Five things photographers can learn from painters

While the oldest paintings date back to the cave paintings 40.000 years ago, photography only goes back a few hundred years. Hence are most (or every?) “rules” about composition and usage of colours discovered by scientists and painters in the old days. Photographers gladly capitalize on the rich history of the art of painting and have become a new wave of “painters”. But what advantages do painters have on photographers, and what can photographers learn from them?

This blog is a follow up of my post last week, where I showed the work of my niece Marjolein Linders. An artist, and in my eyes a wonderful painter. Her input for this post was very valuable.

Before getting to the five things we can learn from painters, let’s take a closer look at the differences and similarities between painting and photographing.


Both painters and photographers have a lot in common: The result of their work in both cases, is a visual product. And both products aren’t neutral, as the personal view of the artists is involved in the product. A painter could decide not to paint a part of the scene, or paint a model as a slim person while he/she is chubby (or vice versa), while a photographer can perfect his or her product in post-processing. That’s why the phrase “pic’s or it didn’t happen” isn’t as common anymore, everybody knows about Photoshop.

In both products (a photograph and a painting) the personality of the painter or photographer is a big part is of the end-product. The painting or photo reflects the personality, or mood of the artist.

And of course, both a painter and a photographer, use knowledge about light, colours, and composition and are limited to a two dimensional representation of a three dimensional world.


The similarities aren’t limited to as stated above, since the works seem so alike. However, there are some differences between the two artists. One of the major differences between a printed photo and a painting is texture: The texture of the brush is used by painters to layer their scene, to create depth, or set a mood.

A picture on the other hand is considered to be more “correct”. If the photographer considers the artefacts of his or her lens, they can represent natural shapes: A model in a strange pose is more accepted in a photograph, than it is in a painting.

While a painting is always staged, a photo can be spontaneously created in a matter of seconds. Painting takes much more time: buying a canvas, mixing paint, create a frame, tightening the canvas, prepare, sketch, painting the first layer, the second layer, drying the paint, recomposing, repainting…

Lavendelveld - Lavenderfield by Marjolein Linders

Lavendelveld – Lavenderfield by Marjolein Linders. It took a lot of time to get this 2 meter wide and 1 meter high painting done, while a photograph and post-processing would be a matter of hours.

However, the biggest difference is the workflow. Painters start with a blank canvas and create the scene, while photographers shoot a photo, and start with a full scene and work it down in post-processing.

What we can learn

Knowing there are similarities and differences, there are five things we can learn from painters:

1. Painting is a process

Before a painter can start working, he/she collects materials, thinks about the painting, thinks about the meaning of a painting, starts working, corrects, repaints, et cetera. They spend many hours, days, weeks, or even months at one piece of work. As where a photographer can quickly shoot a series of photos. If your goal is to shoot multiple photos, you have to divide your attention over these photos. While if your focus is to make one or two photos, the quality of this work will increase, since all your focus is on that one product.

2. Details should not be the first step

If a painter wants to paint a landscape, he/she squeezes the eyes to see the main lines in a landscape. It is only after painting the big lines, that the painter eventually adds details. Lines are crucial for a nice photo to become fantastic. If you have composed the lines of the landscape in your photo, then look for the details.

3. Use colours to disguise limited dynamic range

Both paintings and photos have a limited dynamic range – the difference of light intensity between shadows and bright spots. Painters use colours to disguise the lack of dynamic range. A blue sky isn’t that intense blue as we think, so painters tone down the colours to give an impression of a bigger dynamic range. Also the colour temperature should match: A shadowy part of a scene is cooler than a sunny part. Therefor in post-processing a photo, selective temperature/white balance adjustment should improve a photo (post-processing in photography is not a sin but a must)!

4. Create a feeling of depth

Both painters and photographers try to capture a 3D scene in a 2D product. Painters know better than anyone how to create depth using light. The brightest tones in a scene catches the eye, therefore your subject should be bright. The colour intensity also influences the feeling of depth. A warm foreground and a cool background creates a sense of depth. Using objects for scale in a photograph is very helpful too. Our brain for example knows how big an average person is, so using people for scale gives an impression of the perspective in the scene.

To most landscape photographers the term “hyperfocal distance” is not uncommon. This is the focal point in a scene, where the whole photo from foreground to background is sharp. However, the lack of sharpness in the background adds to the feeling of depth. Keep this in mind while photographing a landscape.

5. Don’t go crazy on the colours

Too many different colours in a scene and people get distracted, the image will turn out restless. This is the reason black and white photos can be so beautiful: no colours to distract from the subject. Therefore in landscape photos, don’t go crazy on the colours. Try to match colour and colour-intensity throughout the scene. In a picture of a sunset, the landscape should be a little bit gold. Don’t try to make the landscape look as if it were daylight, this won’t match the colours of the scene (determined by the sky).

These five tips could help improve your landscape photographs. As a final tip I would like to refer to the website for 25 paintings every photographer should see.

Kind regards,

Marjolein en Tieme

Marjolein is Dutch artist attending the ArtEZ Institute of Art in Arnhem, The Netherlands, specialized in Fine Art. Her work varies (but are not limited to) from painting (acrylic, watercolor, wall painting, oil paint, pencel, and more), to metal works, ceramics, or printing.

In her pre-education period she has been active for years, and she still strongly walks her own path (a.k.a. stubborn). E.g.: Her mentor challenged her to recreate an exact copy of a porcelain heron sculpture. She did, but added a flip flop, lollipop, and a trampled tin at the feet of the heron, because the heron hasn’t changed, but the surroundings of this animal are.

These surprising, yet sharp elements are what makes her a great artist.


    • Thank you Anna! That’s very nice of you to say! Thank you for stopping by and sharing your thoughts!

      Kind regards,

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  4. I’ve just gained new insights about photography. I’m pretty sure both are quite similar. One is digital though. Thanks for sharing this article.

    • Hi Marius,

      Thank you for getting back to me and horribly sorry for the late reply! Both are similar indeed 🙂


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