Reference Photos for Visual Artists

Reference Photos for Visual Artists
reference photos for artists and how to use reference photos
Every week I write a brand new article to support members of our three wonderful art communities on Facebook, The Artists Exchange, The Artists Directory, and The Artist Hangout. This week we take a look at how to get the best out of using reference photos and where you will be able to find the reference photos I make available to artists for free!
Using reference photos…
For as long as photos have existed artists have relied on them as reference points for artwork. There’s a whole other article about the why’s and why not’s and the legal implications, that’s not for this week though. This week we look at how to get the best from using reference photos when you do use them.
In all of the years I worked on commissions about half of those works relied on the commissioner handing over a reference photo and saying either, make it look like this, or make it look like this but can you make my husband better looking. I literally have heard it all at one time or another, including being asked to turn the rear view of a car into the front view of the car with Photoshop. 
Over the years I have worked with everything from professionally shot photos to doodles created by the most artistic person in the family, sometimes even the least artistic person. I’ve worked with 20-page descriptions of what someone wants which are like a wish list of what’s not possible to a 2-line description that tells me everything I need to know to fulfil that particular commission. Regular readers though will know that I gave up taking on new commissions entirely this year and I have to say, I don’t know if I ever want to go back to doing them at all because I’m having so much fun rediscovering my own art.
There is a value in having a good reference photo available. Sometimes we need a reminder of the lighting, or the leading lines, other times we just need a reference to give us an idea of the colour palette to use and there are times when creative block hits us like a speeding train and we need a little help in the inspiration department.
I’m just not great at portraits and people. I have tried and failed for years to master the art of drawing people. Friends are often surprised when they hear that I would struggle with a stick person and even more surprised when I say that just because I paint and draw doesn’t mean that I can paint and draw everything. One of the reasons why you will rarely see any people in my artworks, but if I work from a reference I can create a passable attempt. 
Artists use reference photos differently. I tend to use them to get an idea of something or to confirm I’m heading in the right direction, others use them and copy everything line for line, others might use them purely to inspire a colour palette or a hundred other reasons. 
Often we have a tendency to draw what we think rather than what we see. We only need to think of something and a preconceived idea of that image appears in our mind, but with a reference photo it becomes easier to spot the details that bring the composition together. 
Occasionally you might take a number of reference photos and juxtapose a completely new image out of all of them, or you might want to use them just to improve your skills in one area over another. Reference photos are brilliant but not every artist likes to use them. For those who do use references, knowing how to get the best from them will help immensely. 
First though, you need to ask yourself if you really do need a reference photo at all. Looking at real life objects is the best way to recreate them. No matter how great the camera is that took the reference shot, there is never any comparison to looking at something in real life. There are always a few nuances that never get captured in enough detail with a camera.
Taking your own reference photos...
With an ever growing number of reference photo sites popping up across the internet, it’s easier than ever to find legal images that can be used and many even without attribution. The quality of images on sites such as Unsplash which you can find here, is phenomenal and some of the works have been uploaded by respected professional photographers.  
Some of these sites are staggeringly big too, that’s a positive but once you start looking for a specific shot but can never quite find exactly what you are looking for. That though could also be another upside if someone has already captured the moment you want to recreate you have to ask if it is still worth recreating. If there is one downside to the free sites it is that there is a bunch of stuff that gets used over and over again by everyone.
When this happens you usually have four options, do away with the reference altogether, juxtapose something that might work, pay the big bucks for professional stock images, or capture your own reference shot.
Professional stock photos come at a hefty price and there’s still no guarantee that no one else has ever used it, juxtaposing requires that you have at least some skill in this area, and doing away with a reference altogether isn’t always practical. That leaves you with the option of creating something on your own.
The problem here is that visual artists might not be professional photographers. Whilst a visual artist will have a great eye for composition and colour, there are so many other skills needed to take a good photo. Don’t worry too much, reference photos are there to give you an idea, point you in the right direction, and give you a sense of composition and maybe the colour palette, you’re not going to necessarily be selling them.
The more reference shots you take the better you will become as a reference photographer and even inexpensive digital cameras or the camera on your phone might still give you good enough results to work with. The camera on my trusty iPhone 7 is massively better than my first and second digital cameras ever were and I paid twice the price of the phone for those cameras. 
When you approach taking your own reference shots there will be times when everything about the shot is unplanned, and there will be times when you need something very specific and you have the time to plan out the shot. Planning shots always gives you a much better outcome that is well composed and probably exactly what you are looking for, unplanned shots can often turn out over exposed or missing important detail, but occasionally you might just capture something that’s useful.
There are plenty of things you need to take into consideration, lighting, poses, and colour palettes. Give this a little pre-thought and make sure that you have what you need before you take the shot. 
