Have you ever got excited about a subject you’d like to paint from…taken a load of photos of it… then discovered they’ve all turned out really dark and grainy? 

It’s frustrating isn’t it!?

I know all about that! 

But I’ve recently discovered some great resources for taking much better photos, so I’d love to share them with you here.

My method: isolating the subject

I love painting from photos (you can read more about my approach to that here). And I find taking them, a really creative and inspiring process.

My method involves holding up some white Plasticard behind my subject so that I can isolate it and really start to see what it’ll look like if I paint it.

Plasticard is literally, plasitcy card that’s tougher than normal card and ‘wipe-clean’ for when pollen, dew etc get on it. Buying details are below.

You can see a video of me talking you though my method here:

Often under-exposed!

Even though I’ve been taking photos in this way for years, I would regularly get problems with my photos being too dark or ‘underexposed’ and would always have to up the exposure in Photoshop afterwards.

Only when a photo was really bad no amount of playing in Photoshop would improve it enough so I could paint from it.

There is a very crude, but totally accurate phrase from the photographic/printing world that always comes to my mind when I realise I’ve taken a really underexposed photo:

“Sh*t in, Sh*t out”

With a poor quality photo, I will really struggle to paint a quality picture. Artistic licence will only go so far when you want a really realistic result.

For example, check out this passionflower I would have loved to paint if only it had been properly exposed. The image on the left was how it turned out.

The image on the right is after I increased the exposure in Photoshop. It’s better but there is not enough detail shown in the leaves etc for a really detailed painting.

Going beyond auto

I only use a ‘point and shoot’ style camera (details below). But, like many point and shoot cameras it’s one with a lot of settings. In fact it allows for manual control.

And specifically, how to fully control EXPOSURE.

It’s been on my to-do list for YEARS to up my photography skills.  I’ve read endless online articles about the ‘exposure triangle’ and for some reason I had a HUGE mental block with it – I just couldn’t fully grasp it well enough to apply it when out photographing.

So when I was waiting for a train at Waterloo station a few weeks back and spotted the book ‘Photography Beyond Auto’ by Chris Gatcum I knew it was for me (buying details below):

It didn’t disappoint and explained exposure REALLY well using an analogy of filling a bucket of water.  I started to grasp it properly at last.


Hot on the heels of this breakthrough I took two great photography classes from Bluprint.com (a company which has sadly now closed down). The classes finally helped me to discover why it was I’d been struggling with exposure.

The white card I hold up confuses the way the camera gauges the light levels (it’s ‘light metering’) because there is so much white in the shot – and the result is that the camera adjusts itself to make a photo that’s overall too dark – underexposed.

So now I’ve learned how to up the exposure using the Av setting (where I can adjust the aperture size, whilst letting the rest of the exposure settings be handled by the camera.)

Don’t put up with frustration

I’m not suggesting that you need anything other than a camera phone or very cheap digital camera to take photos you can paint from – they’ve worked pretty well for me for years!

However, if you’ve been getting frustrated by your results, I can really recommend getting a camera which has manual settings.  Enrolling in an online class can be a huge help in learning how to use the settings.

Important note – a camera with manual settings does NOT need to be a very expensive digital SLR – in fact you will not be able to hold your camera in one hand and your Plasticard behind your subject with the other if you use a digital SLR because their lenses will require you to be further away from your subject!

With a camera with manual settings and only a couple of hours effort you can make great progress with your photography and or course, in turn with the reference photos you can capture to inspire your painting!

Please let me know in the comments section below about any photography tips or experiences you have had.

Happy photographing!

Disclosure: The links below are affiliate links so if you buy something via clicking through, as an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.  This means that I may receive a small % for making a referral. BUT my recommendations are based purely on my experience and I’ve not been approached by these manufacturers etc to make these referrals.


Often available in crafts stores, I can only find these being sold in multi-packs online so you may want to club together with friends to buy some or find a creative use for the rest of the pack:

  • Available in the UK via Amazon UK (this is an affiliate link).
  • This seems to be a similar product in the US available from Dick Blick. You may wish to trim these down a little to be more manageable to use.


Any point and shoot camera with manual controls will be great. I use a Canon s120 which is a few years old. A more recent version of this is the Canon SX710 PowerShot Point and Shoot Digital Camera which you can get from Amazon UK  or   Amazon US.


Available in book shops and online via:

  1. Malu 7 years ago

    Thanks for the tip, I was doing that and some time I felt that wasn’t to suppose to do it, but now a fell much better,

  2. Danilo 7 years ago

    Dear Anna, thank you for the very useful suggestions, i’ll try.Ciao

  3. Bev Crook 7 years ago

    Just what I need. I’m really keen to paint my own material and have had exactly these problems when trying to shoot my own photographs, so I’m very grateful to know where to look for extra learning material. Thanks, Anna.

  4. Larry 7 years ago

    Anna, I ordered a copy from the Book Depository and saved shipping costs as opposed to Amazon. I trust your judgement – anxiously awaiting book. Thank you very much

  5. Nancy Cipolla 7 years ago

    Anna, you are so kind to share this information with us. I’ve shared this with a friend of mine who is interested in doing better photography. I’ve learned a lot from your tutorials and can’t wait to paint my next picture. Everyone’s comments are so encouraging and kind. It is wonderful to find a venue such as your school where people are so generous and thoughtful in sharing and in commenting on our work. Thank you for being the special person you are.

