5 Things to Know About Reference Photos

Many artists rely on some sort of photo reference to create their artwork and thanks to the internet there are more resources than ever before. While you can still work more traditionally from life or in-person subject matter, royalty-free reference photos allow those without the means, time, or access to take their own photos as an alternative. 

There are a few important considerations when working with digital images including what you can and can’t use, consequences of using images that are available to everyone, and best practices to consider.

photo of a woman taking a photo with a camera

You can’t use images you find anywhere on the internet as photo reference 

It should go without saying, but I feel like it’s important to mention, that not every image you come across or have access to on the internet is royalty-free. This includes social media. While the original person who took the photo has posted it publicly to be seen, that does not automatically equal granting access for it to be used by anyone for any other purpose. 

If you are sourcing images from the internet for your artwork they need to explicitly state that they are royalty-free or that you may use them as long as you give credit to the original photographer. If you are using a stock photo site make sure you check to see what their terms of usage are so that you aren’t accidentally copyright infringing. Not every site, even royalty-free ones, have the same rules. Your best bet if you aren’t sure is to contact the photographer of the photo you would like to use for their permission.

Photo of someone looking at a series of reference photos of plants

Royalty free reference images are not acceptable for some art competitions

If you plan to enter competitions with your artwork, it’s important to know what is and isn’t accepted for reference. Some competitions require that the photo you use as reference be yours while others allow someone else to have taken the photo(s) as long as you have obtained written permission. 

You may think to yourself, that chances of being caught are slim so why go through the hassle, but consider that it’s your reputation on the line as well as potential lawsuits and a host of other unfavorable consequences that can come your way if you don’t. Even on sites where there are thousands of images to choose from you will still see artists using the same photo reference for their drawings. The odds of someone recognizing that you used a photo that wasn’t yours or that you didn’t have permission to use is higher than you think. As petty as it may sound, you better believe that they will probably out you on it as well. 

photo of someone taking a picture f a sunset on a lake with their phone

Taking your own photos doesn’t have to be hard or expensive

It would be negligent to talk about photo references and not discuss that taking your own photos doesn’t have to be hard. While many assume that you need to have a lot of sophisticated and expensive equipment and a degree in photography to take your own photos, that is certainly not the case. Many smartphones come equipped with lenses that equal some traditional point-and-shoot cameras. You can shoot and edit all on your phone with ease. 

For years I have shot all of my photography and YouTube videos just using my iPhone. To be honest, often I found it a lot easier as well. There are many apps available that can give you better control over your built in camera and for Android users there are further customizable options.

As an artist, you likely already have an eye for composition so use that. Practice getting to know your camera whether it’s on your phone or a reasonably priced prosumer DSLR. Start with singular objects in different lighting. Natural light is the easiest and best light to work with especially if you are an amateur. 

Find apps that allow you to make custom adjustments to lighting and colours on your images. iPhone has a great built-in editing system or you could download a third-party app like Adobe Lightroom that is very user-friendly, contains preset filters and more.


On Episode 341 of the Sharpened Artist | Colored Pencil Podcast John Middick and I discuss this topic in depth! Check out what we had to say by listening below. 

LISTEN TO THIS EPISODE BY VISITING: https://sharpenedartist.com/podcast/341

photo of 5 hanging light bulbs

The originality of your art could be questioned even using royalty-free images

While many artists know that royalty-free reference sites exist, I would argue that the majority of the general public does not. You may purchase or download a photo from a site that grants you access to use it however you want including for your artwork, but that also means that anyone else can too.

Where this becomes a problem is when you start seeing the same image created by multiple artists. It may not bother you to know that someone else used a photo for their artwork since you know that you both have permission to use it. To an outsider, however, it may look as though one of you has copied the other, especially if the works look very similar.

In my own experience, I have seen the same image I’ve used to create an artwork (and won awards for) drawn by other artists as well. Some versions were far superior to mine and some were not. I couldn’t help but feel like something had been taken away from mine because there were these replicas out there. Perfectly legitimate replicas of the original photo of course, but nonetheless it made me feel weird. I made a decision right then that if I was going to use a royalty-free image, that I would change it as much as possible to make it my own. 

Aside from small studies that I do for practice or demo purposes, any major artworks I create now don’t rely on a singular reference, and if it does I change it almost completely. From colours to adding elements and even adjusting facial features in figure-based works, my goal is always to make the image more mine than someone else’s by the time I’m ready to draw from it.

Keep your photo reference organized for inspiration later 

If you’re anything like me you’ve probably at some point gotten sucked into a rabbit hole of royalty-free downloading. How are all of those absolutely beautiful images free to use and FREE money wise!? It’s crazy. I’ve often caught myself downloading them like I thought they were going to change their minds any minute and take them away from me. The problem with that is that you end up with a folder on your desktop that looks like a mini backup version of their website. The odds of you going back and using all of those images at that point are slim, so I have a couple of tips for you to keep yourself in check.

desktop computer on a photo reference
  • Organize your photos by subject matter or the project you’re going to use them for
  • Make sure the site you downloaded them from and what the photographer’s name is in the file name or folder label
  • Create an account on the site if available to keep track of your download history (this also helps you avoid downloading the same image twice because you forgot you already had it)
  • Check your saved photo referenced first before you go back to look for more
  • dedicate a specific, folder or hard drive for this purpose so you know where to find everything

Related: Create & Organize a Photo Reference Catalog


John and I hosted a 3-hour live ZOOM workshop where we discussed everything photo reference! Get a step-by-step and behind-the-scenes look at:

  • How to get started taking your own portrait photography
  • How to problem solve using less than ideal client reference photos
  • How to know when a photo needs editing
  • Demo examples of simple photo edits you can make to improve your reference photos fast

*redirects to teachable.com

CREDIT: Royalty-free stock photos from pexels.com

Barb Sotiropoulos

Barb Sotiropoulos

I’m a Canadian artist and designer specializing in coloured pencil and mixed media. When I’m not creating art, I love helping other artists by sharing tips and tricks that have helped me. You can find me on all of my social channels @barbsotiart or check out my past Q&A articles for COLORED PENCIL Magazine or my co-hosting appearances on the Sharpened Artist Colored Pencil Podcast.

Leave a Reply

Hey, I'm Barb!

I’m a Canadian artist and designer specializing in coloured pencil and mixed media. When I’m not creating art, I love helping other artists by sharing tips and tricks that have helped me. You can find me on all of my social channels @barbsotiart or check out my past Q&A articles for COLORED PENCIL Magazine or my co-hosting appearances on the Sharpened Artist Colored Pencil Podcast.

Let's Connect!
Blog Categories

Be the first to know about new artwork and print releases AND get a 15% off code for my Etsy Shop