How to Gather Your Own Photo Reference

In my previous article, I talked about why gathering photo reference matters. Now, I'd like to share some practical tips to help you jumpstart your own process. 

1. Rent, Buy, or Borrow Costumes

For my astronaut illustration, I visited a local costume shop and rented an astronaut suit. The folds and buckles in the suit served as great reference for the final product. If I had simply worn pants, a shirt, and tried to imagine an astronaut design after-the-fact, the results wouldn't have been as convincing.

Invest in the details, especially if you don’t know enough from experience to render from imagination. is a great internet resource to buy props from if you're looking to build a wardrobe.
You could also borrow from a family member or friend. It's free (usually), and you (typically) wouldn't be pressured to return it by the end of the week! 

2. Hire a Model, Enlist the Help of a Willing Friend, or Do It Yourself!

If you can afford it, hiring a model is an ideal way to gather good reference. You have complete control of the setup and can focus on capturing the best pose and look for your work.

If you don’t feel comfortable working with a complete stranger, try asking friends or family for their cooperation. Share your vision for the finished project and, if they’re willing to help, offer to pay them for their time.

For most of my work, I model for the reference. To do this, I usually put a timer on my camera and rush to get into position, tweaking and altering as deemed necessary. This is the cheapest way to get your reference, however, it costs time and limits your range of experimentation.

3. Choose Lighting that Best Captures the Mood

Research different types of lighting and decide which one fits the mood you’re wanting to convey. Butterfly, Rembrandt, rim, and loop lighting are just a few to look up. I used a ceiling window to get a butterfly light for my astronaut piece. Invest in a clamp lamp and experiment with moving the light around your subject for new and interesting looks. 

4. Experiment, Experiment, Experiment! 

Take pictures based on the thumbnails you created, but don’t be afraid to experiment and try different angles. You may find an image that better conveys your narrative than your initial concept. 

5. What Camera Should You Use?

Regarding what camera to use, I can only speak from experience. Before smartphones had developed such fantastic lenses, I used a simple Nikon camera. Now, I use either my iPhone SE or iPad Pro 12.9, depending on the need. 

Call to Action

1. Get a costume!

2. Do all the poses!

3. Research all the lighting!

4. Experiment! 

5. Use what you got! 


You're doing better than you think. Keep going!