While browsing through explore on Flickr I saw this picture:

enter image description here

John Starkey "Morning Coffee"

I really like it because, to me, it looks like it is a painting (I hope I'm not the only one seeing it this way). Since I like my pictures to have some kind of painterly look, too, I wondered what exactly was causing this look for this picture.

What I have noticed so far:

  • The picture seems to be a bit soft (maybe from using a softening filter, either in front of the lens or added in post?)
  • The colors, especially on the man's face, seem to be a bit "blocky" (like when painting with a brush and not blending, only adding color)

To make my pictures somewhat reminiscent of a painting I generally lift the shadows and try to bring back detail in the highlights, maybe even to the point that there is no pure black / white. This is an example where I think it worked best:

enter image description here


But it's still not close to the look of the picture above.

Since the picture from John can be downloaded, I loaded it into Lightroom and lifted the very dark shadows to bring back some detail while trying to keep everything else at the original brightness. This made it look even more painterly IMO (I don't know if I am allowed to show it here).

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    \$\begingroup\$ I would look up "Chiaroscuro" and "Rembrandt lighting" where strong directional lighting is used to emphasize form. These techniques were used quite a bit in Renaissance art, so this may be why you see the image as painterly. If I making any kind of sense, there are many articles covering these styles of lighting. \$\endgroup\$ Nov 8, 2022 at 20:21
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    \$\begingroup\$ +1 turns out "painterly" is a real word, as is "painterliness" \$\endgroup\$
    – Criggie
    Nov 9, 2022 at 23:26
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    \$\begingroup\$ One aspect of this is the number of colors, 44815 in this case. A photo has many colors while a painting has far fewer, though much less than 49K also. The quantization of the colors gives a reduced palette look, similar to "photo to painting" online services. \$\endgroup\$
    – Rob
    Nov 10, 2022 at 0:06
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    \$\begingroup\$ Would be much more like an old painting, if the bottle with desinfectant would not be there :) \$\endgroup\$ Nov 10, 2022 at 12:01

4 Answers 4


I think the reasons why you see John Starkey's photography as a painting have more to do with perceptual aspects than technical ones.


The main element is light. The spotlights on a head or a face immediately transport us to Caravaggio's oil paintings where the point of light focuses on the main dramatic object of the representation.


Caravaggio - Saint Jerome Writing


The character's face has a somewhat cartoonish grimace that distances it from a real representation, more typical of an illustration or painting than a photograph.


The low degree of saturation and tonal value of the colors correspond more to those obtained with pigments from paintings prior to the 20th century than to the colors of a current photograph. Both cyan and magenta have been incorporated into photography after 1900, so any image that replaces those colors with the old blue and red changes its appearance completely. In the example image below, a current photograph CMYK mode at the left, and the same image multi-channeled in Photoshop with the magenta and cyan channels swapped for red and blue respectively.

enter image description here

Lights and shadows change drastically modifying their appearance for something even unreal (check the background, hair, skin and hands)

  • \$\begingroup\$ Thank you very much for this answer! But it seems to be that this approach might be better apllied to portraits rather than what I like to photograph. I will experiment anyway especially with the last part, because I find it very interesting. I wonder if there are similar perceptual aspects that can make a landscape photograph look painterly. I might need to study more landscape paintings... \$\endgroup\$
    – x3b7z99
    Nov 9, 2022 at 9:31
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    \$\begingroup\$ Ok, swapping magenta and cyan like this sounds really cool, I definitelly need to look at some of my photos and see what happens when I do that. \$\endgroup\$ Nov 10, 2022 at 9:47

Partial answer:

Your comment to Danielillo seems to indicate you are not actually looking to photograph people but rather places, yet still retain the kind of look that the John Starkey photograph gives.

With or without people, that picture can sometimes bring to mind the work of painters, perhaps someone like Edward Hopper - it is worth looking at his work.

In the same vein, have a look at this article, where a photographer is catching scenes that remind people of Hopper paintings and perhaps have the kind of light quality you are after?


enter image description here

enter image description here

enter image description here

Look at how deep the shadows are, how strong the dark areas are (yet if you lighten them they still have all the detail in and are not simply black), and the detail retained in the highlights.

With that in mind, it might be worth looking at the time of day, and the direction and quality of light, for when you take the photograph.

With regards to your own example photograph, one might want to look at composition for such scenes as well. Yours looks a little complicated and the eye is drawn all over the picture rather than settling as the Arnaud Montagard photographs feel they do.

You might be looking too hard into bringing back all highlights and all detail from the shadows. You don't have to. Too much of this and that tends to neutralise the contrast overall in a picture. By all means retain highlights if you can but certainly do not remove all shadows and darkness, these themselves balance out the picture - a strong play between light and dark is required - which, coupled with the lack of focus or busy composition, is then missing from your photograph overall.

Just a test looking at detail in dark-yet-not-black regions of the photographs (the shift is in gamma only).

enter image description here

That said, if I have misinterpreted your question and photograph I do apologise in advance.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Yes, this is exactly what I am looking for! I will keep in mind to leave some dark shadows. Composition is a whole other area where I need practice. I have heard of Edward Hopper before, but have not really studied his paintings, so thank you for that suggestion! Now I would like to mark yours and Danielillo's answer as accepted... \$\endgroup\$
    – x3b7z99
    Nov 10, 2022 at 11:05

I really think you're just seeing the effect of the lighting. I see one artificial light source, plus maybe a window to his right. The light is fairly directional, just a bit of fill and wrap-around, everything else is in shadow. Almost like classic portrait lighting from hundreds of years ago, with the subject near a window.

You can't really compare your picture to this one--the lighting differences makes them apples and oranges.

In short, a painterly look (for portraits, anyway) comes primarily from "painterly" lighting. You can dink with levels and contrast and ???? after-the-fact, but you can't rework your lighting setup in Photoshop.

You can, however, improve on the lighting your shot captured. I bet someone spent quite a bit of time optimizing the foreground/background exposure in the example picture. I'm also hunching the top of his head was overexposed in the original shot and had to be pulled back or recolored.


As a painter I thought I would add something that I didn't see mentioned.

Other than the rock wall behind the subject, the image has a surprising lack of complex textures. Instead there are a number of color "blocks" - the man's jacket, his skin, and the blue-green wall behind him in particular. Blocks of color with simple textures are easier to paint.

It's reminiscent of some classic methods of painting where the values are laid down in monochrome, then colors are built up on top of that, leading to more isolated areas of color. Incidentally, it's the opposite of what impressionists would do, where they try to see all of the ways that light has bounced off various surfaces and spread itself around the scene. So an impressionistic portrayal of the scene would likely have some blue in the red areas and some red in the blue areas, etc.


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