The Artist's Guide to Using Drawing Photo References

Many artists use cameras and photographic references as tools to assist in their artwork creation. While sketchbooks are incredibly useful for honing skills and jotting down quick ideas, in a bustling environment, a few snapshots can serve as reliable memory aids. After all, not everyone is comfortable with the idea of painting or drawing in a highly public setting.

When using a camera as a visual notebook, it's important to remember that its lens might not accurately capture depth. After all, the camera is 'one-eyed' and can offer a distorted perspective of depth. Here are some potential issues to consider...

  • the camera lens can distort
  • the areas we want to draw might not all be in focus
  • the photo can appear flat and lifeless
  • we can lose definition of detail in shadows and highlights
  • the camera settings can give an incorrect reading of colour
  • buildings can appear as if they are falling over
  • there may be just too much detail in the photo

We will delve into each of these aspects in greater depth shortly.

The great debate: drawing from life vs using photographic references

You'll soon notice an ongoing debate between artists who rely on photographic references and those who don't. Some artists staunchly advocate for drawing exclusively from life or sketches, while others revel in creating photo-realistic art.

As with many aspects of life, a balance or middle ground often exists.

Sketching from life is perfect for capturing a swift snapshot of your subject on paper. But if you're aiming to depict every detail, particularly of a moving subject, a photograph can freeze time, giving you the freedom to work at a more relaxed pace.

How to avoid common mistakes when drawing from photos

Let's look in more detail at the problems that drawing photo references can create and how we can avoid those problems and still make the most of a useful tool. 

1. Perfecting portraits: overcoming distortions in photographic references

When drawing a still life or an interior scene from a photograph, be prepared to adjust the size of elements closer to the camera that may appear unnaturally large. Similarly, objects further in the background may seem disproportionately small. Using a wide-angle lens to capture the entire scene can often exacerbate this distortion and compression.

This effect is particularly noticeable when using a wide-angle lens for portraits - the nose may appear disproportionately large and the eyes, unusually small.

Replicating these proportions could lead to a caricature-like result. Depending on the aperture selected by the photographer, some facial features might also be out of focus (more about that in the next section).

As depicted in the images below, a wide-angle lens can dramatically alter the perceived shape of the head.

Photo taken from very close with a 24mm lens using a mirrorless camera
Photo taken with a 105mm lens from further away again using a mirrorless camera

Your drawing skills should be flexible enough to accommodate necessary alterations, instead of rigidly replicating photographic references.

2. Mastering the 'bokeh' effect: how aperture impacts your photography

High-end camera lenses have a wide aperture that allows a significant amount of light to reach the sensor. This not only aids in achieving the right exposure, but also grants the photographer additional creative possibilities.

When there's ample light, the shutter only needs to open for a fleeting moment, enabling it to capture fast-paced action.

When you open the aperture to let more light in, you reduce what's called the depth of field - this is the portion of your drawing where objects appear crisp and defined. With a narrower depth of field, the result is a beautifully soft, blurred background often referred to as "bokeh". This technique can be particularly useful in portraits to draw focus to the subject’s eyes

While it is true that using a wider aperture like f2.8 can yield a photograph with stunning selective focus, this effect may not be something you'd want to emulate in a drawing.

Let's take a closer look at an example. Consider the photo of the black labrodor below. In the photograph, you can clearly see that her eyes are in sharp focus, while her nose gradually blurs.

3. The art of lighting: maximizing depth and realism in your photos

Casual photographers often seize the moment to capture a quick photo, but they might overlook a crucial factor - the direction of the light. Proper lighting can breathe life into the subject, giving it form and dimension, instead of rendering it flat and uninspiring.

Attempting to sketch from a two-dimensional photograph can be challenging, as your artwork may lack depth and realism, even if the photo is replicated perfectly. Enhancing contrast using a photo editing software may only offer slight improvement. Ideally, you should aim for side lighting on your subject rather than frontal, to achieve a more realistic representation.

To better understand this concept, let's take the example of photographing an apple for a sketch. Initially, the apple was photographed with a light source directly in front of it. While this lighting setup did illuminate the apple, it did little to give an idea of roundness.

The second apple was illuminated from the side, enhancing its three-dimensional appearance. The lighting accentuates the apple's curvature, particularly where the stem protrudes from the dip.

