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Want Quality Pictures? Savor Like a Painter

If you want to learn to make art, you should learn from artists. A couple of weeks ago I learned an important lesson by contrasting painters and photographers.

Painters do an activity called En Plein Air, which refers to painting in the open air; photographers would call it shooting on location. There’s this terrific contest in Logan, Utah requiring painters to have a blank canvas stamped Monday morning and then they have to submit finished work Wednesday morning as the kick off to the arts fair. The works they turn out in just two days are pretty incredible. A couple of years ago, they started a photography contest with the same rules (using metadata to verify the time constraints) and submitting to that contest has been one of the highlights of the year for me.

On Wednesday evening the winners for both photography and painting are announced at a reception with the hundreds of works hanging in a huge tent at the fair. Paintings hang in one half and photographs hang in the other. All the artists turn out to see what the competition created, and there is lots of discussion and camaraderie. I noticed a big difference between the photogs and the painters, however, as they looked at the pieces. Photographers looked at a picture, moved very close and examined the paper/pixels, then moved on to the next one, spending as long as twenty seconds looking at a picture, but five seconds was probably more average. Painters, on the other hand, stood looking at a painting for as much as a minute before moving closer to examine the technique. Then they stepped back and looked again. Then they turned to someone else and talked about the work. Then they went on to another image, but usually came back and looked at everything at least once more, truly considering those that caught their eye.
I think photographers should focus a little more and slow down. Spend more time looking at one image. Consider the artist’s intentions, the feelings an image evokes or depicts. Consider the composition and what makes it work–is it a simple rule of thirds? Are there leading lines that direct the eye? How are tonal values arranged to draw emphasis? What colors are important? Of course you can do this at art museums, but also do it in magazines, and 500px.com, and G+, and Pinterest. Spend more quality time looking at more pictures, and I bet you’ll end up spending more quality time making your pictures, too (both at time of capture at in post).
A word of caution: don’t be too hasty to be negatively critical. Photographers are prone to pick pictures apart on what’s wrong. I know I’m guilty! The painters I watched found the merits and moved on. I suppose if I’m as famous as Ansel Adams or Richard Avedon and have made as many important pictures I may finally have some worthwhile input on what might make someone else’s pictures better. Until then, I’ll try to slow down, shut up, and savor what I see.

NOTE: This approach is just one way of thinking… but it should help you experience photography in a different way.

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