I am a senior matte painter at Sony Pictures Imageworks in Vancouver and matte painting instructor at Think Tank and Lost Boys Studios. Previously, I have been a senior artist at Method Studios Vancouver, and an emmy-winning co-founder of Atmosphere Visual Effects.

Useful Books
  • The Digital Matte Painting Handbook
    The Digital Matte Painting Handbook
  • Invisible Art: The Legends of Movie Matte Painting
    Invisible Art: The Legends of Movie Matte Painting
  • d'artiste Matte Painting: Digital Artists Master Class
    d'artiste Matte Painting: Digital Artists Master Class
  • d'artiste Matte Painting 2: Digital Artists Master Class
    d'artiste Matte Painting 2: Digital Artists Master Class
  • Perspective Made Easy
    Perspective Made Easy
  • The Photographer's Eye: Composition and Design for Better Digital Photos
    The Photographer's Eye: Composition and Design for Better Digital Photos
Useful DVDs
  • Techniques of Dusso 1: Introduction to Digital Matte Painting
    Techniques of Dusso 1: Introduction to Digital Matte Painting
  • Techniques of Dusso 2: Digital Matte Painting Fundamentals
    Techniques of Dusso 2: Digital Matte Painting Fundamentals
  • Techniques of Dylan Cole: Introduction to Landscape Matte Painting
    Techniques of Dylan Cole: Introduction to Landscape Matte Painting
  • Techniques of Dylan Cole: Introduction to Cityscape Matte Painting
    Techniques of Dylan Cole: Introduction to Cityscape Matte Painting
  • Techniques of Dylan Cole: Advanced Digital Matte Painting
    Techniques of Dylan Cole: Advanced Digital Matte Painting
  • Color Theory: The Mechanics of Color with Richard Keyes
    Color Theory: The Mechanics of Color with Richard Keyes

Matte Painting 101

Hints, tips and tutorials about matte painting.


The Integrity Check

When you've refined your matte painting as far as you reasonably can, the last thing you need to do before moving on to the next stage is do a quick integrity check - a technical analysis of the matte painting to ensure that it all hangs together and can withstand subsequent operations in compositing or unexpected viewing conditions.

It is best to do this integrity check with a fresh eye. At the start of a work day is an ideal time; but if you're under the gun of a heavy deadline this may not be realistic. But do try to at least take a few minutes away from your monitor before delving back in to do the last once-over.

