Anatomy of a Perfect Reference Photo

dog portrait from photo before after
Some photos look great on your phone, but look terrible on the wall. Why?
 
If you’re just printing out photos at home and can easily discard the duds, maybe that’s not so bad, but if you’re going to pay hundreds (or sometimes thousands) of dollars for a custom piece of artwork based on that photo, you’re going to want to make sure it’s not holding any surprises: images look different on a small handheld device than they do life-size and wall-mounted.
 
In my experience, a great reference photo for a portrait always has these three elements:
 

1. Height

The photo is shot at your pet’s eye level.
 

2. Lighting

The subject is lit by natural daylight.
 

3. Image Quality/Size

You can pick out individual hairs when you zoom in.
 
 
I’ve gone into more detail below about why each of these is important in order for the final portrait to look its best below, but if you just need a checklist for taking great reference photos, it’s as simple as that: take the picture outside, crouch down to your pet’s height, use the largest image size available to you on your camera or phone, and make sure your pet fills the screen.
 
If you want to know why each of these is so critical, I invite you to read on!
 

#1: HEIGHT

 
It is 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.
In order to understand why, you need to understand that some part of your brain looks at realistic portrait paintings and assumes you’re looking out a window. As an artist, I’m trying to play with this, and give the impression that the subject is right there on the other side!
 
I can do that, even if some things are different through the window. Maybe everything is in shades of brown on the painting side, and the world is more colourful on our side. 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, I have a really hard time convincing your brain that your pet is in there.
Photos of your dog from above are looking in a fundamentally different direction than you expect them to be, and it’s confusing. (If you happen to have a 45-degree wall somewhere that you want to hang a painting on, that could work out just fine though)
If not, stick to photos taken from in front of your dog, not above her!
 

#2: LIGHTING

 
Natural daylight works best. Artificial lighting, while fine for our eyes, usually doesn’t have enough oomph to get a high quality photo from a normal camera.
 
Overcast days produce more evenly-lit images, while sunny days create dramatic combinations of light and shadow. I can work with either, as both will have enough light for good resolution and will have natural, appealing shadows. It really comes down to which you prefer.
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.
 

#3: IMAGE QUALITY

 
Yes, I love it when I receive reference photos from a DSLR that are 9MB. But most of the difference comes from the person holding the camera, not the equipment itself. An iPhone 4 can still take a perfectly good reference photo— under the right conditions.
 
The 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’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. Just send me an email at [email protected].
 
Sometimes, perfect reference material just isn’t available, especially for memorial portraits. If that’s your case, 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.
 
For more examples of my work, visit my portfolio of Pet Portraits from Photos.

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