Dark Shadows

21 Jan 2013

Why go to the trouble of painting from life when our cameras can take such great pictures? Digital cameras have gotten so good at taking properly exposed, beautiful photos that they can fool us into thinking that they are also accurate. To be sure, the technology packed into even an inexpensive camera is incredibly powerful, but that technology comes with a big bias toward the "pleasing" side of things. Pleasing the greatest number of people may be a good marketing strategy for camera makers, but it isn't necessarily for art, and unless one wants to spend big amounts of time massaging photos in Photoshop, the pictures we take outdoors, especially, don't compare with what we see with our own eyes.

Waiting by John Hulsey, oil painting.
Waiting by John Hulsey, oil painting.

One way in which the technology is weak is in the way the camera measures light in a contrasty subject--one that has strong shadows. The camera sensor cannot see as broad a range of values as our eyes can, so it must decide what is important based on how we have set up the light meter. Most people just shoot the factory, or average, setting, which means all values will be averaged out for a pleasing exposure. This often results in unnaturally dark shadows, with a concomitant loss of color in them. This is not good for when you use those photos as references for a landscape painting. Novices will often paint those shadows with a lot of black, resulting in a lifeless and artificial cut-out look.The two photos shown here illustrate the problem.

An outdoor painting reference photo with an average exposure.
An outdoor painting reference photo with an average exposure.

The photo on the left is an average exposure of the scene, and while most things are acceptably rendered, the shadows are too dark and lifeless.The right hand photo is an exposure made to correct the shadows. This required a full F-stop over-exposure, or doubling the light of the average! (Each full F-stop either halves the light or doubles it, for under- or over- exposure adjustments.) Notice how the highlights are now way too bright. The two photos can be put together in Photoshop, but why bother?

An outdoor painting reference photo taken
to correct dark shadows
Photoshop is a wonderful tool to have in one's repertoire, but it is no substitute for learning to see. This is why painting from life, especially plein air painting, is so vitally important to the artist. The education we receive each time we are painting outdoors cannot be learned from photos or books. We must learn it the hard way, out in nature. Thankfully, that is also the fun way!

We hope you'll join us at The Artist's Road for more interesting and informative articles.

--John & Ann

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Starrpoint wrote
on 26 Jan 2013 2:01 PM

I like the comment that the camera can fool us into thinking it is accurate. Something all landscape painters need to be aware of.

NevInEsk wrote
on 26 Jan 2013 4:41 PM

Altered images whether created in Camera and later manipulated or artists impressions are often used by those marketing new concepts such as a new resort or large office blocks. Many times these images give a false impression of what the tinal object will look like resulting in bad publicity about the project. False advertising using such images is now banned in some jurisdictions. Travel brochures are another area where both modified photographs and artists impressions can be totally misleading.

In the article above the author fails to point out that Photoshop and other manipulation tools can lighten shadows particularly when the original images was taken in Camera Raw format, not jpg. There are also many times when increasing the contrast can make the image more visually appealing or to bring out details particularly if the original was taken under overcast skies of similar flat lighting. The eye sees what it wants to see and as our vision is usually restricted to the central part, it is only when we scan an on screen or printed images that 'faults' such as described by the author become apparent. Then it is correct to enhance the image to get it back to what we perceived at the time of taking the image. Remember also that the palette used in modern photography is virtually unlimited in colour and hue, but the paper print is restricted by the ability of modern fine art printers to resolve the subtle differences between shades of the same colour.

ChristineB66 wrote
on 28 Jan 2013 11:21 PM

That is true, but it is difficult to just go to the same place to take new pics. I have that problem sometimes, but thanks to enough sketches  and classical drawiing training, I slowly decipher the forms inside the shadows. It takes time, but it helps a lot.

on 30 Jan 2013 10:31 PM

Thanks for the thoughtful comments.

Nevin is right that the faults often don't become apparent until the photo is processed later, and then, as ChristineB pointed out, it can be too late! The little LCD screen on the camera is not very faithful either, so it is the info on the histogram that tells the true exposure story. Professional photographers know all about their tools, but often artists are unaware of the limitations of the cameras they use.

I think that this discussion strengthens the point that spending the hours learning to see by working from life is the best way to make accurate comparisons in nature. "Waiting" was painted on location, not from a reference photo, so I was able to make accurate judgements about my shadow values and colors on the spot.