Wednesday, May 18, 2011

CSI: Photos Of Paintings

Sorry about whining about the weather in my last blog.  Thankfully, here in Maine the weather has turned.  It's gone from clouds, fog and drizzle to foggy, drizzly and cloudy.  It has also played havoc in my trying to get some decent photos of my recent paintings.  I usually take my pictures in bright sunshine, but the aforementioned weather has precluded that.  I tried to take pictures anyway, but you know it's dim out when the camera prompts you to use a flash even when outdoors at noon!  So I took them here in the studio instead.  The painting above is called Spring Flood, and it shows my back field flooded out by the Eastern River that runs along between it and the trees being lit up by the last fews rays of sunlight.

I recently mentioned in a blog post about my troubles with getting decent photos of my paintings.  I think it's a crime when a good painting in person looks so bad in a photograph.  It got me to wondering why some paintings (usually others) photograph well, and some (usually mine) don't.  I likened it to that sad occurrence that happens to nice people who just take a bad photo.  Like Abraham Lincoln.

                                                               Or Phil Spector.

This guy produced some of the greatest hits of the 60's?  Phil, it looks like you lost that lovin' feeling!  But I digress...

I got to thinking about other possibilities as to why photos of paintings don't turn out very well, and I've come up with a  theory.  Keeping in mind that sometimes it really is an accurate photo of a crappy painting, I think it is all about the range of values a painting has.

You see, a camera is always trying to play the middle, specially when there's a great deal of contrast involved.  Look at this photo of Cundy's Harbor during a gorgeous summer sunrise:

But also note how dark-- almost black-- the fore and middle-ground is.  In reality, the sky was much brighter and more colorful, the trees across the way were a lovely green, and the wharf which was full of yellow, green and blue lobster traps was perfectly visible.  But the photo only shows the sky with color.  That's because the camera lowered the values of everything so that the sky wouldn't be overexposed, leaving everything else super dark.  It can't brighten one section and darken another-- it's all or nothing.  If the dominant subject was the shadowed wharf, the camera would have lightened the values to show those colors, but at the expense of the sky.   Another example is of my local church on yet another glorious summer day.  (Definitely not this year!):

Beautiful sky, but look how dark the trees and shadows are.  When I focused on the church without the sky, it showed the truer values of the scene.

So what does this have to do with photographing paintings?  Well, a camera doesn't know or care what it's taking a picture of.  It treats everything in the same manner, including paintings.  So, if your (my) painting has alot of contrast, the camera will do it's thing and mess with the values.  Which means if your painting has a value range that's mostly high-keyed, or mostly low-keyed, without much contrast you're probably in luck.  If your (my) painting runs the gamut between high and low values, with tons of contrast-- you're screwed.  A camera absolutely hates that lovely deep purple shadow next to a bright golden yellow high-light that you're so proud of.  It'll either over-expose the high-light into a white blob to show the purple, or darken it, turning the shadow into a black hole.  Either way you (I) lose.

I asked in my previous post if I should paint for the human eye or the camera eye.  After all, if you the visitor is pleased with my painting, and you think I did a realistic job, then I did OK, didn't I?  But what is the more likely way you will see my painting?  Online, that's how.  And what is that image online?  A painting?  No, it's not-- it's a photograph of a painting.  So I guess I better keep that in mind when I'm painting, since I don't want my pictures to look criminally bad.  After all, I don't need this guy to come after me--



SamArtDog said...

You and your camera and your computer somehow got along well enough to produce this fairly spectacular example of Maine's sideways light. Congrats to you all!

Virginia Floyd said...

That's a great post. My photos rarely show the little touches that I like in person. I think you explained that perfectly.

Susan Roux said...

Another frustrating thing is the range of colors a monitor shows versus the range of colors my paintbrush makes. But I wouldn't tell anyone to change the way they paint for the camera or the computer. YOu need to stay true to yourself and paint the best paintings you can paint.

My life is finally slowing down. Maybe someday day can paint together...