How to Take the Perfect Reference Photo for a Pet Portrait Painting

Dog Portrait from photo

Some photos look great on your phone, but look terrible on the wall. Why?

In this post, we’ll look at what makes a great reference photo, and why. In my experience, there are really three things:

1. Lighting: Your pet is lit by natural daylight

2. Image Quality/Size: The photo has enough detail

3. (Optional) Height: For a “traditional” look, shoot from your pet’s eye-level

If you just need a checklist for taking great reference photos, it’s as simple as that: take the picture outside, make sure your pet fills the camera/phone screen, and send uncompressed images where possible.

That’s it! Those are the two most important things to get a great painting from your photo. If you have a reasonably-sized photo of your pet in natural lighting, I’m a happy artist.
But to learn more about the third option, as well as why each of the others is important, I invite you to read on!

1. Height

It’s an unfortunate fact of nature that we are taller than our dogs.
OK, maybe for everyday life huge dogs wouldn’t be the easiest pets, but for portraiture purposes the fact that we look down at our pets— but look straight across at our walls— causes all sorts of problems.

Height is critical because part of your brain looks at realistic portrait paintings and assumes you’re looking out a window. As an artist, this is great! I’m trying to play with this, and give the impression that the subject is right there on the other side.
Art can do that even if some things are different through the window. Maybe everything is in monochrome on the painting side, or maybe your dog is blue. That’s ok.
But I run in to trouble when I have to mess with where “down” is.
When “down” in the painting is a different direction than “down” for the viewer, your brain knows we’re messing with it. That’s why “traditional” portraits are painted from a level viewing angle. You can still get a great portrait looking down at your dog! It will look more modern, and is often how we picture our dogs in our heads anyway.

So follow the below image if you’d like a traditional look to your portrait.

2. Lighting

I can’t stress this enough: for any portrait, natural daylight works best.
Artificial lighting, while fine for our eyes, usually doesn’t have enough oomph to get a high quality photo. And what’s worse, it comes from multiple directions, so you don’t get clear shadows.
Overcast days produce more evenly-lit images, while sunny days create dramatic combinations of light and shadow. Personally, I’m happy work with either.
Any kind of daylight is bright enough to get good resolution and will have natural, appealing shadows.
These photos were both taken on my phone, and they’re both 655 pixels wide. But look how much more fur detail can be seen on the one on the left! I can count whiskers, even though they’re black, against a black dog. For the brown dog, I can’t even tell if he has whiskers.
Which one would I rather paint from? Despite the better lighting in the left photo, I would still choose to make a portrait from the brown dog on the right.
Why? Because it is taken from the dog’s eye level and that is more important.


Yes, I love it when I receive reference photos from a DSLR. But 90% of everything I paint was shot on a phone, and that’s just fine! Most of the difference comes from the person holding the camera, not the equipment itself.
And rhe biggest thing you can do to improve the quality of the image isn’t getting better equipment, it’s standing closer to your dog.
This is a crisp, well-lit photo. 
But look what happens when I zoom in on the dog…
Grainy! And not much detail to work with.
If I just stand closer to start, I get much better results.

Oh, hello there.

She’s not quite got the sit-stay down enough that I can get an eye-level shot without a leash, but look at all that detail! If you need a rambunctious dog to sit still without running over, a leash and a fencepost will be your best friends.

To Recap

For a perfect reference photo, every time, just follow these steps:
1. Take the shot level with your dog’s eyes, so their bum isn’t above their head
2. Take the photo outside or near a window
3. Be close to your pet— try to get them to fill 1/3 of the viewscreen.
Best Pet Portrait from photo
If you’d like to commission a portrait but you’re not sure about your reference material, I’d be happy to take a look at what you have and offer some suggestions for portrait layouts that can work. Visit Paws By Zann for more info.

If perfect reference material just isn’t available, that’s OK too.

I can also work with several different photos to make sure the portrait turns out right. It may take longer, but it’s worth it to get a perfect painting of your pet.

Cat portrait paintined from photo by artist

For more examples of my work, check out the galleries below. Or to see inside the studio with pet art updates, subscribe to my mailing list!

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Zann Hemphill

Zann Hemphill is a practising pet portrait artist, writer, and video producer.

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