If you’ve been an artist for any length of time, you know the value of perfect reference photos.

Regardless of your chosen medium, you can’t draw what you can’t see and you can’t see something that’s not shown—or not shown clearly—in a poor reference photo.

Oh, sure, if you know your subject well enough, you can add some of the details that might not show, or that might show, but not in an ideal way. I’ve drawn horses for so long I can change ear positions if necessary.

But even then, details are missing in the drawing. What if the ear I turned around in the drawing has a spot of white? Where is that spot of white? How is it shaped, and how big is it?

A spot of white will not make or break a drawing (unless it’s a portrait), but there are other details that could easily make or break a drawing. It’s far, far better to have the reference photo as close to perfect for your proposed drawing as it’s possible to get.

The Absolute Best Way to Get Perfect Reference Photos

The best way to get perfect reference photos is to take the photos yourself. And not just a few! Take a lot of photos. In the days before digital cameras, it wasn’t unusual for me to take three or four 36-exposure rolls’ worth of pictures for a portrait project. Sometimes more.

Now that I have a digital camera, it’s a simple matter to shoot 100 to 200 photos. Why so many? Because you never know when an otherwise perfect image might include a closed eye, drooping lip, or that ever popular ear turned in the wrong direction.

“But,” you might say, “I stink at taking pictures. What should I do?”

Finding Perfect Reference Photos Online

In today’s world of  high-tech, easy-access cameras, in which you can shoot images AND access the internet with your phone, it’s quite likely you can find all the images you’ll ever need for reference photos somewhere online.

Post-production photography software also makes it easy to combine images for unique compositions.

But you need to take care in where you get images. After all, not everything you see online is free for your use.

Looking for Perfect Reference Photos - 4 Websites

Luckily, there are many websites that exist solely to share reference photos. Many of them are even free of charge and the photographs 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 (including your artwork).

Pexels is one of the websites I frequent. All images are covered by the CCO license. Find something you like and you can download it for any personal or commercial use. You don’t need to buy a membership, nor do you need to give attribution to the photographer (though photographers usually appreciate it when you do!)

Unsplash is another website offering high-resolution images for any use at no cost. You don’t have to be a member to download images, but if you join the group, you get ten new images in your inbox every ten days. There’s no charge to join.

Pickup Image also allows you to download images for any use free of charge and without a membership.

I share four more excellent resources for finding high quality reference photos in today’s EmptyEasel article, Looking for the Perfect Reference Photo? Here are 4 Websites to Help.

There are many other sources for reference photos. If you’d like to see anything from stock public domain images to vintage and specialty images, search for CCO images and enjoy browsing the results.

Wherever you go for reference images, make sure to check the licensing information (also sometimes called “terms of use”). Each website has different licensing, so make sure to check the details before downloading or using any images.