Portraiture: Selecting a Source Photo

When painting a portrait, I work from a photo to capture my subject’s likeness.  In my experience, a great portrait starts with a great source photo. 

So what does a great source photo look like?

Well, there are the basics: It should be a high-resolution image that is in-focus, with good light.

But… I would argue that there is much more to it than that.

A great source photo is one that captures a subject in a moment that truly reflects who they are.

So with that in mind, my top tip for selecting a source photo is simply this:

 Choose a moment of authenticity, not perfection.

Many times I talk to clients about a portrait and they say they are struggling to find a polished photo of the subject looking at the camera and smiling.

My advice? Forget about that.

In fact, I prefer photos that are not posed as such, but rather, candid.

Candid photos, taken informally, maybe even without the subject’s knowledge, make beautiful source photos for portraits.


Well because candid photos reveal more of the subject’s personality, and capture them in a more authentic way.

Take my nephew Henry for example. He observant and thoughtful.  For his portrait I chose photo of him in his car seat, gazing ahead at the big world.

It’s almost like you can see his mind working and feel him wondering where the road is taking him.

See what I mean?

Yes he’s strapped in a car seat wearing a casual shirt, but it’s just so, him.

And that is what makes it special.

Then there is my sister’s bridal portrait. I could have chosen an image of her looking straight at the camera, smiling, with her veil perfectly arranged and her bouquet in hand. It would have been pretty, but I wanted more.

Instead, I used a source photo that was not posed or self-conscious.

Here she is fluffing her veil- Laura

In this painting you can feel the elegance and romance of the day, and even a hint the nervous expectations of a bride about to walk down the aisle.

It’s more than pretty. It’s magic.

If you want to see magic in the portrait you commission, don’t worry about finding an image of your loved one that looks perfectly polished.

Instead, look for the image that captures their essence.

That will mean your portrait is more than just a depiction of your loved one’s likeness, but rather a treasured piece of art that reflects who they are.

Thanks for reading! 

~ Claire 

PS- I’m currently accepting portrait commissions for 2022. If you would like to get on the schedule, email me. I’ll be glad to help you select a great source photo, and if we can’t find one, I will take photos for you!

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