Tools of the Trade: Birding Cameras April 9, 2016 09:37 6 Comments

I'm often asked which camera/lenses I use to photograph the birds I paint.  There are of course many options for this kind of work — ranging from the extremely expensive high-end DSLRs/telephotos to the much more affordable point-and-shoots.  Cameras like the Nikon Coolpix P900, which I use, and other similar super-zooms are really the best and most affordable options for the bird painter.

Bear in mind that if the ultimate goal is to take photographs of birds for use as references or starting points for our paintings, we really don’t need super-high-resolution images. So you really don’t need a great big camera with a great big sensor, and the big, heavy lenses that would go along with it — or even the tripod that would be needed to support this kind of rig.  An all-inclusive point-and-shoot camera, like the P900 will do a much-better-than-adequate job for us.

There are quite a few cameras in this category.  Along with the P900, there’s the Canon SX60, the Pentax XG-1, and the Fujifilm S1, to name a few.  At about $600 the P900 is the most expensive of the group, but it does offer some big advantages — the most important of which is its 83x optical zoom lens that ranges from 24mm to 2000mm (35 mm equivalent).  You can imagine the cost of the lenses that would be needed to cover this range with a full-sized DSLR.

You won’t necessarily get great feather/fur detail with the P900 (especially at the long end of the zoom range), but I really prefer that the detail not come from the photograph, but rather from my brush.  With the right set of brushes I can add just the right amount of feather detail to my bird paintings.  

Also, the autofocus isn’t always super accurate — I sometimes have to play with it a little to get it to behave, and raw shooting capability is certainly a feature I would like to see added.  Overall, though, I’ve been very satisfied with the P900's performance and image quality.  I’ve really found this camera to be a great image-capture tool for my birding needs.  

And I wouldn't want to leave you with the impression that this camera is only good for bird photography.  I've found it to be an excellent camera for all of my general photography needs — from landscapes to portraits to sports.

In a future post I'll be writing about my process for capturing bird photos for use as painting subjects.  And be sure to catch for my upcoming video tutorial:  Autumn Nuthatch, Painting Birds with the Mixer Brush.

I shot all of the images in the P900’s “auto” mode without use of a tripod.  With lower light levels and/or use of extended digital zoom, a tripod would be highly recommended.  The house finch and the cormorants were shot using a 35mm focal length equivalent of 2000 mm.  The moon was shot at 1800mm (in 35mm).  Note: some images were cropped, color-edited and lightly sharpened.

Package Discount Offering September 28, 2015 21:14

I’ve had a number of people ask about receiving a package discount for the purchase of two Lessons at the same time — I had only been offering a package discount on the complete three-lesson set.

In response, I’ve decided to offer a $20 discount coupon that can be applied to any orders totaling $198 or more:


Not only will this coupon apply to the purchase of any two lessons, but it will also apply to any lesson(s) purchased in conjunction with my 1-ON-1 Training. This coupon may also be applied to the purchase of the Complete MTDC Set, bringing the total price for all three lessons to just $229.

*This discount cannot be applied toward previous purchases, and may be discontinued at any time.

Stocking Up: Finding Great Images to Paint September 22, 2015 21:00 2 Comments

The paintings I make are always photo-based, whether they’re photo-transformations or paintings that begin as blank canvases — using the photo only as a reference. And I’ve found sometimes that my own photo library doesn’t always meet all of my needs. This may be the case with you as well.

What i’ve done, and what I would recommend to you would be to seek out and use (with permission of course) images taken by other photographers. These may be images posted to different photography or digital-art forums - some with an invitation to other members to retouch/manipulate/paint the posted image. Early on, as I worked to expand my skills as a digital artist, this was a great resource to me. Not only the images that were made available to me, but the feedback and encouragement I received from other members.

Another great resource I would recommend to you for the purposes of practice and portfolio-building would be the stock-image websites that are out there in increasingly larger numbers. You might be surprised to know that a large number of these sites offer use of their images for free.

Here’s a list of eighteen of my favorite sites offering free-for-use images: Pexels, Stocka, MMT, DesignersPics, Unsplash, Splitshire, Pixabay, Life of Pix, Magdeleine, Stocksnap, Gratisography, Kaboompics, Raumrot, Picjumbo, Im free, Re:splashed, ISO Republic, and Stokpic.

The stock site I use most often when I'm looking for a picture to paint is Dreamstime.  You'll have to pay to use most of their images (a very reasonable price, I think), but they do have a really large selection of free images as well.

So you might want to take a stroll through some of these sites. You might just find the inspiration for your next masterpiece.

Up to Speed with the Mixer Brush May 7, 2015 20:45

There’s been some discussion about brush lag that may occur when you’re using the mixer brush.  I don’t find this to be a major issue for me as I paint, and I’m not using a super high-performance machine.  If you do have lag issues, here are some things you might want to bear in mind as you paint:

Smaller files with fewer layers will lead to better performance.  I like to paint with as few layers as possible.  A paint layer on top of a background reference layer is really all I need for most of the painting work I do.  If you’re working on a particularly large painting, you may find it useful to crop certain areas of the painting and work on them separately.  For example, painting a large portrait you might want to crop and work on just the area of the head.  Once that’s done, you can paste it back onto the larger painting.
    8 bits per channel is plenty for digital painting.  16 bits is overkill and will slow down your system.