Some of the things you need to look for are:
  • Variations in colour balance between different elements in the matte painting.
  • Variations in softness and sharpness.
  • Static grain.
  • Matte lines.
  • Subtle composition and/or perspective issues.
  • Lighting issues
    • Is the lighting absolutely consistent in direction, intensity and quality throughout every element of the shot? You'd be surprised how often one can overlook obvious errors.
  • Technical setup
    • Making sure the matte painting is broken into the appropriate layers etc.
    • Slap comp to ensure the compositor will have all the layers she needs, and that those layers are free of errors.
Some of the things you can do are:
  • Make softness/sharpness consistent. 
    Variations in softness/sharpness can be tricky to deal with sometimes - obviously, you want your matte painting to go into comp looking as crisp and smooth as possible. And one might think that just using an Unsharp Mask or Smart Sharpen filter on the softer elements might be all you need to get everything to the same degree of sharpness. But beware: sharpening does not introduce new detail - it merely increases edge contrast to increase the perception of crispness and sharpness. And that increase in edge contrast can cause all kinds of unacceptable artifacts - for example the dreaded "halo" effect, or even the appearance of blocky compression noise that was previously not visible. So sometimes you might find yourself having to do a lot of softening to get a matte painting to hang together. Just use your judgement to find an acceptable balance between sharpening and softening.
  • Degrain. 
    Static grain is no longer the problem it used to be; most of us should be using pretty clean, grain-free digital imagery in our matte paintings. Once in a while, though, you still encounter it, especially in elements that were shot digitally in low light/high ISO conditions. 
    Regraining in the final comp will often take care of static grain issues, but do what you can to reduce the grain to the lowest possible amount anyway. Global filters like Degrain or Median are rarely the best answer, but careful application of those to localized areas can sometimes work in a pinch. In the past, I have successfully used very gentle application of the smudge tool to massage out grain, but the use cases for this technique are limited - clouds, for example -  and it takes a light touch and quite a bit of experimentation to do successfully.
  • View under extreme exposure adjustments. 
    If working in Photoshop, use an Exposure adjustment layer to temporarily introduce large exposure adjustments in either direction to see if anything breaks under extreme viewing conditions. Check up to +/-4 stops of exposure to see if black points and white points remain consistent. Generally, if everything still hangs together well when massively over- and underexposed, then your colour correct is internally consistent. (This does NOT mean, though, that your colour correct works in the broader context of the project - that is another issue altogether.)
    • NB: Nuke or After Effects have built-in viewer LUT tools so you can quickly dial in over- and underexposure without resorting to additional colour correct nodes or adjustment layers.
    • I also find that putting on fairly extreme Gamma adjustments can also aid finding problems in your colour correct.
  • Check your edges. 
    Do a minute examination of every edge of every layer; look for fringing, matte lines, etc. Make sure you check layers against plain white, grey and/or black backgrounds - this may show up issues that you wouldn't necessarily notice when looking at all the layers comped together. If you find anything problematic, decide whether a global adjustment (such as Photoshop's "Refine Edge" or the various matte tools in Nuke or After Effects) or a local adjustment (careful brushwork to tweak the area) are appropriate. In general, though, aim for local adjustments as much as possible - the principle of minimal intervention is appropriate.
  • Check for composition tweaks. 
    At this stage, the overall composition cannot generally be changed to any great degree, but there is often still room for small adjustments to micro-compositions, i.e. sub-compositions within small portions of the shot.
  • Check your perspective. 
    You may have constructed a comprehensive 2- or 3-point perspective grid in Photoshop when you started the shot; if so, use this again to do a last quick check of the perspective lines of your elements. Sometimes small changes in an element's position will require a change in its perspective too, and in the heat of production it's easy to overlook the latter if it's a subtle change. But subtle errors in perspective can accumulate enough to be readily perceived by the viewer, so they need to be fixed.

The Matte Painter as Storyteller


Visual effects exist only to help tell a story. Yet when our heads are deep into the technical and artistic arcana required to pull off a technically demanding shot, it's easy to forget this simple truth: that we serve at the pleasure of the story. Ultimately, nothing else matters.

So let's take a step back for a moment and remember what it is to subordinate our talents to the story. When you start on a new project, I believe that the very first thing you should do is familiarize yourself with the story as much as possible. In practical terms, what might this involve?

