Today, I’d like to talk about preparing a reference photo. There are a lot of ways to do this, so I’ll keep it simple and describe some of the things I do almost all the time.
Most of my work in the past was for portraits, but I’ve also used these methods to turn so-so reference photos into great (or at least better) reference photos for my own work. They can help you do the same.
NOTE: This post is not intended to be a step-by-step tutorial. There are too many photo editors on the market to make that possible. I use three different pieces of software as needed, and I will link to them below.
Preparing a Reference Photo
Preparing reference photos is important whether you’re doing a portrait, an exhibit piece, or something for yourself or a friend. It doesn’t need to be complicated, but it should be an important part of your creative process.
My sample was for a portrait, but I’ve also taken the same steps with my own pieces, with animal art, landscapes, and the occasional still life.
I used a photograph taken by photographer Mark Adair, whom I want to thank for allowing me to use his work. Thanks, Mark!
Mark provided a great selection of images, so there was a lot of material at my fingertips. This is the image the client chose.
The first thing you should always do is start with the most basic stuff: Configuration and composition.
The portrait was 16 inches by 20 inches in size, so the first thing to do was crop the reference photo to the same dimensions as the final portrait. I usually make 8 x 10s of printed reference photos (unless the drawing is complex,) so I cropped this image to 8 x 10 as well.
I used Irfanview for this image. Irfanview is a free down-loadable program. Somewhat limited in scope, it still does almost everything I need to do to prepare digital reference photos.
Since this is a pretty straight forward project, there wasn’t much to do with composing. I placed the horse a little bit to the right of center, so he was trotting into the space. I also placed him a little bit above center. That put his head next to one of the four “sweet spots” according to the rule of thirds (see below.)
You’ll notice that the knee of the raised front leg is also near one of those sweet spots, and a third one falls over the crossed back legs. All three are centers of interest, though the head is the most important of the three.
That wasn’t my intention. I usually focus on the head, even in full body portraits, but this is icing on the cake, so to speak.
Once you have the composition nailed down and the digital image is the same proportions as the your artwork, you can start making smaller adjustments.
Fine-Tuning the Reference Photo
Most photo editors provide the opportunity to adjust photos in dozens of ways from adding special effects to creating halftones or sepia tones (or almost any other tone.)
When you prepare a photo reference for portrait work, you probably won’t care about all those other features. But there are some adjustments you should consider.
The key to a successful portrait is contrast. The light values need to be light enough and the dark values need to be dark enough.
If your photo reference doesn’t show clear light and dark values, now is the time to tinker with contrast.
Adjust the contrast and brightness of the photo a little, reviewing the results after each adjustment. Continue to experiment until you either find a contrast setting you like, or decide to go with the original settings.
Changing the contrast even a lot didn’t do much for this photo. The initial adjustment made so little difference that I tried a more dramatic adjustment. Here’s what I ended up with. Can you tell the difference between this and the original reference? I couldn’t.
Sometimes it helps to adjust the color settings. Most photo editors can adjust each of the three primary colors individually or all of them together. Depending on your software, you may be able to make a lot of complex adjustments, or just a few simple ones. Whatever the case, it’s worthwhile to experiment to see what happens.
Canva is a good online option. Canva is a graphic designer. I use it to create the memes in my posts and to make illustrations that contain more than one image.
But they have a great photo editor and it’s free to use. Just open an account, upload images, and try any number of adjustments without changing the original image.
GIMP is also a good option. It’s a free download and works a lot like Photoshop, but the learning curve is pretty steep. I’m still trying to figure out a lot of the features.
I made color corrections in Irfanview and came up with the photo below. Again, I didn’t see a lot of difference between it and the original image, so I decided I was finished preparing the reference photo. Contrast and color could be adjusted as I worked on the portrait. That’s one of the advantages of drawing horses for over 40 years!
Additional changes to the composition—such as leaving out elements or moving them around—could be done in a photo editor, but I usually prefer to do those things while making the line drawing.
The real secret to this process is taking your own reference photos and making as many of these changes as possible in that process. The better the photographs you take, the fewer adjustments you’ll need to make now!