How to Choose Reference Photos for Your Art

Finding good reference photos for your artwork isn’t always easy! This video explains what specific qualities to look for when looking for reference photos for your art.

45 min. video

Factors to consider include the resolution of the photo, lighting, focus, and more. Tips for sites that provide a diverse range of references are talked about as well.

Discussion led by Art Prof Clara Lieu and Art Prof Teaching Artist Cat Huang.

Character Design, Cat Huang
Cat Huang

Video Walkthrough

  • Why is it so hard and time consuming to find a reference photo?
  • Homogenous search results online; many portraits look the same.
  • Magazine photos are hard to use because they are heavily Photoshopped.
  • Don’t use another artist’s artwork as a reference, it’s not the raw photo.
  • Don’t use a really famous photo, too many people will recognize it.
  • Don’t use a diagram or chart as a reference, it’s too visually limited.
  • Don’t limit yourself to a literal references, anything works!
  • What are qualities of a good reference photo?
  • Look for images that are high resolution.
  • Reference photos are best when parts of the subject aren’t cropped.
  • Consider the lighting in the reference photo.
  • Reference photos that have not been digitally altered as best.
  • Shooting your own reference photos allows you to customize the images to precisely what you’re looking for.
  • Having a personal connection to your subject in your reference photo helps a lot in your artwork narrative.
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Prof Lieu’s Tips

Clara cartoon

I think often we feel like we have to hold onto our reference images for dear life, but it doesn’t have to be that way! Once we see that there are so many more options for references, it’s quite liberating.

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It’s surprising how hard it can be to find a good reference photo, despite the crazy number of images we have access to with 1 click!

Being able to research good reference photos + how to shoot your own reference photos usually provides a good amount of flexibility that really expands what we think we are capable of.

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