Tips for Working with Poor Reference Photos | Top Tips

Mar 04, 2022
Tips for Working with Poor Reference Photos - Bonny Snowdon Academy

This week, I want to address something that every portrait artist dreads, and that's a poor reference photo. We've all been there, you get an enquiry through about drawing a horse, a cat, a dog, and you get really excited about it. Then you're sent the photos, realise they're not quite what you'd dreamed of, and you can't help but think, "Oh gosh! Do I say no? Do I hope for the best and just wing it? What do I do?"
It can be heartbreaking, especially when you were really looking forward to starting your next portrait. But, luckily, after having this happen to me one too many times, I've come up with a few tips to help you next time you're met with a blurry, grainy reference photo, so hopefully, you'll know exactly what to do. 
Find the Right Editing Software

Now, unfortunately, there is a cost involved here, but I promise you it is so worth it. Having access to a good quality photo enhancing software saves you so much time, and can be the difference between taking that commission and turning it away. 

I use Topaz Gigapixel, as well as the Topaz Sharpen and DeNoise. I won't get all technological here to save us both a headache, but ordinarily, when you've got a very small picture and you make it bigger, all you're doing is making the pixels bigger, which leaves you with a very blurry image. Gigapixel increases the size of your picture and enhances the pixels at the same time, leaving you with a much better quality picture to work from.

I also have a subscription to Adobe, which gives me access to Adobe Lightroom and photoshop. Again, there is a cost involved, but for me and my business, it's a no brainer. I use it all of the time, and it is so, so useful. It allows me to edit really important aspects like the exposure and colouring on photographs that come in from clients, and it makes a massive difference. 

Having access to all of these have been a real lifesaver for me in the past, and they've meant that I've been able to say yes to commissions I'd otherwise have had to say no to. 


Know What Needs Changing

To give you an example, I was sent the photo on the left last year, and this one really isn't too bad, but it's more blurred than I'd typically like. It's missing the sharp lines that make an image easier to work from, and the features aren't quite clear enough. 

So, I ran it through Gigapixel, enlarged it because it was particularly small, and enhanced the pixels. The great thing was, I was able to zoom in, blow it up, zoom in again, and I started to see some of those details. If you look at the edited image on the right, you'll see how just a few changes make such a difference. The photo is by no means perfect, but with the improvements, it meant I had an image I could find the details in and work from much more easily. 

Sometimes, we're sent reference photos that are just too dark, like the one on the left. Again, we lose all of that detail, and it's difficult to see the shadows that shape the face, so it's important to lighten the photo to draw those out. 

For this image, I ran it through Abobe Lightroom, and it was as simple as increasing the exposure. Sometimes, it really does just take one little tweak to make a huge difference and, with a little bit of trial and error and the courage to just give editing a photograph a try, you'll be amazed at the difference it can make. 


Use Your Artistic License! 

I also want to talk to you about the beauty of using less than perfect photos. I personally love using photos that aren't really, really sharp. This photo was sent to me for a very recent commission and, as you can probably tell, it's a very old photo that I had to scan into my computer in order to work from. 

What I love about working with images like this is that I don't have to get bogged down by all of the details, I can just concentrate on the values. And, luckily, this particular photo has got really great values. You've got those lovely, shiny bits and you've got the really dark areas. So, even if you don't get any detail in at all, it's still going to look really dramatic because of those lights and darks. 

They also offer a great opportunity to continue improving our artwork. Of course, if you're working with lots of lovely, high definition reference photos, your drawings will naturally progress, but working from photos that really make you use your eyes and engage your brain in a different way will give you that added challenge that helps take your artwork to another level. You'll be able to use your own initiative and creativity to draw something truly unique. 


Don't Feel You Have to Add Every Little Detail In

It's important to remember that, when looking at a subject, the human eye doesn't look for all of the details; it recognises the lights and darks and the shapes that those lights and darks create. If you were to look at a dog, for example, you don't see every individual strand of fur. You see light, dark, texture and patterns, and your brain fills in the bits that you don't necessarily see. It's exactly the same when it comes to looking at a portrait, so don't get lost in adding every single, tiny little detail in there; focus on those values, texture and patterns instead. 


Know When to Say No

Sometimes you're going to be sent reference photos that are so poor, the only thing you can do is say no. Oftentimes, you'll get something like the photo on the left, which is good quality, but that shape of the face is elongated because of the way the photo was taken. When pictures are taken so close to a subject, the focal point changes, and you end up with slightly distorted features that don't translate well on paper. If you're sent a photo like this and your first thought is, "Oh no. This is going to look terrible", go back to your client, explain your reasoning behind rejecting the image and request a new one. 

On the other end of the spectrum, we have photos like the one on the right. I know that some of you are probably thinking I'm being dramatic by adding this one into the mix, but you would not believe the photographs portrait artists receive, and this one really isn't that far fetched! It goes without saying, that any portrait drawn off the back of a photograph like this is going to be both unreasonably difficult and poor quality when it's finished, so the best thing to do is simply say no. 

I know, if you're anything like me, you might feel guilty about telling a client their photograph isn't good enough, but your goal is ultimately to create a portrait that they will love and cherish for years, as well as one you'd be happy to call your own! All it takes is a polite conversation explaining the issues with the photo and giving them clear guidelines on what type of photograph would work best. 

I really hope you find this useful the next time you're met with a poor reference photo, and I hope you'll feel more confident in knowing what to do with it. For more tips, watch the video at the top of this page, and don't forget to leave a comment to let me know how you deal with poor reference photos!


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