Core Skills: Selecting Stock Photography
Stock Photography constitutes the lions-share of raw materials used in photo manipulation, being more selective when choosing your resources can improve your work immediately. The old adage ‘Garbage in, Garbage out’ rings very true in this instance; you will achieve a finer finish to your work if your photographic resources are of high quality. The following article will outline a few key points to consider when selecting stock photography.
The Right Sources
First and foremost; It’s not really acceptable to use images sourced from search engines / image search or copyrighted material from websites etc. There are exceptions of course; for instance creating a fan-art piece in homage to a film, video-game etc. which is used in a non-profit context. I always liked the expression ‘Don’t steal art, the world is unfair enough’, and art-theft is exactly what’s happening if you rip photographers work illegitimately. There are plenty of resources online where you can get your hands on grade-a stock resources for free, these will be listed further on.
One of the benefits of getting your materials from the correct sources is that more often than not the quality will be a lot higher than if ripped straight from Google. The majority of images found via that method are optimised for web, meaning the resolution has been scaled down for display online – not ideal for use in high-quality manipulation work. Resolution, often referred to as dpi (dots per inch) determines the number of pixels that a digital image can contain and as such the depth and quality of the file. Here is a great article from Absolute Graphix that clearly explains Image Resolution if you would like to know more [link]
So how do you determine if your selected stock image is of the right resolution? For instance, if your document is set-up at a correct size for photomanipulation eg. A4, 300 dpi (see Document Setup article for more info) and you import / paste the stock image – how large is it in relation to the document size? If it is tiny and you have to enlarge it considerably to fit it’s purpose, it’s not the right resolution. You can scale up a stock image to maybe twice it’s size (at a push), but as a general rule of thumb you don’t want to ‘stretch’ the pixels of anything as this deteriorates the quality. Scaling down is all good however, and it is infinitely better that you work with stock that is too large as opposed to being too small.
Lighting & Clarity
You may have found the perfect image at correct resolution, but what about it’s overall quality in terms of lighting and clarity? Sharpness, tonal range and good exposure are a few of the elements that determine photographic quality. Webcam shots are clearly a no no. Often, issues can be ironed out using the levels command in photoshop, but sometimes an image just can’t be saved. You may encounter situations like this when using resources from stock sites like DeviantArt where the imagination and execution of a stock image could be outstanding but the technical photographic execution may be off somewhat. If you work with a snapshot to start with, the resulting work will look like a heavily manipulated snapshot.
Fortunately there are many amateur and professional photographers on DeviantArt that produce high quality, well-shot photography. The trick is to gauge which images will result in a finer output. The stock model may be gorgeous, and ideal for your concept – but if it starts life as a poorly shot image, you should really look for another alternative.
All stock sites vary in their useage terms. Refer to the image notes to gauge what context you may use the work in. On DeviantArt useage rights are different for each photographer, there are those for instance who state that the derivative work can be used for ‘on-site’ display only. There are however many photographers on DA that stipulate their photography may be used on an ‘unrestricted’ basis meaning that it may be used for both personal and commercial purposes.
When purchasing from microstock sites such as Fotolia, there are normally two types of license – Standard and Extended Royaly Free. Both types allow you to use the image to make derivative works, use online and in printed material – however if you wanted to produce goods for resale or distribution (merchandise etc.), then you would require the Extended Royalty Free license. Reselling / redistributing an original image or using it in a manner that violates local or federal laws is usually prohibited on stock from all sources.
A small point of ettiquette when using stock is to give credit where it’s due. If you display your work online, (if you can) it’s nice to mention where you got your resources and provide a link back to the photographer.
Free VS Premium
When I started to use premium resources in my own work, I noticed a jump in quality and clarity. Im not suggesting that everyone should rush off and sign up to premium stock sites, just elaborating on how I came to the decision. Working freelance I often required high quality, specific images on the spot – so buying premium saved me masses of time and enabled me to use the highest quality resources on the planet. I started doing this around the 6th year of photo manipulating, so up until that point I was faring pretty well using the free sources available – when projects became more urgent however, I made the jump. I notice that many of the elite digital artists use the best stock out there, so if you decided to step up a gear in terms of quality – it may be worth looking into premium resources.
Here is a list of stock sites I have had personal experience with, Im certain theres enough here to cater for every level of photo manipulator – be it professional or hobbyist:
Fotolia – Aside from StockXpert (which is now gone unfortunately), this is the only premium site I have purchased from. You can purchase on a credit or subscription basis, the option to buy individual images is quite reasonable (compared to many of the other premium sites). The library is epic and includes work of some truly phenomenal photographers. They havent let me down yet, so Ive stuck with them.
Stock.Xchng – The good old workhorse that has been the manipulators ‘go-to’ site for a long time. Great free to use, general stock site. The volume of images has dipped somewhat since they were brought out, but it still proves to be a very useful resource.
Mayangs Textures – This free texture site is great, Ive used it for many years now. Easy to navigate with large, high quality images.
CG Textures, 3D Total & Image After – Are all awesome, with many great free textures and stock images, however I don’t use them as much due to poor navigation. Sometimes I refer to them when I need something specific that I can’t find elsewhere, however their interfaces arent as intuitive as a site like SXC.
Deviant Art – I strayed away from DA stock for a long time due to the draconian stock terms imposed by many of the photographers. Recently however it seems a lot of folks have lightened up and there are many resources available on an unrestricted / less stringent basis. I find Im using DA a lot more these days, and there are some truly imaginative concepts being put out on there. For alternative and creative stock imagery, be sure to check it out – theres masses of photographic talent on-site. Be sure to credit them!!
Start on the right foot, if your stock resources are quality, your resulting work will benefit immensely. One of the number one problems with amateur photo manipulators is that they are not selective enough with their raw materials – focus upon that and everything improves.
Is there a glaring ommission? Want to share a great stock site? Feel free to share in the comments section below.
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