Create & Organize A Photo Reference Catalog

Artist Tip: August 2015

Hi There! 

It’s the second week of the month which means today is Artist Tip Day!

This Month’s tip is about creating and organizing your digital photo reference catalog. I was first advised to create one of these back in college, and while I had good intentions I never really got around to it officially. I took a couple of photography courses and always tried to take a lot of photos whenever I went some where special but never actually sat down to organize them. When I started really committing to drawing more post college I decided it was time to try and make some rhyme or reason out of all of it. As of the last little while, I’ve also come to realize my understanding of copyright law was not entirely accurate when using photos as reference in my work. This new-found understanding is part of how I’ve structured my reference catalog. 

Building Your Catalog
If you aren’t already comfortable with your photography skills, I would highly recommend taking a couple of photography courses. A lot of colleges offer them through extended studies programs and is a great asset to your skill set as an artist for many reasons. Learning about lighting, composition, and the basic operation of a camera will improve the quality of the photos you take as you build your catalog. If taking classes for photography isn’t in your budget there are many YouTube videos and books out there that can also be useful.

Once you’re comfortable enough to start taking your own photos, I would recommend taking your camera with you on whatever special trips you make and photograph the things you find interesting around you. On my trip to Italy last year I took a lot of pictures of doors and street lamps in Venice. Not sure if I’m going to use them for anything any time soon, but I found them interesting and I don’t exactly go to Italy as often as I’d like. The more you do this, the more you will find unique opportunities to photograph things that may be of use to you in your artwork later.

My next recommendation would be to check out artist reference sites that provide free or affordable artist reference photos if you aren’t able to photograph what you want to draw or paint yourself. (Some great links provided at the end of this post)

How I Organize My Folders
I have a separate external hard drive that hold all of my photos, but you can set this up wherever it suits you best. Because I have a lot of photos that I took at as high a resolution as possible, I don’t want that taking up all my hard drive space on my computer. If you chose to use a separate drive, I suggest investing in one with at least 1 or 2 TB and that is good quality. I would also recommend having a back-up somewhere of your photos. This may seem redundant but technology does fail and hard drives can get lost or damaged by accident.

As you can see in the below photo example I have broad general categories, then more specific, and then 3 folders “M” (or My photos that I took), “NET” ( photos I found on the internet), and “RF” (Royalty free or images I have permission to use). For those of you familiar with the copyright law, you really aren’t supposed to use a photo to draw from that you don’t have the original photographer’s permission to use. There are many heated debates that go on in forums for artists that I have seen where people argue exactly how much of the photo is ok to use. I have recently decided that it’s better to stick to the safe side of things.

barbsotiart_photo ref catalog

Using Photos from the Internet
I’ve collected a lot of photos over the years between ones I have taken myself and ones that I have saved from the internet. I’ve recently discovered some photo sites that cater to artists and provide great photos that are either royalty free or provide the original photographer’s consent to use them for your work. Since I have been building up a Royalty Free catalog of things I wanted to draw I wanted to make sure I wouldn’t confuse those images with ones that I don’t have permission to use. Sometimes photos found on the internet can provide additional information on a subject matter which is why I have included a “NET” category.

I try to make sure that whatever I’m drawing is not a direct copy of that photo but rather use those photos for understanding and studying addition detail if my primary photo I’m working from doesn’t have enough visual information. This folder will also house any photos I find inspirational on that subject matter. For example, if i see a photo where the lighting or composition is really great I will save that photo in my “NET” folder as an inspirational reference, but not one I will ever draw from or copy directly.

This is a topic that strikes a lot of heated debate. I’m only going to give my opinion on it though I know some people will very strongly disagree. As some of you know I have drawn some celebrities here and there. It’s not something I plan on making a staple in my practise, but it’s something I like occasionally doing. A lot of artists start out mimicking their favourite cartoon characters when they are learning how to draw. Sometimes, they are so inspired by an actor or musician they want to draw them in tribute. Personally I think this is ok. That being said, according to copyright laws and the rights some celebrities have attached to their image, this is not ok. This is primarily because you don’t have permission to draw from the photo you are using or have rights to use the actor’s image in a work of art. 

In some cases, like the Jon Snow or Lagertha character drawings I did, those TV Shows have official fan art sites where they encourage fans to submit their drawings. Actor’s like Stephen Amell from the tv show Arrow also encourages fan art on his Facebook page. This is not the case for everyone though. If you want more in-depth information about the laws regarding fan art, I found some great info HERE. Although, I like to draw characters from tv or celebrities I like on occasion, I DO NOT sell prints of my original fan art drawings. A lot of people do and are great at it and make their career of doing that, but that’s not the direction I ultimately want to go with my work. I have on occasion agreed to do small drawings as gifts for close friends but those are very rare and something I may in the future stop doing entirely. 

Remember that you have to set up a system that makes sense and works for you. This system is just what works for me. You may not be fantastic at taking photos at first, but like anything the more you do it the better it will get.  You will also have more control over composition and lighting if you strive to take photos yourself. If taking your own photos still doesn’t seem like something you want to do or have time to get better at, use artists reference resources as much as possible or contact the photographer or the photo you want to use for permission. Most people are happy to give you permission, but the key it to ask first.

Have Fun and Happy Cataloging!

Here are some of the many great sites that provide reference photos for artists:

Wildlife Reference Photos:

Paint my Photo:



Jason Morgan:

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.

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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.

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