How to Choose Reference Photos

How to Choose Reference Photos

Let’s take a short break from talking about making art to talk about reference photos. Specifically, how to choose reference photos for your next art piece.

For most of us, our artwork is usually not much better than the reference photos we use. It is true that the more skilled we become, the better able we are compensate for less than ideal photos. But still, the better the reference we start with, the more likely our work will succeed.

But what makes for a good reference photo?

How to Choose Reference Photos

Let me share four things I look for (other than an attention-grabbing subject) when choosing reference photos.

How to Choose Reference Photos


Whether or not you do your own photography, the composition of the image is important. You most likely will not use everything that appears in the photograph in your artwork, but a nicely composed photograph gives you a head start.

I prefer working from my own photographs, so I do a lot of composing through the lens of a camera. Even though I’ll never use most of those images as references, composing through the lens has become second nature.

Even so, not every image is perfect (or close to it.)

I took the two images that follow the same day.

The first one is well composed, though it could be improved. But I like the overall look and think it could make a fantastic (if somewhat complex) colored pencil piece.

The second one looks like I shot it a little carelessly. I’ve inadvertently cut off the bottom part of the spiny plant (which is what drew my attention.) There’s too much sky, too.

The slightly off-center position of the “spiny plant” is better than the dead-center position in the first photograph, but a lot of detail is missing.

And, to be honest, its easier to import the right hand details from the second photo into the first photo than it would be to make up the missing details in the second photo.

How to Choose Reference Photos

In this example, the best solution is to use both photos to improve on the composition for the artwork.

That is totally acceptable. Many artists use more than one reference photo to create their artwork, choosing the best parts of each photo.


The next thing—and probably the most important thing for most of us—is the lighting.

As artists, we work with light no matter what our subject. The nature of the light gives the image it’s character. Dim light conceals things. Bright light emphasizes them. The color of the light changes the way things look, too.

Skilled artists can accurately fill in a lot of information that might be missing from a reference photo. Changing the lighting is next to impossible for most of us, so look for reference photos with the kind of lighting you want to draw.

Following are two similar scenes. Forget the slanting horizon line in the first one, and the rather sparse compositions. Look at the lighting.

The first photo shows dim light in the distance, with much of the land in shadow, while the second photo is fully lighted.

Also notice how cool the light is in the first photograph, while the second is much warmer.

How to Choose Reference Photos

The lighting is good enough in both photos for artwork, but they create two different moods. They almost look like two different times of year, don’t they? Spring and summer, maybe? (Ironically, I took both at the same location on the same day.)

Natural light in the middle of the day also creates a different mood than the light of dawn or evening. Artificial light comes in many colors and presents challenges of its own.

So look for reference photos that fit your idea for your drawing.


Photographic distortion happens with every photo. That’s because the camera sees everything with equal clarity, unlike the human eye. In addition, cameras have no depth perception.

Cameras also have a tendency to make things up close look bigger than they are relative to things a little bit further away. This is especially noticeable with animals and people, but can also be seen in other subjects.

I photographed this miniature horse over the stall door. Cute, isn’t he?

I’m not sure why I took the photograph because I’d never use it as a reference. The head is far too big for the body (photographic distortion.) The angle is also wrong for a portrait. The horse is looking up at me. A good portrait shows the subject at eye level.

The image below, however, is good for a reference photo. In fact, I’ve considered using it more than once over the years.

The horse and rider are accurately captured. Their parts all fit together in proper relationship. The atmosphere and lighting reflect my idea of showing a race horse and exercise rider during a morning workout.

How to Choose Reference Photos


I’ve mentioned elsewhere that value is the most important thing to get right in any art you do. Value (the difference between lights and darks) is what makes your subject look three-dimensional.

So it’s important to look for reference photos that have a good value range.

Take a look at these two photos of cattle.

I took this photo on a cloudy morning with flat light. The most contrast is between the lightest colored cow and the darkest cow. The shadows aren’t much darker than the middle values on any of the cattle and there are no highlights at all.

Later the same day, and a different group of cattle….

The sky is clear and the sun is bright, creating distinct shadows and highlights.

Or, in other words, the values are more striking.

Yes, it is easier to ramp up the values than to make almost any other improvement, but it’s still a good idea to look for reference photos that have strong contrasts.

Unless your goal is a moody, evocative image. In that case, low contrast fits your needs better and you need to choose reference photos that reflect that idea.

Choosing Reference Photos Doesn’t Have to Be Complicated

Are you surprised color isn’t on this short list? That’s because I don’t usually think of color as being that important overall. Yes, I like color, but when everything else is in place, color is usually also correct.

Most of the time, the good reference photos appeal you at once and there’s no doubt.

But these tips will help you choose reference photos when you have two or more choices that appeal to you with no clear choice between them.

Choose the photo with the best combination of these options and you’re on your way!


  1. Gail M Jones

    I have collected a lot of photos I have taken on my own because I am afraid to throw out anything, thinking maybe I could use part of it in something, even if it isn’t the greatest photo. However, this may lead to a lot of unnecessary photos I could ditch, to free up computer space. Any tips for how to know if a photo isn’t worth keeping? I do throw out the blurry ones…

    1. Gail,

      What a great question.

      But one for which I don’t have a good answer!

      My husband saves everything. Blurry, too dark, too light, too close, too far away. He never throws anything away.

      Me, on the other hand…. I tend to go through my photos periodically and delete any images that are too dark, too light, blurry, distorted, or, in some cases, just don’t look appealing anymore.

      The down side is that I usually want something I’ve tossed within six weeks of tossing it! At least that’s the way is seems.

      So what I usually do now is look through all my images and if I find a series in which all the photos are basically the same, I cull the worst of them and save just a few of the best. That way, I reduce storage needs, but still have what I might need later on.

    1. Jana,

      I can’t give you an accurate time of day because those photos were taken in 2005, but I’m guessing mid-day and probably in the afternoon, since it’s about an hour and ten-minute drive to that location by the most direct route (and we hardly ever take the most direct route when sight seeing.)

      But I can tell you that the difference is probably due to a cloud passing over the sun.

      There were light clouds that day (see the second photo,) and I’m thinking a cloud was passing in front of the sun in the first photo (with the sloping horizon.) There is some contrast in the distant trees in that photo, but it’s minimal. Veiled light would also account for the predominance of blue in that photo.

      In the second photo, the sun is shining uninhibited. Warmer light. Stronger shadows. Better contrast.

      I may also have turned slightly, or walking to a different part of the overlook. I have photos from several different angles.

      But my best guess is on time is between eleven o’clock in the morning and one or two in the afternoon.

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