Many people have the wrong idea about photo reference. They use it to fill in the gaps for talent and skill, which is fine. However many people think that it gives them license for plagiarism, which is completely wrong. You cannot simply copy a photograph.
Your mind cannot remember every detail. This is true. But you still must have creative vision to have an idea of what you want before you begin doing research for photo reference. To just have a vague idea of wanting a man jumping with a sword, for example, and then searching on the internet “man jumping with sword” may lead you to finding an awesome photograph that you want to imitate. But to copy it not only makes you unoriginal, it makes you a thief, even if you change little details. It doesn’t even make sense. Why draw or paint what has already been captured in a perfectly created photograph?
Surely from browsing this site, you know that I read comic books. A major problem is what sometimes is referred to as swiping. Basically one artist copies or traces another artist’s drawings and uses them for his own story. You would think that this would not happen that often, but it does.
Take the Book The Complete Guide to Figure Drawing for Comics for example. The author reinforces this practice in the worst way possible. A very large portion of the book, drawings and all, were lifted from the Famous Artist’s Course. (Yes, the course that would be advertised in the back of old comic books) If that were not enough, most of the remaining content emphasizes to wholeheartedly copy photographs. Basically, the entire philosophy of the book is to copy whatever you can, and the author leads by example.
But Norman Rockwell Did It!
Because Norman Rockwell took carefully planned photographs for the basis of his paintings, people think that they can pull pictures off the internet, use them as photo reference and they will be doing the same thing as the master illustrator.
There is a big difference, actually. Norman Rockwell created scenes in his mind and found actors, costumes and sets so that photo reference could solidify his vision. When people pull photos off the internet, however, they are forced to work within the boundaries of that photo. It is unlikely that they will be able to find the exact angle and pose necessary for what they have pictured in their mind.
So Do I Have To Take My Own Photos?
No, although it will certainly help you if you do. In my opinion, you can still use photos off the internet. However, you should have your drawing (or whatever) thought out already. When you are ready for the details, go ahead and research some photo reference to fill in the blanks. Perhaps you have made a nice figure drawing, and now the character needs clothes. So maybe you would do an internet search to find some that suit your fancy. Now that you know what they look like, you can apply the clothes to your figure.
If you have barely any artistic ability, you can still make use of internet photo reference without copying the entire photograph. By using a combination of photos, you can find what you need as a jumping off point. One photo might be of a figure standing at a certain angle. Another photo might be of a figure with their arms or legs in a different position, more suitable for what you had in mind. Perhaps another photo would have a facial expression that you need, or a hair style. The secret is to find photos on a piece-by-piece basis to fulfill your vision. Of course, improvise as well so that you grow as an artist and do not become too dependent on pictures.
If you use photo reference incorrectly, you won’t be using the photo, but the photo will be using you. That is a good way to remember it. Why limit yourself? When you copy a photo too closely, it is like tracing it. Would people be as impressed with your artwork if they knew that you based it off of another person’s work? Would the person who took the original photograph be happy that you stole their vision for your own person gain? These are all questions that you need to consider.