Everything about reference photos for portraits


Good reference photos for portraits are 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 Museum app.

Table of Contents

Before we dive in what is a good reference photo for portraits, you may watch ‘3 ways to use reference images for making art’ where I explain the difference between inspiration, reference and transformation.

3 ways to use reference images for making art

What is a good reference photo?

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! You can either read the article, or watch the video ‘What is a good reference photo for painting portraits’ below.

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 in photos

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!

Feelings in reference photos

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 images for your art?

Now that you know what is a good reference photo for painting portraits, it’s time to find them! Watch the video below and download my top 5 favorite websites for good copyright free images, including my Pinterest board with hundreds of reference. Here is a list of my top 5 favorite websites for copyright free images for portraits, including my Pinterest board with hundreds of images. And more!

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How to tweak a reference photo

You found a photo you love, but it’s not exactly what you were looking for, 3 ways to fix it and improve your photo.

How to sketch from a reference photo

how I actually use reference photo in my art, and how to get the perfect sketch on canvas. I hope this long article about good reference photos for portraits is helpful for your art journey!

Cecile Yadro

I believe that art can help you express yourself, find your voice, and discover who you are. And I want to help you do that. I've seen how powerful my classes can be for more than 20,000 students. In my classes, I focus on giving you the tools you need to express yourself and make your creativity take flight!

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