Anatomy of a Perfect Reference Photo

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

2. Lighting
Your pet is lit by natural daylight.

3. Image Quality/Size
You can see individual hairs when you zoom in.

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, make sure your pet fills the screen, and send uncompressed images where possible.
I’ve gone into more detail below about why each of these is important in order for the final portrait to look its best. 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, 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)
For hanging on walls, stick to photos taken from in front of your dog, not above him!


Natural daylight works best. Artificial lighting, while fine for our eyes, usually doesn’t have enough oomph to get a high quality photo.
Overcast days produce more evenly-lit images, while sunny days create dramatic combinations of light and shadow. I can 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. Just send me an email at [email protected].

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, visit my portfolio of Pet Portraits from Photos.

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