  1. Read the script. It's not always possible on every production - some productions are very leery of script leaks and distribute the script only on a "need to know" basis. But many productions distribute the script quite freely amongst all crew. So if you can, read the script. Read it multiple times, if you have the time (and, sometimes, the stomach!). But don't read it simply to understand the vfx: aim deeper. Pay attention to the story structure, the characters, their motivations, the pacing, the mood. Do your best to understand the true shape of the story you will be helping to tell. 
    If you want to improve your understanding of screenwriting, I recommend that you read as many screenplays as you can - there are tons available for free online - and some of the popular screenwriting blogs, such as John August (great podcast too, with co-host Craig Mazin), ScriptShadow and Bitter Script Writer. If you can become a thoughtful and informed reader of scripts, you will be a better visual effects artist for it. I promise.
  2. Watch the cut. Again, if Production is cagey about security, you may not have access to the entire cut. But if you do, you owe it to yourself to watch it - and not just once. Keep going back to it throughout the duration of the project to refamiliarize yourself with it, and to track its evolution. The cut will likely keep changing, and some of those changes may prove salient to the work that you're doing - so if you have access to the editorial schedule, make sure to check major releases of the cut (e.g. Editor's Cut, Director's Cut, Studio Cut, Locked Cut, etc.) as they are made available.
    Some of the changes in those cuts will have a direct impact on your shots, and in these cases you will likely be informed as such by your production team. But other changes won't affect your work directly - yet may still provide important insight into the evolution of the story and the director's intent. Do NOT rely on your production team to inform you of these kinds of changes! Take charge of your own education. Seek out new cuts as they are released, and watch them as often as you feel you reasonably can. (Obviously, it makes no sense to watch every 150 minute cut if new versions are coming out three times a week; but don't allow months to go by between viewings either.)
  3. Ask story questions. This is a potentially tricky one, because you don't want to become known as the pain in the ass who's always asking obscure questions that have no apparent connection to your job. But some well-placed questions directed to those with a more direct connection to the director than you (i.e. the VFX Supervisor) may help you understand some of the motivations a little better.
  4. Go to the source material. If you're working on a production that is an adaptation of an existing work such as a novel, magazine article, or a previous movie, then you might find it worthwhile to go to the source work to fill in a little more of the background. This can be a risky manoeuvre, because adaptations are often less than entirely faithful to their source material, and can frequently send you off on the wrong track. But if you're mindful of this possibility and don't take the source material as gospel, you may still be able to glean some useful insight into the story.
  5. Research the director and screenwriters' previous works. Here we're getting into more sketchy territory, because it doesn't really pertain directly to the story you're actually working on. But it can be helpful to understand the director's and screenwriters' sensibilities, because those sensibilities will be reflected in how the story is handled.

Wow, I hear you say - that's a ridiculous amount of work. I don't have time to do all that!

Maybe. But I doubt it. If you are like 95% of vfx artists, you spend a ton of time over the course of production waiting on renders, wasting time noodling around uselessly on a shot that you aren't "feeling" yet, or checking Facebook status updates. If you're honest with yourself, and care about making the most of your time on the job, you should easily be able to carve out the few hours it requires to be a more informed crew member.

And if you're worried about being seen to "slack off", I highly doubt that your supervisor is going to criticize you because you've taken the time to watch the latest cut or read the script. To the contrary, your supervisor will probably be quietly impressed that you care enough to do so.

Okay. So you've watched the cut, read the script, pestered your seniors with questions about the protagonist's motivations, read the entire oeuvre of the prolific novelist upon whose twenty-seventh novel this film is based, and scarfed down the entire filmography of the director in one meth-fuelled watching binge conducted over five consecutive days and nights.

So what? What do you do with this exhaustive knowledge?

You internalize it. You may not necessarily find a direct use for it as a matte painter, but you will have absorbed some of the sensibility of the director; you will have enhanced your ability to anticipate what the director may want from a specific shot; you will have a better understanding of the world that your matte painting is part of; and instead of retreating into your insular VFX artist shell, you will have formed a stronger sense of being part of something much bigger than you.

Movie making is an intensely collaborative storytelling process, and if you don't feel deep in your gut that you are an important part of that process, then you are a hindrance, not a help. So jump in there and do your part. Help tell the story. 

Photography for Matte Painters Part II: Camera Gear

Don't be this guy.Camera gear is a huge topic in itself, and there are a ton of websites out there that will gleefully dissect it in mind-numbing detail. The topic is a veritable black hole; there are legions of internet photographers who have been sucked into it, never to reappear amongst the ranks of actual real-life photographers.

So if you want to fetishize camera gear, go to dpreview.com and knock yourself out. Your credit card company will doubtless thank you for your business and raise your credit limit again, just as mine did. ;-)

But here, I'll limit myself to covering the topic as efficiently as possible so we can move on to more interesting things. This isn't rocket science, so I doubt I'll say much that you haven't read before. But by focussing on the most salient performance criteria, I'll make every effort to leave you with a clear picture of what really matters when it comes time to buy.

