Saturday, September 11, 2010

Taking Good Reference Photos for Pet Portraits

8x10 inches
Acrylics on Canson Mi-Teintes Tex card

I wanted to show these two reference photos as a guide to show how to get the best reference photos for your commissioned portraits. Both of these photos were sent by the same client, and without a doubt, I knew straight away that the photo on the left would be perfect and yet the photo on the right is probably more typical of the kind of reference photos I am often sent.

The reasons the photo on the left is so much better include:

The dog is at eye level - I am often sent photos where the owner is standing over their pet, and looking down on them, but as you can see in this composition, with the dog sitting on the table, that it is so much more pleasing and somehow gives the animal ownership of the portrait, rather than looking submissive.

There is a natural light source coming from one side of the pet - Natural light is almost always better than flashlight, and in particular in this case, where you have a strong natural light source from the window contrasting with the darker shadows behind the dog. Your portrait will be so much more interesting if you can achieve these contrasts in your lighting. Portrait artists can usually make some improvements to a photo, such as removing flashlight from the eyes, but creating a masterpiece from an average photo is usually beyond most of us mere mortal artists.
It is especially important to have a contrast of lighting if your pet is either all white, or all black, as it then becomes even more important to seek out any highlights or shadows which will prevent the portrait from looking flat.

Try to avoid front on photos. Your portrait will be far more pleasing if your pet is positioned on an angle. Clients often spend hours trying to get their reluctant pets to look at the camera, thinking that this will make the best photo, but in a lot of cases this only creates foreshortening of their facial features, and creates a dull image. If you would prefer to have your pet looking at the camera, try to have them sitting side on, and encourage them to turn their head toward the camera. Don't be afraid to experiment with different angles. Often the animals will avoid looking at the camera because of the flashlight, but don't be disheartened - be imaginitive and you may find your portrait looks much better anyway!!!

If at all possible avoid using a flash!!! The two best options are to position your pet near a natural light source as in the photo above, or else take your pet outside for the photo. When taking the photo outside, it is also ideal to try to aim for some contrasts in lighting so perhaps sitting your pet near a shady tree. Flash light creates unnatural lighting and taking the photo indoors without good lighting will make it hard to capture accurately the colour of your pet's coat and eyes.

Whilst this may seem like a lot of effort to go to, it really is worth it if you would like the best possible portrait of your precious pet.


sue said...

Well said Karen.

I sometimes think clients just don't realise how disheartening it is for artists to work from poor references knowing we won't be able to produce the sort of portraits we'd like.

I've become tougher about declining work from poor photos but when the pet is deceased and its not possible to obtain better pics I've sometimes been persuaded to 'do my best'. However the results are usually disappointing to me - even though the clients are happy with their 'memorial' portrait.

Anyway, I'm going slightly off subject (sorry)

This is a beautiful portrait of a very cute dog (and it illustrates your point perfectly)

Anonymous said...

Very good and sound many times I find myself offering the very same information to people..nothing worse than a poor photo to try and create a picture from.

Miniature Art by Karen Hull said...

Thank you Sue and Vic. I know just what you mean Sue - whilst we do aim to make the customer happy, the process is so much more enjoyable if we can create something that is pleasing to the eye, as well as a memory for the client. I'm like you and still do the portraits from bad photos if that's all the client has, but I have been caught here, where the photo was so bad, and I tried my best, but never heard back from the client again.

sam said...

You are spot on Karen, and like Sue I have rejected many a commission based on inadequate photos. Trusting our own judgement on each photo I guess and knowing if we can do it justice or not.
'Flash eye' the most common problem and I have tried to make it up or use other references but still I think its the most important part of the portrait and reject these straight away now.
You have done a wonderful job Karen, I love the lighting and the way youve handled the reflections)

Miniature Art by Karen Hull said...

You are so right Sam. I wrote this article, not just for my clients, but for anyone contemplating a commissioned portrait - actually I could have written much more, but had to try and condense it a bit. Hopefully potential clients will read it!!! :)

Barbara A. Freeman said...

So well said, Karen! Lady is a cutie.

Miniature Art by Karen Hull said...

Thank you heaps Barbara :))