How to Improve Reference Photos

How to Improve Reference Photos

Last week’s featured newsletter article was called Planning for a Successful Drawing. One of the tips I shared was starting with great reference photos. A reader responded by asking how to improve reference photos that are less than ideal.

That’s a legitimate question. Many clients who want pet portraits are asking for posthumous portraits. In those cases, the reference photos are usually less than ideal for any of several reasons. Poor lighting, awkward perspective, and photos taken inside are just a few.

I’ve created portraits from less than ideal reference photos, and while it can be done, it is usually more difficult. I also often find the resulting portraits less satisfying to me as the artist.

But there are times when the only choice is between refusing the commission or working with what the client provides. Sometimes refusing a commission really is the best decision, but I’ve always had difficulty doing that.

So I’ve learned a few tricks of the trade to improve reference photos using a photo editor, and I’d like to share those tricks with you today.

How to Improve Reference Photos

The reader who wrote to me provided a couple of photos and granted me permission to use them. So I’ll do what I can to improve each of the photos and tell you what I did with each one.

One quick note before I begin: Any good photo editor such as PhotoShop or GIMP can do basic adjustments. I think a lot of phone apps are also good for making basic adjustments to brightness, contrast, and other similar basic manipulations.

I used GIMP before I started publishing CP Magic! and tutorials. Afterward, I purchased publishing software called Affinity. Serif makes Affinity Publisher, Affinity Photo, and Affinity Designer. They all work together and you can move a file from one software to the next without closing and re-opening it. As you might expect, the range of photo adjustments is much broader. The Affinity apps are inexpensive ($50 per app and you can purchase only the ones you need,) so if you do a lot of photo work, Affinity Photo is well worth the purchase price.

But the adjustments I’m about to describe are more basic and you can do them on most basic photo editors.

Now on to the sample photos.

Improving Photo #1

Here’s the reader’s first photo.

Lightening Dark Photos

Poorly lighted photos are one of the most common types of reference photos clients provide. Poor lighting has several causes but the worst is interior photos because you often also have to deal with flash lighting.

Because of this, the first thing I always try is making the photo brighter. In most photo editors, look for a setting called Brightness & Contrast. Where you’ll find that setting varies from editor to editor. Sometimes it’s under a menu labeled “Images,” sometimes under “Adjustments” or in some other menu or option. No matter where it is in your photo editor, it’s a good place to start when adjusting most photos.

For this photo, I brightened it about 50%.

How to Improve Reference Photos

Improving Contrast

The next adjustment I usually do is adjusting the contrast. If a photo is too light, you can increase the contrast to bring out the details in washed out values. If it’s too dark, you can decrease the contrast to reveal details in areas that are too dark.

Since this photo was too dark, I decreased the contrast. You can see in this side-by-side that the details in the black parts of the black-and-white cat are much clearer in the adjusted photo than in the original photo.

Adjusting Brightness and Contrast

In the first two steps, I did just the brightness (first side-by-side) then just the contrast (second side-by-side.) Sometimes you need to do both, but don’t start by doing both. If one of these adjustments works, great. That’s all you need!

But sometimes it’s helpful to adjust both the brightness and the contrast. In that case, start with the adjustment that’s the most obvious. For this photo, that was adjusting the brightness. Whichever you decide to adjust first, get the photo to look the best you can with the first adjustment.

Then make the second adjustment.

That’s what I did here, and this is the result from adjusting the brightness first, then adjusting the contrast.

How to Improve Reference Photos

Making these adjustments is easy.

Finding the right balance is more difficult and is based on your preferences about how a photo should look. If you know the subject, then you’re better equipped to get the most accurate adjustments possible. If you’re working with a client photo, then you’ll have to do the best you can.

There will be situations in which you need to work from two versions of the reference photo: One adjusted for brightness and one adjusted for contrast. I’ve done this in the past and it works quite well.

If I were working from this photo, I’d use the third photo, but I’d also keep a copy of the original so I could make other adjustments as needed to see details.

Improving Photo #2

Here’s the second photo. This one was taken outside and is back-lit with strong light, so it presents some unique challenges.

Adjust the Brightness First

I once again began by adjusting the brightness first. I started out by increasing the brightness by 50%, but that didn’t bring out the details in the black areas as much as I liked. So I increased the adjustment to 100%.

There are more visible details in the black fur, but look at that white fur! It’s nothing but blazing white!

How to Improve Reference Photos

Adjust the Contrast

So I canceled the brightness adjustment and adjusted the contrast. Because the contrast is already so strong in this photo, I decided to decrease it.

Decreasing the contrast by 50% didn’t do much for the photo, so I pushed it all the way to 100%. That turned out much better than I expected. Other than the brightest white highlights still being blown out (over-exposed,) there is plenty of detail visible in the white fur and a good amount in the black fur. You could do a portrait based on this adjusted photo and have it turn out fairly well.

Adjusting Brightness and Contrast

The last thing I tried was adjusting brightness and contrast together. As you can see below, this produced the best results. Brightness is increased by 56% and contrast is decreased by 100%.

The colors are a bit washy, but you can see plenty of details in both the black and the white fur. Color is much easier to correct as you draw, so this is the photo I’d work from.

However, as with the first photo, I would keep a copy of the original photo for comparison.

How to Improve Reference Photos

There Are More Ways to Improve Reference Photos

These are just the three steps I take with most reference photos. Additional adjustments include things like color balance, white balance, color temperature corrections, clarity and so on. Some of them are quite complex and involved.

But for most artists, getting the brightness and contrast correct is all that’s necessary. The good news is that most photo apps, even the ones in your phone, are capable of these adjustments.


  1. Loved to H E practical advice! It’s the next step after that where I get frustrated: getting the printed copy to match what I see on my display. I have tried using the Windows calibration utility but it’s still not right. So I find myself guessing blindly on the brightness and contrast settings to get the printed version where I want. I use Corel Paintshop, not Photoshop.

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