Good reference photos for portraits is crucial when it comes to painting. I assume that you can’t afford having a living model just for you, and that you’re working from reference photos.

For this article, I’ll be using photos from the Sktchy app.

Copyright free is best!

First, I think it’s important if your reference photo is copyright free. You’ll never know what you’ll do with your art, sell it, make prints or whatever, so it’s safer to take copyright free images from the beginning. So forget about taking a random image from Pinterest, Instagram or Facebook.

Disclaimer: this is my point of view, I give you some general rules, and as always rules can be broken!

What is a good portrait reference photo?

No matter what you’ll do with the photo, paint, draw, digital or traditional, you need:

Good lighting

I place it first, as it’s the most important to me. Let’s see some examples.

What I would consider a bad lighting
What I would consider a good lighting

Looking at those 6 photos, you can see what I mean by good lighting. I don’t want to have to guess details in the shadow, and harsh light is quite hard to handle when it comes to painting. Which gives the second point:

Good contrast

Meaning, a large range of values, from white to dark, with mid values as well

High contrast, lack of mid-values

Here the difference between light and dark is extreme, this is high contrast. I personally prefer to avoid this type of photo because it will be very difficult to handle when painting.

Low contrast

On the other hand, you can have photo where the values are quite similar, and it will be difficult to give volume to the face. On the left photo, the face is looking like one single color. This can be perfect for an illustration style, but I’m more into semi-realism and I need more information.

Good value range

I would call those well lit, with a good contrast, a good range of values. Lot of information, nice colors. I would pick them! Except for the next point

Items and surroundings

Depending on my purpose, I may want to avoid some tricky items in a photo: teeth, glasses, hands. Or take them!

Unless I really want to paint glasses, or hands, or teeth, I prefer to avoid these!


This is very personal, but I like to feel something when I look at a photo. Is the person expressing something? do you see the face properly? the eyes? smile?

The left one if funny, but lacks a bit of contrats. I could edit it, but that’s another story for another post!
The middle one is well balanced with values, the smile is appealing, there is not too much teeth, and she makes me feel good. That would be a good pick!
The right one needs a bit more lighting, I like the leaves around the face, and the distant look.

Where to find copyright free reference photos?

You have several options here:

I hope this long article about good reference photos for portraits is helpful for your art journey!