I have been a photographer of one sort or another for quite some time. I first began in High School where I took photos for the yearbook using a Nikon film camera.
My primary camera is 5D Mark II. Yea, a Canon 5D Mark II! I can’t seem to make up mind on what to get next. So I keep using my 5D and renting other camera bodies until I make that choice. I am really waiting to see the update to the 5DSr before I decide!
But I digress. So anyway, this is the primary camera I use to take landscape and travel photographs of the places I visit.
For years, I heard many photographers talk about studying painters as a way of improving their craft. I always nodded my head in agreement, but never took up the task myself.
That is until I made a recent visit to both Italy and Spain.
On our recent trip we visited the Vatican Museum in Rome, the Uffizi Museum in Florence along with the Academy, and the Prado in Madrid Spain.
Also sprinkle in some time spent in some cathedrals and one experiences quite an “art” centric visit of southern Europe!
And as I stood among the paintings by the masters -- such as El Greco, Caravaggio, Goya, Rembrandt, Botticelli, Raphael, Titian, van der Weyden, Michelangelo, Velazquez, Durer, Rubens, and my favorite, Hieronymus Bosch -- I began to see some comon threads with my photography. I began to understand my own photographic style in ways I had never imagined. And I began to understand better this whole idea of “style” that many photographers struggle to understand.
Two things stood out in my visits among those rooms of priceless artworks – the use of color, and the use of light. And these are the two elements that I work to incorporate into my own landscapes.
Use of Color
Years ago, when I was a younger man, I visited Rome and lived in Spain. I had visited both the Vatican and the Prado Museums. But I had forgotten the one thing that struck me during this most recent visit, the use of color.
Yea, the outrageous use of vibrant jewel tone colors in painting after painting. The subtleties of color that enhanced the scene and draw your eye into the scenes were incredible.
Like this painting, The Holy Family by Michelangelo Buonarroti (yes, that Michelangelo) at the Uffizi in Florence, the use of the deep reds and blues makes this painting pop for me, it makes the painting something I want to stop and look at and enjoy.
And in this painting, "Adoration of the Magi" by Ghirlandaio, also at the Uffizi in Florence, the use of colors make the subject stand out and takes your breath away. I am amazed at the audacious use of color, making the painting vibrant and rich. And just as important, visually interesting.
And then there is this masterpiece by El Greco, the Disrobing of Christ at the Primate Cathedral of Toledo in Spain, is just awesome. The red is in your face and you can't keep your eyes from leaving the painting. El Greco, I figured out, uses color as a photographer would use light, to focus on the subject of the painting. In this case Jesus is in a red robe, thus becoming the focus of the painting.
And I began to realize that I too love the color in my photographs. I find that my method of post processing is to bring out the colors already found in the scene. I learned that I mimic the use of color the great painters of the renaissance produced. And that is what I envisioned the photograph to be.
When I sold my prints at Art Shows in the past, some people loved my use of color in my photography, and others not so much.
I was often blamed for exaggerating the color of photographs, and I would disagree. Instead pointing out that the colors were there, I brought them out in my post processing. And that the colors were part of my photographic vision for the print.
Now some say that I am heavy handed in my use of colors. But I purposefully seek out those photographic opportunities where color is both plentiful and vibrant.
If I am in the forest, I seek out those opportunities to photograph scenes with deep and vibrant greens. I often find myself photographing forest scenes when it was raining or after it rained. I find that when the leaves were wet they are a more vivid color of green than when they are dry.
I also find myself seeking out foggy mornings. The dew on the leaves seemed to make the greens richer in color than when the leaves are dry.
I also seek out colorful sunsets or sunrises. I have taken thousands of sunrise and sunset photographs. But the only ones I find myself processing and showing others are those that are colorful.
Mother Nature is sometimes willing to give quite a beautiful and colorful display. These displays are at either the beginning or the end of the day. That is to say the hours around sunrise and sunset. But you need to be willing to wait for the display. When Mother Nature blesses you with a beautiful sunrise, it is spectacular!
I find that I am very attracted to the use of color in nature. I try to find the bright and rich colors in nature that many of the painters I saw at the museums used in their paintings. I find that I am attracted to paintings with rich and deep colors. And not so much with those who use muted colors, which to me felt muddy and do not have the punch I appreciate.
While I gawked with amazement at the paintings of the masters, I began to realize a few things. I realized that my love for rich and vibrant colors is very much part of my own photographic style!
And I have since decided that I am not going to apologize for my use of colors that I find in nature. I am not going to apologize for "kicking the color up a notch," to loosely use a well known culinary phrase.
