Choosing the Perfect Reference Photo for Your Wildlife Art

The thing that makes the most difference in myself and Amber’s paintings is the quality of the reference photos that we use.

Most people, especially those who aren’t artists, don’t understand the importance of a good reference photo.

It really is as simple as; the more detailed the reference photo the more accurately we are able to translate that detail onto canvas, wood or paper.

What to consider when choosing your reference:

© Daniel Wilson
  • Points of interest
  • Lighting
  • Values
  • Image quality
  • Colour
  • Composition

In this post I will be talking about what makes a great reference photo, tips for taking your own reference photos, and the things that you should avoid when choosing reference photos for your artwork.

Subject Focus and Points of Interest

The first thing I look for in a good wildlife reference is the eyes, you can learn so much about the behaviour and nature of an animal by looking into its eyes.

I try to only use photographs that have bright eyes or pictures in which the eyes have distinct regions of light and shadow and clearly visible highlights, as I believe it is the whites of the highlights that add that final touch of ‘life’ to a painting.

 If I am looking to paint a portrait of an animal I will try and find a photo with a soft or contrasting background that sets the subject apart from the rest of the image, keeping the focus on the main subject.

If I want to paint an animal with a background I will try and use photos of the animal in its natural environment. When it comes to the order, I try to incorporate the animal into its environment as I paint as opposed to painting the animal on top of the background.

Successfully manipulating your medium to give a sense of the animal interacting with its surroundings is what sets apart a good painting from a great one.


‘Fading Away’ by Daniel Wilson. Reference photo courtesy of mouselemur_photography (Instagram)

The lighting is the next most important thing when I am choosing references. I try to use images with a very strong source of light, so there are clear regions of light and shadows.

You want the light to clearly illustrate the form of the subject. If you can ‘feel’ the light hitting the animal you are on to a good photo.

This is especially important in my charcoal drawings. When creating work in monochrome it is even more important to find an image with strong lighting as you can’t rely on the help of colours when trying to establish form.

I also prefer references with a single, strong source of light, it makes it much easier to establish form as the light and shadows fall in a way that clearly illustrates the shapes of the animal.


When choosing reference I don’t want a picture that is too bright or too dark. If the picture is overexposed or under exposed it can lead to the details in the lights and shadows being lost. My semi realistic style relies on being able to see these details.

As I have already mentioned you need an image with lots of light coming from one direction. If you weak light coming from lots of areas the image appears flat. This is not helpful in my art as I try to establish the 3D forms of the animal when painting and drawing to make it look more ‘real’ and lifelike.

It is useful to have images with a smaller second source of light as this will soften the shadows and make your subject look more rounded and less like it has been made from solid 2D shapes.

Darker images add a lot of drama to the painting and can set a dark mood. It is much harder to create detailed realistic pieces from very dark images, as in real life a lot of detail gets lost in the shadows.

Lighter images have a much calmer appearance and are much better if you are trying to get a more relaxed and peaceful appearance to your painting.

Image Quality

When it comes to reference photos, bigger is always better! The higher the quality the picture the easier it is to create the required details in your artwork.

High v Low quality reference © Amber Tyldesley

 A good quality image will be sharp, which means it doesn’t become too pixelated when you zoom in and the majority of the fine hairs are visible. It is also worth noting that in an exceptional quality photograph you may even be able to see the skin underneath the fur.

 Don’t forget that all that fur you are painting has to grow from somewhere, it is important to represent that in your paintings to give them a more realistic finish.


Colour isn’t as important for me as I mostly use charcoal, so I prefer monochrome or convert coloured photos to black and white.

If you are producing artwork for a particular setting, it is important to think ahead at where you would like your work to hang and choose colours based on what would complement that area.

It is also a good idea to think about the temperature of the painting.  If you want a colder feel use references with lots of blues, purples and greens. If you want a warmer painting look for lots of yellows, browns, reds and oranges.


When choosing a reference photo, I don’t find the composition massively helpful with the actual painting or drawing process. The positioning of the animal in relation to its environment and background helps more with imagining the finished piece that you could create.

Personally I believe that if the composition of a photograph is so perfect then what is the point in creating a painting from it? You may as well just buy a print of the photograph.

