As enjoyable and addictive as working on location (en plein air) can be, there are times when we don’t have the luxury of setting up our gear and devoting the needed time to a field painting. In these instances, photography can be a useful tool, providing a reference image that sparks our memory, transporting us back to the scene and our initial motivation.
Photography is often given too much importance and blindly copied. We forget that it’s an art form in it’s own right and easily manipulated. Lenses create distortion of depth and focus. Value ranges are condensed leading to overly dark shadows and blown out lights. Color is all over the place. With so many things against it, you might wonder why use it at all. The one thing the camera does very effectively is record detail. Focused properly, it’s capable of razor-sharp definition. Since it is so capable of recording the most incidental of information within a scene, our attention should be on what it doesn’t handle well. This being: value relationships and color tendencies.
To overcome this challenge, make notes or sketches of these relationships and snap that quick photo to provide detail information that might be needed during the painting process back in the studio. I use a simple formula to photographically record the scenes I don’t have time to paint. I begin by setting the zoom lenses on the camera to as close to human depth perception as possible. For standard digital cameras, this is close to 30mm. On a 35mm film camera, it is 50mm. If your simple pocket camera doesn’t indicate these settings, just bump it up one telephoto notch when the camera is turned on. Most point-and-shoot cameras start at a mild wide-angle setting when initially powered up. Telephoto settings might be useful for pulling things closer, making them appear bigger, but they greatly distort the depth by closing space. Wide-angle settings provide the ability to accommodate more of a scene, producing a panoramic view, creating more distance between objects, and opening up space.
As useful as these lenses settings might be, it’s imperative that we remember the distorted appearance they produce. After framing the scene and taking this first photo, you can zoom to telephoto or back up to wide angle as desired, recording any pertinent information you wish. Relying on the first photo to relate the human perspective as perceived when standing there allows you to place your feet back on the ground, no matter what was done with subsequent photos. It’s the most important reference photograph—helping to transport us mentally back to the location.
The important thing with photography is to remain aware of its limitations. We need to become sensitive to human perception by spending time observing nature. Not a quick glance, but studied quiet time just observing. Through this study, a better relationship can be formed with the photograph as reference material and not the all-powerful god it can become. It’s our job to use it, instead of being used by it.