Taking a Photo

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There are few things more important in digital painting than reference. Do you think that the Sistine Chapel ceiling was painted without first a few sketches being made (at least)? Photos can be used in (at least) two ways:

  • As direct reference (e.g. as guides in the making of a painting).
  • As material to be used directly in a composite.

You can get by for 90% of digital painting using images sourced from the internet, books etc. However, there is nothing that beats taking your own. But this is not a thing to be done lightly. Here are a few guidelines. They assume you are taking a photo of a human but could easily be adapted to objects, landscapes and suchlike.

Asking a photographer to help you

It will help solve a lot of your problems if you ask a (good) photographer to help you. They are worth their weight in gold. However, there are some major differences between a good photo and a good photo-for-digital-painting-reference that they should be made aware of. Amongst them are:

  • It is likely that if the photo is of a human then the space above the head will be discarded by you. A photo taken for reference above all need to deliver lots of information. For this reason ask them to fill the photo as much as possible with the figure: no spaces necessary. This will be against their training and they will need some encouragement.
  • The background should be clear and easy to mask out.
  • Dark shadows should be kept quite light. You can always easily make them darker in Photoshop. A digital painter prefers a wide dynamic range with no 'massing' of light or dark values.

Remember: for the compositor, a photo is just a starting point (see below). This is a mindset that the average photographer will be unfamiliar with.

Photo 01.jpg

Models etc

Begin at the beginning. Who is your model? Please don’t immediately assume that it will be your friend, sister or brother or whoever is conveniently to hand. Find someone who is appropriate to your needs and don’t be afraid of asking people who you don’t know. It might help if you pay them. Not only might this persuade them to model, it might also help establish the time spent modeling as ‘your’ time.


Don’t settle for second best. Know what you want and get it. It might be that your model needs help getting into the right pose (suggestions, clear directions, examples etc). A big mirror can sometimes be helpful.

Also: take at least five photos of each pose you need. There is a high chance that none of them will be absolutely perfect but two or three composited together might be fine.

Camera position

Don’t just snap away without considering where the camera is. The camera’s position also decides the viewer’s implied position and thereby establishes one of the major dramatic aspects of the image.

For portraits it is best to stand quiet far away from the subject. You should avoid a photo in which you are looking AT the head but DOWN at the feet (unless, that is, you want this). Take into account:

  • Height (how far from the floor plane). If the image is in normal ‘human space’ then the camera should be mounted with the lens at eye level.
  • Distance from model: photographing close to the model will introduce distortions.


It’s possible to change almost anything about a photograph in PS. However lighting, though you can augment and enhance it, is difficult to radically change (e.g. it is difficult to change it’s direction). For this reason you need to think carefully about lighting when you take your preparatory photographs. When considering lighting you have the option of using available light or setting up a light rig in a studio. Using available light is NOT the same as trusting to chance (i.e. a snapshot).

If you use natural light then evening light is best. This tends to be more diffuse and does not feature any hard shadows.

For our purposes studio lights can be improvised from normal domestic lights. You might need to buy a new, powerful, bulb. The basic studio set up tends to consist of:

  • At least one main light: this one will do all the hard work of providing the shadows and the major areas of light. It is usually placed slightly to one side of the camera. You need to ensure that either the light can be positioned very tall or that you have step ladders, tables and suchlike to place them on top of. This is an important issue as most ‘natural looking’ light comes from above yet most portable domestic lights are very short.
  • A fill-in light: a pale, diffuse light this fills in the shadows, preventing them from ‘blacking out’. It can also provide a faint rim of light round the edge of the subject which can lift it from the background. Traditionally this light is of a slightly cooler hue (e.g. a pale blue). A ‘fill in’ can either be a separate light (bounced off a sheet of white card) or simply the main light being bounced off a sheet of card. Sometimes the only way to hold the fill in in place is by asking a friend to hold it.
  • A back light: this is useful for lighting the background and is especially good when you plan to separate the background from the foreground with a blue screen or suchlike. It should not affect the light on the actual subject itself.

Obviously this arrangement can be played around with, and improvised upon at your leisure. If you have problems deciding on a set-up then look in a fashion magazine or a book of old Hollywood glamor photography for useful style pointers.

Do NOT use the camera’s built in flash. This creates a dark shadow halo round the subject (which is tedious to remove in PS) and lights the subject in a flat and lifeless way.

The studio

Where are you going to take the photo? Does it have to be in your kitchen, back yard, bedroom etc? Might it not be better taken in a studio? That was a rhetorical question. If you are taking a photo yourself that does not depend on a particular environment then it almost certainly should be taken in a studio.

Using a studio offers you control over all the various ‘ingredients’ of a photo. You do not need a professional photographer’s studio to get good results. A decent studio can be improvised from available recourses. You will need:

  • A clear open space. Spend some time clearing the room of tables, chairs etc.
  • A well chosen background (large rolls of paper or cotton sheets are easy enough to buy and install).
  • If you are going to use artificial light then you need a room you can black out (or wait until dark).
  • Lights that are adjustable in height (VERY important).
  • Powerful light bulbs.
  • Light reflectors (which enable indirect, scattered light). These can be improvised from white cardboard sheets.
  • Plenty of power extension cables and enough powerpoints.
  • A tripod (VERY important for a steady shot). If you haven't got one then place your camera on something like a step ladder. It can even be taped into place so that it remains steady for the shot (shaky cameras have been the ruin of many a reference photo).
  • A cable release (photos taken by hand are another cause of shaky camera work). If you haven't got a cable release try using the timer setting instead.

People to help you (if possible).

  • Someone to help you.

The camera

Consumer digital cameras are getting pretty good. If you need to print no larger than A1 then they will suffice, for larger projects use a pro model. Instead of a digital camera you can use a medium format ordinary film camera. The resultant transparency can then be scanned in to PS. If you are using traditional chemical film make sure that it is suitable for your lighting conditions (i.e. tungsten film for artificial light) and also that it is ‘slow’. Slow film (e.g. iso 100) is, as it’s name implies, slower to react to light. Therefore your exposures will take longer. However, as you are shooting in the studio this shouldn't be a problem. It’s advantage is that it has less of a ‘grain’ than fast film. In other words, you can enlarge it more without too much noisy distortion.

The school’s LUMIX cameras are fine. They are point and shoot but also supply camera RAW format.

RAW format

If possible shoot in RAW format. This gives you a wider range of imfo to use.