How to Pick the Best Drawing Photo Reference

Most people who paint will use a camera and drawing photo references as an aid to creating artwork. 

Sketch books are invaluable to develop skills and to make quick notes, but in a busy situation a few photos will support your memory. Not everyone enjoys standing or sitting in a very public space painting or drawing, anyway. 

When we use a camera as a notebook, we need to consider that what it shows in the photograph may not be strictly correct. The camera is 'one eyed' after all and gives an imperfect impression of depth. 

Consider the following issues that can arise...

  • the camera lens can distort
  • the camera settings can give an incorrect reading of colour
  • we can lose definition of detail in shadow
  • we can lose detail in brightly lit areas
  • the areas we want to draw might not all be in focus

Some questions come up all the time when artists talk about the use of a camera for drawing photo references. I hope I have covered them below. 

Should you use drawing photo references?

You will realise fairly quickly that there is a constant battle going on between those who paint using photo references and those who don't. Some insist that you should only draw from life or from sketches. Whereas others love to create photo-realistic art. 

Like most things in life, there is a middle ground.

Sketching from life is ideal to get a quick representation of the view or subject in front of you down onto the paper. However, if you want to draw every detail, especially of a moving subject, a photo will freeze it in time and allow you to work at a more leisurely pace. 

Problems with using photo references

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. Relative size distortions

If you are drawing a still life, or part of a room interior, from a photograph you should be ready to re-size elements nearer the camera which may loom out unnaturally large. Things a little further back may likewise seem a little too small in the photo. Using a wide-angle lens to 'get everything in' can exacerbate this compression and distortion. 

This is also very apparent if you use a wide-angle lens to take a portrait - the nose can end up too large and the eyes very tiny. If you draw the features in this way, you may end up with a caricature. Depending on the aperture chosen by the photographer, you may also find that certain features are out of focus and blurry. As seen in the photos below, it can change the entire head shape if you use a wide-angle lens. 

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 picture layouts should allow for any adjustments required rather than blind copying the photo references.

2. is it all in focus?

Really expensive camera lenses let a lot of light into the sensor through a wide open hole, or aperture . This enables the photographer to do two things, besides using them for correct exposure. 

  1. Lots of light means the shutter only needs to be open for a brief time, stopping fast action
  2.  The wide hole limits the amount that is in focus, creating soft "bokeh" backgrounds

If you pick the widest aperture of your lens, say f2,8, you might only get the eye of a dog in focus, leaving its nose ears and most of the fur texture blurred. This does look lovely as a photograph, but the chances are, you wouldn't want to draw the features in this way. 

If you look closely at the black labrador below you will see that her eyes are pin sharp, but by the time you travel forwards to her nose, the photographer's (me) choice of aperture has blurred it.. The technical name for the amount of a photo that is in focus is the "depth of field". 

3. Photographic modelling of form

Casual photographers spot something and snap a quick picture. However, they forget perhaps the most important thing - where is the light coming from? If an object is lit correctly, then it will appear to have form or shape, rather than looking flat and uninteresting. 

Trying to draw from a flat photograph is tricky, as your artwork will look two dimensional, and not realistic, even if you copy the photo exactly. Adding contrast in photo editing software will only help a little. Ideally, you want your subject lit from the side instead of from the front. 

The apple below was first photographed with a lamp directly in front of it. This caused a bright highlight, but the rest of the fruit is pretty flat with a dark hole below the stem. 

The second apple was lit from the side, creating a more convincing shape. Our eye can tell that the apple curves around where the light does not reach it. The stem is now growing out of a dip that again curves with the shape of the apple. 

Which do you think would make a better drawing photo reference?

Apple lit from the front
Apple lit from the side

4. Blown out highlights

Even when there is wonderful light on a subject, if the camera settings were wrong, the result could be a poor photo reference. This is especially important when capturing something bright.

Most consumer cameras have difficulty saving detail in the lightest and darkest areas. This is because the sensor can only capture a restricted range of tones. If you overexpose, you will end up with no detail in the white areas. If there is nothing there to begin with, photo editing software cannot help! 

In the images of the swan below, I deliberately overexposed the first one. The body and wings are just a flat, white expanse with no detail at all. 

I was more careful with the preening swan, and you can see the feathers and curves in the wings and body. 

Although it is difficult to see in these small images, the second photo also has textural details in the black area around the swan's beak, whereas the other image is just flat black.  Drawing from the second image is likely to be more successful. 

Blown out highlights
Detail in highlights

5. Colour matching

Have you ever taken a photo of a sunset and then upon looking at the image it looks very different from what you remember? A camera doesn't see colour in the same way that we do. The light, weather, surroundings, white balance and exposure settings, can all mean that what you see does not match real life. 

Most of the time this is not essential to creating drawings from photo references. But what if a pet's owner asked to draw a photo realistic picture from a photo? If they sent you the two photos below, how would you know which one is more accurate to the actual fur colour? Yes, it is the same dog! To my eyes, Rupert 1 looks more greyish-purple in tone, where Rupert 2 looks browner. 

If you are lucky enough to meet the animal, you will have a better idea of what the actual colour is, but it might still be a challenge to draw from the "wrong" one. I guarantee you the owner will want the pose of one and the colouring of the other!

Rupert 1
Rupert 2

6. Converging verticals and barrel distortion

Don't get too wound up by this - these are photographic terms denoting the effect you get when you don't hold a camera level to the ground when photographing tall buildings. The tendency is to tip the camera up in order to get the top of the building in the shot, resulting in the subject looking as though it is about to topple over on top of you. The base will look larger than the top and the sides will slope in towards each other.

In a photo, we accept this as normal and allow for it. In a painting, or drawing, we expect buildings to stand straight.

Barrel distortion is another feature of lenses, especially the cheaper ones. Again this distorts the correct shape of objects, although it is not as obvious to the untrained eye.

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

7. High resolution camera files

Today's cameras and phones have a much higher resolution than ever before, and they can capture immense detail. Rupert's eye below is a small section on the entire 45 mega pixel image seen further up the page. You can almost see every hair, even in this reduced version. 

This can encourage us to draw every hair, or nuance in colour, which is really not possible or necessary. Unless we are drawing at life size! Normally, an indication is enough. 

I know some artists that intentionally blur a copy of their images to use when getting the base layers down on the paper. 

A tiny area of a 45 mega pixel image


All this having been said, the use of a camera opens up a wide field to painters, especially when we want to paint something that moves, such as pet or other animal which we can't tell to stay still. It also allows us to paint a picture of a scene in adverse conditions (in rain, snow, wind or at night).

Coloured pencil artists in particular sometimes need the frozen image to give them time to work, as ours is a slow medium.

Providing we are alert to the possible problems of using photo references, there can be no sustainable objection to using them - particularly where the artist would never have even started to paint the picture had he (or she) had to rely on drawing in a sketchbook first.

Photo references are great motivators. 

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