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Auto Focus: Photographing Van Gogh

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By Chris Malinao

It’s not every day that one comes face to face with a great work of art, in one of the world’s greatest collections of art, so when the chance came up for me to visit the Art Institute of Chicago, I made it a point to go straight to where the Impressionist gallery was, there to see the portrait of post-impressionist Dutch artist Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890), done by the painter himself. This is the real deal, the original work right before me and I am in awe!

You want to take a perfectly squared photo of the painting you admire but you’re pressed for time and your camera won’t just cooperate. There’s Lightroom to help you out. In this case, it’s just hitting the Full button to apply upright corrections.

You want to take a perfectly squared photo of the painting you admire but you’re pressed for time and your camera won’t just cooperate. There’s Lightroom to help you out. In this case, it’s just hitting the Full button to apply upright corrections.

After a brief moment of bliss, I recovered and savored the genius of this 19th century artist, admiring his brilliant use of complementary colors for contrast, with the overall blue-green tone of the background serving to counter-balance the orange-red of Van Gogh’s hair and beard. The colors are intense and there’s so much energy and turmoil, perhaps suggesting the artist’s inner state of mind.

Faced with such genius, what does a photographer do? We take a picture of course. Fortunately, this Chicago museum encourages photography inside its vast premises. People can freely take pictures at the Art Institute of Chicago, as long as you do not obstruct or disturb people. That means no tripod and no flash. That’s all, you can take all the pictures you want. Use whatever camera you have—smartphone, pocket camera, or DSLR.

I had my big bad DSLR camera with me, so I positioned in front of Van Gogh’s self-portrait and waited for a moment when there was nobody in front of the painting. It took a while but I got my chance. I snapped several shots only to find out later that not even one was perfectly level and squared. I wanted my own perfect shot of the painting.

Fortunately, there’s Lightroom and with this photographer’s software I can easily correct the shortcomings of my own shots. It’s plain and simple really, it’s just a matter of hitting the Full button in the Transform panel of Lightroom and it’s done, to apply the upright perspective and correct for vertical and horizontal defects. After that, just a few tweaks in the Basic panel for exposure and color corrections to bring the image to how I remembered the painting to be.That’s all there is to it as far as editing is concerned.

But let me tell you about the Art Institute of Chicago. It is grand. It houses centuries of creativity from around the world. It is overwhelming to see thousands of great works, from the antiquities of Egyptian artifacts to the classical marble sculptures of the Greek, Roman, and Byzantine eras, from the Indian, Southeast Asian, and Himalayan arts and Chinese, Japanese, and Korean art, to the arts of Africa and the Americas, to the contemporary works of modern masters. There’s even awhole floor dedicated to photography alone.

The section on European art, furniture, metal works, and fine pottery from the heyday of their lords and kings make you proud as a human being, to think that people have reached this level sophistication and material refinement centuries ago. And there was so much to see.

It is just overwhelming; a whole day visit will not suffice. Beauty, history, and culture abound in the Art Institute of Chicago.

Chris Malinao teaches Lightroom as workflow software to photography students at the FPPF (Federation of Philippine Photographers Foundation), a nonprofit organization that offers year-round workshops in Basic Photography, Advanced Photography, Wedding Photography, Strobist Lighting, Food Photography, Photoshop, Lightroom.

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