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Since the advent of photography, artists have been intrigued by its possibilities. Even the devoted plein air artist usually has a trusty camera at their side. We tend to accept a photograph as fact whereas a painting is held up to greater scrutiny. Confronting this prejudice and acquiring a basic understanding of how photography compares to the human eye, can prove invaluable when attempting to produce representational paintings.
The mechanics of a camera are very similar to the human eye. The retina acts as the film or sensor in digital photography, recording information and processing it into recognizable imagery. The cornea acts like the camera lens, bending light rays through the pupil. The pupil and iris act like the aperture, controlling depth of focus. The missing component is the shutter: that curtain that lets a flash of focused light through the lens to the focal plane of the film. We actually see more like a motion picture or video camera, which is capable of recording a series of quick flashes into constant action, versus the one-shot camera. Vision is a continuous process with the blink breaking the sequence. Science has shown us that the average shutter speed for this human movie picture is somewhere around 1/50th of a second. We are also capable of quickly moving our focus, similar to panning with a camera. This helps to keep things that are in motion in focus.
When photographing subject matter that is in motion, anything slower than 1/50th of a second can appear blurred, while faster shutter speeds can stop action, creating too much detail. Since most handheld photography relies on a faster shutter speed than 1/50th of a second, we can ascertain that we are not really recording a human perception. Instead, the reference photo has stopped action and produced a frozen image. In the landscape this issue often arises when photographing running water. If the camera records the water at anything above or below approximately 1/50th of a second, an artificial appearing reference is produced. To test this, mount a camera on to a tripod for stability, expose a swift running creek at a shutter speed of approximately 1/50th of a second, then lower the shutter speed to 2 seconds, and finally raise the shutter speed to 1/1000th or 2/1000th of a second. The aperture will have to be adjusted to create a good exposure, which will alter the depth of focus. The appearance of the running water will be very noticeably different between each exposure.
It is not that these lovely reference photos cannot be utilized for inspiration and detailed information, but a degree of manipulation needs to be applied to make the painting appear real. As a dear painting friend once said, “We must record the scenes in front of us on the emulsion of our minds.” Our job is to harness the photograph as a tool, instead of becoming its slave.