Getting the best reference to tattoo a portrait

10.25.22 12:07 PM By Charles Huurman

5 steps for getting the best possible photo for my tattoo artist

I can work with nearly anything a client gives me. I’ll be totally honest. The easiest way for me is to go with all the footage I get, put it on your skin and tattoo it. But people come to me to do the best I can, and part of that is trying to get the best possible materials to work with. So I will never go the easy way and I will try to encourage customers to find me the best quality materials.

A good chef doesn't just cook well, he plans and goes to the market early to get the freshest fish and the best veggies.I could be the best chef in the world, but my food won't be as good if the meat or fish isn't of the best quality. Even so, because I am a good chef, I would make a very good dinner, even with poor quality meat. But with a tattoo you don’t want just a good quality tattoo. You want the "Best Possible" tattoo and there is a great difference between "Good" and "The Best".

This are my 5 tips for the "Best Quality" references to tattoo a portrait:

  • 1-  Get at least 5 different images from each person. Sometimes our favorite photo will not be the best for the area in the body or the total composition. That’s why we need to try out a few of them. A small tip would be to have them choose the photos themselves so they can see themselves represented in a way they like.
  • 2- Get multiple angles. For a tattoo there are many factors to consider when adapting to the different body parts. For example, a frontal image can be excellent on a flat picture, but for the exterior of a lower arm that has a cylindrical shape. There will therefore be a slight deformity which could modify the shape of the face. That's why sometimes you have to turn the subjects head to prevent that from happening.

Certain parts of the arm or even the legs resemble a cylinder.In the following example, you can see a big deformation in the eyes of the portrait when placing a frontal portrait vs. one where the subject has a slight angle:

This doesn’t mean a front angle is not good for all areas. Biceps or inside lower arm can be ok for this angle as they are flatter. But it accentuates why we need to try out more than just one image when designing.

  • 3- Light source angle. 

For me it’s the most important expect of designing a portrait. A tattoo is for life and we need to have clear volume on the image. This will make it last clear forever. Many people send me photos were the main light source is behind the subject. This will make it flat over time. It’s difficult to explain why to someone who doesn’t paint. But I’ll try my best. To enhance volume and facial expressions to the maximum we need to have three clear groups of tonalities. “Dark tones” “Middle tones” and “Light tones”:

If the light source is behind the image, you will have only the dark and middle tones (No light tones). So you will miss out in tons of volume and facial features that give power to an expression.


The best angle for the light source is from the upper front and slightly to one side. This light source and angle brings out all the expressions that determine the personality and create a contrast that will remain in the skin for life:

  • 4- Quality and focus. Thanks to technology we can fix a lot of this issues. But the more we need to invent how an eye lass or any microfeature is, the less likeness to the person you will find. Some photos look ok from a distance. But when we are doing a hyperrealist portrait we don’t look at them from a distance:
  • 5- Don’t make a copy of a copy. It might deform or not be the same. If there is a printed photo that you take a photo off. Or take a screenshot of a photo instead of doing a download, you will lose a lot of quality.

If you are not close to your family members, I would advise that you explain the importance of the issue. And that you ask them to take a ton of photos with a good light. If its relatives that passed away, I advise that you ask other family members or people who might have more photos of them. See what you can find. 

And after explaining all of this I understand life is life and I will work with whatever you give me because a good Chef con do a nice meal out of whatever you give him. But I advise that we go for an award winning meal

Charles Huurman

Charles Huurman