5 Helpful Apps Every Artist Needs to Capture Great Reference Photos

Great illustrations often start with thoughtfully executed reference photography.

Great picture-making often starts with great reference. With that in mind, we’ve collected a roundup of some of the most popular photo apps used by Visual Arts Passage students and instructors. Whether you’re using a DSLR or shooting from your mobile device, the following apps give your the flexibility, control, and resources every artist needs to make great reference work.

  1. Camera +2

Most contemporary mobile devices are equipped with a powerful camera and in many instances, a DSLR may be overkill or unnecessary. Camera +2 brings all of the amazing manual features of operating a DSLR camera right to the palm of your hand. This app allows users to manually control features like shutter speed, ISO, and aperture with ease.

For artists, this opens up a TON of flexibility to experiment with exposure, play with light, and strips away the constricting automations of most mobile photo apps. Check it out here.

2. Pocket Light Meter

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Whether in photography or illustration, never underestimate the critical value of lighting. When it comes to lighting a scene or subject, measuring your light can be a helpful resource for calculating the fall-off, strength, bounce, and other light data from a direct or ambient source. Plus, a well-lit reference sets you up for success during the image-making process.

Traditional light meters can be cost prohibitive, especially if the photo you’re taking is only intended for reference. This Pocket Light Meter is extremely affordable in comparison to professional light meters and manages to deliver accurate information. Not only is the light data accurate, but it will provide you with helpful information on the best shutter speed, aperture, or ISO for your scene or subject. Check it out here.

3. Sylights

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Found the perfect lighting setup? Use Sylights to document your layout for future use. This detailed lighting diagram is a great tool when it comes to prepping for your photoshoot, documenting the lighting setup, backdrop, and positioning of the subject. This can be a helpful note-taking resource for when you need to reshoot photo reference with a similar tones, lighting, or spacial features. For iPhone here.

4. Releases

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It’s typically advisable to stay on the safe side and get a signed model release whenever you’re photographing talent for photo reference. This can be an important factor in using an individual’s likeness in your artwork and avoid a legal headache down the road. Save a tree and download the easy to use app, Releases. This is one of the easiest apps to create model releases, collect digital signatures, and archive for future reference. Not to mention, Releases includes a collection of industry standard model release forms, saving you the time and labor of drafting a complicated legal agreement. Check it out.

5. Sun Surveyor

If you’re shooting location is outside, Sun Surveyor is a must-have app. This tool is great for scouting out a destination for your photo reference or trying to determine the time and placement of the sun on a specific day. This allows you to plan the perfect shot with the perfect light, or adapt to real-time conditions on-the-fly. Not to mention theres a ton of bonus features. Sun Surveyor gives you golden hour & blue hour times, moon phases, super moons, milky way center visibility, and much more. This can be a valuable tool if you need to know how much daylight you have left to capture your reference photography or the perfect window in your location for ideal lighting conditions. Check it out here.


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Visual Arts Passage clears the path towards portfolio development, providing art students with the guidance and resources to build a killer portfolio in as few as 44 weeks.