      Painting with “sample all layers” off will require much less processing than with it on.  The brushes I use are configured in this way.  Instead of painting onto a blank layer and sampling from below, or using cloning layers (mixer brush cloning paint set-up action), I prefer to paint directly onto an image layer, sampling only from that layer.
        The smaller the brush the less processing required.  Sometimes you’ll need bigger brushes, for example, when you’re painting a background.  As a work-around you may want to work with a reduced image size when painting the background area of a painting.  This way you can work with smaller brushes — the reduced file size won’t hurt either.  You can then upsize and rework the background with smaller brushes.

          Brush configuration is important.  If you’re using the bristle brush tips with the mixer brush — like I do, remember that you’ll get better performance using brushes with fewer/shorter/thinner/stiffer bristles than otherwise.  Also, increasing the “spacing” setting just a little can help to reduce the processing load — without any noticeable difference to your brushstroke.

          Although the other Photoshop painting tools — like the smudge tool and the brush tool — are somewhat less processor intensive, these recommendations can be applied to them as well.

          I love the mixer brush. Used right it’s a wonderful painting tool that produces amazing results — and is great fun to use.

          Digital Painting Tip - A Fresh Perspective May 2, 2015 10:13

          When I used to make prints in a darkroom, as soon as my print was fixed and washed, I’d bring it into the light and attempt to evaluate it. I’d study the composition, the tonal quality, the color — always asking myself what could be done to make a better print. As part of that evaluation process, I would look at my print in a mirror. By doing this, It was almost like seeing my work for the first time. This new perspective allowed my to see the overall composition, the shapes, the various tones — the photograph itself — in a new way.

          Even as my darkroom has changed from wet to digital, I continue to evaluate my work from different perspectives.  In the digital darkroom we actually have available to us many more options for viewing our work in different ways as we paint.  We can zoom in and out, rotate our painting using the rotate-view tool, flip it horizontally or vertically using Edit/Transform.  We can even convert our paintings to black and white to evaluate the tonal relationships.  All with push-button ease.

          When you work on a painting for a while you sometimes lose the ability to know what’s working and what isn’t.  Certainly stepping away from your painting for a time might bring new perspective, and renewed passion.  But using these other tools regularly as we paint can help to keep the process fresh — while providing us with useful insight. 



          Smudge Tool vs. Mixer Brush April 6, 2015 18:19 9 Comments

          I’m often asked which tool — the smudge tool or the mixer brush — is the better tool to use for creating paintings in Photoshop.  And the answer is…use both, and see what you prefer.

          The smudge tool has been a part of the Photoshop tool box for some time - going back even to pre-CS versions.  This was the first tool I began to use for transforming photos into paintings, and I still use it a lot despite the introduction of the mixer brush with CS5.  The smudge tool primarily allows us to interact with the colors of our canvas using a variety of different brushes designed for specific purposes:  bristle-type brushes that are great for painting hair, fur and other areas where you might want to show brush texture; and smoothing brushes that work great for painting skin, clothing, etc.  You can effectively add paint to the canvas by using your smudge brushes in finger-painting mode, but the mixer brush is really a better tool for this.

          The mixer brush can be used like the smudge tool by using it in clean-blending mode.  By using a clean brush in the wet mode, it's very similar to using the smudge tool — you can even use the same brush tips you use with your smudge tool to make the experience more similar.  But, like I said, the mixer brush is a much more capable tool when it comes to adding paint to a canvas.  In dry mode it becomes essentially like the standard brush tool, but in wet mode the paint you apply to the canvas interacts with the paint already on the canvas.  Another great feature of the mixer brush is the ability to add a texture effect to your brushstrokes.  This is something we can’t do with the smudge tool.

          I've found the smudge tool to be an easier tool to use, and for that reason it’s a great place to start learning how to paint photos in Photoshop.  But even though it’s simpler to use, the boundaries of its creative potential are unlimited.  Similarly, the mixer brush, which was designed to more closely mimic the look of various traditional painting techniques, is an extremely powerful tool.

          I’ve also found the smudge tool to be very effective when it comes to creating paintings with a more photorealistic look.  The mixer brush is equally effective when you want to achieve a more textured, painted look with bolder, more noticeable brushstrokes.  Having said that, you can also make finely-detailed photorealistic paintings with the mixer brush and apply bold brushstrokes and a fairly realistic texture (after-the-fact) to paintings made with the smudge tool.

          My advice:  for transforming photographs into paintings, use either one (or both together).  If you're new to painting in Photoshop, I recommend starting with the smudge tool.  If you’ll be adding lots of paint to your digital canvas, the mixer brush might be the better choice.  Learn them both — I’ll be here to help.

          Downloads...finally March 14, 2015 08:21

          I've been working for some time now to add downloadable versions of my products to my site.  I know many of you - especially those of you who live outside of the US - have been requesting this.  Sorry it took so long, but happy to finally be able to accommodate you.

          With this option, you’ll be able to quickly start using your training materials, and without delivery charges, customs fee or sales tax added to your price.

          "Lesson Three:  Painting Portraits with the Mixer Brush," which will be released soon, will also be available as a direct download.  Please sign up for my newsletter (at the bottom of this page) to receive further updates.

          You may want to read these FAQs on downloading.