1. Instead of drawing inspiration solely from other photographers’ work, schedule regular visits to fine art museums to study how painters use light, color and contrast, especially in the old masterpieces. Still-life paintings are often excellent examples. Painting and photography share these compositional and creative elements as well as many others. Observing their application in another medium could serve as the catalyst you need to start thinking about your photography differently, and improving it.
2. When you stand in front of a painting at the museum, or look at one in a book or on the Web, notice first the number of light sources and the direction of the light. Many still lifes are more dramatic and compelling because the painters gave them a single light source. Compositionally, a single light source creates more depth in a painting or photograph.
The direction of the light determines where shadows will be cast. This is another point of creative control that you should learn how to use. When viewing a fine art painting, focus on the shadows, not the primary object or subject. Notice how the light creates the shapes of the shadows and the direction to which they are cast. Shadows are important to how viewers’ eyes move within the frame. The stream of the single light source guides them into the frame, which leads to the primary object, and then the eyes follow the object’s shadow to the other side of the frame.
3. The old master painters understood that contrast is what makes a painting (or photograph) interesting and artistic, not the subject matter. Look at their examples with only the contrast in mind. Like the painter, you want to create contrast in your photographs in the camera, not with an hours-long Photoshop session. Try to compose your photos as if there were no editing software or HDR effects to add or correct a lack of contrast.
4. Painters don’t have the flexibility to use a zoom lens or reproduce a scene outside the viewing range of their eyes. They must sit or stand in one place and paint a still life from that view and angle. You’ll learn more about composition and produce much better photos if you follow the painter’s example. Forget your zoom lens and use a prime lens, preferably a “normal” 50mm. Like the painter, move your position relative to the scene or object instead of relying on the zoom to frame it tighter or looser.
5. After observing the single light source, the direction of the light and how painters use contrast, turn your attention to the colors they use. Look for a balance in the colors, for the best of the classic painters understood to use complementary colors from the color wheel. For example, a bright, warm color, such as orange, is often balanced with the cooler feeling of its complementary color, blue.
6. Content is also important in paintings and your photography, but only after you understand light, contrast, color and other compositional elements. What you should notice about the content of the works of great painters is that it is often everyday objects and people. Still life masterpieces are usually common objects or food and many of the greatest portraits are not of kings and the aristocracy, but of ordinary people, dressed in the clothing and facial expressions they wear everyday. Your photography will improve when you recognize that the artistic value of an object or subject is not itself, but the opportunity to light it, to give it contrast and to use harmonizing colors, and thus render it as something extraordinary.
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Photo by PhotographyTalk Member Yannis Karantonis