Guidelines for Selecting Reference Photos

Also see Using Photographs Like an Artist.

Since we will be working from photos in this class, it is essential that we have good reference material to work from. Please read the following guidelines as soon as possible so that you will have ample time to prepare. If it is not possible for you to gather photos before class, or if the photos you have aren’t good, I have many from my collection that you can use. Note: some of the guidelines reference landscape painting, but the concepts apply just as readily to still life or figurative subjects, and to any medium; e.g., oil, watercolor, acrylic or pastel.

I recommend that you use photos you have taken yourself. You will have a more personal connection to subjects that touched you in some way. They make a more authentic statement about what interests you in the world. Also, working with your own photos is a better learning experience. You will be able to see what’s right about the photo, or what’s wrong. If you do not have photos, or the photos you have are not good, then you may use those from my collection or borrow from others in the class. There are always extras!

It’s very important that your photos are not previously cropped. Most photographs are, because that is what typically happens when you look through the camera’s viewfinder and press the shutter. For artists, it’s better to take a wider angle shot, to zoom out, which gives you more information. In our exercises, we want the option of being able to crop the photo in several ways, which can only happen if we have that extra information all around the subject. In other words, we don’t want to start with picture-perfect cropping.

Any photograph that you like doesn’t necessarily mean it will make for a good reference photo. A good reference photo, just like a good painting, must differentiate shapes and include spatial cues. Not all photos will meet these requirements, but the more they do, the better. At the other end of the spectrum, there are absolutely picture-perfect photos, perfectly cropped and exposed. These kinds of photos are not good either, because they are an already-resolved visual problem. What’s left for you to do other than copy it?


Differentiation. Differentiation is the most important requirement. Are you able to distinguish one shape from another? Ambiguous areas — places where the form and structure are unclear — are poison to a reference photo. If your painting is to capture the necessary spatial cues, then the photo must have them, as well. The main way that differentiation is achieved is through value differences. So when we have photos with poor differentiation, it is usually because the values are too close. You can hardly tell where one value ends and another begins.

In landscape painting we also find  this lack of value differentiation in a dense foliage or subjects which are almost entirely in shadow. Then patterns of light and dark don’t correspond to the actual forms.

Select subjects with a clear cross-light. A clear cross-light provides the essential patterns of light and dark that create volume and model form in three-dimensions — and offers the value differentiation you need.  Whether it’s a still life, figure, or landscape, look for 1/4, 1/2, or 3/4 light. For landscape painters, this is a matter of painting (or photographing) at the right time of day and orienting yourself properly to the sun. See Optimal Orientation of Subject and Artist in Plein Air.

Be wary of backlit and front lit subjects. Subjects that are back lit or front lit tend to be silhouetted. With no cross-lighting, they create flat shapes. If the subject does not have a clear cross-light, look for differentiated shapes. Shapes can still differentiate themselves through color and value even without indications of volume.

Interposition (overlap) and scale. In terms of visual perception, it is elements overlapping one another that tells us whether something is in front or behind, near or far. Scale, the relative size of elements, also supports this spatial perception.

Perspective cues. Perspective is the king of spatial cues. More than anything else, diagonals and perspective suggest depth and space. Landscape subjects often exert a very strong horizontal energy. Diagonals and the perspective they create (e.g.; a road vanishing into the distance) is a powerful way to imply depth. You do not have to be an architect or know how to plot one, two, and three-point perspective to take advantage of perspective. A road, a winding stream, a fence, a furrow in the foreground, or even a few unconnected objects that align at along a diagonal angle can be all that’s needed. Still lives and figurative subjects don’t have as many overt lines of perspective, but if you can find them, it will help.

Shapeless walls of trees. Large, complex clusters of foliage or close ups of trees can become an indistinguishable mass of foliage and limbs, especially when there are few other landscape elements to relate to.

Strips of landscape that run horizontal to your field of vision without any verticals or diagonals will impose too much horizontality and minimize other spatial cues.


Size. 4.5 x 6 inch snapshots are adequate. 5 x 7 enlargements are the optimal size. 8.5 x 11 prints are OK, but sometimes too big to trace from. If you are unfamiliar with how to make enlargements, here are some suggestions.

  • If your image is digital and you have the capability to print from your home inkjet printer, then you can print out your own enlargements at half letter size or 5 x 7.
  • If you don’t have a printer at home, then you can bring the image file to a do-it-yourself photo kiosks at pharmacies or FedEx office. The Kodak printers at Bartell’s are fantastic.
  • If your photo is not digital, and all you have is a print, you can make color enlargements at FedEx Office or another copy store.

Black and white version of the photo. A black and white (grayscale) copy of you image can be helpful. A black and white photo makes it easier to read basic value patterns without the subjective distraction of color. If your image is digital, you can print out a black and white version from your home printer. Less expensive, simply make a black and white photocopy.