Looking for the Perfect Reference Photo? Here are 5 Websites to Help

By Carrie Lewis in Art Business Advice > General Art Advice

While there is certainly great value in drawing from life, not all artists have the opportunity to study their subjects in person. In those cases, photographs can play a vital role in the creation process.

“But,” you might say, “I stink at taking pictures. What should I do?”

My guess is that all of the images you’ll ever need are available via the internet. But be careful in where you get them. (Just because something is on the internet doesn’t mean you have permission to use it!)

Luckily, there are many websites that exist solely to share reference photos. Many of them are even free of charge and the phtoographs are unlicensed, which means you don’t have to give the photographer credit for his or her work and you can use them for whatever you wish (including your artwork).

Here are a few of my favorite photo reference websites—both free and paid—that I always recommend to artists:

Free reference photo websites

Free Stock Photos – As the name applies, there is no charge associated with this website. You can download any of the images, and you don’t need to be a member to access it. However, the licensing for each image is determined by the person or entity that uploads the image, so some of them may be free to use in your artwork, and others may not.

The first image I looked at was of a whitetail deer buck in full antler. It was categorized under Public Domain, which means it can be used free of charge with no restrictions.

The next photo, also of a whitetail buck, was covered by the Free Stock Photos standard license. This license clearly specifies permissible uses, including use as a reference photo (but it’s not public domain).

Always check the license for each image, to make sure you can use it as you intend.

PaintMyPhoto – You need to join the PaintMyPhoto community to access images, but membership is free, and so are the images.

The first thing you need to know about PaintMyPhoto is that it’s run by artists and photographers for artists and photographers. Not all of the images are professional quality, but you can still find great reference materials if you have the time to look.

Second, you can use ANY of the photographs to create art—that’s why they’re being offered—but you are not allowed to post the reference photos anywhere else, not even in conjunction with your artwork if you happen to do work-in-progress postings.

Pixabay – Pixabay (and many other websites) operate under something called a Creative Commons license (CC). This means that the photographers have waived their rights for their images to be used commercially. There are no written prohibitions against using the images for reference sources, and in most cases, the limitations they do have are minimal.

I’ve found most of the images on Pixabay to be professional quality; it’s also easy to use, and you don’t need to become a member or sign in to access images.

Paid resources for reference photos

GraphicStock – Graphic Stock images are covered by a royalty free license, which allows users to download images and use them in whatever way they wish. Users may download an image and essentially “own it forever” whether they remain a member or not.

Membership is $99 per year and provides you with unlimited downloads, no contracts, live support, and a few other perks. If your interests are pretty eclectic, this is probably going to be a good website for you, since it has a variety of photos.

Wildlife Reference Photos – This site is run by a family of professional wildlife photographers who fully understand artists’s need for high quality reference photos.

The images are royalty free, which means that once you purchase an image, you can use it as many times as you like without paying additional fees or getting permission again. The purchase agreement is very straight-forward and lists what images can be used for in everyday language. No legalese (or not much) here!

The cost is also very reasonable: $5 per photo unless you want to subscribe. A subscription of $10 gets you permission to download five images. If there is a downside to the subscriptions, it’s that they expire in 31 days.

NOTE: Don’t be discouraged by the name of the website! They do specialize in wildlife and have great images of lions, tigers, and bears, but I also found horse pictures. If you enjoy drawing or painting animals of any kind, give them a look.

Contacting professional photographers

Professional photographers are probably your best resource overall, especially if you take the time to develop a relationship with photographers who work in your areas of interest. I know a handful of horse racing photographers, for example, and I can always go to them for special projects and get some great reference material.

You need to honor their copyright requirements, however, and you need to treat them as you’d want someone to treat you as an artist. Give credit where credit is due. (I always accredit the photographer and link to their website if they have one.)

It’s a little extra work, but the benefit, of course, is that you’re much more likely to get high quality, well-composed reference material from a professional.

You may also have to pay a fee for the right to use the images, but many photographers are willing to grant you permission to use one of their images for no charge or at a small cost. Others will charge more and a few will refuse—it just never hurts to ask!

I’m sure there are many more photo resources available (online and offline) but these are the ones I use and like the most. I hope you’ll give them a try!


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