Picture Perfect

Photographing landscapes for paintings

PA David Hyde offers advice on taking the best photographs to use for your landscape paintings

Figure 1

I am sure most, if not all, of us have produced landscape paintings from photographs. Not everybody is able to, or feels confident enough to set up and paint outdoors ‘en plein air’.

Whenever you paint from life you will spend a considerable amount of time selecting and studying your subject. By contrast, photographs are taken in an instant, often hurriedly and without much thought.

I hope, in this article, to give you some tips that will improve your photographs and, more importantly, your paintings. But don’t worry; this is not a technical article on the ‘best choice of camera’; the camera you have and the settings you use will be fine. A compact digital camera with a zoom lens is ideal.

Take your photographs with paintings in mind
Set off with the desire to photograph a scene for painting in the same way that you would if you intended to sketch.

You need to spend a similar amount of time thinking about composition and painting possibilities and you want your photographs to record the scene, or different elements of the scene, from different angles and positions.

So make sure your batteries are fully charged and you have plenty of space on your memory card.

Carry spare batteries and cards together with a small sketch book for quick notes and sketches.

Figure 2

Use your display screen, or viewfinder, to compose your subject
The use of zoom not only crops but alters the sizes of objects one relative to another. Look again at Fig 1 and look at the mooring posts - hardly noticeable in the first photograph!

Fig 2: in this photograph I held the camera very near the ground and tilted it upwards in order to lower the eye- level. This, together with choosing a portrait format, has added greatly to the ‘drama’ of the scene and has helped group all the composition elements closer together, making the image stronger.

I made further use of my zoom to adjust the ‘size’ of the mooring post. I could take a photograph closer to the post and zoom out, or take another further away and zoom in. The tree would remain much the same size in both photographs, but in the first the post would appear much bigger and in the second much smaller.

You should never use your zoom just because you can’t be bothered to walk closer, or further away! Having spent a little time considering this scene it struck me there were painting possibilities using the gap between the wall on the left and the tree.

Perhaps figures here would add to this picture (make note in sketchbook). I panned the camera to place this area on the left hand third.

Figure 3

The walkway and mooring posts make an effective lead-in. The nearest mooring post gives strong foreground interest, which helps create depth. However, upon reflection, it appears a little too centrally placed.

If I had moved my camera position a little to the left (keeping the focal point on the same third position) the post would move further to the right. As it is I will just have to make this final adjustment when painting.

Figure 4

Working in restricted settings
Now I wish to switch the emphasis to the buildings on the far bank. The bridge and tree branches provide a strong visual link between both banks.

Fig 3: I have again lowered the eye level and adjusted the zoom to compose and crop the image. Here I have used a much wider angle (zoomed right out). This gives me a pleasant proportion in the foreground, but the buildings and bridge look too small.

Of course I could stand further away and zoom in, thus increasing the background height proportionally. However, there was an eight foot wall behind me and I could not get further back. If you were sketching or painting you would have the same problem and would have to make adjustments as you worked. Of course you can do exactly the same from your photographs when you paint, but there is another alternative.

Figure 5

Cropping the finished print
In Fig 4 the image is simply cropped from Fig 3. The apparent size of the tree is reduced by the drastic cropping giving the bridge and buildings greater prominence. If you are not able to get exactly the effect you are after when photographing then consider a finished print crop. You may have noticed there is a distinct slant to the buildings. This is known as ‘barrel distortion’ and a common ‘fault’ with wide angle lenses and needs correcting at the drawing stage.

Forgotten Mooring - Painting

High eye level crops
The last example shows the eye level raised by tilting the camera foreword. Fig 5: to get this image I gained extra height by standing on a bench. Tilting the lens down increases the foreground (exaggerated by the increased height), thereby giving the composition greater depth).

Remember you can’t alter everything by photography. I feel the bush on the left blocks the far bank. A separate photograph showing the obscured building would be needed if you were to consider removing the offending shrubbery. And those paving slabs, do they really lay in the right direction? 

Forgotten Mooring - Photograph

Use your own photographs
It is important to use your own photographs, and this has nothing to do with copyright. You will have memories of location, atmosphere and the very reason you stopped to take the photograph in the first place. Photographs will record purely a ‘factual’ rendering of a scene, altered by the camera/lens properties, lacking in emotion.

It is important to draw on your memories when working from photographs. Good luck with your camera this summer, a selection stored away now can give you inspiration for many months ahead.