Photograph digitally manipulated for painting, © 2010 Karen Lynn Ingalls
Photographs are a wonderful resource for painters. They allow you to capture a moment in time, which you can work from without concern for changing light and weather conditions. You can paint from photos of people without needing them to sit without moving for extended periods of time. And you can work from photos you have taken years earlier, from your own archives – a precious resource for painters.
Digital photography gives a painter enormous advantages, too. You don't have to worry about running out of film after twelve or twenty-four or thirty-six exposures; depending on the size of your camera card, you can take hundreds of photos. You can also crop and manipulate your photos on the computer. I use a relatively ancient version of Photoshop that has served me well, but newer versions of Photoshop are far more complicated than most painters need. You can download Picasa 3, from Google, for free, and it will allow you to do pretty much everything you'll need. (Thanks to Sequoia Buck for that information!)
It should go without saying – but I'm going to say it anyway – that you should ONLY work from your own photos, the photographs of someone who has given you permission to use their photographs, old family photographs, or vintage photographs old enough that copyrights have expired.
That said, a painter needs to know the limitations of the photograph. Those limitations also create opportunities....
• The camera's lens can alter depth perception; you may want to use those alterations in your painting. You may not; notice them, so you can choose.
• The photograph gives you a composition, in a format that is wider than the proportions of most standard canvas sizes. What size is your painting surface? What are its proportions? You will want to crop the composition of your photograph to similar proportions.
• Your eye sees more variations in color than you will see on a printed photograph. The colors of the printed photo will vary, depending on what kind of process was used to print it, and what kind of paper it was printed on. If you are printing them yourself, know that standard copy paper absorbs and dulls inkjet printer inks; you will get better results printing on photo paper or brochure paper.
The best uses for photographs in painting are when the photograph is simply a resource – a springboard for you to take off from. It can give you useful information about composition and light, but don't let what it shows you constrain you. It is a helpful place to begin; then the question is, where will you go from there?