How To Shoot Your Own Reference Photos for Painting

See how effective taking the time to shoot your own reference photos can be.

39 min. video

Explained are ways to set up photos with lighting and point of view to create reference photos that can be used to create intricated figurative paintings.

Discussion with Art Prof Clara Lieu with Guest Artist Owen Rival.

Guest Artist

Owen Rival

Owen Rival recognizes the magnificence of the mundane. His work bestows life’s monotonous routines with the weight of a historic event, forcing the viewer to appreciate the beauty of everyday life in all its glory.

Owen Rival, acrylic painting

Rival was born in Toronto, Canada and earned his BFA in Illustration at the Rhode Island School of Design in 2021. Rival is a recipient of the Dumfries House Residency.

Video Walkthrough

  • Reference photos can be time consuming to create, but they make the painting process much easier in that you will have all the visual material you need.
  • While purchasing lighting equipment an a DSLR can be expensive, it’s a worthwhile investment if shooting reference photos is an important part of your practice.
  • Owen uses a Canon Rebel T7, a DSLR camera so he can have complete control over the photos.
  • Lighting in a reference photo is not only a visual element, it plays a significant role in the narrative in figurative paintings.
  • Owen uses a Amazon G1s RGB video light, which has a wide range of high saturation colors that are adjustable.
  • During a reference photo shoot, Owen shoots anywhere from 50-100 photos to ensure that he has all the details that he might need in a painting.
  • Many reference photos have different parts of the scene in focus; Owen shoots photos that has the foreground in focus, and other photos where the background is in focus.
  • Shooting the reference photos is about 10% of Owen’s process; the painting is about 90% of the process.
  • Owen’s work shows an intense, highly theatrical view of mundane scenes that are often moments of his life.
  • Thumbnail sketches are an important part of Owen’s process, they are created before the reference photo shoot and often evolve and change even after the photos are shot.
  • Owen’s thumbnail sketches are done in Procreate, as are his digital sketches composing the reference photos together.
  • Owen uses reference photos online to fill in details like a dentist’s tools that are a smaller portion of the painting.
  • Staging these reference photos often involves creating a scene without actually being in the literal place.
  • For example, in a painting of a dentist’s office, exercise equipment is used to create a dentist’s chair.
  • The process for shooting these reference photos is collaborative, Owen’s wife is very involved in the entire process.

Prof Lieu’s Tips

Clara cartoon

I think the default way that people use reference photos is to make their artwork with the exact same composition as the reference photo.

Thumbnail sketches radish banner colored pencil drawing

The problem with that approach though, is that it’s very limiting in terms of what you can do in terms of composition.

The photographer of the reference photo has created the composition for you already, so sticking with that exact same composition means you aren’t thinking about composition.

Instead, see the reference photo as the raw materials for your own composition. The eggs that you will use to make a cake!

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