David Osborn Uses a Rare Method to Make His Painterly Photos

My name is David Osborn. I always I wanted to do ‘something’ artistic after school, so I spent my first year at art college studying fine art, however, combined with an inability to draw, fine art as a career seemed a bit optimistic and risky. The starving artist image never appealed. Studying graphic design was my compromise but spending weeks working on one project behind a desk was too slow. I’m an impatient personality. As result, I spent my time shooting photo-stories. Photography provided a more instant result, while being out and about in life with real people. This evolved into wanting to do news photography as a career.

All images used with permission from David Osborn. Want to be featured? Here’s how!

The Essential Camera Gear of David Osborn

I use a panoramic technique. It is my best solution for the type of photograph I create – wide-angle views with corrected architectural perspectives. The panoramic process allows me to shoot wide-angle views without the extreme distortion wide-angle lenses give. The panoramic process began with investing in a Sigma 50mm ART lens. This lens and a Nikon D800E camera gave me incredible sharpness and detail. I wanted to retain that sharpness, but a 50mm lens is too limiting. I experimented shooting multiple frames handheld and stitching them together then made the process more efficient by buying the panoramic head to shoot multiple row panoramas. Camera wise, I am not a fan of digital view finders, mirrorless; I feel I have a better judgement of the subtle changes in light by looking through the viewfinder of a DSLR. With the rise in popularity of mirrorless, I was concerned that Nikon might stop making DSLR’s – so invested in the Nikon D850 in case that happened. It is now my primary camera, my D800E a backup. In some instances, the subject is a little further away than I prefer, so the Sigma 85mm ART solves the issue. I always want to keep the feel, or perspective of my images natural looking which is why I keep to more standard focal prime lenses. To create the images, I only use PTGui to stitch the images together first, then Photoshop for everything else. PTGui is much faster and more reliable than Photoshop for stitching, while being brilliant at correcting the perspective distortions without any loss of image sharpness.

David Osborn

What photographers are your biggest influences? How did they affect who you are and how you create?

Originally photographers like Bert Hardy who created photo-stories for Picture Post magazine and whom I met during photography lectures but then when I began news work, learning from the older photographers at Reuters in London. They were masters at ‘getting the shot’, telling stories in one frame. When I eventually moved into corporate work, it was more the photographs than photographers that inspired me. Trying to reverse engineer beautiful annual report images; the lighting, composition, story-telling aspect. Currently, being involved in Photoshop and digital retouching, it’s advertising photographers like Eric Almas and Tom Nagy, seeing how they use photography combined with digital retouching to create modern but not literal looking images. They showed me that digital retouching offers great creative potential to create fine art images.

How long have you been shooting? How do you feel you’ve evolved since you started?

I’ve been working as a photographer for over 36 years. I began working as a news photographer in 1985, then moved to corporate photography shooting annual reports. Now teaching and producing fine art images. Looking back, I think the two common motivations are a love of quality craftsmanship and using photography to tell a story. News was about the event, more the adrenalin rush of the moment. Corporate images were more about the technical quality of photography; how to use large format cameras and lighting to create polished, storytelling photographs. Now it’s more about the aesthetics and artistic side. The evolution is having greater aesthetic understanding of the artistic principles that go into making good pictures – painting or photography. A more advanced understanding of visual communication as a subject whereas earlier it was more about equipment, technique, and the event.

Tell us about your photographic identity. You know you as a person have an identity that fundamentally makes you who you are. Tell us about that as a photographer.

My vision is to have the artistic freedom of a painter to create the look, feel, the artistic style of the finished image, yet combined with the sharpness, detail, and clarity, the realism of photography. Create photographs that on a logical level have a strong three-dimensional illusion of reality; light, form, texture, spatial depth – but artistically, are an interpretation, not a literal and generic-looking rendition. To have both feelings of looking real yet unreal at the same time. Too sharp for a painting, too painterly to be a photograph.

