Not all artwork begins with a pencil or paint brush. With the ease of owning and using modern technology, many artists begin by composing artwork with a camera.

The Only 3 Things You Need to Remember When Composing Artwork with a CameraEvery drawing or painting follows a similar pattern. It might be a detailed step-by-step pattern or loosely defined and intuitive.

No matter how you make art, the first step is always the same. Choosing a subject.

For a lot of us, that means selecting an image to draw.

Despite the number of internet sources for images, it’s generally best to work from your own photographs if working from life isn’t possible. There are a couple of reasons for this.

  • There are no copyright infringement issues when you work from your own photographs. You took the photo, so you own the copyright!
  • You can also do a lot of composition through the lens when you take your own pictures. It’s even possible to get a near perfect composition when you take your own pictures.

With the capabilities of modern smart phones and other digital devices, you don’t even need a high-powered camera to take good photos, though you will get better results with a good digital camera.

Nor do you need to be an expert in using a camera. Obviously, the more you know, the better your photos are likely to be, but even a rank amateur can take good reference photos by remembering three things.

The Only 3 Things You Need to Remember When Composing Artwork with a Camera

Take a Lot of Pictures

Even if you have a very definite idea of what you want, take a lot of pictures. If your subjects are living, there’s every chance in the world to get photos with closed eyes, droopy lips, funny faces, or other less-than-desirable looks. The more pictures you take, the better chance you’ll get a photo that’s close to ideal.

Also photograph your subject from different angles and in different poses. I took over 30 pictures of this horse. Conformation poses from each side. Three-quarter angle shots from both sides. Head studies.

Not all of them will be useful as reference images, but it’s better to have too many photos than not enough.

Composing Artwork with a Camera - A Horse in a Paddock

Composing Artwork with a Camera - Same Horse, Different Photo

Try Different Orientations

If you’re taking pictures for a portrait, shoot a few photos with a horizontal (landscape) orientation. If you’re looking for the perfect landscape photos, try taking a few pictures with a vertical (portrait) orientation.

Looking at your subject in a different configuration might be just the ticket for finding the perfect composition.

Composing Artwork with a Camera - Vertical Landscape Photo
Composing Artwork with a Camera - Horizontal Landscape Photo


One my favorite tools for composing through the lens is the zoom function. Even a standard zoom is wonderful to zeroing in on your subject and decluttering the background.

Composing Artwork with a Camera - Zoom in on Your Subject

Composing Artwork with a Camera - Zooming in Your Subject Even Works With Landscape Photos

Notes on Using the Photographs of Others

If you aren’t able to take your own reference photos or don’t have one that shows what you want to draw, there are websites where photographers contribute their work for use by others. Many of them are free of charge and are unlicensed, which means you don’t have to give the photographer credit for his or her work and you can use them for whatever you wish,

Take care in using such websites. Some offer unrestricted use. Others are restricted only to use on the internet.

The list of such resources is ever changing, so I can’t provide a list in this tutorial. However, I can tell you to search for websites that offer something called a Creative Commons license (CC0). This means that the photographers have waived their rights for their images to be used commercially. Make sure to read the fine print, though, as some of them are restricted to non-artistic use.

If you’re a member of a forum such as WetCanvas, you also have access to their reference library.

It’s also possible to get permission directly from photographers if you find images you find especially compelling. You may have to pay a small fee for the right to use the images, but many photographers are willing to grant you permission to use one of their images for no charge or at a small cost. The advantage to contacting professional photographers is that you’re much more likely to get high quality, well-composed reference material while Creative Common images may or may not be professional quality work.