So... let's get a couple of things out of the way first.

The vast majority of photographers are not getting the best out of their cameras.

By saying that, I'm not trying to be snotty; it is just a simple statement of fact. There are a multitude of small things you can do to improve the technical quality of your photographs without having to upgrade your camera, and most people don't do half of them. So don't kid yourself that you need to run out and buy that Nikon D810 just yet - you probably don't. You can almost certainly extract a lot more quality out of your existing camera than you realize. So this brings me to Rule #1:

Rule #1: Upgrade the Photographer first, not the camera

Next, it's a painfully obvious point, but Chase Jarvis' aphorism bears repeating:

"The best camera is the one you have with you".

A big, expensive camera that you never take with you is nothing more than a paperweight. Be honest with yourself: how likely you are to lug around a heavy camera? Hence Rule #2:

Rule #2: Get a camera you'll actually bring with you.

I belabour these points not because I don't see the value of high-quality camera equipment; believe me, I do. But it is very, very easy to get sucked into spending an exorbitant amount of money on gear that you don't need and aren't going to use to best advantage. I know this because I've been guilty of it as anyone - one look at my bulging camera bag will confirm that.

Don't take my word for it, though. For a fuller exploration of these issues by a photographer and teacher of vast experience, read Thom Hogan's article Blame the Equipment and take it to heart.

Subsequent posts in this series will hopefully equip you with some of the knowledge necessary to extract more technical quality out of the camera gear that you do have. If you faithfully follow that advice, and perhaps take a course or two at a local photography school, and put it all that into practice on a regular basis, then yes - you may well find yourself in a position where any further significant improvements can only come from purchasing that D810 you've been drooling over. Until then, hold your horses.

Enough said of that, I think.

Camera Types

Which feeds us into the first consideration: what kind of camera is best for you? To answer that, you need to take into consideration your habits as a photographer.

Are you an impulse or opportunistic photographer, who grabs pictures as you stumble across them? Then perhaps you're best off just getting a high quality compact camera that can live in your jacket pocket all the time. Or even just a smartphone with a half-decent camera.

Maybe you're an anally-retentive planner who scouts out locations ahead of time and waits for the perfect conditions to return and get exactly the image you want? Then you might want to consider getting a top-flight SLR and tripod.

Those are two ends of a spectrum, and many people land somewhere in between. The point is to think honestly about what you truly need. You may indeed need more than one camera, and that's fine too - so long as that decision is honestly arrived at!

So there are six general classes of camera a digital matte painter might use: 

  • Cellphone Cameras
  • Compact Cameras
  • Mirrorless interchangeable lens Cameras (e.g. Micro 4/3rds)
  • SLRs
  • Medium Format
  • Large Format

I'll look only at the first four classes, because anyone who'd be seriously considering investing in a digital Medium or Large Format system does not need a blog post like this to tell them what to do!

Compact Cameras

Panasonic DMC-LX5The current generation of digital compacts is of surprisingly high quality - they are certainly capable of production-quality results if used with care. But keep in mind that the margins for error will be significantly less with a compact camera than with larger, higher-quality formats.

Key features you'll want to look out for are: 

  • RAW shooting capability. While not 100% essential, RAW is generally greatly preferable to JPEG. This is arguably even more important in compact cameras than in larger formats because compacts' sensors have a smaller dynamic range and thus benefit from RAW's extra "headroom" from which to recover otherwise-clipped details from the highlights and shadows.
  • Sensible megapixel counts. This is where many people get tripped up. Compact cameras have tiny image sensors, with unbelievably high pixel densities. The higher the pixel density, the smaller each individual sensor site. The smaller the sensor site, the more prone it is to random noise. So beyond a certain point, more megapixels can actually translate into inferior image quality. In the current generation of compacts, the sweet spot appears to be approximately 12MP. Be wary of compact cameras with resolutions higher than this - do your research before buying anything with a suspiciously high resolution.
  • Manual Controls. Few compacts offer truly manual controls, but do try to find one that at least offers Aperture Priority mode.
  • Decent Lens. It's difficult to judge the quality of a lens when playing with a camera in a shop, so you may need to see what the professional reviewers say about a particular model. But in general, shy away from lenses that pack an enormous zoom range into a small package; they compromise image quality too much. Look for lenses with modest to moderate zoom range, and reasonably wide apertures of f2.8 or better. 

