Getting the Most Out of Your Camera


Just about every representational artist knows the benefits of painting from life. The naked eye can see far more than a camera and constantly adjusts for each lighting situation. Our other senses tell us if it’s windy, hot, cold, and fragrant. All this affects the painting of the scene before us. For some artists, the painting must be finished in the field that day or subsequent days. For others, field studies and photographs are part of process in creating their painting.

The huge movement of Plein Air in the country has given birth to countless Plein Air paint outs, workshops, and new artists. Art suppliers and magazines are selling everything from easels to ad space to feed this new hunger for painting outside. There is a common misconception that “Plein Air” is a style or look. Artist’s for more than 100 years painted outdoors as a means to accurately document real life. Field studies were just part of the process to creating a painting. Zorn painted from life but used photography on occasion to help in the creating his masterpieces. Like a brush, the camera is a tool. You don’t buy cheap brushes, so don’t buy a cheap camera. If you are seen at a Plein Air event with a camera nobody will make you turn in your wide brimmed hat.

In fact, the camera will help you document a new area to get ideas for painting sites. When I attend Paint Out events, my camera is always with me. If I see a great scene with fleeting light that will be gone in 20 minutes, I photograph it. Taking shots panned back, up close, vertical, horizontal, and all around, I write down the time. The next day I come back an hour earlier and paint my block in while anticipating the coming light. This approach works very well because the night before I have viewed my photos and picked the best composition. So when it’s paint time, I don’t get hung up on too many problems. If I’ve been to the same paint out for several years I have lots of photos to look over and go back to those familiar places and have a solid idea to paint. You can waste hours looking for something to paint. In unfamiliar territory, I’ll sometimes use google satellite and hover over areas that might have some possibilities to paint. You can use street view and cyber drive through the countryside. If something looks good I’ll mark it on a map. My years as an illustrator made me resourceful in finding new ways to help in the craft of picture making.

The camera is also very useful when you are visiting a wonderful place for a short time. You can document the area with hundreds of photos as opposed to only having the time to paint a few studies. Back in the studio with no field studies, I must have very high quality photographs and view them on a large monitor. It’s best to paint soon after your photo reconnaissance, so your memory is still fresh and you remember what grabbed you in the first place. I know from experience that my darks tend to get inky and lights get washed out. Your camera’s aperture tries to give you all the values, but misses in high contrast situations. Our eyes adjust constantly while painting from life. So in the studio I need to open the shadows and darken the washed out lights. Color saturation can be gone as well, so I’ll adjust that too, and make sure my canvas is in proportion to the photograph or study. An inch one way or another will change a composition, and you may lose what you set out to do. If I have no field study, I’ll paint one in the studio and work out the problems first. With a complex scene and wanting to combine several photos, I’ll use photoshop and create my composition.

I like to use figures in my landscapes and photography is the only way to record a moving person. Sometimes while painting outside a figure may walk into the scene, so I’ll take a quick shot. In the studio I have the best documentation with a field study and a quality photograph of the figure to create my painting.

When photographing your finished painting it is very important to have a set up where you have diffused natural light and a solid tripod that you can level. Glare can be a common problem and is caused by another light source like a window.

So the camera can be a great tool in your art career as long as you understand it limits and know that nothing will replace painting from life.

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  • donna

    “There is a common misconception that “Plein Air” is a style or look.
    Artist’s for more than 100 years painted outdoors as a means to
    accurately document real life.” I beg to strongly differ. “Accurately” here is a misnomer You can have 100 artists painting the same scene at the same hour of the day and 100 variations of the scene will result, great variances of inaccuracy. Plein air is impressionistic painting and impressionistic is not accurate of what actually is. Plein air definitely is a style that can be identified in a glance from other styles. Frankly, most plein air paintings are so repetitive, or imitative, they look alike to me. That is not to say the style does not have its positive qualities, but when I look through an art magazine which today is so filled with plein air, my eyes and interest get bored.

    • Bill Farnsworth

      Hi Donna,
      Painting outdoors was always a means to obtain information to create a painting.
      Plein Air is NOT a style. I can show you 20 different paintings, all painted on location and many are not impressionistic. In fact they are worked out with a great deal of information. Many amateur artists do chase after a painterly or impressionistic look and call it Plein Air.
      Plein Air painting is painting from life. Period.

  • Suzie Greer Baker

    Thanks for the blog Bill – lots of helpful information – there is so much to know! Great comment about taking resource photos. I always feel so much better the second year I participate in a plein air event because the panic of where to paint is gone and not just because of it being my second year, but because I can look back on my photo resources and time stamps and plan better for the upcoming event. Great thing to point out too about the “inky” darks and “blown out” lights. I use Lightroom to organized and do some editing. Lightroom has some easy sliders to reign in those extremes.

  • Mary Rose

    Thank you for your comments, Mr. Farnsworth. You are knowledgeable about cameras. Most painting artists and teachers know very little about cameras. They know how to turn it on and off and put it on auto. And they do know how to
    complain that the camera does not give the exact lighting, etc. I have been in more classes than I will admit to when the instructor complains that the photo’s shadows are too dark,the printer prints are too dark, etc.

    What they don’t know or admit to is that THEY are at fault, not the camera. At fault for knowing little or nothing about photography, all the while giving their opinions on what they do not know.

    I am a photographer and it is very frustrating to listen to this over and over. I used to make suggestions but stopped because the instructors don’t want to learn how to
    control and change the light’s effects. That would take work. They would
    rather blame the camera.

    I would change the writer’s last paragraph from: “So the camera can be a great tool in your art career as long as you understand its limits and know that nothing will
    replace painting from life.” to the following:
    “So the camera can be a great tool in your art career as long as you understand YOUR limits and know that nothing will replace the knowledge you will gain by learning about photography and cameras. You only have to lose your arrogance.”

    Bracketing, anyone?

    Mary Rose

  • SM B

    The cellphone is another useful tool for artists – and I don’t mean the camera function. The black, reflective screen itself can be used like a black mirror – if you hold it horizontally (parallel to the ground) near your face, a bit above eye level, while looking at your canvas, then look up at the screen, you’ll see your painting upsidedown. And, if you’ve positioned your canvas in front of your scene (model, landscape, still life, etc.), you can compare values and your drawing to the real thing. Easier than turning your painting upside down.