3 Tips for Taking Better Reference Photos for Artists

I picked up my first serious camera in 2009. By 2012 I was photographing families and weddings. By 2015 my work was in several magazines.

Photography IS a skill anyone can learn. Don’t let anyone (or yourself) tell you differently.

Something I get asked a lot during my live streams is if I have any tips on getting better references. I’m always caught offguard by this question, because photography feels very natural after all these years. I just do it. I don’t have to think about it as much anymore.

So…I finally sat down and THOUGHT ABOUT IT.

While my wedding photography life is behind me, I still use my photography skills almost daily.

In today’s video I share my journey of exploring, observing, and capturing reference photos that I can use back in the studio. I share my tips and thoughts about what helps me the most, and show you how I use the reference to create art in the studio.

You don’t have to be a professional photographer to do this!



Scottish highlands town

A stroll around my neighborhood brought me above the trees for this view!

North coast Scotland Highlands Beach
A short drive brought me to the coast where I experienced a PERFECT beach day!

I can’t stress this enough. Go on as many “fact finding missions” as you can.

Leaving the house, whether on foot or wheels and actually experiencing the world does more for my art than sitting at my computer browsing online for reference.

You might be surprised by how often I feel completely uninspired – like I’ll never paint anything good again. Then, I’ll leave the house for a brisk walk or a short drive and return with dozens of ideas.

How this simple action helps:

  • Change in perspective – it get’s me out of my own head. Reminds me there is a bigger, more exciting world out there.
  • Natural light – NOTHING compares to natural light flowing over the landscape, filtering through trees, dancing across the water. That alone will inspire me to pick up my brush.
  • Gather reference – with a phone camera, you can capture “notes” about your location. Wide shots, closeups, details, colors. This, along with your mental notes will help when you’re back in the studio.
  • Sometimes doing the simplest task will “clear” your mind and help you start fresh. Am I the only one who has my most brilliant ideas while doing the dishes or taking a shower??
  • There’s no pressure to perform – you’re simply doing it to gather intel that will help inform your art later. Take mental notes, or write them down.
  • Practice mindful observation. Sit and observe for a while. Really watch how the elements effect the environment. Soak it all in. What you experience has a way of creeping into your artwork.

It can also be a way for you to scout new locations, and in fact, I will often visit the same place multiple times before I ever paint it.


Back in the studio, you will thank yourself for having a variety of photos. Each one will remind you how it felt to stand there. Each one can inspire a new painting, or provide lots of details for bigger work.

Vertical beach photo with reflective wet sand
Horizontal beach photo with reflective wet sand
  • Zoom in, zoom out. Focus on the “bigger picture” and then capture all the little details that make your location special.
  • Don’t worry about color at this point – you can edit photos later. I find it is more helpful to try and capture how light interacts with the various elements (like wet sand).
  • I usually leave with 10-50 photos of a single location. It’s easier to delete photos later than to go back and capture more!
  • Remember that you can crop and edit the photos at home, so don’t get bogged down with the technical side yet. Just focus on what excites you about the location.


I’m sure this will be the least popular tip, but it has to be said. I taught myself photography by doing it. Over and over and over.

I went through many awkward photo phases – using weird angles, bad lighting, and over-the-top editing.

Practice portraits
Practice action shot

I hung up big sheets of white paper in the garage and convinced my friends to sit there so I could practice portraits.

I wandered around the park to practice “action” shots.

Sarah Rose Burns Photography bridal photos in Colorado

I hired models, rented dresses, made bouquets and flower crowns (thank you Pinterest!), and setup my own photoshoots so I could practice bridal photography.

When I first started, I mainly used film. I carried my camera EVERYWHERE with me. I learned every single camera setting by simply trying them. And repeating.

There were lots of mistakes. Lots of failures. But eventually, the good photos outweighed the bad.

Once, I met with a professional photographer and they gave me some great advice. “Don’t always put the subject directly in the center.”

This helped me see my subjects in a new way. I started playing with composition more creatively. I studied successful photographs so I could start to understand what compositions work better than others. It’s all about balance.

Rule of Thirds

The “rule of thirds” is often used to help guide a photographer towards a successful composition. While there are exceptions – this is considered to be the most effective way to plan a photo.

Divide your image into thirds, both horizontally and vertically. Where those lines intersect (those 4 points near the center) are where a focal point should be.

In this case, the focus (bride & gown) are intersected by three points. The eye will continue to flow between those points and the image feels balanced.

The same principle applies to paintings.

So when you are taking reference photos, it’s something to keep in mind.

Bridal photos rule of thirds
One of my bridal portraits on the edge of a mountain near Boulder, Colorado.

I hope this was helpful. Feel free to watch the video for more information and leave a comment!

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I'm an independent artist living in Scotland. Always chasing the light, and painting the beautiful highlands.

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