Choosing the Best Reference Photo for your Drawing

As a freelancer, I get all types of reference photos to draw; some good, some bad.

I work with all types; however, I can see a tremendous difference in the quality of my work in the pictures that I drew from low-quality reference photos.

The reason for this is that when I’m drawing, I am gathering information about the subject of the picture from the photograph and translate that information on to paper.

If that information isn’t there, all I have to go on is my imagination to fill in the gaps.

Here is an example of an image that I was given last year of a beautiful couple I know.  It’s a nice photo to look at, but when it comes to drawing, it does not have a lot of clarity since it was a snapshot taken without good lighting. And that makes it very difficult to work with.

I had originally contemplated just trying to draw from this picture and making it work, but I knew that I had a rushed deadline and didn’t want to risk making a mistake and then having to redo it again.

So since I’m friends with these people on Facebook, I actually found some better images and worked from those instead (this isn’t always a possibility but in this case, I was fortunate)!

I tried to find photos from similar angles. The pictures shown below are the ones I chose.

They are still not optimal quality to draw from but have improved clarity from the original one and there is enough information there for me to use for a nice portrait:

Can you see the difference in detail with the pictures that show a side by side comparison (below)?

There is both noise and poor lighting in the ones on the left, and low contrast. There is still low contrast in the photo on the right, but the details are clear enough to make out.  Look at the lines of the eyes, mouth, the hair, and nose on each picture.

ref photo for drawing

ref photo for drawing

If you zoom into the eyes on the original picture, you can see how difficult it would be to make out where the lines of the eyes are (it’s possible to do, but very easy to make a mistake that could change the person’s looks completely):

drawing eyes

This is my test of whether I think a picture will work well for me or not. If I zoom in and the eyes aren’t clear, I know it’s going to be tough to interpret on paper.

Here is a picture of the drawing once I had completed it, using the clearer choice of photo:

wedding drawing

I was pretty happy with how it turned out.

However, even in the clearer images that I had used, they were not really good enough photos to draw a very realistic image from.

For example, last week, I wanted to draw a very detailed and realistic portrait of Mike Ehrmantraut from AMC’s Breaking Bad. After looking through photos from a google search, I finally found a good reference picture to use.

It seems like it would be easy to find good quality images of celebrity figures, but it’s more difficult than you’d think with some of them. When I did a google search for images of Mike Ehrmantraut, I found multiple images that simply wouldn’t work for a high-quality drawing.

For example, I found this one:

This picture is a fine image to look at, but it is terrible as a reference for a detailed drawing.  Why? It has poor clarity, due to resizing.  You can tell it is highly pixellated. If I were to zoom in on any of the features, it would make it even more difficult to define what I was looking at.

mike ehrmantrautThis image also does not have sufficient contrast for a good drawing. While the original photo from the scene this is taken from is a good one (if I had the full resolution version of it), it’s not as good for drawing as it could be since there isn’t enough of a contrast of light and dark, which could leave the resulting drawing looking flat.

And here’s another one that wouldn’t work for me:

mike ehrmantraut

The contrast is good in this picture, but there is just not enough clarity to go by.  The reason this photo has poor clarity is that this image was resized to a smaller size from the original.

If I try to increase the size of it, the details are again very difficult to make out. The details in this picture are BETTER than the previous one because of the contrast levels, so I could draw a decent image from this if I had to, but it wouldn’t be super realistic:

mike ehrmantraut

After looking through dozens of images, I finally settled on this one:

mike ehrmantrautPhoto from

Notice that there is a good amount of contrast and also clarity.  And because this is a full-sized image which has not been resized, even if you zoom in on it you can see all the details you need to accurately define the facial details:

Do you see the difference?  Do you see how much more information there is in this photo as compared to the previous two?

And using this photo as a reference, I was able to draw this portrait:

jonathan banks mike ehrmantraut

Here are some other things you need to consider when choosing a reference photo.

Things you  DON’T want:



Low clarity:


Things you DO want:

Crisp, clear details: 

Photo by Pete Bellis on Unsplash

Good lighting. 

Photo by Alex Pasarelu on Unsplash

Good contrast. 

Photo by Andrea Bertozzini on Unsplash

Conclusion:  By just choosing the right reference photo for your drawing, you can dramatically improve the quality of your drawings, because of the ability to observe details you might not see otherwise.

Has this been helpful to you? Let me know in the comments!


  1. Thanks for share this article it is quite helpful to me.

    King regards,
    Demir Dencker

  2. The following is advice on how to choose good photo reference. I ll be using portraits as an example, but the information can be applied to anything. Keep in mind It is possible to get a good drawing from any photograph as long as you know in advance

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