Having a good camera to take reference photos is important. Not only is the picture your using entirely your own, but you're familiar with the subject and the memories along with it. A picture of a zoo animal becomes more personal if it's an animal that you've seen many times, and maybe you know the animal's name and something unique or interesting about its behaviour. All a photo does is take a snapshot of that animal at a particular moment in time, maybe one that you would like to turn into a drawing or painting. I own one camera, a Canon powershot SX60HS. I learned about it from a friend who owned an earlier model and she let me try it out for a while. It's a great point and click camera that has telephoto capabilities, though quality is greatly reduced the further the lens zooms out. However, it's excellent for taking pictures up close, and being small and portable means I can take it anywhere. This immature Red-tailed hawk, for example, was sitting atop a telephone pole when it spotted something in the grass, and plunged straight down. The hawk had clearly missed, as it sat in this manner for some time. "Hawks that missed" might be something I use for future reference for paleontological illustrations of seemingly dejected theropods that failed to catch any dinner.
This picture also reminds me of another moment that I was not able to capture, an immature Red-tailed hawk by a gas station that swooped low right over my car and into some bushes, clearly after prey. It had missed, and sat in befuddlement for a couple minutes before taking off.
But what if you are taking photos and the subject moves and too much of the subject is cut off, but there is still some bit of the photo that you liked? That's perfectly fine. I was taking some pictures of Scarlet ibis at a zoo, but had a lot of difficulty seeing through the fencing to get a picture of the bird. It was moving around quite a bit, and was only able to get parts of the face as shown below:
Though the pictures aren't great, the parts that are clear are good for reference if I want to use the eye, or look at the way the skin and feather texture appears and apply those to a drawing.
Then there are photos that don't turn out at all, either due to movement, being zoomed in too far (like the ibis) or lighting. These pictures of Ring-billed gulls are ones that I didn't delete, but saved because there was one aspect that I felt could be used as reference at some point. The feet of the Ring-billed gull taking off may serve as good reference for the way the feet are positioned when the bird first takes off or is coming in to land. The wings of the second and third picture may be good practice for seeing the layout of the primary feathers and the general structure of the wing and how it moves. I may use these pictures once or not at all, or may keep them. When it comes to doing science illustration or paleo-art, every bit of reference helps in order to eliminate guesswork.
Bird's feet can be used as great reference for dinosaur feet, noting the scale pattern, texture and colour are all important:
Purposely zooming in on the face or wings to show detail is another great way of gathering reference:
Domestic greylag goose
Egyptian goose wing
And there are always those pictures that didn't come out as planned!
Oh, come on!
You were supposed to be ready for takeoff...
Thanks for that...
But there are times when the subject stays still, or even lands right next to you, like this Black phoebe on a sign at the local park. It was used to people, and would regularly perch on signs or along the side of a short bridge where people frequently passed by. On a couple occasions the phoebe caught some crane flies that were flushed where I happened to walk. I was able to take many pictures of this phoebe over the course of a few weeks:
I really liked how detailed the feathers were around the eyes, even seeing the rictal bristles around the base of the bill, which appear whisker-like. The Black phobe, which appears a striking black and white at a distance, has more brownish tones up close. A small bird that I would not be able to see up close like this otherwise, and I think that is wonderful.