Mirrorless cameras

This is a class of camera that, being relatively new on the scene, I have no direct personal experience with. But the reviews are in, and some of the better models appear to be very viable options for those looking for greater quality and flexibility than a compact, but in a more lightweight and compact form factor than SLRs.

Lens selection for mirrorless cameras is still somewhat limited compared to DSLRs, but that's changing rapidly. Lots of manufacturers are jumping on the mirrorless bandwagon, so anything I write now will rapidly go out of date. 

Single Lens Reflexes (SLRs)

For most normal people, the gold standard for outright quality and versatility will be a full-sized digital SLR.

The biggest decision a buyer needs to make up front is what sensor size to settle with. This is an important decision, because it effects so many other things down the line - especially lens choice.

The choices boil down to crop-sensor and full-frame systems.  

  • Crop sensor:
    PROS: smaller lighter bodies and lenses, can extract more range from telephoto lenses due to 1.5x multiplication factor, lighter lenses,  less expensive.
    CONS: smaller viewfinder, usually smaller selection of lenses, usually fewer pro-grade lenses, poorer low-light performance, generally lower-end consumer bodies with less sophisticated feature sets.
  • Full-frame sensor:
    PROS: larger sensor, bigger viewfinder, generally better choice for wide-angle photography, usually wider lens selection, more pro-grade lenses, better low-light performance, generally higher-end bodies with more sophisticated feature sets.
    CONS: larger heavier bodies and lenses, a lot more expensive, don't get as much range out of telephoto lenses.

In general, leaving cost out of the equation, for matte painters I recommend a full-frame sensor camera over a crop-frame sensor. There is generally more quality to be extracted out of the sensor, a greater choice of high-quality lenses, and the generally superior low-light performance of the sensor will prove useful when shooting photographs in darker environments like sound stages.

Having said all that, the differences are not as great as they used to be. Each generation of crop-sensor cameras is closing the quality gap more and more, and I would not consider a recent-model camera to be an inferior choice except for quite specific purposes. Indeed, crop-sensor cameras are a better choice for some people.

The next choice a buyer has to make is what brand of camera to buy. Most of the debate tends to revolve around Nikon vs. Canon, and often takes on the fervour of a Mac vs Windows debate. But other brands are worth considering, most notably Pentax and Sony. 

I will not advocate particularly strongly in favour of any one brand; they are all good pieces of kit capable of creating superb images. I will say this, though: do not base your purchasing decision on the camera bodies. Base it on the overall systems, especially the lenses.

Camera bodies come and go; lenses are forever.

Okay, maybe that's an exaggeration. But not much of one: a good pro-quality lens is an investment in a way that a digital SLR body can never hope to be. Indeed, certain benchmark lenses can end up appreciating in value after they have been discontinued. And even very ordinary lenses can still retain their usefulness for decades after their purchase. I don't think we'll see many of today's digital bodies still being used in 2035...

