How to Take Good Reference Photos for Line Art Illustrations

The old saying “garbage in, garbage out” applies to reference photos for line art illustrations. If the quality of the reference photo isn’t very good, the artist is going to have trouble discerning the detail they need to make a high quality image. One of the earmarks of line illustration is sharp detail.

A good reference photo helps an artist see the detail they need to include, and enhance, in a line art illustration, but taking a good reference photo is not a simple matter of pointing and clicking. Here are some tips that will help you take good reference photos for line art illustration so you can streamline the process, save money, and produce better quality results.

Take plenty of photos.It’s better to have extra, than it is to have to go back and “do it again”. For larger subjects, such as a forklifts, zoom in and out on the various features while standing from the same spot. For smaller subjects, like a microwave oven, you won’t need to zoom in and out.

Get a variety of angles too, but keep in mind which angle you will ultimately want the illustration to represent. Get most of your shots from that angle. If, for example, you are shooting a power hand tool that will end up being illustrated in someone’s hand being used, try to get the angle right, and provide variations. Shoot a little high, a little low, a little left and a little right. Twist the angle, and shoot more. With digital photography, you don’t have to worry about film costs, so take a lot of shots.

Make sure you get the entire subject within the frame of the shot. Seems simple, but a lot of people don’t realize that they’ve cut off someone’s shoe, or hand, or something that extends from a piece of machinery.

Take close ups of key parts of larger products. For example, if you are taking a shot of a car and you want to make sure we get the hood ornament right, take a close up of it, so the artist has the detail they need. When taking close ups, make sure to take them from the same angle as the main photo. Either zoom in from where you are standing for the main shot, or simply step straight forward to get closer. Taking close up photos from alternative angles can help us understand the mechanical structure of a product – same-angled close-ups help streamline the illustration process and can save you money.

Lighting is the single most important factor that affects the quality of a photo. Studio lighting is the best. Sunlight is good, but creates harsh shadows that usually hide details. It is better to shoot in shade. Warehouse or office lighting tends to come from the ceiling, so if there are important details on the lower/under side of your product, think of ways to bring light in from the sides. Using portable floodlights, commonly used on construction sites and job shops, is a good way to bring light in from the sides.

Take shots with, and without, your flash turned on. The flash will add detail, but also create harsh shadows and highlights. If the subject has shiny parts, the flash can create hotspots that totally burn out detail.