If people are going to be included in your creation then it starts to make sense to involve people when you take your reference shots too. You can always use a stand-in so that you capture the exact pose you need and if they need to hold something, maybe a sword for a fantasy scene, ask them to hold something of a similar shape and size, it’s what they do in the movies!
Check your perspective. The iPhone and other modern phones will overlay a composition grid for you if you choose the correct settings and there are also third-party camera apps which can really bring out the potential of your phones camera, and a few of them are better than the default camera app that comes from the phone’s manufacturer, giving you way more control.
I will be going through a few of the best iPhone camera apps in a future article but in short, look for one that allows you to capture RAW images. The VSCO app has this feature along with standard j.peg files, but it is RAW that will give you much greater control when editing your images.
VSCO also has plenty of manual controls which go beyond the stock photo app, including ISO so you can really control the cameras sensitivity to light which is important because an over-exposed reference shot will mask away the little details. Over exposure is great for fashion photography, not so great for reference photos where the detail is needed. 
There are settings within the native apps of most smartphones and point and click cameras which also let you set things such as the white balance. This is a really useful setting that is worth getting into the habit of because an incorrect white balance will make the colours appear totally different to how they looked in real life. 
Lighting is really important in reference photos too, making sure that everything is set correctly to give you enough contrast and gives the impression of any depths, angles, corners, and how they react to the light source will give you a little bit more to work with when you get back to the studio. It’s worth just experimenting with your camera, see what works, make a note of the settings and before long you will be taking shots worthy of a pro.
Avoid using filters at the point of taking the picture. Take as native an image as you can so you can play around with it later. One point to remember here is that if you are looking for an app that truly recreates the graininess of a traditional film camera, buy a traditional film camera instead. There’s no way to really get that kind of authenticity from any digital camera whatever the price, filters and digital controls can only go so far and they never really compare to the real thing.
Using an art grid…
When I do work from reference photos I tend to use a grid to make sure that the leading lines are in the right places. You can get clear acetate sheets with grids pre-drawn but if you want something a little more practical and available, then have a look at the many apps on both Apple and Android tablets and smartphones that will overlay a reference grid over the photo. 
The beauty of these kinds of apps are that you have a greater degree of control over the size of the grid and you can enlarge and zoom in on specific areas. One of the better ones to use is Jacksons Art Grid for both Android and Apple. You can find the relevant download links here.  
There is a nominal charge for the app but it is inexpensive compared to others and whilst it only really does one thing in that it creates grid overlays, it does it well. What’s even more useful is that there are templates for different canvas sizes so that the grid aligns perfectly to any given ratio. 
There is a greyscale filter so that you can examine colour values and you can print or share your reference photo complete with the grid overlay. It stops a lot of messing about with adding overlays and templates in Photoshop, and because the measurements are pre-calculated it’s a breeze to prepare a reference image within a few minutes. 
Because it is from Jacksons, the artist is front and centre. Jacksons are renowned for quality art supplies and this shows through in the app which is regularly updated. That’s important too as many of the other art grid style apps haven’t been updated in a long time.
Reference photos…
Not too long ago I started to make some of my own photos available as reference photos on my Facebook page. I figured as I travel so often that I was often in places of interest and over the years I have built up quite a collection of sometimes weird, sometimes wonderful, sometimes beautiful places and things. 
There’s no way I would ever get through them and often I just take shots because there is something interesting, or the colours would make a great palette. No point in keeping them hidden away on a hard disc so I decided to upload a few on the page. 
I intend to do this regularly and if there are any particular reference photos you need when I’m on my travels, just let me know and I will try my best to capture them for you. There’s no charge for this, but you can always buy me a coffee through my Go Fund Me page (link below).
You can use the photos as references in any of your art projects, all I ask is that the original photo isn’t offered for sale unless it has been manipulated or edited or used in your art project. In short, don’t just take them and upload them without making them into art!
And please just make sure that whatever you do with them is legal, and doesn’t violate common decency, promise not to use them in anything that spreads hatred, you know the usual stuff. Follow those rules and you can use them for commercial purposes even without attribution but you can add a link to my art site (link below) or to this site, or my Facebook business page, or even buy me a coffee through my Go Fund Me Page (link also below) if you wish to.
Any photos I upload as reference photos will be clearly labelled within the post as reference photos, it doesn’t include my artwork because I have to eat, pay bills, buy art supplies, and run this website!
I couldn’t really conclude this post without popping a few reference photos here and in time I plan to create a brand new page with some of my reference photos on. They will be updated periodically so it will be worth coming back to see what’s new. Most will appear on my Facebook page, but I will add a few exclusive ones on this site too.
red British telephone box
The photo above is a beautiful red telephone box once popular in Britain. I remember using these as a child and I remember queuing up to use the telephone too. Sometimes we would use them for shelter when it rained. Not too many around today and this one has been converted into a local lending library for books and board games!
lily pond
I would like to say that this is my pond in my garden but unfortunately it’s not! This shot of Lily’s was taken at Compton Acres gardens in Dorset.