SLR Lenses

I wish I had an entire post to devote to the topic of lenses, but I promised myself I wouldn't get sucked into an extended series just on gear. So here are a few general rules:

  • Get the best lenses you can reasonably afford. Pro lenses are expensive, but they are much better value in the long run. They produce better images, are more sturdily built, and retain their value much better.
  • Don't feel you have to cover every part of the focal length range. The utility of zoom lenses is overstated - three prime lenses can cover 95% of your needs, so long as you're willing to use your feet to reframe your composition.
  • Don't forget prime lenses. Simple, reliable, lightweight, and of very high optical quality, prime lenses give you a lot of bang for your buck. For matte painters, a useful kit might include a 20mm f2.8, 50mm f1.8 and 105mm f2.8. 
  • Tilt/Shift lenses rock. They are great for shooting architectural photos, but they're very expensive. Wish I had one though.
  • Ultrawide: I have a 16mm fisheye, bought with the idea that it would be useful for grabbing quick HDRI reference panoramas; but to be honest, I almost never use it. It has 180 degree FOV only towards the corners. What IS useful, though, is a crop-sensor 10.5mm fisheye used on a full-frame dslr. Shave the hood off, and you have a true 180 degree field of view in every dimension. Fantastic for efficient capture of 360 degree environments. You need a camera with a really good resolution, though - the Nikon D800/810 cameras are perfect for this.
  • Superwide: in my experience, the useful part of the zoom range starts at about 17mm. If you're looking for a zoom, a good 17-35mm f2.8 or similar will get a lot of use. If you prefer prime lenses, a 20mm f2.8 is fantastic - so useful.
  • Wide: usually denotes the 24-35mm range. Definitely useful, and I have a zoom that covers this range (the aforementioned 17-35mm), but if I was using only prime lenses I probably wouldn't bother with anything in this range if I already had a 20mm lens.
  • Standard: the venerable 50mm f1.8 is usually the cheapest lens in a manufacturer's lineup, but also of the highest optical quality. Simple, light, sharp, and extremely useful in low light, there's not much reason to not get one. If you have a bit more money to splurge, feel free to get an f1.4 for that extra little bit of speed, but it's a minor difference.

Recommended kits:

  • Primes only: get a 20mm f2.8; 50mm f1.4 or f1.8; and 105mm f2.8 Macro.
  • Zooms only: get a 17-35mm f2.8 or f4; and 70-300 f4.5-5.6.
  • Mixed kit: add a 50mm f1.4 or f1.8 to the zoom kit above.

Tripods and Ball Heads

A pretty sweet setup: a Nikon D700, Really Right Stuff panorama rig, and Gitzo tripod.If you aren't using a high quality support system, then you almost certainly aren't getting the best out of your camera.

True, there are plenty of occasions when it's just unrealistic to use a tripod. Who wants to spend a hot summer's day schlepping around Florence with a tripod strapped to your back? But it's important to understand what the tradeoff can be for that mobility: visibly decreased image sharpness.

So as before, I'm going to advocate for pretty expensive, high-quality gear. This doesn't mean that nothing but the best is worth buying; everyone has their own threshold for what they consider to be reasonable value. But I hope to offer you have a "gold standard" against which to make your own informed purchasing decisions. 

Tripod Legs

The Rolls-Royce of tripods: the Gitzo SystematicFrom the engineer's perspective of optimal rigidity, the theoretical ideal is a tripod that is heavy and stiff. But in the real world, heavy tripods simply languish in the trunks of cars. So you really want a tripod that is both light and stiff. This is surprisingly difficult engineering brief to fulfill well; there is a fundamental tension between lightness and stiffness. Which explains why good tripods are so expensive.

Things to consider:

  1. Materials: Carbon Fibre is absolutely the best option, and not just because it's light - it has additional structural properties that help to dampen vibrations. Don't skimp here - avoid aluminum and basalt if you can afford it.
  2. Size: get the largest, sturdiest tripod that you can realistically see yourself carrying around. If you have the money, consider getting a couple of sets of legs: a lightweight set for field use, and a heavier set for use near the car...
  3. Leg sections: more sections allows the tripod to collapse down smaller, but at the expense of rigidity. 3 or 4 sections is usually the sweet spot.
  4. Centre column: generally I'd advise to not bother with a centre column unless you anticipate doing a lot of closeup work such as macro photography. This advice goes double for geared columns. Both involve too many structural compromises. Many tripods with centre columns allow you to remove the column and clamp the plate directly to the leg assembly: this is a good way to go.
  5. Levelling base: this is pretty much essential if you plan on doing any panoramas. You will save yourself endless time and aggravation if you get a good levelling base.

