Tips for taking reference pictures

(disclaimer: all shown pictures were taken by myself)

I'm always making an effort to create the best painting from any reference picture, but in general a great reference will result in a much better painting.
Basically, there can never be too many reference pictures! :) The more photos I have the better my understanding of your pet and thus the correctness of the painting.

Here are some tips for great photo reference:


The resolution of a reference picture tends to be underestimated a lot. Much too often I get teeny photos of 500 pixels or even less. With these kinds of references it's almost impossible to see fur details, markings, eye color and other characteristics, because if you zoom in you see nothing but pixels. That is why most artists will appreciate larger sized photos of 2000 to even 5000 pixels, even if those require much more space and processing power.

If you look at this photo at original size you can clearly see everything that's important: eyes, nose texture, individual hair and vibrissae.


The largest and most beautiful photo is not of much use if the animal in it is horribly out of focus. All details are lost and you can only guess what the animal looks like. A certain amount of blurriness is no problem, however, as long as the details are still visible.

Both lynxes in the left photo are out of focus, but you can still see their faces and markings. With the help of other, sharper photos something like this would still be usable.

A blurry picture like this, however, wouldn't be of much use even if the ears were not cut off.


The most appealing pet portraits are created by references that were taken at eye level (or below) of the animal. By getting down to a height with the animal you create a special bond with it; it's seen as an equal. If your pet is very small it's a good idea to lay yourself down on the ground or, if safely doable, you can set it on a table or something similar.

Photos that are taken from above are usually not nearly as appealing as a reference picture. They tend to appear boring and not very professional.

The left photo was taken at eye level of the dog and would be a nice reference picture for a painting in general. The right one is much less appealing in each and every way.


One if the most important aspects of both photography and pet portraits is the light. The more light a camera can use the sharper the photos are going to get. Additionally an interestingly lit photo often can make an incredible portrait! Conversely, a reference that is too uniformly or even badly lit can dull or even destroy a painting completely. Because of this there should always be at least one photo that has great lighting!

So, what even is great lighting?
Depending on the desired effect direct or indirect sunlight usually work best. Direct sunlight tends to create interesting shapes and it's actually my favorite to work from, but it can also wash out colors and it can be challenging to take good photos with less than professional equipment (nowadays many phone cameras are really great, though). Indirect sunlight (like on a cloudy day) is a very good choice for preserving the actual colors of an animal.

This kind of lighting could result in a very interesting, unique painting. Since the colors are pretty washed out additional photos that show better color would be ideal.

This photo shows an appealing pose, enough details and a nicely attentive expression, but the artificial light destroys all colors. If you supply it with photos taken in natural light (like the two below) it could result in a beautiful portrait.


Sometimes it's not possible to take a photo outside, which tends to be compensated by using the flash. The biggest downside of a flash is that colors tend to be washed out and contrasts tend to be much exaggerated. In addition, most of the time the flash usually lights a subject directly from the front, which easily results in boring pictures especially if the subject is looking at the camera.

 This photo with the very flat lighting would not result in an appealing painting...

... but combined with the more natural lighting from this one it would enliven the portrait a great deal.

Alternatively to the flash chosing a spot near a bright window or the balcony door is a great way to take reference pictures inside the house.

Both of these pictures were taken near a window on a bright day.... 

... and both show nice and accurate colors.


Poses are especially important in the case of fullbody portraits. If the subject is standing or lying down it's helpful if it's placed on firm ground so legs and paws are less likely to be hidden. If the portrait is getting a detailed background, however, (partially) hidden paws are usually not a problem, because grass or blankets can simply be included in the painting.

Both of these poses would be great for an appealing portrait. Complemented with additional pictures of the missing rear the picture of the Setter could be a good reference for a fullbody painting.

Action poses
... are sometimes hard to photograph, but they can lend a lot of power and liveliness to a portrait. If there are additional photos that show the characteristics of the animal it's usually okay if the action pose photo is not completely sharp. As long as the anatomy (legs, paws/ hooves/claws, face, ...) is discernable it should be fine. Action poses are oftentimes striking if the animal is running diagonally past the photographer.
If you don't have a great action reference we can always look into either stock photos or my own collection that could serve as the basic pose, which will then combined with photos of your pet to create an action portrait of your pet.

This pose would be amazing for an action portrait! The frozen movement looks very appealig and the photo is sharp enough to see the most important details.

The front of the dog is out of focus, but supplemented with a few sharp pictures this could still be used as a pose/ lighting reference.

You think all this sounds incredibly challenging and you don't even know if your photos would make great references? That's no problem at all, you can simply send them over to me and we'll see what we can do with them. Often enough I've chosen a reference that was less than stellar as my main ref, because I thought the overall impression had a way better potential for a portrait than better photos of the batch. In the end chosing reference pictures is an incredibly individual thing, and especially if the pet is not with us anymore there simply is just a limited number of pictures available most of the time. In this case especially I'll closely work with you to create a portrait worthy of your beloved angel!