After all, photography is art. As photographers, we start with a canvas already provided to us by Mother Nature. And we adapt it to fit our vision of what the final photograph will be.
That is part of the photographic and artistic process. And instead of asking for permission it is better to ask for forgiveness!
Use of Light
Often in landscape photography, you have to use the light that is available. It is difficult to add or subtract light.
In landscape photography, one has to learn to use the light that exists or wait for the light to change. And there is never a promise for great light, just the hope. I cannot recount the number of times I have left a scene with no photographs as the light just didn't work.
All landscape photographers talk about the quality of the light. We talk about the “golden” or “blue” hours, as these are the best time to photograph subjects. And landscapes come alive during these times.
For those who might not know, the golden hour is the hour or two before sunset. The sun is low in the sky and you get some great colors and wonder shadows.
Blue hour is the hour after the sun has set. The reflected light of the last rays of the day provides a soft light that is wonderful.
As a landscape photographer, I am always hunting for light. And I am always noticing how that light is interacting with the subject of my photographs. I am looking at either how harsh or how soft the light is. I am looking at the color of the light as it lights up various subjects and brings them to life.
Like the quality of light during golden hour that made Cathedral Rock light up as the sun was setting. Though the sky was cloudless, the contrast between the red rock, blue sky, and the green trees makes this photograph for me. In a sense, the light enhanced the colors, a win-win for me!
This photograph, without the light that causes Cathedral Rock to glow, would be a so-so photograph. The light, the glow if you will, and the reflection in the water, provides a particular mood and feel to the photograph.
But light doesn’t always make something like Cathedral Rock glow red. Sometimes you get light that brings out the subject in such a way that it stands out from the background. Or the light provides a certain mood that goes on to become the defining element of the photograph.
Like this painting of "Adoration of the Child" by Gheradro delle Notti. The light brings attention to the faces of those who gaze upon the Christ child in the painting. The light serves to make them stand out from the background, which is dark and difficult to discern. And light provides a mood where one can focus on the quiet joy that found in the faces of those gathered around.
I often find the idea of "mood lighting" tossed around by other photographers. But in reality, there is some truth to the concept. Light will provide a mood supporting the photograph and enhancing the subject photographed.
Or take this painting of what I believe is the arrest of Jesus. I forgot to take a picture of the plaque and I can't figure out who the artist is. But the painting is at the Primate Cathedral of Toledo in Spain (if you know, I'd appreciate a comment letting me know). The lighting is such that it keeps your eyes focused on the action taking place in the painting.
But the lighting here serves to draw and keep your attention. Although your eyes may roam around the painting, you keep coming back to the action.
This painting shows us a wonderful use of light.
In landscape photography, we often can’t “focus” the light on our subject. Rather we have to wait and use the light that is available to us, as shown in the first photograph below.
Often this may mean selecting a different subject than what first caught our eyes. Or it may mean studying the sky and waiting for the light we know will occur. This is what happens in the second photograph I discuss below.
Like this photograph of a passing storm at the south rim of the Grand Canyon. The light filtering through the clouds adds dimension to the scene.
The light provides a definite mood and propels the photograph beyond a simple snapshot of the Grand Canyon.
Here is another photograph from the Superstition Mountains east of Phoenix. The light of the setting sun lights up the foreground and parts of the background. The rest of the landscape is in moderate darkness.
This contrast provides a mood to the photograph. Imagine the mood if the light was different? The light and the mood it imparts makes this photograph what it is.
The clouds in the sky help as well, but the focus here for me is the quality of the light.
So as a photographic artist to make my best photographs, I use the colors in the scene and the quality of light.
As I walked through the art museums of Italy and Spain I understood why I am so attracted to the use of color and light.
The famous painters of the renaissance understood those two elements. The liberal use of these two provides the world with works of art that many today can only admire and enjoy in a museum.
My meager attempt to replicate those qualities is not anywhere near that of the masters. But I keep trying - and learning. And my photography improves with each attempt. I want my buyers of my photography to enjoy the works of art that I produce for display in their homes and places of work.
So…go, visit, and learn!
Go to art museums and discover the masters. Find those painters you find affinity with. Study their body of work. Begin to understand the connections to your own photographic style.
And have fun and enjoy, and don’t worry about the naysayers. They will always be there. The naysayers will find photographers that are better suited to their own sense of style. It might not be the same as yours -- and that is OK.
In the end, you too will need to discern and understand your own style to improve your own photography. This what photography is all about -- learning and growing our techniques and skill.