Using photo references for your art

Most people who paint will use a camera and photo references at some point 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 likes standing or sitting in a very public space painting or drawing, anyway. 

When we use a camera as a notebook we do need to be aware that everything it tells us afterwards may not be strictly correct. The camera is 'one eyed' after all and gives an imperfect impression of depth. Also...

  • 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 individual topics below cover camera concerns that we have been asked about over the years. Suggestions about software are only valid for the five minutes after the topic was written. We find that as fast as we make a suggestion, a package of software disappears or is subject to wild variations in price. 

Using 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 regard the use of photographs as a SIN and require all painting to be from life or from sketchbook images. 

Like most of life, there is a middle way. Yes, the use of a sketch book ensures that you will have studied the actual scene and logged it into your memory as well as on to paper. And, yes one of the aims in producing a work of art is to make an interpretation rather than a photo-realistic image that might just as well have been printed from a photograph. However, if we could ban photo realism (and we can’t) we will remove a style that the public like and also a style that encourages new artists to 'have a go'. 

Problems with using photo references

Let's look in more detail at the problems that using photo references can create and how we can avoid those problems and still make use 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 very apparent when portraits are taken with a wide angle lens - the nose can end up huge and the eyes very tiny. If you draw the features in this way you may end up with a caricature. 

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

2 Lack of subjectivity

No lens sees the subject in the same way as our eyes. When we look at something we focus on one element at a time. Depending on the aperture that the photographer used when taking the picture, just a few inches could be in focus or the whole scene. When drawing the scene you might find that your creative eye differs from the photographers (if someone else took the photo) and you want to change the elements that are emphasised or de-emphasised. 

3. Photographic modelling of form

The light and shade in photo references are not the same as the light and shade used in art for modelling form and creating volume on a flat surface. 

Form that is copied or traced without adjustment will likely appear flat and two dimensional. 

4. Exaggerated highlights

A camera exposure meter generalises the value range in a scene. It is set to try to make everything a 50% grey tone and often consumer cameras do not have the dynamic range to include the lightest lights and darkest darks. Sometimes the highlights are bleached out or the dark areas are solid black with no details apparent. 

When painting, we need to be prepared to add areas of gradient to extremes of tone. Look for shape in shadow and restate highlights were necessary.

5. Generalised colours

The range of colours in photo references can be quite narrow. Colours can be too saturated and surfaces can lack texture. The lighting conditions in which the photographs were taken can also influence the colours. 

When painting from such an image look for colours in the white areas and emphasise them where necessary.

6. Converging verticals and barrel distortion

Don't get too wound up by this - these are photographic terms denoting the effect you get when a camera is not held 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. This results in them looking like the base is larger than the top, with the sides sloping in towards each other.

In a photo we accept this as normal and allow for it. In a painting or drawing we expect surfaces known to be vertical to be so. 

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 building
Photo references often show converging verticals

7. Excess of detail

If we work from life or from sketches we mentally prune the scene and set about putting in those parts which are the most important. This way we get a true skeleton to hang our picture on. 

Photo references give a mass of detail and we can be at risk if we just copy the photograph. Our picture will become a mass of detail and no structure. 

Photographs are very compelling sources of information. Digital cameras enable us to take a host of views at virtually nil cost and delete those not required. We can also use the images virtually immediately.


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 then 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 sketch book first.

Photo references are great motivators.