By Bill Dobbins
Painters have traditionally developed their skills by studying and often copying the works of the old masters. This helped them learn about aspects of their craft like composition, color, perspective, and light.
Photographers can benefit from doing the same thing. Sure, we are always looking at images by other photographers – and studying pictures shot by the great shooters of the past (if we know what’s good for us). But photographs are limited by the technology that created them, even in the digital age. Paintings are only restricted by the imagination and creativity of the artist. With literally thousands of years of art to draw on, there is almost no limit to the inspiration that is available.
Let me give an example. I was at the Prado in Madrid. I entered a long, rectangular gallery and next to the door there hung a Rembrandt. It was the kind of painting you expect from that artist – a warm, glowing image emerging from a dark background. I walked through the gallery and at the other end turned and looked back. There were paintings all along both walls but that Rembrandt seemed to glow like a backlit transparency.
I was struck by this and started walking slowly back toward the painting, trying to figure out how Rembrandt has achieved that remarkable effect. I studied the painting further and later on quite deliberately tried to recreate the same kind of lighting in my studio photos – a warm, saturated figure emerging from a contrasting dark background.
It occurred to me that this approach to learning better photography could benefit from studying all sorts of paintings. For example, look at the way the window light falls on the figure in Vermeer’s Girl With a Pearl Earring. What a flattering lighting set up for shooting portraits! Or the way the light falls upon the face in the world’s most famous painting The Mona Lisa by Leonardo DaVinci. A warm defused light on the face and a background sufficiently diffused so as not to distract.
Interested in shooting still lives? That is a favorite motif of painters and there are thousands of examples available to use for inspiration. You’ll find a variety of objects, dishes and glasses, fruit and other food and even a skull painting by Georgia O’Keeffe – who also painting flowers for those photographers who are interested in that kind of subject matter.
Part of how you can improve your photography is by educating your eye as much as possible. That includes not only looking at all sorts of photos, of all types from all different eras but going to museums, galleries or searching online to see what kind of images painters have created over the centuries and seeing what you can learn about their use of color, of contrast, of perspective and composition.
Bill Dobbins is a pro photographer located in Los Angeles. He is a veteran photographer and videographer who has exhibited his fine art in two museums and a number of galleries and who has published eight books, including two fine art photo books: