Using the vocabulary of photography

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Using the vocabulary of photography

Photography looks like photography because of its unique visual vocabulary. We can dissect and isolate these vocabulary elements to provide a consistent framework for interpreting a photo into a convincing painted result. Failure to properly eradicate an image's photographic language will result in a painting that has references to both vocabularies and weaken the final image. Knowledge of both vocabularies is essential for a satisfying result.

In this video, we'll examine the visual vocabulary of photography. First of all, I'm going to talk about the way the lens works on a camera. It's very good at sharply focusing. You can even play with focus through depth of field so that some areas can be in very sharp focus and other areas very out of focus. In this example, we can see the center of this image has very sharp focus, but as it comes towards the camera and moves away from the camera, the focus falls off.

So the photographer can use this as a way to force the viewer to look at a particular part of the photograph. We're not as interested in the fuzzed-out parts of this spiderweb. It's the central area that attracts our attention, because of that detail. So this use of sharp focus and the ability to play with depth of field is definitely a key element in the language of photography. Next, we have blur. A camera shutter can stay open for different lengths of time, and the longer it's open, the larger of a slice of time it's going to capture.

In the case of keeping that open, and if something is moving, you'll get the effect we see here. Items in this photograph were caught in motion, and the shutter was open long enough to capture them as they moved through the scene, rather than isolating them in one instant in which they would have appeared frozen and stopped. Photographers will use this technique, just like I've done here, to enhance the sense of motion. In particular, what I happened to do here was I used static elements, like the people on the platform who were not moving and static, to contrast against the motion.

So this use of blur through motion is another language element of photography. Another thing that happens in photography is depending on how the plane of the element that is going to capture the imagery, and nowadays that's a digital sensor, how that is tilted in relation to its subject will affect how the image is portrayed on that particular sensor. You can see on the left, that's the true image.

That's what I captured. And it distorted the image with a converging set of lines as if there is some vanishing point up in the sky that it appears to be converging towards, when in fact, that building is not tilted at all. So by correcting it, as I did on the right side, I've taken that out of it. And that looks more normal to our eye because when we look at a building, even though it really looks very much like the image on the left, we tend to ignore that, and we don't see it.

If you want to think about it, and look at it, you'll see, oh yeah, the building is getting smaller as it goes up, but we tend to override that with our common sense, and we realize a building does not get smaller from top to bottom, unless it's a pyramid. Generally, the building will stay the same width. So common sense overrides the fact that optically we're seeing it converge on this imaginary vanishing point. So this distortion that we're seeing is another language element of photography. Tone is another one.

A camera can only expose for highlights or shadows, and in the image on the left that's the exposure of the camera as it was set. It's pretty good overall, but if you look at the sky in the upper left, it's almost blown out. If you look at the darks in the image, some of the darks are starting to plug up. So what you can do is mimic what the human eye sees, which is what we're looking at here on the left, in which the highest highlights and the darkest shadows are compressed, so that they don't seem to be either plugging up or blowing out, and you get what is closer to human vision where we constantly are looking at a scene and moving around it.

Our eye is dynamic. It's constantly changing its aperture to adjust for light. So you get a difference in the way the human vision examines and evaluates an image versus the way a camera dumbly can only record exactly the settings that it's been adjusted to. Color is another one. The camera tends to capture a certain sensibility of color. It's a number of factors. Some of it is the sensor itself.

It can also be how it's processed. But all cameras produce a set of colors within a space that I call photographic color. When you look at color photographs, you don't even think about it and yet there is something in the language of photography that we understand when we look at a photograph, those colors that it is displayed in and portrayed in come from the language of photography as photographic colors. Now, we go over to the right side of the image here.

It's still a photograph, but I've jacked those colors way up, so that now they're more into the range of painted colors. If you look at the swatches on the far right, those are colors sampled from real paint. So those are the kinds of intense colors you're going to find in the language of painting where it's based on very refined pigments. So to even take an image and just start to up its saturation is one way to evolve an image out of the language of photography where this photographic color is very common and move it into more brilliant colors. You're starting to move away from that language of photography.

So all these language elements of photography we've talked about, they're visual vocabulary that makes beautiful imagery. But our goal is to eliminate these elements by replacing them with appropriate replacements from the visual vocabulary of painting. If this translation isn't fully executed, the resulting image will lack crispness and sharp painterly definition.

Using the vocabulary of photography
Video duration: 6m 41s 4h 0m Intermediate


Using the vocabulary of photography provides you with in-depth training on Design. Taught by John Derry as part of the Digital Painting: Street Scene

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