Taking Better Reference Photos for Your Art

Taking Better Reference Photos for Your Art

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. That means many of us are always looking for things that will help us in taking better reference photos.

If that describes you, then this post is for you.

With the capabilities of modern smart phones and other digital devices, you don’t need a high-powered camera to take good photos. However, the better your equipment, the better your chances of taking better reference photos.

The great news is that good digital cameras are no longer all that expensive. They can be, of course, but you can do very well with a mid-range camera, the right lenses, and a little practice. If you know how you want to use a camera—subjects, locations, etc.—you’ll be better able to find the right camera for your needs.

Nor do you need to be an expert. Obviously, the more you know, the better your photos are likely to be, but anyone can take good reference photos by remembering three very simple things.

3 Things to Remember For Taking Better Reference Photos

Take a Lot of Pictures

Even if you have a very definite idea of what you want, take a lot of pictures. And I don’t mean half a dozen or a dozen; I’m talking hundreds. It doesn’t cost anything to develop digital images, so be extravagant! Make that camera smoke!

If your subjects are living, there’s every chance in the world you’ll 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 (on film—I’d have taken 300 with a digital camera.) Conformation poses from each side. Three-quarter angle shots from both sides. Head studies. Traditional compositions. Arty compositions. Whatever I could think of.

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

Taking Better Reference Photos - A Horse in a Paddock
Taking Better Reference Photos - 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 taking better reference photos.

Taking Better Reference Photos - Vertical Landscape Photo
Taking Better Reference Photos - Horizontal Landscape Photo


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

You can also use the zoom function for getting close-up shots of details. Eyes and markings on animals, individual elements in a landscape, or just a more interesting crop. Once you leave the photo shoot, you’ve lost the opportunity to get those images, so take pictures of anything that looks remotely helpful.

Taking Better Reference Photos - Zoom in on Your Subject
Taking Better Reference Photos - Zooming in Your Subject Even Works With Landscape Photos

Additional Reading for Taking Better Reference Photos

For more tips and methods on taking better reference photos, check out How to Take Better Reference Photos for Your Next Art Project on EmptyEasel.

For More Expert Instruction…

I’m no photography expert and don’t pretend to be one. That’s why I like the Digital Photography School website. I recently read an eBook on taking better landscape photographs that was designed for photographers, but that will be a major help to me in getting better references for drawings. So if you’re looking for more than basic tips, take a moment to visit Digital Photography School.

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