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5 Ways Modern Photographers Can Find Inspiration in Classic Art

by Hillary Grigonis
art & design, featured

Photography’s 200 year history is brief compared to the vast and varied past of other mediums such as painting and sculpture. Yet many of the techniques photographers use now came from before the first camera was invented, from Rembrandt lighting to compositional “rules.” The ties to the past are only increasing — Adobe Stock lists History and Memory among the 2018 photography trends as an increasing number of photographers pay tribute to classic work even while using modern cameras. The trend joins others like Creative Reality and Multilocalism.

So what does this trend look like, and how can photographers find inspiration in it while also making it their own? Here are five ways photographers can find inspiration in classic art.

Light

Painters understood light long before photographers were able to capture it with a camera. Rembrandt lighting, for example, is a commonly used photography lighting pattern named after the 17th century painter that often created the light pattern with a paintbrush.

While painters understood light before photography was even a word, the light in classic art isn’t as broad as the number of different lighting patterns used today. The light in classic art can easily become inspiration for modern photography. Look at your favorite classic art pieces and identify the shadows and highlights. Can you determine where the light is coming from? How is the subject, whether that’s a person or a still life fruit basket, placed within that light?

After re-creating the lighting pattern in the shot, fine-tune in post, lightening or darkening shadows and highlights to finish that classical inspiration. Using a classic lighting pattern is an excellent way to use historic inspiration for a modern subject.

Color

Sure, choosing a color palette for a photograph isn’t quite as easy as opening a specific shade of paint — but that doesn’t mean photographers can’t find inspiration in the colors of classic artwork. Maybe it’s the range of blues in Van Gogh’s Starry Night, or the contrasting orange-blue on Edvard Munch’s The Scream, or the warm earth tones in the Mona Lisa.


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Once that classical inspiration hits, choose a subject and props that falls into that color palette. Then perfect the classical colors in post. Inside Lightroom, adjust the colors in the photo to more closely resemble the tones from from a classic oil painting — this can be largely done with the HSL panel. Hue will change the shade of that color, while saturation will change the intensity of the color. Luminance alters how light or dark the color appears and can be used to mimic the darker tones found in some classic paintings. Split toning can add hints of color to the shadows and highlights — this tool is best for recreating the look of an old photograph by mimicking the colors created in the darkroom, such as with cyanotypes and sepia images.

And if you want the flexibility painters had to dip into any color, open Photoshop to change the color of objects to match that classical inspiration.

Composition

A camera may not be able to capture a face the way Pablo Picasso painted people, but classical inspiration doesn’t stop at composition. Even the classic artists used the Rule of Thirds. Look in the background of The Last Supper, where parallel lines receding into the distance add depth to the popular painting.

While painters can place objects wherever they want with a few brush strokes, photographers still have several compositional tools with historic roots. Look for leading lines that can give that two-dimensional art depth in a landscape, or find inspiration in the lines of a pose from a classic painting for portraits. Choose your lens carefully — a wide angle will exaggerate distance and angles in your composition, while a zoom lens will make everything appear closer together.

Emotion

Art classes around the world from different cultures look at an image and often feel the same emotion, even across language barriers. Generations later, classic artwork still has a way of connecting emotionally. That same emotional connection with the viewer isn’t lost in photography.

In a portrait, often the emotional connection comes from the expression on the subject’s face. Don’t automatically aim for that big dimpled smile — find inspiration in a more subtle smile like in the Mona Lisa or slightly parted lips like in Johannes Vermeer’s Girl With a Pearl Earring. The placid expression of individuals in the earliest forms of photography is another source of inspiration.

In any category, including landscapes and even abstract art, the emotion from the piece stems from colors, shapes, light and narrative. Once you’ve found a classic art piece that inspires you, ask yourself what emotions that work brings out, and how you can use the tools available to photographers to recreate them.

Posing and Props

While some photographers simply capture what they find, others are more like stage masters, starting from scratch and creating a scene to capture on camera. If your work falls in the latter category, why not take that classical inspiration further and use props and posing inspired by artwork? Hit up flea markets and antique stores for vintage props and clothing. Find inspiration for the pose in paintings and sculptures, whether that’s paintings of angelic cherubs or carefully posed portraits. Complete the pose and props with light, colors, composition and emotion inspired by classic art. Or, juxtapose classic and modern to better convey what you are trying to say.

Photography, like all art, draws inspiration from a number of different sources. But despite changes in technology and methods, photographers are increasingly paying homage to classic art — and for good reason. Take a look at the history and memory collection from Adobe Stock, or learn how to submit your own work to Adobe Stock.


Learn the essentials of stock photography, the differences between royalty-free or rights managed, as well as where stock images are utilized in today’s world. Learn more today!

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Hillary Grigonis

Hillary K. Grigonis is a web content writer and lifestyle photographer from Michigan. After working as a photojournalist for several years, she made the leap and started her own business and now enjoys sharing tips and tricks with emerging photographers.