If I had to choose between using a photo of a dog that was overexposed, blurry, or underexposed for a portrait, I will always pick a photo that is overexposed. Blurry photos can be a real headache for even experienced artists. The reason why I find blurry photos the hardest to deal with is because all of the features that make the subject unique and special to their owner are no longer clearly identifiable from the photo!

If you find yourself in a situation where a customer sends you blurry photos, I always recommend giving them feedback and suggest ways to improve their photos. I have a quick photo guide on my website and I’ll always provide the link during the planning stage of a portrait.

But what if the animal has passed away?

Now you’re stuck in a tricky situation. If the animal has passed on a decade or more ago, chances are there are only physical photo copies available. You’ll be very limited on the photos you have to choose from. If all the photos you’re provided are poor quality, I would recommend either declining the commission altogether, or you could offer a “graphic” or “impressionistic” version if you are comfortable creating a stylized portrait.

How to make the most of a blurry photo

Photo editing programs are a great tool to have if you unfortunately have only a blurry photo. Take advantage of using one or more of the following adjustment layers and filters to help you see the details that you may have missed. I will turn adjustment layers on and off depending on the areas that I’m working on.

  • Sharpen
  • Exposure
  • Brightness
  • Contrast
  • Shadows
Adding details from separate sources

One of the most common techniques I’ll use is to pull details from separate photos to add information to a blurry photo. If the pet owner is familiar with the breed and coat type, those key words can be vital to finding images of similar dogs on the internet.

With a recent memorial commission of a dog named Baby, the family knew that he was a toy poodle mix and his coat color was apricot. I could then research and find higher quality photos from royalty-free sites such as Pixabay to find similar dogs. When searching for photos online, keep in mind the direction of the light source, pose, and age of the animal.  

Take your time, be patient, and communicate with your customer

And lastly, but perhaps most importantly, as the artist be very clear on the services that you can offer with the limits of a poor quality or blurry reference image. You’ll also need to be able to communicate that the end product may not be the same quality as your other work in your portfolio because of the amount of detail provided in the reference photo.

The end result

One of the best feelings as an artist is to create a piece of work that is even better than the reference image. In the past few months, many of my commissioned work has been focused on memorial portraits. On average, a memorial portrait requires more hours during the planning and drawing phases. When their families open their gifts and see the finished artwork in person, I’ll often receive heartwarming emails from my clients.

Have a tip of your own for handling blurry reference photos? Share them below so we can all learn from each other.

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