Being able to take a great reference photo is an important skill for artists, even if you paint from life. You do not need to be a great photographer to take a great reference photo either.
Photography has come a long way in recent years and we can really take advantage of it to improve our art. It is amazing what you can now do with just your phone that you were not capable of doing a decade ago.
Is It Ok To Paint From A Photo?
Some artists will say you should not paint from a photo. I personally disagree and I believe photography can really complement you as a painter.
There are times when you are just not able to paint a scene from life. Maybe the light is quickly fading, the weather is changing or your subject is moving. Photography allows you to capture elusive scenes so can you paint in your own time.
With that being said, painting from life is widely considered to be one of the best ways to learn painting so you should consider incorporating it into your training.
An interesting point to note is that great photos do not necessarily make great painting references. It is not the quality of the photo that counts but rather the composition of the photo and the inspiration it provides you.
What To Look For In A Reference Photo
So what exactly makes a great reference photo? In my opinion, a great reference photo should have:
Some points of interest (focal points) – First and foremost, your photo should have some points of interest to make it worth painting. If you paint from a photo which has no interesting features, then the chances are that your painting will also have no interesting features.
A strong value structure – A strong value structure is one of the first things I look for when searching for an interesting scene to paint. Value is considered one of the most important aspects of painting.
Here is a photo which I believe has a strong value structure. There are a few strong value groupings and the image is clearly identifiable without colour.
Decent photo quality – Whilst it is not important to have a professional quality photo to use as a reference, it helps to have a decent quality photo. With a decent quality photo you have the option of zooming in to see the more particular details. The colours will also be more accurate. The camera quality on most smartphones is usually more than sufficient to take great reference photos (you do not need an expensive camera to take great reference photos).
An interesting colour harmony – A great reference photo should have a beautiful colour harmony which you can draw inspiration from. It could be a stunning contrast between blue and orange, or it could be a calming arrangement of analogous colours.
An interesting arrangement of space – I usually look for an interesting and balanced arrangement of positive and negative space. For example, in a cloudscape I would be looking for an interesting arrangement of clouds (the positive space) amongst the blue sky (the negative space).
A photo I am inspired to paint – Paintings take time and effort to complete, so I am selective about what I paint. A great reference photo is a photo I am actually inspired to paint. There is no hard and fast rule as to what I want to paint. I could have a reference photo which ticks all the previous boxes and is technically a great reference photo, but I may not be inspired to paint it. I want to be able to look at a photo and see a finished painting at the end.
What To Avoid In A Reference Photo
Overexposure Or Underexposure – If a photo is too dark, it is underexposed. Details will be lost in the shadows and darkest areas of the image. If a photo is too light, it is overexposed. Details will be lost in the highlights and brightest parts of the image. Over exposure often occurs in bright sunlight during the middle of the day. Under exposure often occurs when there is not sufficient light (for example, you are taking a photo of a sunset). I find the best time to take reference photos is in slightly overcast weather, where the light is diffused. At this time all the colours seem to come out in full force. A way to combat exposure problems is to take numerous photos of the same scene at different exposures. This way you will get a range of photos and you can select which is most appropriate or use them together to create your painting. Or you could paint from life.
Too much clutter – If you take a photo of something you want to paint, have a think about the overall composition and try not to include too much unnecessary clutter. For example, if you want to paint a beautiful cliff ledge on the side of the ocean, don’t take a panoramic photo which includes the whole ocean. Take the photo you want to paint.
Unrealistic alterations (significantly photoshopped) – A great photo to photographers does not exactly make a great reference photo for painting. You should try to avoid photos which have been significantly altered and appear unrealistic. You want to paint a photo which looks like something you would see in life.