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Tips for taking reference photographs for a pet portrait.

Painting a high-quality pet portrait takes skill, planning, a lot of hard work, and most importantly, a good reference photo. My commissions come from clients across the country and are of animals that I've never actually seen in-person before. My only connection to that animal are the photographs that my clients provide.


This is an example of what happens when you get too close and how bad lighting doesn't show enough detail.

Getting a good reference photo to paint from is the most common issue I have when I am commissioned to paint a pet portrait. Clients always send me their favorite photographs of their pet.


This is an example of a photo that uses very bad lighting. The sun is coming from the back of the cat and causes the entire animal to be in a dark shadow.

Unfortunately, what they see in the photo is much different from what I see in the same photo. They see their pet doing something unbelievably cute. I see a dark, out of focus and low resolution image which shows me very little detail of their pet. The photo might be great for their scrapbook, but it's impossible to paint from. Honestly, this happens just about every time I accept a commission.


Remember, I can't paint what I can't see! That's why I've put together this quick guide to help you take photos that I can use to create your portrait painting.


HIGH RESOLUTION IMAGE

Digital images work best. They're easy to take, you can shoot as many as you want and they don't cost anything. It is very important that you shoot them using the highest resolution your camera or smart phone allows. High resolution images offer the most clarity and detail to the image.


If you're not sure how to tell if you have a high or low resolution image, take a look at the file size of the image. A file that is just 100k is very low resolution and generally not usable. An image that is around 1Mb is a decent size image. Just remember, the larger the file size, the higher the resolution. Remember: blurry, grainy or pixelated images simply will not work.


SHOOT FROM THEIR EYE LEVEL, NOT YOUR OWN

In other words, try not to shoot directly from above. Whether I'm painting people or pets, portraits are all about the eyes. While there are a few exceptions, getting down on the animal’s eye level will create more personal pet portraits, as it brings out unique personalities and highlights a more intimate perspective.


This is an example of a nice photo that was shot at the dog's eye level.

USE THE WHOLE FRAME

Do you want to just show their face, or show their entire body? Move around and try out different ideas. The worst that can happen is that you’ll have to delete a few photos that nobody else will ever see, then who cares!


You can't see any detail in either the cat or dog in this image. Great for the scrapbook, terrible to paint from!


But, having a nice high-resolution image isn’t very useful if the subject matter just takes up a tiny part of the picture frame. Don’t be afraid to fill the whole picture up with your pet’s face or body.


FOCUS ON THE EYES

To really make those puppy dog eyes pop, make sure the camera focuses on the eyes by using single point autofocus area and moving the focal point over one of the pet’s eyes. Using natural light like a window also tends to make the eyes sparkle without risking red eye.


Look at those eyes! Photo fills the frame and is sharp in detail. Excellent reference photo!

AVOID USING FLASH

A flash is bright and can be unnerving for a small animals. Flash can scare them or make them nervous and hide. Additionally, flash is very harsh and can cast unwanted shadows that cover up important details. If you are indoors, it’s best to use natural light since this won’t wash out delicate features such as feathers and light-colored fur.


TAKE A LOT OF PICTURES

You may need to shoot dozens or even hundreds of images to get exactly the right one, no matter how careful you are. This is especially true of you’re taking pictures of animals. The bottom line is that no matter what you photograph or how careful you are in preparing, you really can’t take too many pictures—the more you take, the better your selection of good reference photos will be.


DO SOME RESEARCH ON YOUR OWN

Go to Google and do an image search for the term "pet portrait". You'll see thousands of different images of what others have done. Looking through all those images will help you better understand how to best compose your photo.


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Craig J. Palmer  |  Artist  |  Boulder, CO & Sarasota, FL
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© 2020 by Craig J. Palmer.