Not Really a Blog

Painterly Photographs and Photo-Realistic Paintings

The history of photography and painting often includes references to periods when photographers try to create "painterly" images, and periods when painters try to create "photo-realistic" images. Today's musings have been inspired by a photograph that has a close connection to a local artist's painting.

I'm sitting in front of one of my favourite works by one of my favourite local artists: a painting of Mystic Beach. One of the photographic prints I'm offering for sale at my upcoming show is an image of a photo I took at Mystic Beach. I call the print Mystic Afternoon. The two works of art are similar, as they depict the same scene. The similarities end there: they differ not only in their details, but also in the process that created each of them.
It's a wonderful painting…

Looking at the painting on my wall, one could almost say that my photographic print might as well be a simple picture of the painting. Almost! Yes, the painting is a wonderful depiction of the artist's view of Mystic Beach and the falls at the beach. It goes beyond that, in the way Dave (Dave Aris, the painter) chose paints and brushes and strokes in a way that created depth in his painting; it is also clear that he selected aspects of the scene to satisfy his goal in creating a painting that expresses the essence of what he saw. I don't know how long Dave took to paint that picture but I'm sure it was more than the quarter of a second that the shutter of my camera was open when I took a photograph of the scene. I don't know how many times Dave painted-over parts of his work to bring it closer to what he wanted, and I don't know what thoughts inspired him to create the painting exactly the way he did.

Maybe I'll ask him one of these days.

For now, though, I'm musing about my own Mystic Afternoon photographic print.

The exposure time was a bit longer than usual (a quarter of a second, rather than a hundredth or a thousandth of a second). Much more time and effort went into creating that print, than the less-than-a-second exposure time. Round-trip travel time was probably close to eight hours; traipsing down and up the trail to and from the beach added another hour or so to the travel time. Putting aside that travel time, the "photographing" time involved much more than the quarter-second "click". A good photographer doesn't (normally) just lift the camera and press the shutter button. Even with today's automated automatic almost-automagical cameras, the process starts with planning. Putting aside (again, still) the planning of the road trip to Mystic Beach, there was a selection of season, and day, and time of day: the photograph was captured on December 3, at about 3:00 p.m., on a day when I did not expect too many other people to be around to complicate the shot, and at a time when the tide would be a little ways out and the sun would not yet be set. Weather cannot be planned, but there was at least an optimistic reliance on forecasts suggesting that the weather would be conducive to spending a few hours at the beach.

A photo taken on any other day, at any other time, could have been very different (unlike a painting, which a skilled painter could make look like any time or season). The day and the time and the weather were favourable: I chose a day when the weather would probably be suitable, and it was; I chose a day and time when the light and tide would cooperate, and they did. Those were not fortuitous or random circumstances.

So much for time. What about place?

A few friends were with me on this photo-saunter (thanks, Philip and Bob!), and they also took pictures of the beach and the falls. Their photographs were taken around the same time, and around the same place, but they do not look like mine. Their photos are theirs, and mine are mine. Of all the places on the beach that were available as vantage points at 3:08 p.m. on December 3, 2017, I chose one location to stand for this photograph: a spot untainted by anyone's foot prints, at the water's edge, with wet sand reflecting the waterfall in front of me. I chose a particular height for my tripod: a bit lower than usual, to create a sense of height in the waterfall. I chose a direction for my camera to point, to create a balance between the shore, the falls, and the crashing waves. I chose a focal length (33 mm, for those who care about such things), that was wide enough to encompass the rocks being hit by waves and the trees clinging to the top of the cliff. I chose a narrow aperture for my lens (f/22, for those who care), to keep everything in focus and to give the waves a sense of movement.

Fortunately for me as a digital photographer, I was able to take several photographs of the same scene (or, at least similar scenes) while I was there. That is one of the luxuries of digital photography: storage media cards are cheap, and it is easy to take plenty of pictures. They weren't taken at random, though, and they weren't taken machine-gun style (what some photographers describe as "spray and pray"). A painter can look at a subject and imagine all sorts of ways to interpret what she or he sees. A photographer can look at a subject and take many photographs that might interpret the scene in different ways. In that sense, the photographer's task is more difficult than that of the painter: the painter can create directly from imagination, through the painter's medium; the photographer, on the other hand, is constrained by what the camera sees, finding an image that resembles a vision and then working toward manipulating that image to approach the vision more closely. The painter has the advantage of starting with a blank canvas; the photographer doesn't.


I was able to download all those images and look at them on my computer, and then choose one. This is the one I chose. The process didn't end with the "click". Reviewing the history of the image in my photo-processing software, I see that there were more than sixty changes to the photo, before I considered it ready to print. The changes were mainly subtle, and were often repetitive. Each one - no matter how insignificant on its own - was like a small brush-stroke or other change to a painting. None of them created any deception or fiction in the photograph: each of them enhanced it to make it closer to my own vision of what I saw.


Just as taking a photograph goes beyond a simple "click", printing a photograph involves much more than sliding a piece of paper into a printer and pressing a "print" button. The creation of my Mystic Afternoon print involved the selection of paper, calibration of paper with monitors to ensure the colours were accurate, and several test-prints (and adjustments) to get the image to look the way I wanted it to look.