meerkat reference photo

This wonderful Meerkat posed like a model for the camera!

wolf reference photo
Blurrier than I would have liked, but this Wolf was at a distance of nearly 100 metres away so I had to really zoom in! I’m not quite so stupid as to go and stand next to him!

seaweed reference photo

I thought this was a great shot to use when working on seascape textures!

lion reference photo

Again, I couldn’t get very much closer to this magnificent lion, I like my limbs attached!

If there are any of the above shots you would like as higher resolution images, just use the contact form on this site and let me know. I’ll try to get them over to you as quick as I can via email! If there are any you would like to see edited, let me know too!

About Mark…
I am an artist and blogger who specialises in abstracts, landscapes, and seascapes but I create other styles of work too. I love to experiment, and whilst many of my works today are created digitally, I still go into my studio and paint with a brush on canvas! My work is sold in more than 150 retail locations across the USA and Canada including The Great Frame Up, Framing and Art Centre, and Deck the Walls and you can also buy from Fine Art America or my Pixels site here:   
Any art sold through Fine Art America and Pixels contributes towards to the ongoing costs of running and developing this website.
I also offer some works directly and these come signed with a certificate of authenticity. Please do get in touch if there are any pieces you are interested in owning. I also sell some of my original pieces through this route too and through other retailers. Coming soon! I will be offering selected artworks, and designs through Etsy as digital downloads and originals!
You can also follow me on Facebook at: where you will also find regular free reference photos of interesting subjects and places I visit. You can also follow me on Twitter @beechhouseart and on Pinterest at 
If you would like to support the upkeep of this site or maybe just buy me a coffee, you can do so right here on my Go Fund Me Page!


  1. Another great article full of valuable information!

    1. Thanks so much Colleen, deeply appreciated! Let me know if there are any reference pics you need of anywhere or anything in England or Wales!


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