How to use reference images correctly: 8 essential tips

Photo reference can be a powerful tool when used correctly. Here's how...

If you are an artist, working in a representational style, chances are that you have used a reference in your work at some point. Virtually every artist needs to utilize a reference out of necessity, convenience, or some combination of both. Every project is different, but there are some key principles I can give you to help use reference correctly.

Throughout my career I have been fortunate enough to paint predominately from life. This has given me an understanding of how cameras distort or change reality. Having a photo reference can be a powerful tool. However, it can also hinder you if you don’t know how to compensate for the photo’s inadequacies. Let’s dive in and talk about that a little bit. 

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01. Don’t copy the reference exactly 

Don't be tempted to copy every pixel of a photo reference

I can’t stress this enough. The temptation to copy every pixel of a photo reference is always there for an artist.  Photos, obviously, do not look the same as real life so that’s important to remember. A reference is there for you to gain information about the proportion, values, edges, and colours. In order to get a realistic result, you will most likely have to deviate from the reference. Sometimes that deviation is extreme and other times it is subtle. 

02. Is a photo reference truly necessary? 

It's important to ask yourself if photo reference is really necessary

This may seem like a simple question, but it’s important to ask this up front. Otherwise you will automatically default to using a photo reference. Obviously working from life is going to give you the most realistic and effective result. That isn’t always possible, but make sure you aren’t just using a photo reference by default. If you can setup something in your studio quickly, and without hassle, then do it that way! 

03. Take the reference yourself 

When possible, take the reference photos yourself

When possible, you want to take the reference photos yourself. Each project demands something a little bit different from a reference. It can be tempting to just search quickly on the internet and work with a reference that is not quite what you need. If at all possible, take the extra time and photograph the reference yourself. 

04. Look for “weird” things in the reference 

When we see something strange in a photo, we readily accept it. We don’t question the oddity, because of a camera’s inherent ability to document reality. However, as an artist, we need to watch out for those things that might look strange when transferred to canvas or paper. Forced perspective, odd angles or lighting, or even heavy lens distortion can show up in photos. If you are on the lookout for those strange areas you can compensate accordingly. 

05. Avoid an “over exposed” reference 

Over exposure covers a multitude of flaws in the face, providing the artist with no information on the structure

I often see artists utilizing reference from fashion photographers and other focused fields of photography. Most of the time, this type of reference will not provide what an artist needs. For instance, fashion photographers purposefully eradicate shadows on the face in order to give the model a pristine and flat look. This covers a multitude of flaws in the face, but provides the artist with no information on the structure. 

06. Lighting, lighting, lighting 

Lighting on a reference should be the most important consideration for an artist

Lighting on a reference should be the most important consideration for an artist. In order to understand the structure, or form, of what you are drawing or painting, you must have proper lighting. The lights and darks need to be clearly visible and understandable. The more straightforward the lighting, the better it will translate to a work of art. 

07. Photographs harden edges 

Photographs naturally harden the edges of different values

Photographs naturally harden the edges of different values, unless a filter is applied. A soft transition from shadow to light on a model’s cheek will often look quite harsh in a photo. When you draw or paint from a reference, make sure that you err on the side of soft edges. That little bit of compensation will help keep your art from looking flat and unrealistic. 

08. Photographs change colours drastically  

The distortion of colour in photographs can range from subtle to extreme.

Virtually every one of us has taken a photo with the wrong white balance setting, only to find later that our photo is an overwhelming shade of blue or orange. The distortion of colour in photographs can range from subtle to extreme. The best way to combat this problem is to observe the objects in real life, gather as many references as possible, or do colour studies separate from your reference. 


Jonathan Hardesty has been exhibited in invitational shows throughout the United States. His work is featured in various collections around the country. He currently teaches online at