What you as an artist should be doing is using that artistic ability of yours to improve on the reference and create something personal and unique.

That being said it is sometimes nice to recreate a photo almost exactly just for the fun of it.

Where can I find good reference photos?

First things first, if you are serious about having a future career in art, never ever use photographs straight from the internet.

These photographs are subject to copyright laws and you could end up having a lawsuit filed against you for breaching copyright.

Wildlife Reference Sites

My go-to website for wildlife reference images is This site was set up by artists for artists and is ideal for purchasing affordable, high quality photos for your artwork.

The site works by charging artists 5 dollars for each image that you download. If you plan on selling your paintings for hundreds of dollars this is a small fee that wouldn’t have a massive impact on the mark up of your work.

The site offers a vast database of hundreds of species of birds, reptiles, mammals, fish and insects and is the first place I will go when looking for specific animals to paint.

Royalty-free Photography Sites

There are multiple websites available that provide royalty free, license free images that you can use in your artworks.  Two that we use quite a lot are Pexels and Pixabay.

Both sites offer free stock photos found throughout the internet and uploaded by photographers themselves. All photos can be used for free for commercial and non-commercial purposes.

Photos can be edited and adapted as you like. It is worth noting that anybody can upload images to these sites, all images are checked by the site themselves but it is worth double checking the copyright on any pictures that you would like to use by contacting the photographer or reverse image searching using Google.

Directly from the Photographer

My preferred approach when I find a photograph that I would like to use for a painting or drawing is to go directly to the photographer themselves.

When I am scrolling through Instagram, I will occasionally spot a photograph that would be ideal for using as a reference.

If this is the case I message the photographer directly asking for permission to use their work. I make sure I am polite and courteous when asking and almost always receive a response giving me permission to use the photograph.

‘Out on a Limb’ by Daniel Wilson, reference photo by Tazi Brown.

Do not expect to be able to use somebody’s work for nothing. Sometimes the photographer will ask for a small fee to use their work.

Don’t forget that this person may have put hundreds of hours of their own time, money and effort into taking that perfect photograph that you would like to use and potentially earn money from.

If you use photographs without permission you are stealing from the photographer and legal action may be taken.

I have also had photographers allowing me to use their photos, on the condition that I pay them a set percentage of the profits should any artwork I create with their images be sold. Again it is perfectly reasonable for a photographer to ask for 5, 10 or even 15% of the money that you earn using their work.

Are there any affordable Wildlife photographers you can ask?

by Amber Tyldesley, reference photo by Tazi Brown.

One photographer both myself and Amber go to regularly is Tazi Brown. She takes stunning wildlife photographs that are ideally suited to our artwork.

She runs through her Instagram account @By Tazi

Her website  

And through a second website with images from more talented photographers

Tazi and the other photographers have put in a lot of time, effort and money into taking and editing their incredible wildlife photos.

They are kind enough to share their work and allow artists to use the photos as references, with most being available for a small fee of 5 Euros per image, which we are happy to pay this extremely talented group of photographers to help them cover the costs and provide us with more excellent reference photos.

Choosing Photos that inspire you

I put a lot of time and effort into my artwork, so selecting what I paint is pretty important. I don’t want to waste time using reference photos that will result in a mediocre painting.

 The first and in my opinion the most important tip when selecting wildlife references is to choose photographs that inspire you.

Does the photograph ask to be painted? Do you look at the photo and instantly imagine what the completed painting might look like? Does it excite you to think about painting that particular image? Does the photo tell a story? Does it create a mood? Can you use that image to instill the feeling or emotion that you wish to share with the viewer of your artwork?

These are all questions you should be asking yourself when trying to find the perfect reference photograph.

‘Lost in Thought’ by Daniel Wilson, painted from one of his own reference photos

Of course, the best source of inspiration could be from reference photos taken by yourself. If you are able and have the equipment to do so, you might want to get out there and start taking your own pictures.

We find the most enjoyable and satisfactory paintings originate from photos that we have taken ourselves.

If you found this post helpful please comment and let us know. We hope we’ve made it easier for you to choose your next reference photo.

Don’t forget to tag @StudioWildlife_Art on Instagram to show us your work!

Go over to our Studio Wildlife Pinterest page to find inspiration from various wildlife art – created by you!