Techniques and Tips

Breaking the Rules When it Comes to Photography and Fine Art

Breaking the Rules When it Comes to Photography and Fine Art

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Want to learn the dos and don’ts for painting from photos? You’re in luck! Artist Timothy Jahn raises a few good points on why we should be open to painting from photographs, what kind of things to be watchful of when you do, and the different kind of images you can get from point-and-shoot, phone, and DSLR cameras.

And, if you love painting landscapes but haven’t mastered working with photos, Jahn’s insights serve as a great warm up to the Paint Along collection, Paint Stunning Landscapes from Photos with Johannes Vloothuis. Teach yourself alongside Johannes and see if painting from photographs is right for you and your art. Enjoy!


Painting from Photographs Makes Sense

It seems as though people have been arguing about the use of photography in fine art since it became an option. Many artists feel as though using photography or painting from photographs is cheating, or they are misled regarding the use of the tools.

I’m reluctant to learn new technology, but happy when I do. Yes, I use digital photography as part of my reference gathering techniques. And while it’s true digital photography was not available to Rembrandt, that’s not going to stop me. I also use Penicillin, multivitamins, and light bulbs.

Some inventions just make sense to utilize. We all have to make a choice between the tools available to us and our enjoyment of our process. If you get excited about only working from life, by all means, keep doing it.

Now that you all know that I am a big giant cheater, here are some of the tools I have used and some suggestions for those of you who are considering dancing with the dark arts of photography.

There are so many choices in cameras, looking at all the options can be overwhelming. Many websites about cameras are written for photographers or photography students.

While several artists quietly work from photo reference, they don’t often share opinions on the tools they use because they want to stay out of the debate on the subject.

Consequently, there is little sharing available to aid in your research. Your primary decision is between a point-and-shoot camera or a Digital Single-Lens Reflex (DSLR) camera.

Point-and-Shoot Cameras

If you’re pursuing painting as a hobby and are looking to use photo references, a simple point-and-shoot camera may be a good choice for you. There are many wonderful choices and even some that work really well underwater.

There are advantages to a point-and-shoot camera. Due to the size, it’s easy to slip one into your pocket and head out looking for great subjects. You can get in the habit of bringing one along for any sudden inspiration (scroll down for another solution for this).

Another big advantage is price. For the most part, they’re cheaper than a DSLR, although some options are at the high-end.

With your point-and-shoot, you will also be able to take pictures in auto mode. While the quality of images produced varies greatly from camera to camera, they generally shoot quite well in this way.

Venice Love Letter (above) is a painting I completed from a series of photos taken with an Olympus Tough TG-310. During my honeymoon, I had a problem with my DSLR. I left the battery charger on my kitchen table.

Fortunately, my wife Holly always travels with a simple point-and-shoot. I was able to create a painting from photographs when I got back into the studio based on several nice photos I shot with her camera. As Holly and I walked around Venice, I found tons of fantastic spots and so much inspiration for paintings.

DSLR Cameras

If you’re pursuing an art career and are willing to take the time to learn how to operate a new piece of technology, a DSLR might be a good choice for you. Due in part to the larger sensor size, the DSLR camera has the advantage in image quality.

You also have the option to use a multitude of lenses, which makes a DSLR hugely adaptable and allows you to get a higher quality image for the subjects you’re painting. I use an 85mm lens to shoot portrait and standard 50mm for still life.

Likewise, if I were interested in doing wildlife images, I could use the same camera with a 500mm lens to shoot animals from a great distance.

Above is a figure in an interior I completed using photos from a relatively simple Canon 300D Digital Rebel. While I may have really enjoyed painting this from life, the situation didn’t allow it.

I had limited time in this space and my model was living in Atlanta, so it became necessary to work from photos. The camera I used was the first DSLR I owned. While it was not anywhere near as advanced as the current entry-level cameras are, it worked very well and was wonderful to learn on.

Many cameras have predesigned automatic modes that do a lot of the work for you. The DSLR, however, is designed with a photographer in mind and allows you to control your own settings in manual mode.

You will be able to fully adjust the ISO, aperture and shutter speed. This is really where the learning curve is, but if you invest the time, the control is worth it. As you gain skills and confidence with the camera, you will be able to minimize the adverse effects of creating paintings from photographs.

Finding a Balance: Photography and Fine Art

There are many wonderful camera companies, although I’m most comfortable with Canon. Some of my apprentices have recently purchased the Canon EOS Rebel T5, and it takes great photos. Nikon makes wonderful products as well. Our studio uses an entry level DSLR D3100 by Nikon and the images are easy to work from.

Keep in mind, if you buy a DSLR learn how the operating system works, and purchase lenses for that system. You are setting yourself up for the chance to upgrade within that company. So you may want to have a long-term look at the situation and pick a company that you can grow with.

I purchased my first Canon in 2004 and have gradually upgraded. After getting accustomed to the first camera, I purchased an 85mm lens for portrait photography, which I still use

The final image I wanted to share with you was completed with a photo from an iPhone. You probably already own a piece of technology such as this, which allows you to become very reactive to your impulses.

While I had several methods available to complete this painting, including doing it from life, I wanted to see if I could get a good image with the camera I have at my disposal every day.

Art has always been intertwined with technology. There was a time when frescos were the best thing in art, and some crazy monk came up with oil paint. Could you imagine if Leonardo da Vinci was like “Nah, I’m not going to use that new oil painting stuff because fresco is the real art?”

Don’t feel guilty if you want to explore or utilize technological advancements or create paintings from photographs. Just remember why you started to draw in the first place — likely it was for fun and expression. If your artworks display what your true interests are, the viewers will enjoy them immensely!

See Timothy W. Jahn’s work in Strokes of Genius 3, The Best of Drawing: Fresh Perspectives, and be sure to check out his website,

Watch the video: Fine Art Photography. Landscape Photography by Anthony Lamb (August 2022).