Outdoor painters working before Joseph Nicéphore Niépce invented photography in 1827 would argue that the camera is not an essential field tool. But once cameras became portable enough to lug into the field on the back of a mule, painters realized the benefits. Albert Bierstadt, among others, used photographs to assist in creating his barn-sized masterpieces.
Even some of today's painters will say that a camera's not essential. I agree. (Other than brushes, paint and canvas, what else do you absolutely need?) But it's very handy. Here's what you can do with one:
- The viewfinder can be used to crop an overwhelming vast scene to one more manageable.
- Most cameras will convert a color image of your scene to greyscale so you can see value relationships better.
- A photo taken of the scene just before painting can provide a reference or "memory jog" if you need to adjust your painting in the studio, especially with regard to details.
- If you plan to create a larger, more complicated studio piece, you can take photos of different elements of the scene that can be combined.
- You can take photos of different stages of your painting; you may find you preferred an earlier stage better, and perhaps you can "undo" some of the later work in the studio.
- Field photos posted on Instagram and elsewhere may make you a rock star among plein air painters.
I'm sure there are other benefits, and please feel free to add them in the comments. But I would also offer the following cautionary statements:
- Cameras don't have the excellent color sensitivity of the human eye and sometimes distort color. (Yes, even if you properly set the custom white balance.)
- Values are generally distorted. If the camera takes its light meter reading off the lights, the shadows will be too dark and dense; if it takes the reading off the darks, the light areas will be blown-out.
- Perspective is distorted, especially in cameras with small, cheap lenses (e.g. point-and-shoots) and when zooming in or out.
They are, however, great for detail and as a memory aid. This is what I use my camera for.
Today, you don't need a mule to carry your camera. Point-and-shoots are small enough to fit in your shirt pocket. And should you forget your camera, you probably have a cell phone with you that will work in a pinch.
You can find more helpful tips and tools in my book, Backpacker Painting: Outdoors with Oil & Pastel, available at Amazon from this link.