10 Tips for Taking Artist Reference Photos

camera reference photoResource photos provide invaluable reference material for your paintings and will complement any on-the-spot sketches you may want to do of a location or subject matter.  If you need to take reference photos for your paintings, here are some tips and things to keep in mind.

Tip #1: Photograph objects or locations that interest you. The same applies if you want to paint people or animals. The reason for this is you will be spending a lot of time staring at those subjects as you create your painting. If you don’t like the subject matter, it will show in your painting.


lunar landscape painting on canvas“Moonset”
Space Art by Teresa Bernard
20″ x 16″
Oils on gallery wrap stretched canvas

>> More info


Tip #2: Have a camera available to use at all times, if possible. A good “point and shoot” digital camera will work for this. They are affordable and easy to use. Try to get one with at least 12.1 megapixel capability. Never leave home without your camera. You never know when “photo ops” will present themselves. So be prepared.

Tip #3: Remember the basic rules of composition also apply to photography. Before snapping your photo, try composing the subject matter in your viewfinder. The more your do at this step in the process, the less work there will be when you actually compose your composition on canvas. A good rule of thumb is to utilize the Rule of Thirds when deciding upon the placement of objects within the scene.

For more information about the Rule of Thirds refer to the article titled “Creating Better Compositions in All Your Paintings“.

Tip #4: Take lots of photos from may different angles and levels. Take at least a dozen or so photos, if not more. Later as you are looking at them on your computer the many photos will allow you to determine what elements will work in the composition and which ones will not. At least one (maybe more) will present itself as being the best one to use to compose your painting from. Set aside photos that simply don’t work. Never settle for using a photo that you don’t feel good about.

Tip #5: Use your zoom to get close-up shots for detail. If you can’t zoom in close enough then your shot will probably not provide you the detail you might need.

Tip #6: Don’t limit yourself to taking photos from eye level only. Bend down or even lay down to get a bugs-eye point of view or stand on something for a birds-eye view. These angles can also make interesting compositions for your paintings.

Tip #7: When photographing a building, it’s best to move around and photograph one section at a time and squarely on. The picture of the building will be distorted if you stay in one spot and pivot your camera.

Tip #8: For panoramic views of a location, it is best way to snap a number of photos that overlap each other. The next step is to piece them together using Photoshop or some other photo manipulation software program. Consider taking portrait (vertical) shots rather than landscape (horizontal).

Tip #9: Snap resource photos to capture fleeting moments. Moments like cloud formations, sunrises and sunsets, birds in flight, or seascapes.

See article titled “Photographing the Setting Sun for Your Sunset Paintings” for more information on shooting reference photos of sunsets.

Tip #10: Take reference photos when you have a model sitting for you. They can reduce the time a model needs to sit for you. Utilize your resource photos when painting the extra details in portraits, such as clothes and chairs, etc. They can also be referred to when it isn’t convenient for the model to be in the studio.

Additional Reading

Is It Really Okay For Artists To Use Reference Photos? Part 1 and Part 2

Photographing the Setting Sun for Your Sunset Paintings

sunset reference photoJust about everyone loves a beautiful sunset. That radiant burst of color at the beginning (sunrise) or end of the day. Because of this, sunset paintings are a favorite subject to paint for many artists. However, painting a sunset on location isn’t practical. Therefore I suggest taking your camera and shooting reference photos of some lovely sunsets to use back in your art studio.

Using reference photos to create your oil painting is a handy method that will save you time and also preserve your sunset in real life. No two sunsets are alike and they disappear quickly, therefore, taking a reference photo of your sunset can prove to be very useful. It allows you to paint your painting in the comfort of your art studio and at any time of the day or night.


western sunset oil painting“Cowboy Sunset”
Landscape by Teresa Bernard
24″ x 18″
Oils on gallery wrap stretched canvas

>> More info


Photographing sunsets is a good idea especially if you want to paint them on canvas. Here’s why:

  • The sun sets quickly in the evening sky. It would be hard to get your painting done before it goes down.
  • No two sunsets are identical making it further difficult to paint one on location.
  • Painting a canvas on location would require it to be started and completed in the same session, however since the sun goes down so fast, this might not be possible.
  • Photographing the sunset means you can now take it with you back to the art studio and use the image as reference material for your painting.

Reference photos are a great way to forever record a fleeting moment such as a sunset. Here are some great tips for photographing a setting sun:

Tip 1 — Show up early for the shot. It may seem like a slow setting sun, but in reality a beautiful sunset is over with very quickly. Arriving early allows you the opportunity of getting several detail shots for shadows and also other objects that can be used to make your sunset painting a more interesting composition. Try to include objects other than the sun or clouds in your photo shoot. Also think about silhouetting some of the objects against the sky. You will also want to take some photos after the sun has already gone down for further reference when you go back to you studio to start your painting.

Tip 2 — Apply the rule of thirds when photographing the setting sun. Place the horizon either 2/3 of the way up or down in your shot for a more interesting composition. It all depends on your emphasis. If you have a dramatic sky then place the horizon line low to include more sky than ground, if the ground or water is more dynamic than the sky, then place the horizon high on your canvas to include more of what’s going on below. In addition, do not place the sun directly in the center of your frame. Place it over to the side to create more interest. Be sure to use these same tips when you transfer your composition to canvas.


Calvary at Sunset oil painting“Calvary at Sunset”
Landscape by Teresa Bernard
20″ x 16″
Oils on stretched canvas

>> More info


For more information about the rule of thirds, see article titled “Creating Better Compositions in All Your Paintings“.

