with this solution, alternatively you can take two exposures, one with the shadows correctly exposed, and one with the lights correctly exposed. If you print these yourself, they'll come out the way you took them, which is what you want. You can then use both of them as references to see more of the information in the original scene. If you have a service print them, be sure to tell them not to correct for the exposure.

Bill Wiped Out
If you're a camera buff and have the software -- such as Photomatix (affiliate) or Photoshop -- you can make an "HDR" photo, which is one photo that is made from three or so others taken at different exposures. The software smushes the photos to make a single one that contains all of the information from the original photos. This will allow you to see details in both the shadows and the lights. Some newer cameras have this feature built in.

Here's an HDR photo that I did of Bill after he spent the day digging holes for all the little trees I brought home from the plant nursery. It was made from three exposures that were combined using Photomatix. The photos were taken at night in a darkish room. This rendition is very reduced in resolution, so it will upload quickly, but you can still see all the details just as you would sitting there in the room.

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