When you’re painting a portrait there’s not much going to cause you as many problems as bad lighting. So many snaps taken on cameras or phones might show a lovely face, but they often miss key information for getting a likeness.

Why tone is important to portrait reference photos

Lighting affects tone, that is the relative darkness and lightness of an object.

We are all aware that the shape of eyes and mouths need to be correct to get a likeness. We are thinking of the two dimensional shape. What we are sometimes less aware of is that the bumps and dips in the landscape of our face are also crucial to capturing likeness in three dimensions.

Lighting is what reveals those bumps and hollows and allows us to model the face using shapes of lights and darks. Working from life is the best way to make sure you can see tone, particularly if you can control the lighting, but this isn’t always practical.

If you’re providing a reference photo for an artist

Reference photo with good lighting and character

Reference photo with good lighting and character

Here are some ways to make sure the artist has the best material to work from when they’re drawing a portrait:

  • If you can, provide a selection of photos
    The artist needs to get a good idea of the subject. The artist can only paint what they know and see, so providing as much visual information as possible will help as different lighting and positioning can affect likeness. It can also show different sides to a character.
  • Try to find a photo that shows the subject’s personality
    If the subject has a particular mannerism or laugh or eyebrow raise, or even likes to wear a particular hat or sunglasses; don’t necessarily rely on a traditional smiling pose, try to find something that captures what makes them ‘them’.
  • Try to make sure the photo is well lit
    Or at least try to provide a selection in which at least one is well lit. If a photo is too dark or too bright and washed out, it will be difficult to make out the shape of the features which can affect likeness. Ideally the photo will show light on one side of the face and shadow on the other, which can be achieved by taking a photo sideways on to a light source.
  • Make sure your reference photo has good resolution
    Most camera phones have sufficient resolution for portraits, but some very old photos may not. If your preferred photo is very low resolution, all you’ll see when you enlarge it is blocky pixels. If you do have a photo you love that’s low resolution, try to provide some higher resolution ones as well.

    Low quality images lose detail when enlarged

    When you enlarge a low resolution photo, you cannot see the fine detail. Its difficult to work from a picture where much information is missing, particularly around the eyes.

If you’re an artist, how to fix common problems when working from photos

If you’re an artist trying to daw or paint a portrait from a photo here are some ways to address common problems:

  • Flat Tone
    Cameras tend to flatten tone, and many photos don’t contain quite enough information to reproduce the contrasts needed.You can improve a flat photo ┬áby using photo editing software (on a computer or through the gallery app on your phone) to increase contrast.
  • Photo too light or too dark
    Whether your photo is too light or too dark you will suffer from being unable to see important tonal information about the shape of the face and features. Either way you can use photo editing software to increase or decrease the lightness and saturation.

    Photo on the right has had brightness and contrast adjusted.

    The photo on the left is a bit washed out so the photo on the right has had the brightness and contrast adjusted.

Taking your own photo

Good lighting for a reference photo

Good lighting for a reference photo

Taking your own photo gives you control over the composition of the picture, ensures you don’t have any elements obscured or cut off, and enables you to set the lighting. Here are some tips to help you take a good one:

  • Choose your background
    If you can, decide on a setting where the background fits your idea and composition, take the photo against a plain wall or use a cloth or screen as a backdrop.
  • Choose your lighting
    Natural light is best. If you pose your sitter side on to a natural light source or lamp , one side of their face will be in light and the other in shade. This is ideal for capturing likeness and conveying depth and solidity. Bear in mind you might need to pick a time of day where the lighting is best in the setting you have chosen.
  • Choose your pose
    You don’t necessarily have to choose a front on pose, it isn’t always the most relaxed view. A pose with the face turned three-quarters towards the subject is more natural.
    Decide if you want a head and shoulders shot, a waist upwards shot with hands, or a full length composition; and whether the subject is sitting or standing.

Different styles require different information

The style of the portrait will determine how much detail is required. Expressive portraits or looser oil paintings won’t require as much detailed information as a highly-detailed, super-realistic portrait.

Whatever the style, talking to the artist if you’re commissioning and portrait, or talking to your client if you’re the artist will help get the best result from a painting or drawing.

I hope these tips help a bit, if you’ve got any more ideas feel free to add your comments below.

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