How Art History Can Improve Your Photography


During some part of your training as a photographer, whether self taught or classically trained, you've probably been told to study images taken by photographers whose work you admire. You can learn a lot about your personal style this way, zeroing in on what it is exactly that makes you favor it. Discovery, after all, begins with observation. Keeping that in mind, let's take our artistic observations one step further and we can see how the old masters of painting have influenced not the just the eyes of master photographers, but also the entire artistic medium that is photography.

There is no doubt about it, painting has had a significant impact on the way that photographers use light. The first thing that comes to mind is Rembrandt lighting. The style was named in honor of the painter and is still widely used in portrait photography for the simple fact that, when done correctly, it looks really good.

As you can see below, Vermeer also used the power of observation to “see the light.” By simply paying attention to his surroundings, he was able to conclude that the natural window light softened the face of the milkmaid and produced dramatic shadows on the walls and table. But, to see the light as Vermeer did, you have to look for it. All the time. Constantly pay attention to the lighting. When you are taking a walk, cooking breakfast, or sitting under a tree – take note of where the light is coming from and how it affects your surroundings. Then apply that information to your photography to create your very own classic work of art.

Vermeer – The Milkmaid [Public domain], by Johannes Vermeer (1632–1675)

If you think about it, the old masters have even the best photographer beat when it comes to composition. They knew exactly where each element of the painting should appear to make the piece aesthetically appealing and they did this all without cropping! You see, painters think of the very edges of the canvas as the frame to their image. They know they must stay within the size of the canvas and make sure that what is within that frame is placed exactly so. Great detail is given to each and every object to ensure that it's position adds value to the image.

As a photographer, you can do this by looking through your viewfinder and imagining the edges of your viewfinder's frame as uncroppable canvas edges. For example, look at the following painting. Does the composition look familiar? Notice the rule of thirds, foreground, and the leading line that takes the eye to the boat? Van Ruisdael was able to get his composition correct by taking the time to evaluate his scene before he put his brush to canvas. You can correct your composition in camera by doing the same before you trigger the shutter release.

The Windmill at Wijk bij Duurstede 1670 Ruisdael [Public domain], by Jacob Isaakszoon van Ruisdael (1628/1629–1682)
The Windmill at Wijk bij Duurstede 1670 Ruisdael [Public domain], by Jacob Isaakszoon van Ruisdael (1628/1629–1682)

The old masters were no slackers when it came to visual storytelling. In fact, you could consider many of them the predecessors to documentary and street photographers. A shining example is de Hooch's “Musical Party In A Courtyard” which you can see below. All of the elements of the painting work together to make the mind understand the story that is being told. You first see the musician and couple as the subject, but the sky, canal, and houses are essential elements to establish that the musical party is taking place in a courtyard. Combining those aspects, de Hooch has quite effectively told a story. Take a photowalk and remember this painting. When you find a subject, quickly study the surroundings to look for additional visual dialog that adds to the story that you are trying to impart.

Musical Party in a Courtyard by Pieter de Hooch [Public domain], by Pieter de Hooch (1629–after 1684)

Next time you find yourself in the hall of an art museum, give some added attention to the works of the old masters. It is through studying their works that many of our modern photography masters have developed their skills. The old masters were, after all, the pioneers of “getting it right in camera.”

Tiffany Mueller is a professional music and fine art photographer. She has been published in various publications including magazines, art journals, as well as photography books. Tiffany is fortunate enough to have been in a perpetual state of travel since her youth and is currently working on a 50-states project. You can keep up with Tiffany via TwitterGoogle+, or, on her personal blog, Life Is Unabridged.

About Author

Tiffany Mueller is an adventurer and photographer based in Hawaii. When she's not climbing volcanoes or swimming with sharks, you can find her writing articles and running the official blog at PhotoBlog.

I enjoyed the article. Its worth making the point that, of course, many of the painters used lens based projections to achieve their paintings. Vermeer’s Milkmaid was created using optics. Our understanding of the techniques of painters from the middle ages has been revolutionised by David Hockney’s study ‘Secret Knowledge’ (published by Thames and Hudson). I commend this study to all photographers, as it will certainly reinforce all that has been said in the article.

The more I learned about graphic design the more I appreciated art. You really can learn from art history. I never thought about learning art history in terms of lighting and photography but think its a great idea that photographers should try. It is the kind of thing that can take you to the next level.

The Ruisdael isn’t “rule of thirds”: it’s organised on the Baroque diagonal and its reciprocal. (He even aligns the sails of the windmill parallel to these aspects of the armature so you don’t miss it!)

As for Hockney’s theory: Aarrrgh! – do a quick search on what serious art historians think of it!

We usually focus our attention so much in the “latest” and “trendiest” that we tend to forget the origins and foundations that led to the point where thing are now.
Not only in photography, but in any other art, it’s of the uttermost importance to study the origins to understand the present.
Good article!

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