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Finding the perfect wildlife art reference

Updated: Feb 24

How to find the ideal wildlife photo reference for artist; including tips on using royal free images, working with photographers, obtaining permissions, and utilising stock image sites.

By Zoe Fitchet

Finding the ideal wildlife photo reference as an artist can be a challenging but essential task. Whether you are a painter, illustrator, or any other type of artist, having a high-quality reference photo in most cases is key to creating a successful piece of wildlife art. In this blog, you can explore different ways to find the perfect wildlife reference photo, including taking and using your own photographs, working directly with photographers, utilising stock image sites, and using royalty-free sites.


Five ways of obtaining the perfect wildlife art reference

Zoe is a female, white British artist with brown hair. She is seen standing on a bridge among the canopy of a Costa Rican jungle
Exploring the jungle canopy in Costa Rica
1. Taking and using your own photographs

One of the best ways to ensure you have a unique and high-quality wildlife photo reference is to take your own photographs. This allows you to have a lot more control over what you want to include in your artwork. When taking your own photographs, make sure to use a high-quality camera and pay attention to the composition, lighting, and focus of the image. Additionally, consider using a telephoto lens to capture close-up shots of wildlife without disturbing them.

Once you have taken your own photographs, you can use them as a reference for your artwork. This allows you to have complete ownership of the image and ensures that you are using a unique reference that no one else has access to. Keep in mind that if you are using your own photographs of wildlife, make sure that you are doing so ethically and legally. This means respecting the animals' natural behavior and habitats, and not putting them in danger or distress to capture the perfect shot.


2. Working directly with photographers

Mark Rowe - Wildlife photographer filming wildlife in the Galapagos Islands

Another option for finding the ideal wildlife photo reference is to work directly with photographers. Many wildlife photographers are willing to collaborate with artists and provide them with high-quality reference photos for their artwork. When working with photographers, it is important to pay and credit them well for their work. The effort and cost involved in capturing their photographs adds up pretty quickly, from travel to equipment.

Discuss the agreement of terms upfront, including how the artwork will be used or sold, and consider drawing up a contract or in more informal agreements, obtaining written permission to use the photos.

Instagram is a great platform for finding talented wildlife photographers. Many photographers share their work on social media and have their contact details easily available. Reach out to photographers whose work you admire and inquire about using their photos as a reference for your artwork. Be transparent about what the artwork is for and how it will be used or sold, and make sure to compensate the photographer fairly for their work.


3. Using stock image sites

Stock image sites are a convenient way to find wildlife reference photos for your artwork. These sites offer a wide range of high-quality photos that you can purchase a license to use for your own projects. When using stock image sites, make sure to read the small print or get in touch directly to discuss the correct license to purchase. Some stock image sites such as Alamy require artists to pay for a custom license for artwork that is for sale, so it is important to clarify the terms before using the photos. These licences are not cheap so it is often best to leave this option for confirmed commissioned pieces and allow for these costs in your quotation.

A great alternative to the big generic stock websites is, which is a dedicated site for artists that offers a clear license setup and extremely reasonable fees. This site is run by artists who are passionate about supporting wildlife conservation, and they offer a wide range of high-quality wildlife reference photos for artists to use in their artwork. Consider using this site for your wildlife reference photo needs, as it provides a straightforward and affordable option for finding the ideal reference photos.

The only thing to keep in mind is that it is obviously used by a lot of other artists, so putting your own style and interpretation into your piece is very important to make it stand apart from other pieces created from the same photo.


4. Using royalty-free sites

Royalty-free sites are another option for finding wildlife reference photos for your artwork. These sites offer photos that you can use for studies, tutorials, or piecing together a composition, but may not always be the best solution for creating a direct copy of a photo. Because these photos are available to anyone and are free to use, it is even more likely that multiple artists may use the same reference photo, leading to duplicate artworks being created.

Consider using these photos for inspiration or as a starting point for your artwork, rather than creating a direct copy of the original photo. Additionally, be aware of any licensing restrictions on platforms such as; some photos are completely free to use with the terms detailed under each photo, but some are not permitted to use in any commercial work.

Free image sites: (check each specific image)

Google image search - tool setting to creative commons licence (to find images on various royalty free images. Be sure to read each websites terms)


5. Creating your own reference

Finding the ideal wildlife photo reference for artists is an important part of creating wildlife artwork, but it is not always essential to work from just one photo. Often artists will combine several images to create their ideal composition. This helps to get around the challenges of creating duplicate artwork when using the same reference sources. Using software such as Procreate or Photoshop you can edit and layer photos to create an original reference. It is still important to obtain the permission to use the photo, even if you are manipulating it. The exception may be when you are simply checking specific details such a fur direction or anatomy, but not actually using the photo in any part of the composition.


Whether you are taking your own photographs, working with photographers, utilising stock image sites, or using royalty-free sites, it is helpful to choose high-quality reference photos that will inspire and enhance your artwork. It can be time consuming, but it is always important to take care when choosing the reference material you work from. Using one of these options will ensure that you can have peace of mind when creating and selling your own artwork, and leave you free to enjoy the process and bring your creation to life!

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