Photographs are a quick, easy way to gather ideas to paint from. In order to capture as much information as possible here are a few things to remember.


Consider the composition of your photograph. No matter what your subject, try to see it as an arrangement of abstract shapes when you frame it in the viewfinder. You probably wont have time to go through all the elements and principals of design and apply them to the shot you’re about to take, so keep these two simple rules in mind.

Unless the centre of interest fills the frame, try to place it off centre

Try to avoid placing strong horizontal or vertical lines in the middle of your photograph. Horizon lines in particular should be placed around the top or bottom third of the frame



On dull overcast days the white sky will cause most automatic cameras to under expose your subject. If your camera allows it, switch to manual and take the exposure reading from the subject. Some cameras can be set to overexpose by half to one stop. If your camera has fixed automatic exposure, on overcast days try to fill the frame with the subject and include as little sky as possible.



On manual focus cameras, selecting a small aperture and turning the focus back a little way from infinity will put everything from a couple of meters to infinity in focus. Many lenses have a scale in front of the aperture ring to accurately make this adjustment.


The best light to take photographs is either early morning or late afternoon. In the middle of the day the sun is overhead making everything look flat


What to paint is a very personal choice, but no matter what style of painting you wish to pursue, some form of reference material is generally required. 


Once the only way to gather and record information was with a sketch book and pencil. This method still has some advantages over photographic recording. 

  • The time taken to produce a drawing gives you a more intimate knowledge of the subject at the same time increasing your observation skills.

  • A certain amount of compositional adjusting is done during the process of drawing.

  • No matter what you paint, drawing is an important and unavoidable skill. Quick loose sketches are a great way to improve drawing skills as well as being fun to produce and accumulate.

The downside to location sketching is the time it takes. It is possible to document fading afternoon light with a sketch and quick notes on color, but that same 10 minutes spent running around with a camera will provide you with a whole lot more information.


For years I carried around an SLR camera various lenses and a bag full of film. It was a fairly cumbersome package and often stayed in the car or hotel, meaning lots of opportunities were missed.

The advances in digital camera equipment have made a huge impact on the size and quality of cameras. It is now possible to carry, in your pocket, a small camera that will give clear, sharp 8"x10" prints without the inconvenience of having to wait for processing. You also get to instantly preview the photos you have taken. This allows for failures to be deleted or more shots to be taken if necessary.

Compact digital cameras are simple to use and almost foolproof in automatic mode. It is worth studying the handbook, however, to discover all the other amazing features packed into these tiny cameras.


Many of the compact digital cameras have a panorama stitch mode. The camera shows you the trailing edge of the previous shot so you can precisely overlap it with the next. When you have finished shooting the sequence of shots the camera software seamlessly blends one shot into the next. This is a great feature for broad expanses of landscape or wide, interesting streetscapes - handy for the kids soccer team too!


Switching the camera to manual and using a long shutter speed allows you to capture the soft warm light before and after sunrise. Cameras vary in the amount of manual control available, but even taking a guess at shutter speed, monitoring the result and fine tuning, produces good results. Set the camera to trigger via the self timer and use a tripod. I carry a small, flexible legged tripod for these long exposure shots.


Most compact digital cameras can be set to fire continuously for as long as the shutter is held down. You may have to drop the image size and resolution to speed up the capture rate. It is a great way to capture action - somewhere in the sequence will be just the shot you want.  Continuous shooting is also  handy when you are travelling through an interesting area in a car, bus, train or ferry. Aim the camera out the window, hold down the shutter, then sort through the images later.


If flowers or insects interest you as painting subjects, then you will love the macro facility found on many compact digital cameras. Drawing detail is much easier when you can blow something the size of a bee up to five or six inches long! 


The great thing about digital cameras is that you can experiment till your heart's content, see the results immediately and not be concerned with wasting film. This means you can fiddle around, try out all the different settings and become very familiar with how your camera works. A couple of weeks experimenting will give you the ability to gather so much more information than a film camera or pencil and paper ever allowed. 

It is no longer necessary to have a computer to take advantage of a digital camera. Small self contained photo printers are reasonably priced. They can be plugged straight into your camera and will print just the images you select. The cost per print is about the same as a print from a photo lab but you only need print the shots you want to keep. There are also digital print kiosks popping up all over the place. You simply insert the card from your camera, all the images appear on the screen, you select the ones you want to print, pay your money and collect the photos. The kiosks can also burn the images onto a CD for you. 


I still love to sit down in a quiet corner and sketch, but these days I do it with a tiny digital camera in my pocket. Once the pencil is put away I usually shoot off five or six shots just to make sure I didn't miss anything.

The important thing to remember with all this technology is that it's the final painting that counts. Don't become obsessed with technicalities, after all you are just gathering information to refer to later. 




back to painting lessons


By moving the horizon higher and the centre of interest off to the right we get a more interesting, and dramatic composition.

Without compensating for the bright sky the subject is left under exposed

The humble sketchbook and pencil is still one of the most enjoyable ways to record information for your paintings.

The minute size of compact digital cameras allows them to be carried with you everywhere 

A tiny digital camera with a zoom lens and wrist strap, a spare battery and card and a pocket sized tripod. This small pocket full of gear covers just about every situation.

Three overlapping shots like this can be fused one into the next with software built into the camera 

The result of the panorama mode is a long narrow print that can span up to 360 degrees

Macro photographs are great for detailed paintings of plants insects and small animals













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