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September 2006

September 2006; School



  • Healthy Green Artists:
    Can't spell 'Paint' without P-A-I-N
  • Myths and Symbols:
    The Tree of the Thunder Gods
  • Behind the Art:
    Caring for Your Pens and Nibs
  • Wombat Droppings:
    Painting Surfaces
  • EMG News:
    September: School


  • A Few Things to Consider When Publishing to Magazines
  • Moon Glow: A Watercolor Tutorial
  • Writing for Comics
  • Collecting References
  • Absolute Matte Walkthrough


  • Fiction: Countess


  • Movie: Snakes on a Plane

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  • Collecting References
    by Melissa Acker

    Since the invention of the camera, artists have been using it as a tool to enhance their work and give themselves more flexibility in the studio. With cameras being relatively easy to get and use, making your own reference is easier than ever before. In this first article, we will discuss the different things you should keep in mind to help you take the most useful and helpful reference photos.

    Reasons to use your own reference

    Just because you can't take a photo of a dragon doesn't mean fantasy artists don't need to use reference; whether needing a photo of a cat to paint your wizard's familiar or of a mountain for a backdrop to your griffin, we need every bit of help we can get to bring that extra touch of believability to our creations.

    There are many reasons to take your own reference, instead of using someone else's. When using your own photos, you will remember the moment you took the photo and what you were thinking and feeling at that moment. You will remember what the weather and temperature was like, what the lighting was, what is happening in the environment just outside the photo's borders, the sounds, the smells, etc. These impressions are valuable information, and they can help you keep your painting lively and expressive.

    Taking your own reference photos can get you exactly what you need. If you have your composition all worked out, you can go out and take exactly the photos you need and be done with it. No more looking through seven years of National Geographic Magazine to find the shot you need.

    And, of course, taking your own references totally removes the nasty complications of copyright infringement. You want to copy (for whatever reason) every last detail of your own photo? Go right ahead. Try doing that with someone else's work, and you could be facing some nasty business. If you can take your own photos, you might as well and save yourself the hassle.

    The equipment

    First off, equipment. You will, obviously, need a camera. I'm a big fan of digital cameras, but film will work just as well. Get the best camera you can afford, but donít go overboard. You donít need an 8 megapixel monster to do the job. Heck, you can use those disposable cameras and still get some shots you can use. So be reasonable and within your budget.

    The main accessory that you should consider is a tripod. They're particularly useful when you really need to avoid camera shake or just keep the camera in the same position. They're pretty cheap and you can get small ones that you can easily travel with. The other accessories mainly depend on your shooting habits, and I suggest you spend some time with your camera before buying the every single thing available. Iíve found extra batteries and memory cards are a life saver. I myself donít use a camera case, because my camera easily fits in my purse, but if you want and have the extra cash you might as well. Some cameras have extra exchangeable lenses and things you can buy; these tend to be expensive and you should make sure you'll get good use out it before investing the cash.

    Lastly, always read your camera manual thoroughly. It will tell you how exactly your camera works, how to take care of it, and how to adjust the settings properly. It will probably alert you to functions you never would have discovered on your own.

    Taking the Photos

    There are lots of different things to keep in mind when taking your reference photos; I'll go through some of the more pertinent ones one by one. The most important thing is to not be afraid to take the shot, especially if you have a digital camera. Just keep snapping pictures. The more pictures you take, the more likely you'll get a shot you can use.

    Refer to your camera manual to explain how to change your settings. Always follow the advice in your manual.

    Exposure Exposure is how much light gets into the camera when it takes the shot. Different exposure settings will have different looks to them. When taking your reference, always shoot some photos with low, medium, and high exposures. This is mostly so that you will be able to see some detail in all areas of the photo, including the deep shadows and bright highlights. A photo with very low exposure will have very black shadow, but you will be able to discern what is happening in the highlighted areas. A photo with very high exposure will have almost white highlights but you will be able to discern what is happening in the shadows. A medium exposure is in between the two. If you take the same shot in all three settings, you will have a complete understanding of your subject.

    Focus The focus is where the camera is specifically looking in the photo; the focus will be clearer and more detailed than the rest of the photo, which may be fuzzy or blurry. An easy way to get around this is to take three photos of every shot; one focusing on the foreground, one on the middleground, and one on the background. This way you will have equal detail for every "level" of the subject.

    Shutter speed I generally don't worry about shutter speed too much, but it helps to know when you should pay attention to it. A fast shutter speed to used to take action shots; the faster the shutter speed, the less chance the photo will be blurry. A slow shutter speed is generally used to give a blurry effect to an action shot (not really useful in our reference). Generally only use a show shutter speed when you know your subject will not be moving and you can use a tripod to keep the camera still. A slow shutter speed will also allow the camera to capture a little more detail. I usually just keep my camera's default shutter speed; feel free to play around if you like though.

    Composition The following is especially true if you are using a digital camera and have a big memory card. Take pictures from every angle you physically can. You never know what will strike your inspiration when you get back to your studio. Multiple angles also allow you to get multiple compositions; you get the most use of your photos this way. Don't forget to zoom in and out if your camera lets you. I often take a mid-range shot of the whole subject, and then a close-up shot of different parts. This lets you easily examine the whole while giving you the option of detail.

    A note on digital zoom; I know this is true of my camera, and Iím sure of many others. My camera has two types of zoom: manual and digital. Manual zoom is the "real" zoom; the digital is just doing the equivalent of zooming in on Photoshop. It's magnifying the image without taking in the additional information, and prints of these photos can look a little off. It can be useful, but you have to be careful with it.

    Other Settings Some of the newer cameras have all kinds of nifty features you can take advantage of. My camera has, among other things, five different color settings: normal, mono, warm, cool, and sepia. It has a burst feature, which means when I press the "shoot" button it take three photos in quick succession; this is really useful for shooting creatures that are moving. Make sure you play around with your camera, and learn how to use all the functions to get the most use out of it.


    Now that you've got all those awesome photos in your camera, you've got to get them out somehow. You basically have two options: get them professionally developed on photo paper (either at a lab or at home), or print them out on plain paper.

    Plain paper is best when you donít need much detail out of the photo. When you're just working on a line drawing, for instance, or working out your composition. Or if the piece you're working on isnít very detailed to begin with. More simple pieces where you really just need a reminder of what your subject looks like and what the proportions and basic colors are.

    I prefer to work with photo paper when I can. The color and details are much clearer, sharper and more intense. You can use matte or glossy paper; I prefer glossy, because the colors are a little brighter. But when working with matte, you donít have to worry your working light beaming off your reference and irritating you. Itís a matter of personal preference and either will work fine.

    I usually get my most important reference printed out at 8 by 10 inches, and a few other supporting ones at 5 by 7. Keep in mind that your reference doesnít need to be bigger than the finished piece; if you're making a standard birthday card, you certainly donít need to print out an 8 by 10. Make sure to keep water away from your photos; a careless drop off a brush can leave a destroyed circle on your photo.

    Well, that's all for this article. Tune in next month, where we'll learn how to properly use all your glorious photos for reference.

    Melissa Acker

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