Tips for Taking Portrait Reference Photos

The question I get asked the most has got to be about reference photographs.  And what do folks need to give me, to get a portrait? So I thought I’d cover it in a bit more depth as a blog post for you... Usually, I work from photos, and there’s no way to sugar coat it, the better the photographs for reference, the better the painting, it’s that simple.


Most of us have a smart phone with us wherever we go these days.  It’s a fantastic tool for us to capture memories on the go. I often get photographs emailed from a Smartphone asking me to paint it, sometimes it works, more often it doesn’t…  Here’s why… Our Smartphone cameras are exactly that…  They’re smart…  They know you aren’t going to delete photographs as your going, they know you’re going to end up with hundreds and hundreds of pictures on there?  So it compensates for that, it defaults to quite a small resolution (usually), so the file size is small and doesn’t take up loads and loads of your precious memory on your phone. The GOOD news is, they have more storage these days, so it’s getting better, and there ARE a couple of things you can do to help... Firstly, know that you can get a pretty good image from your phone if your resolution settings are high enough.

These screen grabs were taken from a Galaxy S6 a while ago; but the principle is the same for most phones. If I open my camera I can change the resolution, as shown in the photo below, Easy!  And the bigger the better for me   You can easily change it back afterwards.


Here’s a great example of the difference resolution can make, the right side of this photo looked fine on a phone screen, but try and zoom in to see detail? Pretty rubbish… The left side was taken from the original photo which was much bigger in size.

Tips & Tricks for reference photographs

Here are a few more tips and tricks to bear in mind when you’re trying to catch the best photographs:

  • The obvious tip is to make sure that the image is stable and not blurry

  • Try to catch your subject outside in natural light, but steer clear of direct sunlight which can ‘bleach out’ some colour

  • Multiple reference photographs are perfectly fine for me to work from.  I can ‘patch’ a few photo’s together of multiple subjects, although in this case it’s easier if you make sure the light in each photo is coming from the same sort of direction

  • Photographing pets and kids can be tricky!  Neither stay still for very long do they?  You can resort to bribery for the kids…  And don’t forget, I can work with a few different photo’s 

  • Pets are different again, draft in a helper?  One of you to take the photo and another to stand behind with favourite treats! 

  • Eye level photo’s always work best with pets, now if you don’t fancy rolling around the floor after titchy dogs, cats, bunnies and the like, try setting them on a chair?  Still, you got to be quick with these guys!

  • So with that in mind, Take Your Time!  If it doesn’t happen first time, don’t worry, you can try again?  Even people who take selfies daily for blogging and the like can take a hundred photo’s before they find the one they’re happy with 

  • If you’re REALLY struggling with your phone, ask around and see if a friend has a camera they may be able to lend to you?  Or better still come and help, and take the photo’s themselves? 

  • Would a cheap tripod for phones be any use to you?  Ebay has them for a few £’s these days?  Or rest the phone or camera on something for a bit more stability?

I want you to be as thrilled with your painting years from now, as you were the day you received it.  I’d rather you delay ordering a portrait.  Then get some great images to work with.  Rather than send me some photo’s you think are ‘ok’, only to wish you’d waited? 

It’s all in the details

I can’t mention enough about sending me multiple photo’s.  You know your loved ones and pets better than anyone, you know the cheeky expressions they have, the twinkles they get in their eyes?  You have to remember I don’t know them like you do?  I like to see the eyes, in detail, great detail!  The eyes are SO important, and one of my fave parts of a portrait.  I like to see the direction the fur is growing over animal, it can change the whole appearance of the pet if I can’t see which direction it’s growing. Nostrils! Nostrils are important too, I like to see the nose properly, this all helps me create a beautiful realistic portrait for you.

Posthumous Portraits

After all that, I totally understand that some of our much loved fluffies have gone over the Rainbow Bridge, and are enjoying snuggles and cuddles from a very much missed family member.  I can work with older photo’s in these instances, but I’ll probably need you to fill in a few gaps for me If you’re unsure if your chosen photo(s) are clear enough, you can always shoot me an email, and I’ll happily look at them for you

Get in Touch

If you have any questions about photo requirements, blocking together photo’s for a family portrait, or for anything else, please get in touch. Hope this helps, even a little bit 

Finally, don’t forget you can add your email to get alerts when a new blog post goes live.  You’ll find that at the bottom of the blog home page.  And there’s social media share buttons below…  Caring is sharing 

Speak Soon

Joanne x

25 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All