Which image, in your opinion, would serve as a better reference for a drawing?

Apple lit from the front
Apple lit from the side

4. Going beyond basic photography: the importance of proper exposure

Even with ideal lighting conditions, improper camera settings can result in a subpar photo reference. This becomes particularly critical when photographing brightly lit subjects.

Most consumer-grade cameras struggle to retain detail in exceptionally bright, or dark, areas due to the limited dynamic range of their sensors. Overexposure can lead to a loss of detail in the white areas. Remember, photo editing software can't enhance what isn't initially captured!

In the swan images provided below, I purposefully overexposed the first one, resulting in the body and wings appearing as a flat, white expanse devoid of any detail. This would not make a satisfactory reference image.

I paid extra attention while photographing the preening swan, resulting in visible feather details and modelling of the graceful curves of its wings and body.

While it may be challenging to discern in these smaller images, the second photo also reveals textural details in the black area surrounding the swan's beak, unlike the uniform black in the other image. Thus, drawing from the second image is likely to yield a more successful result.

Blown out highlights
Detail in highlights

5. The colour conundrum: how camera settings can alter your artwork

Have you ever captured a sunset on camera, only to find that the image doesn't match your memory?

Cameras perceive colour differently than the human eye. Factors such as lighting, weather conditions, nearby objects, white balance, and exposure settings can all influence the image's final look, making it differ from the scene you observed in person.

Often, this discrepancy isn't critical when creating drawings from photographic references. But what if you're commissioned to draw a pet from a photograph? Given two photos of the same dog, how would you discern which one represents the fur colour more accurately? For instance, in the first image, the dog, Rupert, appears to have a greyish-purple hue, while in the second, he seems browner.

Should you get the chance to meet the animal in person, you will have a more accurate idea of its true colours. However, capturing them in your artwork might still pose a challenge. Often, the pet owner will prefer one pose but favour the colouring from another photo.

Rupert 1
Rupert 2

6. Understanding the tricks of the lens: distortion explained

Converging verticals and barrel distortion - these are photography terms referring to the distortion occurring when you don't hold a camera parallel to the ground while capturing tall structures.

The inclination is to incline the camera upward to include the top of the building in the frame, which can make the structure seem as though it's leaning over. The bottom appears wider than the top, and the sides appear to converge.

While we often unconsciously accommodate for slanted structures in photographs, we expect buildings to stand straight in paintings or drawings.

Barrel distortion is another characteristic often found in lenses, particularly the less expensive ones. This feature subtly alters the true shapes of objects, however this is less noticeable to an untrained eye.

Converging verticals on a tall buildingConverging verticals
Photo references often show converging verticalsThe "falling backwards" effect

7. High-resolution cameras: the impact on art

Modern cameras and smartphones boast an unprecedented resolution, capturing detail to an extraordinary degree. For instance, the image of Rupert's eye displayed below is a mere fragment of the full 45-megapixel image seen earlier on this page. Even in this scaled-down version, each individual hair is almost discernible.

This might tempt us to capture every hair strand or subtle color change, which is not feasible or required unless we're aiming for life-size drawings. Usually, a mere hint is sufficient.

I'm aware of some artists who deliberately create a blurred copy of their images, using it as a reference when laying down the base layers on their canvas.

A tiny area of a 45 mega pixel image

Transforming photo references into artistic masterpieces

Drawing from photo references is a valuable tool, but it's not without its challenges. As an artist, the key is to understand these challenges and devise ways to overcome them. The camera may distort, misrepresent colours, or lose details in shadows and highlights - but remember, you are the one who brings life to the drawing, not the camera.

The camera is a tool, not the artist. It's your job to adjust, to interpret, to add depth and dimension. Use the camera to capture a moment, but use your skills and intuition to transform that moment into a piece of art. Remember, there's no right or wrong way to create art. The most important thing is to keep experimenting, keep learning, and above all, keep drawing.

Let the debate between drawing from life vs. using photo references continue. But in the end, the choice is yours. Whether you choose to draw from life or from photo references, or a blend of both, make sure it's a decision that enhances your art and fuels your passion.

Don't let the challenges intimidate you. Instead, let them inspire you to create better, more impactful art. Are you ready to transform your photo references into masterpieces?

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