Hello! If you're here, you're probably thinking about commissioning a pet portrait and might be looking for some tips and tricks for giving me or another artist some good reference photos of your pet. Reference photos are so important to us to help create not only a painted likeness of your pet, but also an elaboration of who your pet really is. Occasionally I'll have clients who happen to have some good images laying around already, but I'm also happy to help if you're not sure where to start!
What's most important to note is that the reason a portrait artist may get nit-picky about photo references is because our job is to give you a painting that is reflective of what you see in our current portfolios – if we're given a poorly lit photo or a low resolution image, that won't be possible to do. Also, this is not to say that you need the photos to be done professionally, or with a high-end camera (though if you have a camera, go for it!) Usually any typical smart phone today is capable enough of getting an acceptable photo, but there are a couple key things to keep in mind.
For me, my absolute biggest requirement is lighting. I highly advise taking photo references of your pet using natural light as opposed to artificial. The problem with incandescent lighting in our homes is it often dulls color and details, and casts a yellowish glow, even sometimes with bright white lighting. Taking your photos outside will allow for the most optimal color and detail – it even helps improve the resolution in your photo as it reduces graininess! Have an indoor-only kitty? No problem – if you have any nice windows around the house, that works perfectly fine as well. We're just looking to get some fresh sparkles in their eyes! The only thing to be careful of with natural lighting is direct sunlight, which can sometimes be too harsh. Check out the photos below!
The other extremely important factor is photo resolution. As I mentioned above, this can sometimes go hand-in-hand with lighting, as you'll be getting more grain in photos taken in dim lighting indoors – this is because your camera is trying to compensate for the lack of light, so it's filling it with noise. Taking your photos using natural light will already improve your quality! Most smartphones today usually have cameras capable of decent resolutions, though if you have an older phone, you may need to borrow a friend or family member's instead. Something else that's a big factor with resolution is taking a photo from far away, and then cropping it in. In most cases this will highly deplete the resolution and make your photo pixelated, which is not ideal. I only do facial portraits (no full body) and pixelation prevents me from seeing details!
So now that we've talked about the most important two factors, there's just a few more things to touch on. First, try to stay away from photo filters as well. In some cases, I like to filter the image a little bit myself to manipulate the lighting and colors, so letting me start from the most original, fresh version of the photo is a plus! I also try to stay away from heavy accessories and clothing on animals, as I find them distracting for my style of portraiture. If you can even avoid dog collars, I would! I like to allow the background colors and patterns to do the work of expressing personality, and you get to help me choose those – daisies, pizza, galaxy, you name it!
And finally, I also require head and shoulder portraits only, rather than full body paintings. This means that ideally, I like to get photos from you that focus on the face, especially in an upright position. I try to avoid photos of pets shot from directly above, or while the pet is laying down.
This is especially important when you're looking to have 2 or 3 pets in the same painting. We just need to make sure both photos were taken in the same lighting, so preferably same place and same time, and that both were taken from the same perspective of sitting upright and facing forward – we can't have one laying on its side and one taken from straight above! This way, I can juxtapose both faces together to make it look like they're next to each other in the painting.
And that's all there is too it! Fresh daylighting, full resolution, shot at close range at about your pet's eye level. You should have no issues doing this with most modern smartphones (though use your camera if you have one!), so now your only challenge is your pet's cooperation. This part can be tricky, but with a little patience and maybe some treats, you should have no problem! Remember, your pet doesn't necessarily have to be looking straight at the viewer either. As long as it's roughly at their eye level, a portrait of your cat staring off into the distance is just as pretty, so no need to get frustrated if they don't feel like looking at you. If your pet is intently staring at something, that may actually be the perfect opportunity to snap some shots while they're sitting still!
And lastly and most importantly, my biggest piece of advice of all. Even if you're not looking to get a portrait any time soon, or maybe it's not something that's in your thoughts at all, take photos anyway. I cannot stress this enough! All of us know the horrible truth of being a pet owner is that someday your beloved pet won't be with you anymore. Sometimes it may be due to old age, and sometimes tragedy strikes. And when that day comes, you will never regret having a phone filled with a million photos. Maybe a point will come where you wish you had taken more photos, so that you could get a memorial portrait painted, or photos just to look back on in general. Regardless, take a million photos of your pets, always. You will never have too many!
Morgan Ofsharick specializes in business headshots, proposal, engagement, wedding, maternity, newborn, and family portrait photography, servicing New Haven, Fairfield, Hartford, Middlesex, Litchfield, and plenty of other regions around Connecticut! –MEO Photography