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Painting Versus Photography

The word "photography" comes from the Greek for "painting with light." A look at the differences between the mediums of painting and photography can help make you a better photographer.

The difference most often cited is that painters start with a blank canvas while photographers have to work with what they find. But this distinction isn't entirely as clear cut as it might appear. Studio photographers more or less do have a blank canvas. Or at least they can position their subject and lights as they desire. They control the venue. We nature photographers don't have quite the same degree of freedom, but it's a big world out there, and if you can find the situation you are looking for you can point your camera at it. If the lighting isn't quite right, you can wait, or come back later.

There are obvious limitations of course. There's only so much time in the day, and so many miles you can log in your quest to find the perfect shot. Yet I think too often photographers fall back on the excuse that they can only shoot what is there. You have to be able to adapt and to improvise. Perhaps you went looking for a particular subject but find something else instead. No problem, not necessarily at least. The world around you may not be a blank canvas, but your conception of what you want to photograph should be. Encounter life as it comes. Don't be so quick to prejudge it.

On the flip side, painters can only benefit from that empty canvas up to the point the commit the first bush full of paint to that canvas. After that, they can add and paint over their initial efforts, but they must contend with what they already have. The two mediums become much closer once their practitioners are in the thick of things.

But painting is generally viewed as an additive process, creating something through synthesis where nothing was, while success at photography can be looked at as subtractive — simplifying what exists in front of you down to its barest and most powerful essence. Yet this too is an oversimplification. Both mediums benefit from both disciplines. An overly busy painting resulting from excessive additions loses its impact. At the same time, elements are often added to photographs through the selection of shooting location and framing. Have a foreground and need a background? Walk around your subject and you may be able to improve your prospects to add one. Neither medium is purely additive or subtractive.

Photography is also generally viewed as being representational as contrasted with the impressionistic possibilities inherent in painting. This is indeed true if you compare merely pointing a camera on autofocus and auto-exposure at something and shooting versus pointing a loaded paintbrush at a canvas and shooting. In the case of the former, you'll end up with a representation of whatever was in front of the camera. In the case of the latter you'll likely end up with a splattered mess of paint — call it impressionistic art if you want to be kind.

Painters aren't constrained with what things actually look like. They are free to paint what they see, what they feel, or to choose none of the above and just let the paint fall where it may, so to speak. On the other hand, many photographers limit themselves to midrange zooms shot from near eye level, pointed at a subject at a comfortable middle distance. They don't need to though. Nikon and Canon, as well as the various third-party lens makers, produce lenses from ultra-wide to extreme telephoto. Then there are macro lenses, teleconverters, and other tools of the trade. By carefully considering your vantage point, focal length, and other factors, you can wield tremendous control over how your subject is rendered. At the extremes, the resulting images needn't be at all accurate when it comes to representing the purported subject.

Indeed, one of the things I love most about photography is the ability to interpret a subject as I see fit — to better represent how I feel about it, or perhaps just to see what sort of abstract images I can create. Photography can definitely be representational, but it doesn't have to be limited by that. The resulting photographs needn't bear any resemblance at all to reality. It's up to you. By the same token, a painting can be a wild as the artist wishes, but there are numerous examples of paintings that look quite life like. It's all up to you, whichever medium you prefer.

Acknowledging that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, well executed results in both photography and painting can be beautiful indeed. The best of each can evoke and inspire. Without skill, each can yield results that are at best mediocre.

On first look, the skills required for each medium seem to differ radically. They certainly employ different tools. But once you get beyond the technical abilities required for each, they have one key factor in common. Success at both hinges on an ability to pre-visualize of what is possible. Within the capabilities and limitations of the toolset, a great deal remains at the discretion of the practitioner. Learning to see and to imagine is important to each medium.

When photography was first invented now nearly 200 years ago, some painters feared that painting wouldn't survive the onslaught of this new technological medium. If this sounds similar to the reactions of film photographers at the dawn of the digital photography era, it's no coincidence. This same paradigm has played itself out countless times. Color photography didn't kill black and white either.

Today's fully automatic cameras make it possible for pretty much anyone to take pictures. It's almost not possible to buy a mobile phone anymore that doesn't come with a built in camera. Point and shoot. While it's quite possible for an amateur painter to knock out a stick figure painting too, the bar for acceptable results is probably lower today for photography than for painting. This hasn't always been true though. Photography used to be the realm of skilled experts only. Equipment was expensive and difficult to use. Costs and complexity for basic photography have come down remarkably over the years, but achieving the best results has always remained in the realm of those who truly work at honing their craft.

At their core, both mediums are art forms. As the artist, your results are what you make them.

Date posted: March 22, 2015


Copyright © 2015 Bob Johnson, Earthbound Light - all rights reserved.
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