It is not my intention to create a ‘painterly’ look, it is my passion for the light, mood, drama, and atmosphere of the old master painters and Dutch landscape painters which influence me and this shows in the style of my photography. To set out purely with the intention to create a painterly photograph, would be a superficial motivation based on technique.

My motivation is to investigate what fundamental artistic principles guided the old master paintings for hundreds of years, and if those artistic principles and their knowledge can be used in modern digital photography as creative guidelines for making beautiful pictures. The style of my images is just the result of that investigation.

Photography has been perceived as separate from art mainly due to the creative limitations of film photography; there was little you could when printing the negative in the darkroom to be creative and artistic. This limitation stereo-typed photography as being more a recording medium, not an artistic medium. I feel digital retouching has finally filled in the gap that always kept photography divorced from art.

Natural light or artificial light? Why?

Natural light only; purely because of the subjects I shoot. A large part of my photography is using the sky and clouds to create the light, mood, drama, and atmosphere in the picture A large percentage of the picture taking time, is indeed waiting for the right light and weather conditions.

Why is photography and shooting so important to you?

There is something deeply satisfying creating a photograph from scratch, being responsible for the whole process from start to finish. Creating something you can say ‘you did yourself’. To know that it is not mass produced but unique and one of a kind. I invest everything I have learned into an image, so each image also becomes a summation, of ‘what I know’. When the image is finished, there’s a temporary moment of satisfaction, followed by the desire to make the next one even better. I’m a perfectionist, it’s a personal challenge. I like the challenge, trying to solve the problem of ‘how can I make this better’ from every point of view, artistically, creatively and from a craftsmanship point of view. I like the intellectual side, learning new things, the concentration required. Photography is escapism; a time to be free to do what I want, free from the essential, often boring day to day jobs that always need doing.

Do you feel that you’re more of a creator or a documenter? Why? How does the gear help you do this?

A creator without doubt. I consider photography as art because like painting, both are about ‘picture making’. Art is about creativity and having a point of view. I use the subject matter and raw files as a starting point. The important and enjoyable part for me is the creative stage; how I transform the subject in post-production using Photoshop, to give the subject my own personal artistic interpretation. The buildings become just a canvas to tell a story about light. Light and atmosphere is the common theme in my photography. The panoramic technique allows me to capture a natural feeling image, while PTGui stitching software allows me to perfectly correct the verticals of buildings. My camera equipment is chosen specifically to use a panoramic technique at its best.

What’s typically going through your mind when you create images? 

I believe every location and building has one ‘signature’ angle that best sums up the location in one image. The key is finding it, finding where to stand. I always want to create only one definitive image of the location, not shoot lots of variations. I invest all my time, on average, three hours just photographing one composition. To find the cleanest, most iconic angle, means walking around as much as possible to see what my choices are. Having decided on where to stand, the next step is understanding what the light, what time of day will the subject be lit the way I want, generally to get side lighting. This most often means working out what time to then return and photograph, in conjunction with the weather forecast. 

When shooting the photograph, my priority is just to get a safe image shot. Many times, things happen that ruin all the best laid plans. Having taken a safe shot, I shoot the scene again, just slower, and more methodically, checking every detail. By now I’m confident that if I had to leave, I have at least a safe, basic picture and have not wasted my time. The next phase is to improve on what I’ve already taken. Extra exposures for good shadow detail and more importantly, extra exposures to improve the photograph artistically, the content, where the light falls on different details in the scene or variations of the sky and clouds as the mood and weather changes. Lastly, extra exposures to remove people and cars etc; what I call corrective exposures.

While waiting between taking exposures, I try to mentally create the photograph in my mind and imagine what the photograph would look like after Photoshop retouching – based only on what I have already shot.  I am trying to identify what else I need to wait and shoot, that would improve or even be critical to making it a good final photograph. Much of the final time is waiting for the light to hit critical details in the scene, that I know are essential for making the final image. A second thing I contemplate while shooting is the Photoshop problems involved in removing details or objects I don’t like in the scene. Contemplating if the details are possible to remove and how I would do it or if there is no way to remove them, do they ruin the image by keeping them in.

