Here at Etchr, we love to paint outdoor scenes from life. Whenever possible, we like to be outside making Plein air paintings, to practice directly from observation and race against the changing light.

It makes us better painters. But there’s a lot to be said for painting from photographs, especially ones you take yourself! Here are three tips for how to choose a high-quality reference photo from your camera roll.

Tip 1: Composition

As you browse your photos, you’ll want to look for ones that have strong compositions. A strong composition will typically follow the rule of thirds or the golden ratio.

We talk about this more on this in our blog on our top tips on painting from photographs.

You want the image to have balance but not be so symmetrical that the eye has no reason to travel through it. A strong composition will also be simple. Let’s look at some compositions.

This composition isn’t bad by any means in terms of the foreground tree shapes, but the building and cars at the bottom are cluttering it. If you paint this, you’ll want to keep the foreground trees but remove the background.

A strong painting will keep its viewer’s attention on its subject. 

Sometimes you’ll have photos on your phone with big potential but will need to be cropped before that potential is realized. This picture here has nice contrast, but I didn’t follow the rule of thirds while framing it.

The nearest telephone pole should have been slightly to the left in the picture plane instead of right in the middle. I can fix this by cropping.

There! Now we have a lovely composition, no clutter and no unused space. It’s asymmetrical because the “X” part of the telephone pole structure is more or less on one of the imaginary lines dividing the picture plane into thirds.

The rule of thirds keeps the image orderly enough in the asymmetry to have the satisfying balance of symmetry mixed with the natural look of asymmetry.

Tip 2: Contrast

Something that goes hand in hand with strong composition is good contrast. You’ll want to make sure the light and dark areas align with the rule of thirds or golden ratio.

This picture was a nice idea, the hills were beautiful that day, but I won’t be painting anything from this picture. The lighting wasn’t hitting right for any shadows to break this image into interesting sections.

If you were to look at this from far away with the values turned to black and white, it would look like a sky and then a grey blob. This photo is best as a photo.

This image doesn’t have a ton of contrast either, but it is redeemable. There are different greenery elements and signs and shadows on the hills. Using these elements, you can raise the contrast in your final painting.

You can even change the colours to improve its look as a painting. Edit the reference photo to have higher contrast if you need it. Be mindful you don’t edit the photo so much that it no longer looks like a natural light scenario.

Now, this photo is perfect! See how the road, hills, and sky more or less divide the picture into thirds? And look at how those clouds dance!

There are tons of dynamic and high-contrast shadows on the hills, and the clouds themselves are high-contrast and full of texture. Also, the road leads to the side a bit and not straight down the middle, so there’s that asymmetry we like. This painting will be splendid!

Tip 3: Mix and Match

I rarely work from a single reference. It takes practice to combine more than one in your head for a painting but will become second nature as you get experience.

For example, you could take the crisp edges of the previous image and use that to inform your painting of this photo:

This photo has beautiful colours, lovely contrast, and a sweeping composition that’s elegant. The trouble is that it’s such a low resolution, and someone obviously took it through a dirty car window.

If you only have low quality photos, don't worry. We've got a great guide on how to paint from low-quality reference photos. 

The photo above this one has similarly shaped hills and clouds, so you could take the edge definition from that photo while painting this photo. Your painting will have the best of both!

Combining references like this is also great for other people taking your reference photos. Combining enough references that your artwork doesn’t look like any specific one is the safest way to post online for copyright purposes.

Now you know how to find beautiful references within your own photos!

Experiment with different cameras for different effects too. What if you shot on film? What if you used novelty lenses? Different photos will inspire you to paint in different ways. Have a lovely time with your camera and your paints.

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Elsa Wahlstrom is an illustrator/writer living in the south Idaho hill country. She  loves to create cozy, homey pictures and populate them with funny little creatures  having surreal little adventures. Her biggest inspiration is the music and comedy that  came out of England in the late 60s. When she’s not busy making art, she goes for long  hikes, plays a few instruments, and collects vinyl.

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