  6. Kathy McWaters 7 years ago

    835 Wordsworth Dr

  7. lisa gunthorpe 7 years ago

    you are a very generous woman and I love all your tips I have sent on your details to friends. A few little problems at home but I will get them sorted out and get back to painting soon. All the best Lisa from Australia

  8. Mary 7 years ago

    Anna, you are an inspiration – always learning and sharing. I appreciate your passion and all the helpful tips you share with us. Thank you so much. This is super helpful.

  9. Susan Roberts 7 years ago

    Thanks for sharing your tips with us, it is very kind.

    I will look out this book, sounds most helpfull as my snaps are never great and I never use the manual setting on my wee pocket camera – as I never know how. However what I do find useful is to take the full photo several times from varying distances – so I can zoom into the photo back on my computer iif I got one a bit fuzzy. Then I take several close up of details of the flower/leaves, hopefully from about a dozen photo’s I can get the details of the complete flower using various parts correct. What I have found is that my pocket camera is good for the general shot, but the close up details actually work better on my iphone (4s) than my camera.

  10. Marie-Louise 7 years ago

    Funny you should mention photos! Just been trying to paint cowslip from photo I took last spring and because of the lack of contrast on the leaves, I am finding it difficult to paint the ‘pockets’ or ‘blisters’ on these. I now feel encouraged to learn how to use my camera more effectively, as all of my images seem to be ‘flat’. Would love to see you demonstrate these types of leaves sometime. Thanks again for being so timeous with your advice!

  11. Kathe Lewis 7 years ago

    About DSLR cameras and distance to your object – that depends on what lens you are using. I prefer DSLR because I can change lenses, and for this type of pictures I always use my 60 mm macro lens. However, best result no matter what camera or phone you use, support the camera with a tripod, monopod or a selfie-stick!

  12. Rachel 7 years ago

    I cant paint but I do photograph flowers! I have a dream that one day I will pick up a paintbrush too, but so far it only extends to following your blog and seeing your lovely work! Using a tripod or bean bag to rest the camera on will reduce any movement and keep your hands free to do other things. For example you could hold a reflector (or card covered in tin foil) to shine some light back onto your flower. Shinning light from the side will show more shadows and texture.

  13. Jacqueline Kim 7 years ago

    I am in the US, and just recently got started painting. I wasn’t able to find Plasticard easily and came up with a different solution. I went to a supermarket and bought inexpensive flexible white cutting boards. They are really thin and light. They came two in a pack. I leave one at home for subjects I can bring back. The other I carry around in my purse! (I take pictures using my iPhone, and I’m not always able to remove a subject to draw at home.) So I cut a shallow line in the back of the board, not all the way through the material, and now it has a crease that allows me to fold it into a more convenient size! It looks a bit silly at first, pulling a white folded piece of plastic out of your purse to stage behind a flower, but it is fast and fun.
    Plus, each time I look in my bag I happily think about stealing a moment to look for inspiration- no matter what I have planned for the day.

  14. Kathleen 7 years ago

    Hi Anna,
    I really loved this blog posting of yours on photography for art. It’s so positive and direct with all the information one needs to easily get going with learning how to better control picture taking! A lot of what you said about your challenges with photography (except the need for a white background, in my case) matches mine! Thanks so much for the insight!

  15. Maysoon 7 years ago

    Hi Anna
    Many thanks for your tips. Very informative and helpful indeed. Just what I needed as I have a digital cannon which I have not yet used as should be.

  16. Gail J. 5 years ago

    Nice to know there is info here. Will try and do what I can to improve my photography taking or picking.
    In Christ,
    Gail J.

  17. Debra Shumate 2 years ago

    Hello Anna,

    Blueprint was recently repurchased by Craftsy and I would love to know which of the photography classes you took.

    Many thanks!

  18. Barbara Marx 2 years ago

    Anna, I so look forward to the weekly tips received on Thursdays. Your article on photographs today is wonderful, so helpful. We in the school are so fortunate to have exposure to all the ideas and suggestions offered by the students as well as your diversified weekly information. Thank you.

  19. Martin Deeprose 2 years ago

    Thankyou for your excellent courses, I have been inspired by your talented work.. As a retired tv news cameraman I am used to the challenges of trying to capture difficult exposure and tonal representations .When I began your tutorials, I struggled to match the subtlety of your first washes, as the automated exposure of the camera used for recording, seemed to exaggerated the tonal quality of the image (because of the white background), This was more obvious when your hand appeared in frame, as the overall brightness of the image was reduced and the true delicacy of your painting was revealed. I have really struggled to photograph my own paintings when they have a white background, and colours don’t appear the same, so I realise that this is an issue with photographing artwork in general. Thankyou again for your beautiful and inspirational work,

  20. Teresa Rogovsky 2 years ago

    What is the name of the product on the Dick Blick site? The link just goes to the site, not to a particular product. Searching on “plasticard” on their site doesn’t bring any results.

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