Improving Photo Reference Through Lighting

One of my favorite aspects about working as an illustrator is that through this job I’ve learned a whole range of other associated skills over the years. I think a lot of people  imagine that an illustrator spends their time hunched over a desk or easel, drawing and painting – and that’s quite true, but we aren’t doing that ALL of the time. So many other things come along with the job, including research, contracting, client communication, promotion, accounting (yuck) and a whole range of other activities.

One of the skills I’ve picked up VERY slowly over time is that of photography and lighting for my reference images. When I first started working, I often left reference photography up to chance, taking photos outside when the sun happened to be in the right spot, using whatever camera was on hand, be it a cell phone or a point and shoot. I let the camera do it’s thing in Auto mode, without knowledge of how exposure, ISO’s and the nitty gritty of camera technique factored in.

The thing is, I sometimes got good results and didn’t have a whole lot of incentive to really dive into photography. It always felt less fun than painting so I shunted it off to one side. The key word here is “sometimes.” When I didn’t give photography the proper due diligence, I left my reference results up to chance. The thing about being a professional is you can’t leave things up to chance – the entire process has to work like a well oiled machine, time and time again.

The illustrator Dan Dos Santos handed out this great reference sheet during a lecture at Illustration Master Class a few years ago. At the time, my photography skills were pretty poor but I kept the reference sheet in a drawer with the goal of learning how to mimic these lighting setups.

After that it was a long period of figuring out photography, slowly and deliberately and getting better gear. Over the past two years, I’ve upgraded my photo reference kit to “strobe lights” by the manufacturer Paul C. Buff. Strobe lights are a different setup from traditional “hot lights” or “continual lights.” The basic difference is that a hot light will be on all the time – much like the lights in your home. As a result, they can get really hot, especially the super bright ones used in professional photography setups. Strobe lights only turn on when the camera’s shutter is opened, very similar to the flash that is attached to your typical point and shoot camera.

Since strobes are only on for a fraction of a second (however long the camera is exposing for), they can emit much brighter, stronger light and the difference in results is striking. It’s been a big learning curve but I’m so glad I decided to take the plunge because my reference photography has improved tenfold. My wife Laima put up with me for several hours on a weekend while I tested my lighting set up, mimicking the lighting from Dan’s reference and figuring out how to get those same results.

Even if I don’t always need this higher end results to make a good painting, it’s always better to have more over less. I heard an analogy recently that the reference of an image is like the fish in sushi. Even a master sushi chef won’t be able to do his best work if the fish is bad.

Here’s a reference shot from my painting, “Into the Feywild,” from earlier this year. I’m still learning the basics and this one got pretty overexposed and grainy. But, it’s getting closer to a better result!

If you are curious about getting better at digital photography with SLR cameras and strobe lighting, this Nikon article is a great place to start:

The company’s products that I use, Paul C. Buff, has a starter article here:

The rest is a lot of trial and error. But whatever works for you, be it a hot light or a strobe, the same fundamentals apply 🙂 And the sushi will taste all the better!