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

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 2

In Reference Photos, Part 1 we learned about the advantages of using reference photos as resource material for you compositions in painting. In this continuation of part 1, part 2 covers where to find good sources of reference images and the issues of copyright when using them.


The Study still life oil painting“The Study”
Still life by Teresa Bernard
14″ x 11″
Oils on stretched canvas

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Where do I find good reference photos?

There are a number of places where you can find great resource pictures to refer to while painting. The most obvious (and most preferred) place is by taking these photographs yourself. When you are the photographer you will never have to worry about copyright infringement. Another source is old family photo albums. Pictures of family vacations can be a great source for painting landscapes of places visited and also bring back many fond memories.

Another way to find reference pictures for your paintings or drawings is to look for them on the internet, however, you must first get the photographer’s permission to use them. If you Google the term “reference photos for artists”, you will find quite a few websites that have photos you can use for reference material. In these sites, the photographer has granted permission to use their images as long as certain conditions are met.

photo reference book for artistsPhoto reference books for artists are also available for purchase at your local art store, bookstore or even online. They contain images of landscapes, sky and water, wildlife and others. These images are all copyright free as long as you use them according to the terms specified.

What About Copyright?

Any photo or illustration you find in books, magazines, newspapers and even on the internet is protected by copyright law. If you use one of those images as resource material for a painting by copying it exactly and you do this without the permission of the copyright owner, then it is considered copyright infringement and that is illegal.

If you want use reference images in your works of art, you will need to:

  • Obtain permission from the owner of the copyright. As a curtesy, consider giving the photographer credit for the resource photo you use.
  • Use images that have become public domain. An image becomes public domain when the copyright has run out. This happens when the original creator has been dead for more than seventy years. If you Google “public domain images” you will find plenty of sources for free images that can be used. Or you could look in http://www.public-domain-image.com/
  • Make significant changes to the reference image in order to create an original work of art. The best way to use to reference photos is to have multiple images to work from. For the best results you might prefer to use various elements from several different photos and combine them to create a new and interesting composition. Feel free to take artistic license by repositioning the components in the different images to accomplish this. When combining photographs be careful that the various elements in your painting are unified by making sure your light source, color temperature, value relationships and relative scale are consistent with each other.

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.