I am very keen to create a timeless image, I like the idea of trying as much as possible, to create an image of the subject the way it would have looked when it was built, so I want to remove all modern details as much as possible; cars, shops, people wearing modern clothing, things that would time stamp the photograph. I want to leave the ‘time stamp’, vague and visually undefined. 

The panoramic process means shooting multiple rows and stitching them together using PTGui software. Normally this is about 5 exposures left to right in three rows top to bottom. Around fifteen images on average to make up the final picture. This means at the end of shooting the photograph, a lot of exposures have been taken. The more exposures I capture, the more creative choice I have when I composite the image together in Photoshop later.

Please walk us through your processing techniques.

After editing all the images and stitching them together with PTGui, the ‘construction’ of the photograph begins using Photoshop in three distinct phases. The first phase is to composite and create a technically perfect, but more factual and generic-looking photograph; it has little artistic personality. The priority is to input all the qualities that create a three-dimensional illusion of reality; spatial depth, enhancing the shape and form of objects, good, rich shadow detail, enhance the light. The second phase is the artistic transformation; creating the mood, drama, and atmosphere – the emotional feel of the image, atmosphere. The artistic and creative overlay that gives the image its unique identity. The final phase is to check the picture from a cohesive point of view, making sure that everything reads as one cohesive story. Tweaking the brightness of the main ‘hero’, darkening distracting conflicts, generally fine-tuning the balance and feel of the image. If the first phase, the logical foundation, is done correctly; all the qualities that make us feel we are looking at a real scene are in place first, then the artistic alterations that are applied on top of this logical foundation, can be quite radical, yet the picture still ‘works’. The result is a photograph that ‘looks real’, but ‘not real’ at the same time. A photograph with a painterly feel.

Tell us about the project that you’re pitching, or your portfolio that you’re pitching to us. 

It’s a personal project testing out a self-imposed formula – A beautiful location + beautiful technique (camera and digital retouching) + beautiful printing = A really beautiful end result, hopefully. It’s an investigation into how to make beautiful images at every stage of the process.

What made you want to get into your genre?

It’s just a natural combination of my passions, history, architecture, landscape, painting and photography. It’s not a conscious decision to choose these subjects or make the images the way they look, its just mixing my interests together in photographic form. 

What motivates you to shoot?

Enjoyment. I love the combination of creativity and knowledge. Learning something new, applying it and seeing if it works. The satisfaction of problem-solving and finding solutions. Digital retouching means being totally absorbed in an image; time just disappears, free from thinking about reality. You just enter a totally different world, totally absorbed, creative, and enjoyable.

Explain why the readers want to see your work., or why your project is really cool.

My work provides another perspective on how to create photographs. That the final photograph does not have to be literal, indeed creating something with its own unique, creative identity is even more essential nowadays with so much competition. I hope the photographs inspire people to see the creative potential of Photography and what can be achieved with a craftsmanship approach. See that because a location has been photographed many times before, that it’s still possible to create beautiful, unique, personal images from those popular locations. Like myself earlier, before I knew how to do Photoshop, I felt trapped by my lack of knowledge, yet disliking the images I was making. It was scarry, I didn’t know the way out. I was searching for ‘something’ in my work, but didn’t know what it was, until I came across the work of Tom Nagy. It struck a chord with me. I saw what I wanted to do, the direction I wanted to follow. His work inspired me and gave me a target. A new, fresh direction; motivation, a means to break free of what I was then doing. Maybe my work might do the same in someone else who has stalled in searching for their direction and motivation in their own photography. Sometimes we just need to see an image to reenergize us and inspire us to get going again and set us on a new road.

All images by David Osborn and used with permission. Check out his website for more!

Chris Gampat

Chris Gampat is the Editor in Chief, Founder, and Publisher of the Phoblographer. He also likes pizza.