Free Reference Photos

Be Safe, Not Sorry

Artists are always on the prowl for free reference photos. And why shouldn’t we? Everyone likes free stuff. There are sites online if you take the time to really look for them. It’ll take even more time to search for ones with quality photos. I’ll give you two at the end of this post.

If you’re just drawing or painting for yourself (with no intention to sell your work), then you can just Google for images. I do it all the time. However, I’ve heard mixed cautionary tales about this if you do plan to sell the work when it’s done.

One camp says that there’s no photographer in the world who would ever bother to come after you for copyright violations for turning their photo into a drawing or painting. The other camp (including a copyright attorney I know) says they will indeed come after you regardless of how much you change it. My advice is to err on the side of caution.

I’d rather not take the chance. In all likelihood, you’ll be fine, but what if you’re not? These days, people post the new things they’ve acquired, including artwork on social media all the time. There’s every possibility that the photographer might see their photo in your drawing or painting. You can try to figure out who the photographer is, email and ask their permission to use their image as a photo reference. They’ll most likely reply and give you permission (I’ve done this before). This is documented proof and you’ll be safe to move ahead with your artwork. Better to be safe. No artist I know has extra money lying around for legal fees.

The one sure way you can get free reference photos without any worry whatsoever.

Take the photos yourself and build your own photo reference library. Granted, not all of us can just go on safari to take photos of lions and giraffes. However, there are zoos just about everywhere. A drive to the coast can give you great shots of shoreline villages, ocean views, piers, boat docks, etc. Drive to any downtown area and there are rows of storefronts, sidewalk cafes, bus stops, and vehicles. A hike might offer great shots of flowers, trees, and maybe the occasional deer or other wildlife. Museums can put you up close with everything from a T-Rex to Ancient Egyptian sarcophagi. The Gene Autry Museum in Los Angeles, CA will take you back to the Wild West with old saddles, rifles, stagecoaches, and the like.

You don’t even really need an expensive camera if you have a smart phone. These days, smart phone cameras are pretty great, especially for the purposes of a reference photo. And, if you’re actually a working artist, you could probably write off the museum or zoo visit as research for your business.

However, if you absolutely can’t be bothered, the two sites I like that have a decent selection of photos and subject matter is Pixabay and Wildlife Reference Photos. If they don’t have what you’re looking for, go take your own reference photos!

Further Reading:

Reference Photos



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Myra Naito

Freelance copywriter who is passionate about art and fitness. Check out my art blog at or follow me @mnaito_fineart .