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What Makes a Good Reference Photo for a Pet Portrait?

I recieve photos of people's pets when they order a pet portrait from me. I have painted from teeny tiny, blurry photos from someone's childhood in order to paint all of their family's dogs over the years. I have also painted from sharp, in focus and beautiful professional looking phototographs and everything in between. It is just the way it is as a pet portrait artist. Not everyone takes great photos.....or has great photos of their pet. I completely understand! My wonderful grandmother always had a little Kodak Instamatic camera with her but her photos usually 1) had your head cut off. 2) Were blurry due to her moving when she took the photo. 3) Were of the sky or ground. I have shoeboxes full of her photos but many, sadly, are awful photos! I mean, I loved my grandma dearly and cherish her memory, but it is common knowledge in my family, her photos were bad!! God love her!

I just want to put that right out front. I was sharply criticized when I suggested in a private art group that we post bad photo reference we've been given. It was not meant as a put down to the photographer....really just meant for laughs and its was a private group with no identying information so not meant to ridicule anyone. Artists often lament over what they are given as reference photos to work with - and part of the challenge of doing a good pet portrait is knowing how to work around bad reference photos. It's okay.

In this blog post I would like to talk about what photos are great to work from....just so you know from an artist's perspective.

The Basics

  • in focus

  • natural light

  • face clearly visible

All the usual basics would apply to a reference photo as would any photo. A photo needs to be in focus showing the animal in preferrably natural light so the colors are realistically represented in the photo. It is preferrable that the photo is taken eye level (animal's eye level) or another interesting perspective that shows the animals face without distortion. Horses photographed close up and from the front (ex. in a stall or cross ties) often have alot of lens distortion which makes the ears and nose look exceptionally long- even for a horse!

Smaller dogs or especially sweet, submissive dogs, can look like they are cowering when a photo is taken from above. Plus, I can't see the face well.


  • eye level or slightly above or below

  • reduction of lens distortion

  • unique perspective

There will be exemptions to my tips also. Below is an example of a painting that used references taken looking down on the pet. In the first one, the face is clearly visible and expression adorable. The dog is not cowering or looking submissive which is common in 'taken from above' photos of submissive dogs. You want the animal to appear comfortable. The painting of the white horse draws the viewer in and feels intimate. You don't want your subject to be small and far away unless the scenery is part of the 'story'.

Highlighting a Special Feature or Relationship

The examples below show you a unique pose can show a special friendship, character or feature.

Telling a Story

If you choose, your pet portrait can also tell a story. A head and shoulder pose is about the animals expression but a full body pose, set in scenery, is about a story. Below are some examples of a painting telling a story.

(work in progress)

Below is an example of lens distortion of a horse's face from a frontward angle shot. Head looks big compared to the body. Body is shape and size is distorted (no offense to the photographer). This angle can make a horse look excessively thin, sway backed when the horse is not. Just like a rear angle shot can make a horse's rump look disportionately huge!

The pony's rump looks big, head small due to lens distortion and angle of the shot.


Your portrait can have a more artistic bent to it as well. I love doing these large scale, colorful paintings that are realistic but are about color, line and expressive rahter than a traditional portrait. These are fun to do when the reference may not be the best for a super realistic painting but can certainly become a beautiful piece of artwork.

You don't need to have a perfect reference photo for a lovely painting. The great thing about art and artists is that perfection is not the end goal but is about memorable expression and emotion. Does the painting make you feel happy? Does it evoke pleasant memories and warm fuzzies? If so, that that is a great representation of your special pet!

More tips in these links!


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