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Real World Compositing with Adobe Photoshop CS4: Using Stock Images

📄 Contents

  1. Finding the Right Shots
  2. Licensing and Restrictions
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Learn how to work with stock agency photos, including how to find what you need, and licensing and restrictions associated with stock photos.
This chapter is from the book

Finding the Right Shots

Sometimes getting the exact shots you need may not be possible, either because of your budget or because of other constraints that you can't work around. Using stock imagery as part of your composite has plenty of benefits. You'll potentially encounter a few hang-ups if you're not careful when choosing your images, but with a bit of due diligence, you can avoid problems by understanding the licensing restrictions and other terms of use that govern the images provided by various stock agencies.

Stock agencies are now commonplace online, which is great for photographers and designers. Some agencies carry a wide variety of styles and formats, while others specialize in a particular theme or look. Many carry much more than just photographs and illustrations, also offering animations and even movie clips. The choices are so varied that it is important to stay focused on your artistic goals for the composite image and keep things organized as best you can.

Understanding What You Need

Before diving into a sea of online catalogs, you should know what you want from a stock agency. Many suppliers may have an image that will work for you, but the agencies probably differ in terms of service, image formats, and licensing. The web interface can also differ significantly from agency to agency. For this reason, you need to do a little research and figure out which one will work best for your purposes.

Stock agencies are typically organized around themes and collections, but they also rely heavily on keyword systems. Notes that you have taken throughout your projects can be very useful at this stage! More information on this topic is available in the "Keyword Search Strategies" section later in the chapter.

Typically, the workflow for using stock agencies consists of a few key tasks:

  1. Choose the type of image you need.
  2. Find keywords that describe the image characteristics.
  3. Search online agency catalogs using those keywords.
  4. Review the licensing terms and restrictions, as well as cost.
  5. Download and begin using the images that fit your purposes and budget.

In our experience, using online stock agencies is a straightforward process. Since you should already know what kinds of images you want to use (and we've dedicated a sidebar to using keywords), it's important that we spend some time in this chapter focusing on searching for the right image and keeping track of those you decide to purchase.

Searching and Organizing

Most stock sites have a mechanism, called a lightbox, for keeping track of images. This is simply a collection of images that you want to consider for an eventual purchase, grouped together and accessible from your stock account home page. While browsing through a catalog or search results, you can make note of which images you may need by assigning them to your lightbox. This is usually accomplished by clicking a small graphical button found near the preview on the image's product page.

Typically you can create and save more than one lightbox for a given agency once you have set up your account (which is usually free). Most users will create a different lightbox for each major category of content, such as the background textures shown in Figure 4.1 or other topics such as portraits or landscapes. The advantage to this is that you can store collections indefinitely and return to them as time permits to make your purchasing decisions. You can also compare images within a collection to find just the right picture.

Figure 4.1

Figure 4.1 Custom lightboxes help you to manage the online stock images that interest you.

Besides lightboxes, some sites allow you to save search queries that you use often so that you don't have to reenter them each time you use the site. Finding the exact combination of keywords to generate the best search results can be tricky. Once you've found that combination, it is handy to revisit that search from time to time to see what additions a site has made.

Building on this idea of saving favorite search terms, many photographers and editors find they like a particular photographer or provider. Knowing which photographers shoot which styles can help reduce search time and is a good way to find inspiration by checking on updates from these sources. Some agencies even offer notification systems that let you know when new content is available from a given provider or in a specific category.

Over time, you may develop your own favorite list of shooters and agencies. Rob Haggart has a great list of agencies organized by category on his blog, A Photo Editor, at Although the list is not exhaustive, it is extensive and therefore worth a look (Figure 4.2).

Figure 4.2

Figure 4.2 The stock agency list maintained by Rob Haggart is a great place to start your search for the right stock images.

Keyword Search Strategies

What good is a world full of digital stock images if you can't find the ones you need? The secret to effective cataloging is a good keyword system. Most online stock providers want you to use their services and will go to great lengths to provide flexible search options.

Start as general as possible in your keyword selection to see how many images you get. If you know you need a new sky for your background, using sky is a good start but will likely yield hundreds (or maybe thousands) of images. Once you see there are enough images to choose from, you can add modifier keywords to narrow the selection.

For example, if you need a sky with white clouds, just add white clouds to your original sky search query. If you still have too many results to browse easily, think about what other elements you need in your scene. Add keywords to describe those elements to narrow down your search results to more manageable levels.

The difficulty with relying on keywords, however, is that the words you choose to describe your ideal picture may not be the words the stock agency or photographer chose to describe the same subject. To help remedy semantic mismatches, many agencies use standardized keyword lists that are accepted by many photographers, designers, and agencies. This can help everyone to communicate, though the systems are not perfect because no single system is yet universally accepted as a true standard.

A quick web search returns many different keyword master lists, including software that is designed to help stock photographers automatically apply the most effective keywords. Using this type of software has the added benefit of reducing spelling errors, which are abundant on the Internet.

Even with these master lists and software helpers, keyword searches still have limitations. For example, it is difficult to find descriptions of lighting techniques or shadow direction in a given image, though some agencies do use these techniques as keywords. Using keywords for color, shape, and general mood is also a good idea in theory but has mixed results in practice. The bottom line is that you may have to make more than one search (or search more than one agency) to find a specific kind of image.

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