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  • Writer's pictureAmy Elizabeth Fine Art

Pet Portraits from Photos-What Makes a Great Photo Reference for a Pet Portrait Commission?

What makes a great photo for commissioning a pet portrait by Amy Elizabeth Fine Art, pet portrait artist based in Derbyshire

So you're thinking of commissioning a portrait of your pet? Whether you have a horse, dog, cat or other animal, there is one thing they have in common- To get a great portrait of them , you need to start with a great photograph the artist can work from. No longer is it the case that your dog has to sit for a portrait like they would have done, in times gone by, artists now work from photographs to create a realistic artistic interpretation of your pet. Whether you are commission a portrait of your pet from me, or another pet portrait artist, you will need a high quality, clear photograph of your pet. As I work in a realistic style, it is super important that the detail is visible in the photographs.

So What are the Aspects That Make a Photograph Appropriate for a Pet Portrait?

How most pet portrait artists work they have one main photo, known as the reference photo. This will be the photograph that gets used to create the pet portrait. The artist will probably also want a couple of other photographs to cross reference to make sure the main reference photograph is true to life. Pet portrait artists often never meet your pet, so it is up to you to make sure they know exactly what your pet looks like.

You need to capture a photograph that has a good amount of detail, and be well lit, and be of the composition you want in the final portrait.

The Aesthetics of a Pet Portrait Reference Photo

First, lets look at the aesthetics. Remember that your main photograph is to be used to create a illustrated version of that exact photo, whether it be in pastel pencil or another medium. This means you need your pet to be in the composition you like. If you want a photo of your pet to be looking slightly to one side, do not send a photo of them looking straight ahead then ask your artist to draw them in a different position. That is not how it works! Artists work from drawing or painting what they see, making sure it is exactly true to life. It is far easier if what they can see in the photograph is exactly what you would want in a final portrait of your pet.

The main first rule in getting an aesthetically appealing photograph for commissioning a pet portrait, is for you to be taking the photograph at the same level your pet is at. You want your camera to be at the same height as your pets nose. If you've got a smaller pet, such as a dog or cat you may need to get down on the ground so you can be at the right height, or alternatively get them to sit on something that means they are higher up, such as on a chair or table. If you are wanting a portrait of a horse, getting to the right level will probably be easier!

A dog sat on a bench, then on the ground. The photos show how the level the photograph is taken at can effect the final photograph. The photo on the left is much more suitable for commissioning a pet portrait from.
Here shows the difference the level you are at can effect the final photograph. Putting Monty onto a bench means I can see his eyes, and the overall photo is much more suitable for commissioning a pet portrait from.

Another important thing to think about is the lighting. In getting a nice clear image where all the little details are visible on your pet, you need to have a good source of light. The best thing to do is to go outside. The best day to take your reference photo for your pet portrait is a bright but overcast day. This means you get a nice bright even light, without getting any of the harsh shadows and glare you get from a really sunny day. You want your pet to be facing the sun, rather than you with the camera facing the sun. This means the light is facing your subject and lighting up their face. With the light on their face you will also get the added benefit of having a bit of reflection in your pets eyes, this reflection looks very good in pet portraits, it makes their eyes look more "alive".

3 images of the same dog with different lighting conditions. This is to show what is best for commissioning a pet portrait, an image where the light is on the face of the pet.
Here shows the difference between good and bad lighting. On the right you can see the dogs eyes and the detail in the fur. The left and middle images have strong light sources but the light is in the wrong position. You want the light facing your pet, not behind them.

Once you are on the right level, and in a well lit area, all you need to do now is work on your composition. This means you need to get your pet positioned in the way you would like them to look. This can often be the hardest part, as you can't exactly explain to your pet what you want them to do can you?

The best way to get a good composition, is to firstly make sure you are close enough to your pet. If you want a portrait just of your pets head and neck, that is all you need to include in your photo. This means you get to see more of the detail in this area, compared to if you take a photo of the entire animal then need to zoom in on the photograph to see the detail on the head. You are far better off physically moving closer to your subject, than zooming in on your camera, using zoom means the pixels get stretching, loosing detail in the image.

Once you are in the correct position, close enough and at the right level, you just need to get them to look in the right direction. the best way to do this is using a treat and holding it in the direction you want them to look. You may need an assistant to help you with this, so they can hold the treat and you can take the photographs.

The Technical Parts

When taking a portrait photo, it is tempting to use a "portrait mode". What this does is creates a shallower depth of field that is in focus. Whilst this creates a nice effect, it is not ideal when taking a photograph that is going to be used as a pet portrait artwork reference photo. You want the largest amount of your pet possible to be in focus, from their nose to the tips of their ears. If using a digital camera you want your aperture number to be quite high. If using a smartphone, make sure you are not set to portrait mode.This will ensure you have every part of your pet in focus, so your pet portrait artist can see all the details in order to create you a realistic portrait of your pet.

Your photograph needs to be of a decent file size. Often if a photograph is uploaded to social media or sent in an email it is compressed. This means the information held within that photograph is made smaller, meaning you lose some of the detail. Once you have got a photograph you are happy with, make sure you send it full size so none of the important detail is missed.

Still can't get a suitable photograph? I can visit to take photographs of your pet if you live close enough to me in Derbyshire, I am located near to Matlock on the edge of the Peak District National Park. If you are not in the local area to your pet portrait artist, it may be a good idea to hire a photographer in order to get proper photographs. It really is the case that the better the reference photograph, the better the portrait, so it is worth taking the time to get the right photograph for your artist to work from.

If you are interested in commissioning a pet portrait, please check out my website, or contact me. I am a coloured pencil and pastel pencil pet portrait artist, who works from photographs to create realistic pieces of fine art, that will remind owners of their treasured pets.


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