The Painterly Effect

September 16, 2019  •  Leave a Comment

My pictures have a painterly feel to them and I am often asked what kind of filter I use to create this kind of look. There is no quick answer to this and so I decided to write this blog post in which I will give you some insight into what goes into a painterly looking photograph.

5 Tips For Painterly Photography5 Tips For Painterly Photography

1. It all really starts with the right kind of light. I prefer foggy mornings, overcast days or rain for my type of photography. Soft light means there is also less contrast and this helps to achieve a more painterly effect. If you look at paintings from the Romantic era, you will probably notice that there are hardly any true blacks and true whites in these paintings. They have less contrast and this is why it all starts with taking a picture in soft light. 

To the left the raw file of a picture I took one week ago and to the right the edited version. You can clearly see how the painterly effect was already captured in the raw file, because I photographed in foggy conditions

2. You might have learned that a histogram looks great when its mountain touches both the right side and the left side of the graph. This might be true for very punchy, contrasty pictures, but this is not the right starting point for a painterly looking picture. I try to edit my pictures in Lightroom to look quite flat with as many details in the shadows and highlights preserved as I can. I will pull the blacks to the left and the whites to the right if the picture was taken in very, very foggy conditions, but more than anything...I want the edit in Lightroom to be aimed at preserving data. Adding contrast too early in the process will lead to loss of details.

Saga of the Obscure Trees Raw FileSaga of the Obscure Trees Raw File Saga Of The Obscure TreesSaga Of The Obscure TreesVery foggy forest scene of a path with oak trees.

Fine Art Photography by Ellen Borggreve

Another example of a picture that already looks painterly straight out of the camera. Left is the RAW file, right the edited picture. You can see I applied contrast very locally and not throughout the picture to keep the softer contrast in the background intact (this technique is also explained in my new eBook)

3. Painterly pictures don't often have punchy, harsh details. This means that I often reduce clarity in Lightroom rather than add clarity. You need to know your equipment. In the case of my Sony cameras and lenses, I knew that the 24-70 mm F2.8 GM and the 55 mm F1.8 Zeiss Sonnar T* lenses both delivered very crisp images, that I often found to be a little too harsh for my liking. In that case I reduced clarity a little. 

4. Prevent over-sharpening your pictures and mask the output sharpening from areas that don't need sharpening. In the case of my forest pictures, I often only apply the sharpening to the trees and never sharpen the leaves on the ground as well as the grass. I have recently switched to Topaz Sharpen AI for all my output sharpening and I must say that this strikes a really good balance between sharpening and reducing blur. (I am not in any way affiliated to Topaz, I am just telling you what I use at this moment)

Another example of a painterly looking picture in which I made sure the details were not over-sharpened. The entire process from capturing to post-processing of this image can be found in the eBook The Magic of Forest Photography: The Recipes

5. An "Orton" effect. I don't use the Orton effect in just the old fashioned way. I have played with it and with the ingredients that go into the Orton effect (a Gaussian Blur filter in a specific kind of blend mode), I have created many painterly effects. There are just so many ways in which you can build up an effect like this. I explain three different painterly ("Orton") effects in my new eBook. I don't believe in actions and presets, I'd rather explain to you how I build up these effects, so you can learn how you can build your own, which will suit your picture best. Many actions are not suitable for all kinds of pictures and may leave your pictures look very otherworldly. I think it is far better to learn how to create these effects and play with the ingredients yourself. I have explained every painterly effect step by step and with detailed screenshots in this eBook.

In the eBook I walk you through the entire capture and editing process of three pictures, amongst which is this one: Tribute To Fall

Here is the RAW file and then the final edit as shown in the eBook

The other two pictures in the eBook have different painterly effects applied to them, but they could also easily be used for a picture like this. Here is the same picture with the two other painterly effects

This is where Photoshop excels. You can achieve so many effects in so many different ways. If you learn how this is done and you play around with this, you will soon become confident enough to create all these effects yourself. If you are afraid all that playing might affect your original file, simply go to Image-> Duplicate in Photoshop and play on a duplicate of the image. 

You will always have to apply a Gaussian Blur filter on a new layer. You can do this by pressing cmd +alt + shift + E on a Mac and ctrl +alt +shift +E on a Windows computer. 

Your lens choice, the time of day in which you capture the picture, the focal distance, the colour contrast, contrast, the colours, the saturation and so many other things go into creating painterly images. But it all starts with taking the picture in the right conditions. No filter, Photoshop action or Lightroom preset will ever be able to help you achieve the effect you see in my pictures, if you take pictures in harsh light. 

December 2023: The eBook I am referring to in this blog post is  no longer available


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