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The Landscape as Painting

Sometimes, when people see an exceptionally beautiful scene, they gaze at it in awe. After admiring it for a time, they conclude that it looks just like a painting.

First off, this sounds a tad backwards to me. If they are looking at the real thing, that is how it looks, beautiful or not. It's the painting that is representational. A painting that is true to life could be said to look like the real thing, not the other way around. If you look at the first light of dawn falling on the peak of a snow covered mountain, and then look at a painting first light on that same peak, which one looks like the other? Assuming that both look like each other, the thing worth noting is that the painting looks like the mountain. The mountain is just doing what it does. It's the standard against which the painting can be compared.

From time to time, I hear about painters who strive to create the most realistic paintings they can. Some of them are quite good indeed. If you compare a digitized painting to a digitized photograph, they theoretically are (or could be) identical. Both are just ordered arrays of colored pixels. The source of those pixels probably means something to the person who captured or created them, but the end result could look the same in both cases. They differ solely in terms of the skill each required and the memories each elicits for their creators. Both can be well executed. Both can have an impact on viewers.

The etymology of the word "photography" is said to derive from the Latin for "painting with light." While there clearly are definite differences between the two art form, there are also similarities.

Early photographers were no doubt principally interested in capturing a memory more quickly than would be required with paint. Think about it. Creating a portrait of someone once required countless hours on the part of painter and subject alike. What must it have been like to create a portrait in minutes with a camera, even if the subject did have to remain still for a minute or two. As the sensitivity of recording media continued to improve though, the process could be compressed in to a fraction of a second. But that shouldn't mean that's all time we invest in the act.

There are many styles of paintings, just as there are styles of photographs. Two photographers can go together to the same place, at the same time, and come away with surprisingly different images. This fact is one of the reasons I sometimes enjoy shooting with others. Most of the time, I appreciate the freedom do alter my shooting schedule based on the circumstances I find and my mood at the time. But whenever I do go shooting with a group, it can be fun to compare results. One person will see and photograph something no one else even noticed. Two people can photograph the same thing, but in strikingly different ways. Yes, sometimes both can attempt pretty much the same shot, with one being more successful than the other. But more often than not, the individuality of the photographers involved will be evident in the images each one took. And that's the way it should be.

Paintings can be realistic, they can be surrealistic, or they can be hyper-realistic. They can be impressionistic or extremely abstract. Whatever the person painting them set out to do, and whatever their skill in executing their vision permits them to achieve.

Painting a picture that looks like real life requires a lot of skill but dare I say, not necessarily that much creativity. Shooting a photograph that merely looks the way the eye sees the scene doesn't necessarily require that much creativity either. I'm generally not one to go full tilt abstract impressionism in my picture taking, but I do see photography as an opportunity to convey not just what something looks like, but at least some of what it felt like when I was there witnessing the scene.

Most photographers strive for realism although some like Canada's Freeman Patterson excel at photo impressionism. But even within the limits of realism the variations are basically limitless. Rather than paintbrush to canvas, the tools of the photographer are of course their choice of shooting position, the selected focal length, aperture, shutter speed and so on. As a photographer, what you do with those creative variables is up to you.

Painters have the luxury, and perhaps intimidation, of starting with a blank canvas to which they can add whatever strikes their fancy. We photographers have to work with real objects, striving for how best to portray what we see in front of us. But we still have a great deal of freedom in how we approach that challenge.

If you hold your camera at eye level and shoot with a "standard" 50mm medium focal length lens from a comfortable distance, you can probably create a fairly representational version of your selected subject. But if you are willing to walk around your subject and perhaps even crawl around on your knees up close and personal, or experiment with shutter speed and aperture combinations the fully automatic mode on your camera would have never thought of, you can create an image that others might not. Even if they are there with you on the same trip.

When you go out with your camera, I'd encourage you to approach the task more as a painter than as a photographer. It shouldn't be enough just to faithfully record the landscape when so much more is possible.

Date posted: September 4, 2016


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Painting Versus Photography

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