Why More Reference Photos Are Better For Portraits

When taking a pet portrait commission, one of the first things I let owners know is that I need for them to pick out one reference photo that they really like, and provide at least 3-5 additional photos of the same pet.  If I am mostly using one photo, why do I need all the others?  Great question!  I hope this article can answer that question for you!

Taking Photos of our Pets

First off, I understand that most people are not professional photographers, and I do not expect professional quality photographs.  Most photos are taken with a cell phone, and that is fine!  Just capture the moment when you see it.  When our pets are gone, all we are left with are those photos, so take a ton now while you can.  However, most of the photos that are taken are blurry, too dark, too light, or too far away.  I have a whole article about some simple techniques that can help you take great photos of your pet. To see many, many examples of really good photos, I suggest looking at stock photo libraries of dog photos, such as this one on Pixabay.

A bit on my process

Once and a while, we capture a gem, and that becomes our favorite picture of our pet.  But while that may be an awesome picture of your best buddy , it may not be the best reference photo for a portrait.  Thus, the additional photos are key for filing in all those missing parts.  My artwork is extremely colorful, almost psychedelic, yet my style is still very realistic, with lots of detail.  I use crazy colors but I still get the markings and fur details as accurate as possible, and the more information I can get from the photo, the better your portrait will look.

I typically composite my paintings.  By this I mean I will almost always use more than one photo for my paintings, and combine them together into the final image.  Maybe I really like the pose on one photo, but the lighting on another, and the markings on the animal are really well defined in another.  This will help eliminate the need to rely too heavily on one photo, even if that photo is not as good as it could be.

Milo Painting and Reference Photos

Milo Painting and Reference Photos

Let’s take the above portrait for example. Milo is the dog in the portrait (left) on the bottom right. The middle photograph was the original one given to me by the owner to use for the portrait.  While it is ok, Milo is laying down while the other two dogs are sitting.  For the composition of the portrait, it would look best if all the dogs were sitting up.  So I asked her to send me another, and she sent the one on the right. I think the face in the middle photo looks best, so I “composited” the head of Milo in the middle photo and the body on the right photo.  The photo on the right also was used to fill in details about his coloration and markings, especially for his ears. The middle photo is rather dark and a bit blurry, especially on the right side.

Without the second photo reference, I could only guess how he would look sitting up.  This may result in a portrait that does not entirely resemble the pet.  For portraits, it is better to see details from actual photos rather than guess about what is not there and make up something.

Lighting is so Important in Photos

A photo taken with indoor lighting will appear different than one taken in sunlight.  The light from a soft white lightbulb is very different than a bright white daylight bulb, which is different than a fluorescent tube light. The colors of a photo taken on a cloudy day will look different than one taken on a bright sunny day. The light we take our pictures with can influence not only how well the picture comes out, but also the colors.  For this reason, it is best to take pictures in sunlight, outdoors, to make sure the colors and markings are best represented as they are in real life.

Jackson Painting and Reference Photo

Jackson Painting and Reference Photo

For example, the reference photo for this black dog illustrates why good lighting is important. This is a black dog, with the light source from behind, which make it extremely difficult to see any details at all in the dog.  Fortunately I was able to lighten the photo a bit in my image processing software, and was able to pull some details such as the structure of his face.  The photo was large enough that I could adjust it without dealing with compression artifacts which obscure details.  And also fortunate is that my painting style is more impressionistic and colorful and not highly detailed realism.  I was able to make it work, but that is not always the case.

To Fill In Details and Markings

The issue with that becomes that sunlight can create heavy shadows on our pets, which can obscure or change the way their colors and markings look.   So it is best to have several photos so I can see the pet’s actual markings and coloration. Photos taken in bright direct light can create very dark shadows which can obscure details and make markings look darker or lighter than they really are.


Shiver Painting vs Photo

Additional photos can fill in those details that are missing. In the above picture, the photo reference was in black and white, and that was the one the owners liked best. But obviously with this photo alone, I could not do the portrait.  So they sent other pictures so I could tell what color her fur actually is. It was also very hard to tell where her markings ended and the shadows began on the right side (her left side of her face), so having other photos helps to fill in those gaps.

Mama Kitty Painting and Photo

Mama Kitty Painting and Photo

Sometimes, a photo is really overall good, but part of an ear is cut off, like in this picture above.  Sometimes the photo is very small, or blurry, or too dark or too light.  If a photo is taken from too far away, many details are lost. Sometimes, it is hard to tell what an animal’s eye color is if the photo quality is too poor. Having multiple reference photos can fill in those missing parts.

To Fix Proportion Issues

A lot of photos, if they are taken too close or from too high of an angle, will have proportion issues.  These issues are called “foreshortening”, and the result is a huge head and itty bitty body, or a gigantic nose and small head.  Sometimes, these photos are cute and the owner wants the portrait to look like that, which is perfectly fine.  But some photos with foreshortening do not look good, and some adjustments need to be made.

Comparison of photo and painting

Comparison of photo and painting

For example, for this German Shepherd portrait, I mainly used the photo on the left.  But as you can see there is significant foreshortening, the head is way too big for the body.  This is the result of standing above the dog and aiming the camera downwards.  So I used the second photo to correct this.  Now the second photo is ideal for the proportions, but the pose is less interesting than the wind swept one.  However since it was taken with indoor lighting, it was hard to tell if the tan markings on his neck are really that dark or if there is a shadow making it look darker than it really is. So I used this third photo, taken in bright sunlight, to see that it is a little darker than the markings on his face but not much darker.

So for this painting, I used multiple reference photos to both correct for proportion issues as well as for making sure the markings are correct.

Just to Give Me a Choice

There are many pet portrait clients who just send me a bunch of reference photos and have me pick out one.  I like these the best!  I don’t expect the owners of a pet to be expert photographers, and sometimes I see something in a photo that I think would make a better portrait, that they may not see.