The Secret is in the Art

The Secret is in the Art

Many times in my teaching or presentations, I’m asked what are the most effective things one can do to advance their photographic skills. Obviously, Number One is to practice, practice, practice. Every chance you get you should be out there shooting, learning from your mistakes, and shooting more.

I also frequently recommend looking at the works of well regarded photography masters, both historic and present day. This is not a license to copy another’s style, but rather to understand how a good eye views the world, what makes for strong compositions, what are emerging trends in your preferred genre.

The Secret

But here is the real secret. If you, seriously want to up your photography game to the highest levels, visit a fine art museum. I know that is an out-there statement, but please hear me out.

Just a few weeks ago I spent 6 hours in what is my favorite art museum in the world, The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. Admittedly I am biased, having spent at least 3-4 days a year there with my father, himself a well regarded photographer and art lover, as I grew up. And here is the bottom line; just about everything you need to know about photography is hanging on those walls (with hats off to the Louvre, the Getty and other great museums).

Are you kidding? you might well ask. No, I’m dead serious. When you enter an art museum, you leave the chaotic hustle of the world behind. You are forced to slow down and really study the art before you. That alone is worth the price of admission. Why? Because far too many photographers run out, lay their finger on the shutter release, and machine gun their way to captures. By slowing down, you can better observe your surroundings, size up compositional elements, make the light work for you… you get the idea. Being in the presence of great artists requires you to reflect on what makes a great image.

Now, about those fine art images. Good art, with the possible exception of good modern art. is all about light and shadow. Sound familiar?

Take these iPhone captures I made on my visit to the Met where I spent a good deal of time at an exhibit of Dutch masters.

Let’s start with a simple, pastoral landscape by Dutch artist Meyndert Hobbema in the mid-1600s.

The scene is smartly divided by the curved road which separates marsh from farmland. There is good tonality, from shadows to highlights, with a nice touch of rim lighting on some of the trees. The clouds are rendered with lots of detail. All good.

But what I feel sets this piece apart is the placement of the woman on the right side, looking out and watching people pass by. It adds a marvelous context to this rural scene. It tells a story, something that we all should try to capture in our art form.


Portraitists can learn as much from classic fine art painters as they do from the best photo books out there.

In this 450-year old painting by Rembrandt (as well as the lead image above), I believe everything one could learn about portraiture is present. Look at the lighting, so natural. Look at the gentle fall-off as our eyes move to the shadows. The eyes are in focus, with a specular catch light in the left eye. The background is separated from the subject. Can it get more awesome than this? Could it possibly be more instructive for those of you who do photographic portraits?


One of my favorites by famed Dutch artist Emanuel de Witte is his rendition of “Interior of the Oude Kerk, Delft”, painted around 1650. Look at the amazing tonal balance and play of light. The light streaking in the lower left foreground gives us a hint of direction and how the light falls off toward the rear. But what makes this image for me is his humorous - and irreverent - introduction of foreground elements.

We have the boys mischievously drawing graffiti on the column and to their right is a dog peeing on another column. Use of foreground elements is important in our photography and can telegraph and magnify the story that the photographer is trying to tell.

Another more intimate interior is by Dutch Artist Hendrik Martenszoon Sorgh who captured the daily life of real people in the 1600s.

There are so many wonderful things going on in this painting it’s hard to know where to start. Again, just let your eyes take in the natural light that illuminates the scene, the orange surroundings adding a warm tone. We see the role of women of the time played out in detail. Dinner is being prepared, but our eye follows the gaze of the women who is watching her cat sniffing at the food in the pot, almost as if she is ready to shoo it away. In fact, from her body placement, she appears already in motion, imparting energy. The specular light on the interior of the pot also adds to the movement within the frame. Natural light is wonderful, when mastered, even for interior scenes like this.

A Post-Processing Lesson

In this final image segment that I chose from my visit, Dutch artist Gerard de Lairesse’s painting of Apollo and Aurora, I wanted to show something that I emphasize in my post-processing workshops.

Notice the restrained use of shading in the horse’s neck and face. Note the addition of hints of green and violet to the shadows. In post-processing very little goes a long way, allowing for naturalistic effects, rather than gaudy transitions.

So, if you want to really improve your photography, take a day every few months and visit fine art museums. I think you will be pleasantly surprised at how it informs your own photographic art.