Tip 3 — Determine what orientation, either portrait or landscape, that you want to your painting to be. Most sunset paintings are landscape in orientation because this allows for the widest possible angle to capture on canvas the most sunset. However don’t dismiss a portrait orientation especially if you have something interesting going on in the foreground. Vertical sunset paintings offer much when it come to including other objects such as water towers, windmills or trees as silhouettes in your painting. Consider including some of those objects too.

Following these simple tips will help make it easier to compose your painting once you get back to the studio and start putting brush to canvas.

Sunsets are a favorite genre of Teresa Bernard. You can view her sunset oil paintings here.

Using Photographs As Reference Material to Paint Flower Oil Paintings

If you are an artist and want to paint oil paintings of flowers I have some great tips for you. These tips will help you create great works of art for your walls.

yellow rose of TX paintingTip #1: Consider using quality photos as reference material to paint from. They are a great way to create floral art to hang on the walls of your home or office. The flowers captured in your photos will never fade or die like fresh ones will. This will make it possible to get your painting finished at your convenience without having to worry about your flowers wilting or fading away.

Tip #2: Try to work from several photographs to compose your arrangement. These should be of the same flower or groups of flowers. Each photo should be from a different angle as this will make it easier to paint flowers in your arrangement pointing in different directions. Having flowers that point in various directions makes a stronger composition and creates a more interesting painting to look at.


nautical still life oil on canvas“Still Life with Coral and Lantern”
Still life by Teresa Bernard
14″ x 11″
Oils on stretched canvas

>> More info


Tip #3: Take a walk through your neighborhood or visit a nearby park where flowers are growing so you can observe them in their natural habitat. Be sure to take your camera with you to take photos of all the flowers that interest you. There is such a variety of flowers out in nature. You will want to notice how they grow up from the soil at different heights, blossom out at various stages from bud to full blossom, face in all directions, etc. Capturing these observations in a photo that you can refer to over and over will prove to be a valuable aid as you paint your floral arrangement.

Tip #4: Before putting paintbrush to canvas, it would be a good idea to sketch out your flower arrangement first using your photographs or resource photos. This preliminary sketch will serve as a guide when you transfer your drawing to canvas. Additionally you may want to even go a step farther and create as detailed and complete drawing as you can. This in itself will become a work of art suitable for framing.

Tip #5: Refer to your photographs often to compare flower shapes and colors. Try to match as closely as you can to the flowers depicted in your photographs. This will make for a more successful oil painting with more realistic looking flowers.

Once your painting is complete you will be able to sit back and enjoy the beauty of nature and at the same time be proud of your accomplishment. Friends and family will be proud of you too and are sure to brag about you to others.

For more information about using reference photos for your flower oil paintings see the article links below.

Is It Really Okay For Artists To Use Reference Photos? Part 1 — This article talks about what reference photos are and the advantages of using them to paint from.

Is It Really Okay For Artists To Use Reference Photos? Part 2 — In this article we talk about where to find quality resource images to paint from and the copyright issues surrounding their use.

Is It Really Okay For Artists To Use Reference Photos? Part 1

What are reference photos?

Reference photos are simply a collection of images used by visual artists for inspiration and as raw material to create their compositions from. They are handy tools and a great resource for artists to work from. When used as resource material, reference images can be of any living or inanimate object, a place or location, an animal, plant life, or an individual. They come in handy when it isn’t feasible for the artist to be there in person and observe the element or subject matter they want to paint or draw.


Irong Age Pottery Still Life“Still Life with Iron Age Pottery”
Still life by Teresa Bernard
14″ x 11″
Oils on stretched canvas

>> More info


There are several reasons why an artist would want to use reference images:

1. A good reference photograph can take an artist to any location in the world without having to leave home. Sometimes artists simply do not have the means to travel to faraway or exotic places when they want to paint a particular place or location. And for others, it might not be possible to go out on location day after day with a canvas, easel, and paint box in tow. Reference photos make it easier for the painter to go anywhere without having to travel there. They are also a convenient way to avoid having to brave the elements in some cases.

2. Resource images allow the artist to capture and preserve the moment. I know of an artist who was commissioned by an upscale seafood restaurant to do a painting for their main entrance. He set up a still life using real fish and other types of seafood in the setting. He then took a photograph of his composition to paint from. I can only imagine what that fish would have looked and smelled like after a few days of painting! The resource photo he took allowed him to work on his painting without having to worry about his props smelling fishy. Another artist I know loves painting flowers, however, fresh flowers will start to fade after a few days. She takes a picture of them that she can refer to over and over again while painting her flowers. The image makes it possible for her to finish the painting with bright fresh looking flowers instead ones that had faded and wilted.

3. Reference pictures come in handy for the sheer convenience of them. If an artist is painting from a live model, taking a photo of the pose will mean he or she can paint during the times when it is inconvenient for the model to be in the studio. Many portrait artists often work this way.

As you can clearly see resource images are great tools for busy artists. However, there are some artists who frown at the notion that a fellow artist would ever use reference photographs to compose from. They believe the appropriate way to do it is to make on-the-spot sketches when they go out on location. While this may be the ideal way of working, the reality is many artists don’t always have the time to make the necessary detailed drawings that would be required for studio work.

Ever since the camera was first invented, many famous painters whom you will recognize, have used photographs to paint from. Such renown artists include Edgar Degas, Paul Cezanne, Paul Gauguin, Pablo Picasso, Toulouse Lautrec, and Vincent Van Gogh, to name but a handful. If you use reference photos too, this puts you in very good company.

This article is continued in Reference Photos, Part 2.