Landscape painting in Monet's Garden

For centuries, artists have relied upon the use of tools to help improve their artistic compositions and concepts. Even the great Leonardo da Vinci used the grid method to help perfect his drawings, and nearly two hundred years later, Johannes Vermeer employed the use of the camera obscura.

Artists have always been at the forefront of technology. Nowadays, many landscape and wildlife artists learn to be proficient photographers as well. In fact, most successful artists use the aid of a camera. The above reference photo was taken during my May 2017 workshop I taught in Monet’s Garden.

I am always looking for ways to improve my artistic skills and that includes photographing better reference material.  Good photographs along with a decent plein air painting study helps to insure a successful studio landscape!

Becoming a good nature photographer requires a solid base in three areas. Knowledge, technical skill and artistry. Just like with any other discipline, practice will help you achieve the desired results. The following tips will help you improve your photography.


An artist should always be armed with a camera! A ’point & shoot’ camera is relatively inexpensive, compact and easy to use. These small cameras take quality images for a fraction of the cost. The more photos you take, the more you will know what kind of camera to get when it’s time to upgrade.


When you are ready to invest in a larger more complex camera, getting the right equipment and understanding its basic operations is important. But, before you rush out and buy a new camera and expensive lenses, do your homework. I suggest you search the Internet, ask professional photographers for advise and visit your local camera store before you make a purchase. B&H Photo & Video is a reliable resource in the industry for professional and amateur photographers. Personal preference varies from photographer to photographer. I love my Canon 60D. It is user friendly and takes great pictures.


To insure your subject is visible, use a telephoto lens. Lenses of 400mm or more will positively impact your wildlife images. Telephotos allow you to fill the frame with your subject while maintaining a distance from shy birds and animals. They also serve to simplify or de-focus a cluttered background and isolate your subject.

Other lenses that wildlife and nature photographers find useful are macro lenses and wide-angle lenses.  Again, B&H Photo can help you chose the right lens for your needs.


Keep your camera with you all the time, ok…at least as often as possible.  Photo oportunities can pop-up when you least expect them – be prepared.  Your ‘point & shoot’ camera is the perfect size to carry in a pocket or leave in the glove box of your car.  Use it to take ‘notes’ of scenes you would like to return to with your larger camera.  I carry mine along with me when I paint outside.


Consider a tripod for more stability especially while using a telephoto lens or in low light conditions.  Also, keep frequently used equipment at your fingertips by wearing a photographer’s vest or cargo pants with plenty of large pockets. This gives you easy access to lenses and memory cards. Changing lenses and cards quickly is important when photographing moving subjects. Be prepared for weather changes and wildlife encounters!  Every outdoor painter, photographer or adventurer must read the life saving Safety Tips for the Outdoor Painter & Enthusiast before he or she ventures out.


Just like an artist experiments with his or her new paints and brushes, photographers should get to know their equipment for best results.  Try shooting your subjects at mutiple settings and exposures to learn what effects you linke.  Take notes so you can remember what setting matches up to what image.  Or, if you are good with on the computer just check the EXIF Data in the ‘file’s properties’ to recall a setting while viewing your downloaded photos.


Through the ages, many artists have also been naturalists. John James Audubon, Thomas Moran, and contemporary painter, Robert Bateman just to name a few. Serious nature artists never stop learning about their subjects. Understanding intimate details about your subject helps insure accurate renderings. For example: Many birds, animals and trees change their appearance during the different seasons. Mistakes will make the most talented artist look like an amateur. Learn the dormancy, migration, nesting, and fawning. There is a direct correlation between knowledge of your subjects and the strength of your images and paintings.


As in painting, the same basic rules of composition apply to landscape, nature and wildlife photography. Photography is a tool that can be used to help with composition. Utilize The Rule of Thirds when deciding upon the placement of your subject within the scene. Placing your subject off center allows you to include more of the animal’s habitat and incorporate the patterns of Mother Nature. Implementing basic compositional skills will help you create successful images.  And…just like in art, you have to know the basics before you can try breaking the rules.


Natural moments usually last only a few seconds before the lighting or subject vanishes. Many times, photography is able to capture a moment that is sometimes difficult for the fine artist to quickly reproduce without the help of a photograph. If improving your photography skills is important to you, then try and find to practice regulary so you don’t forget what you’ve learned. Learn to compose quickly by anticipating your subject’s behaviors. One of the great benfits of a digital camera as opposed to film cameras is the cost of errors is free! So don’t be afraid to experiment, you will learn a lot in the process.


One of my favorite quotes by Emerson is, “Adopt the pace of Nature, her secret is patience.” Sometimes our artistic temperament kicks in and frustrates us. If your patience begins to wear thin, remember that the best formula for witnessing Mother Nature and her creatures is dedication. Spending extra time waiting for your subject, weather or just the right lighting conditions is worth the effort for a valuable reference photo. Just think of the beautiful painting in your future.

When back in the studio, use ‘artistic license’ to rearrange or juxtapose your photographic reference material. You might use an animal pose from one photo and the landscape backdrop from another to create one painting.  It is ok to rearrange reality. But remember, nothing replaces the first hand knowledge of a place like painting on location. That said, painting from life together with photography gives artists the information needed to produce compelling paintings.

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