Art Theory and Photography

Are you interested in photography?  Looking for a way to take your regular snapshots a step further?  Or maybe you’ve already been seriously practicing photography for a few years?  Or are you a professional who’s been doing it for decades?

If you fit into any of the pigeonholes I mentioned, the same prescription could apply – learn some art theory!  Get a good book, ask an artist friend, take a class, or read a quality blog.

Most of the same principles that apply to drawing, painting, sculpture, architecture, and so on can be applied to photography as well, and usually with minimal adjustments.

Take color theory as a test case.  Color breaks down into 3 things: hue (e.g. red, blue, green), saturation (a.k.a. intensity), and lightness (a.k.a. value).

If you’re ever used the hue/saturation adjustment in Photoshop, you’ll recognize these three things as the sliders in that dialog box.  Value alone has been the subject of TONS of works about photography – after all, it’s the heart and soul of Ansel Adams’ Zone System!  With regard to photography, it boils down to how to pick the proper exposure to ensure you have the right parts of the photo coming out as light, dark ,and mid-tone.  Without that knowledge, you can easily end up with a photo that’s overexposed or too dark.

Sure, you might end up with something decent out of dumb luck or by using your camera’s automatic setting, but so much the better to be able to do so consistently and deliberately!  It’ll allow you to know beforehand that you’re producing something to be proud of.  And if you’re like me in that I prefer to shoot rather than spend time processing in Photoshop, it’ll also allow you time to practice the part of photography you enjoy most!

And that’s just value!  Hue and saturation are important too.  By combining the right hues (which is to say, colors), you can create striking imagery.  Complementary, warm, cool, and analogous colors can all be used to generate visual interest or create the ‘look’ you’re going for in a photograph.  And saturation can make a photo look vibrant or washed-out.

See below for an example of a photograph that has a play of different hues in it.  In this case, the predominant hues are greens and yellows, which are analogous colors.  Analogous colors like this tend to be common in nature, and are great for photos that you want to evoke a “natural” setting (even if the photo is of something decidedly unnatural like a cityscape).

This is just the beginning, too.  So go and learn about art theory – it can really help you grow as a photographer!

Palace of Fine Arts, San Francisco CA
Palace of Fine Arts, San Francisco CA

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