I didn’t pay close attention to photography until I moved to Canada. Maybe this is because, while living in my hometown, I didn’t find the area inspiring enough or maybe I just was occupied solving different creative problems. However, many industry professionals, whether they're matte painters or environment artists, have portfolio's of photography, so why is that?
Before I was seriously invested in matte painting as my main profession I didn’t pay much attention to photography at all. My main focus was on photography manipulation techniques like extractions, selections, corrections, etc, and on the side I was educating myself on the history of art. It wasn't until 2012 when I bought my first camera and slowly started to take pictures of my everyday life.
Later, I met people at work who were also interested in landscape photography, we went on hikes, took pictures, chatted about the craft and so on.
I personally believe that if you want to be a great matte painter, concept artist or really great at any role in the VFX industry, you need at least a basic understanding of Photography. Better yet, being an amateur or pro photographer!
The entertainment industry (VFX, Games, VR, etc) uses cameras for pretty much every project (either practical or digital cinematography) and this requires a certain understanding of the basics of real world photography.
So, How can photography help you?
Firstly, you will learn a lot about the physical process of taking pictures. It is often indicated in job listings that VFX companies are looking for someone who has a knowledge of lenses. By simply taking photos often and studying the end result, you will eventually get familiar with all the effects that make something look photographic. You'll also gain a better understanding of perspective, framing, light qualities and other similar things. This means, when it comes to your work, you will have a completely different approach in your selection of reference for your work because you will know what exactly you are looking for in terms of camera focal length, light angle, perspective, etc. For instance, You won’t pick a long lens shot (e.g. 85mm) for a wide angle painting (e.g. 24mm) and vise versa.
Photography will also help you with your composition and framing. Imaging you are on a hike in the mountains or forest and the surroundings are so beautiful that you want to put everything in one image. With some experience you will understand how to frame the area to best capture the feeling, but this is not something that comes immediately.
Seeing through the camera
In time, photography will teach you how the camera actually sees things and what is the difference between your perception, the camera shot, and a painting of the same location. Until you start taking pictures with your camera it’s really hard to pay attention to the things like proper exposure, especially because our eyes are constantly changing the exposure of our surroundings so we can see things better. You will learn that if you expose your photo to a person or an object in a shade, your background will be blown out and overexposed, but your eyes will see it differently. So understanding these scenarios can greatly help you with digital look-dev and lighting because you know and understanding what is happening on the plate image and how to recreate it in software of your choice.
Having an understanding of photography will also make you pay attention to the things you weren't aware of or just didn’t notice. It goes hand in hand with traditional and digital painting. You are trying to solve a problem on how to transfer your perception of a real-world 3D environment on a very limited 2d plane.
After I started regularly taking photos I noticed that I was paying significantly more attention to the everyday things around me. I was constantly noticing something new to photograph, whether it was a cool looking rusted metal, a stain from the water leak, or a sunset from a bridge.
Refer to your library of Photos
Even the most basic understand and experience in photography will greatly help when you need to recreate or mimic something from nature in 3D. If you build a library of photography from places you go, you'll be able to refer back to it to look for shots to help you understand the breakdown of a scene you need to recreate. It will be your compass and quality mark as well as end goal. Also, you should always compare your matte paintings or environment renders with real life examples and photography as matching the real-world photography will improve the realism immensely.
I have seen so many “movie inspired LUT” packs lately. A LUT (look up table) takes the colours from one image and applies a certain look. These packs provide you with a LUT 'cube' file that is designed to manipulate the colour of your still image to look like a frame from a certain movie. In my mind, this simplifies the process of digital color grading too much and you won't learn anything from the process. If you actually watch a video example or behind the scenes of the colour grading process for any film you will realise how complicated the process is. It's not just a matter of applying a filter!
Good color correction can make or break and entire film and the same goes with a landscape image, whether it be a photograph or a matte painting. Learn to do the grading by hand and you will understand colour so much more. Then you'll be able to use colour in a powerful way to boost the contrast, change or emphasize the mood, weather condition, etc.
Discover Your Artistic Style
Taking and editing your own photography will also help you to develop your own visual library and artistic style. Looking at other peoples work will make you ask questions about their choices and you'll be able to break down certain techniques for yourself. Remember to try different approaches and overall expand your knowledge in one more area.
You will most likely go outside more.
You don't need a dedicated camera either! Most people have a powerful camera built into their phone, so I highly recommend to looking for a dedicated camera app for your phone which has more options for ISO, Shutter speed, etc, and start taking pictures! At the end of the day you will still learn a lot from limitations mobile photography has and it may lead to a new great hobby.
~ The MattePaint Team