My tripod of choice is the carbon fibre Gitzos. But be warned: Gitzo makes an absolutely dizzying array of tripods. In general, though, I recommend the following:

For lighter field use, get a Mountaineer series Gitzo. The GT2531 (3-section legs) or GT2541 (4-section legs) are a good choice as a lightweight complement to a larger studio tripod. The GT3531 or GT3541, being a little sturdier, are probably the best choice if you can only afford one set of legs.

For studio or near-the-car use, get something like a Gitzo 5541LS. Again, choices abound in the 5000 series, so choose carefully. Pay heed to some of the cool options available for these systematic tripods: they are incredibly flexible in configuration, which is why they are so worth the money. 

I cannot vouch for other brands. I have used a Manfrotto (Bogen in the US) carbon fibre tripod, and it was okay but not great. Really Right Stuff now makes a tripod that I would assume to be of superb quality, given the quality of the rest of their products - but it's even more expensive than equivalent Gitzos. Generally, you get what you pay for. Cheaper tripods will be structurally flawed.


The Rolls-Royce of ballheads: the Really Right Stuff BH-55

Right off the bat, I urge you to avoid any tripod head that is not a ball head. Those three-axis pan and tilt heads? Total crap. I went through three of them (of increasing prices, of course) before I realized that they were for rank amateurs.

Get a high quality ball head, like a Really Right Stuff. I have three of various sizes, including their top of the line BH-55. If you're an engineering geek, they will bring tears of joy to your eyes. 

A critical part of a good ballhead is the quick-release clamp. I urge you to get a ballhead that has the Arca Swiss style of clamp - it provides an absolutely solid structural connection with no slop whatsoever. Really Right Stuff ballheads all have Arca Swiss-style clamps.

Other very reputable brands of ballhead include Arca Swiss themselves, Kirk and Markins. I have not tried any of them myself.


Just because I've recommended a bunch of expensive gear does NOT mean you should run out and buy it. Above all, be honest with yourself about what's actually going to get used! Get the right camera gear for you. And then learn how to use it well!


Photography for Matte Painters (a quick guide)

I have decided to kick off my new blog in earnest with what I hope will be a useful series: Photography for Matte Painters.

Why am I doing this series? Because photography is central to the digital matte painting process.

In real-world production environments, there is almost never time to hand-paint a photoreal matte painting from scratch. To be brutally honest, I doubt there are more than a handful of matte painters around who are even capable of doing so in an efficient manner - I know I'm not! In reality, most modern matte "paintings" are a motley amalgam of photographs, 3D renders and the occasional small hand-painted element.

Given the importance of photographs in digital matte painting, it stands to reason that matte painters ought to pay close attention to their photographic skills. Many of course already do; and to those, I only hope to offer the occasional nugget of information they might not have considered before.

But to those whose tendency is towards a "spray and pray" approach to photography, I urge a more methodical way of working. I will provide a concise set of best practices with which you can immediately, measurably and consistently improve the technical quality of your photographs. I hope that your matte paintings will benefit from the improvement.


Over the following posts, I will discuss:

  • Cameras and Lenses
  • Support and panorama gear
  • Choosing your subject
  • Lighting
  • Shot discipline
  • Camera settings and exposure
  • Post processing
  • Organizing your image library

What I'm NOT going to talk about

I will not be writing about photography as an art form; I'm not arrogant enough to believe that I'm qualified to do so. I will focus only on the technical aspects of the photographic process that are salient to matte painting.

As such, I will try to keep things concise. I will make concrete recommendations when it makes sense to do so, but I won't necessarily explain in great depth the reasoning behind them. Others have done a far better job of that than I can, so I will provide extensive references and links to further reading.

So check in regularly; I will be posting new installments weekly for the next eight weeks.