How to Take the Perfect Reference Photo

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Blurry, poor lighting.

Blurry, poor lighting.

The makings of a fantastic painting lie in the quality of the reference photo. This is so crucial in helping me capture the personality and spirit of the animal as it is often the only source of reference for me in getting to know your pet. You’re not wanting a portrait of A border collie, you want a portrait of YOUR border collie and as a pet owner you know just how different from the next each fur pal truly is.
All too often I am sent images that are way too small, out of focus, from bizarre angles and or cloaked in weird filtered lighting. Sometimes I can finagle and tweak them in photoshop or try and merge several photos, but honestly, you’re just not going to get the same result.

So, whether you’re the next Annie Leibovitz or simply rely on your smartphone camera, using these helpful tips, you’ll be able to capture your pet at his or her finest!

Poor lighting, bad angle.

Poor lighting, bad angle.


This is a common mistake I encounter with reference photos. If your images are not lit properly, you run the risk of losing a lot of definition, proportions are thrown off, coat colours are no longer accurate and it turns into a bit of guessing a game (one that I’ll likely lose as I don’t get to meet most of your fur babies personally!). Whenever possible, try to take photos outdoors in natural lighting as opposed to indoors with a flash (or god forbid NO FLASH indoors). Your ideal setting would be outside in a bright place.

Avoid direct sunlight as it washes out the pet and you lose a lot of definition in the tones and colours of the coat. Find a shaded but bright area to position your pet and snap that gem!

If you are unable to take photos outdoors, have your pet sit near a window so they’re illuminated by the natural light coming through. Remember to position yourself between the window and your pet, without blocking the light, to prevent the pet from being backlit


Although we all love the “boop my nose” extreme closeup shots or have a plethora of adorable photos taken from above with those sweet puppy dog eyes staring up at us, these, unfortunately, do not make the greatest paintings or portraits.

Instead, I recommended taking your photos from your pets eye level. This will require some creativity and gymnastics depending on the size of your pet, but it really is worth it for the final outcome! You’ll be able to see all of your pet's features clearly and the proportions for the portrait itself will be much more accurate and true to form.


In addition to lighting, receiving low resolution or blurry images is one of the biggest problems I encounter from clients. Try to send images in their original format (usually 1000 PIXELS or more) so they’re at a large enough size that when I zoom in to those cute fuzzy whiskers, the image doesn’t go

blurry and you’re left wondering why I didn’t include that cute little pink freckle on Sparky’s nose.

Too bright.

Too bright.


Take photos after a walk or play session when your pet is panting. This will help you capture them with a grin and your portrait will reflect that big goofy smile!

Having trouble holding their attention? Have someone hold a toy or treat just out of frame of your lens to get them to focus. You’re free to do this yourself, but having a friend help out to enable you to focus entirely on capturing the image itself at just the right moment!

When taking a photo on a smartphone, tap the screen directly over the pet's eyes to have the camera use that as the primary focus. Having a clear shot of the eyes is essential as they are the windows to the soul!

Just right.

Just right.

With all of that in mind, be patient and have fun with it. Although it is important for the best outcome for my portraits, I know it’s often difficult to get pets to cooperate and some pets just hate the camera! Or perhaps this is a gift for a loved one and you have to be sneaky about getting the photos. There are a lot of factors and variables, so just do your best.

Unsure if the photos you have would work for a pet portrait painting? Feel free to email me at and I would be happy to have a look!

Emily LeMoine