How to build a stock photo library for compositing.

Too many photos

Too many photos

I’ve been serious about photography for about five years now but even before that I always had a camera within reach. As a result I have over 80,000 photos in my Lightroom catalogue that I thought would never see the light of day, and the really exciting thing about compositing is that I can now choose any one of those 80,000 photos and build something out of it. The bad thing about compositing is that you start hanging on to every photo, even the truly awful blurry ones, because you just never know if it might one day make a great texture.

You can walk through my shot and I don't even care!

You can walk through my shot and I don’t even care!

When I decided I wanted to be a conceptual photographer I noticed that my shooting style completely changed. Before, I always waited until exactly the right moment to click my shutter so that the composition was perfect and free from distraction. After, I started caring less about that perfect shot and more about the elements in the photo, knowing that I could cut them out later and create something new with them. So I no longer cared if people were walking through the shot or the horizon line was askew because all that mattered is that the subject I wanted looked good.

There are plenty of purists out there who think compositing is cheating but I think they’re missing out on all the fun, so if you decide you’d rather join TEAM FUN and let compositing into your workflow you’ll want to start building a stock library. Of course you can always purchase stock from a stock photography agency which is great when you need a photo of something you just can’t capture yourself, but it’s always better to create something for free that is purely your own work. My initial goal this week was to make an image entirely out of purchased stock to demonstrate how to create something out of nothing but I realised it’s much more fulfilling working from your own stock library so I want to talk about how to build your own.

What to shoot for your stock library

If you already have an idea you want to work on then you’ll be guided by the elements you need to make it a reality. Otherwise these are some general things that every compositor’s stock library can’t do without:

  • Landscapes – shoot environments to put your subjects into. If you can’t shoot your entire concept at the time it can help to take a blank shot of the scene and then a shot of the scene with someone in it so you can try and replicate their shadows and colouring with your new subject later on.
  • Skies and clouds – replacing skies is compositing’s greatest gift to photographers so photograph the sky in all its moods. Where possible, try to include a horizon line to match up with the horizon line in your composited image. More on this next week.
  • The moon – expose for the moon and not the sky or you’ll lose its details.
  • Foregrounds – I have sucked at this over the years and I regret it now so try and collect photos of interesting grounds and surfaces for your subjects to stand on.
  • Mountains – a mountain range will always make your horizon line more interesting and give depth to your image.
  • Buildings – think castles, churches, abandoned buildings. You can add these to the background to help set a scene.
  • Animals – it’s great fun sneaking animals into your images so find a zoo and spend the day shooting some creatures.
  • Birds – Shoot clusters of birds silhouetted against the sky. These are easy to add to your images using the blend mode ‘multiply’ and a levels adjustment layer to refine if needed. Also get close ups of different types of birds. I’m a little embarrassed to say that I recently found a dead Kingfisher outside my house and spent half an hour photographing it before giving it a dignified burial.
  • Props – interesting items that will help tell a story – ideas are balloons, lanterns, picture frames, vintage suitcases, clocks, birdcages etc.
  • Water – how you shoot this may depend on your idea – try throwing it around, shooting water lines in fish tanks, waves on the beach.
  • Textures
  • Fire – try shooting it against a dark background so it can be added easily with a blending mode.
  • Smoke – the wispier the better – You’ll need to light the smoke and photograph it against a plain black or white background for easy blending.
  • People – I don’t have a single plain flat wall in my house so when I find one I try and photograph myself in different costumes and poses to add to landscapes later. I also like to go to events where people are in costume so you can cut out the costumes and use them on your model.
  • Flora – photograph interesting trees and flowers, mushrooms, moss, roots, vines.
  • Light rays and flares – these are really fun to include as special effects in your images. You can capture star-shaped flares by shooting a light with a high aperture.

How to shoot your stock

Here’s a few tips for shooting stock:

  • Shoot in RAW so you can easily change colour casts, exposure, contrast etc. later.

    Speckled lighting sucks

    Speckled lighting sucks

  • Expose for your subject, even if everything else in the image is blown out or underexposed.
  • Aim for flat, overcast or diffuse lighting. If your stock has harsh light or shadows falling across it you will be limited as to how you can use it.
  • Shoot props, animals, plants etc. as large as possible. You don’t want to have to scale these up to fit your image or you will lose resolution and image quality.
  • Shoot your stock in focus. It’s easy to blur an item later in Photoshop.
  • Try and shoot your stock from different angles. Eye height, waist height and crouching are good options. You never know how you’ll end up using your stock and you want as much scope as possible.
  • As I covered extensively last week, if you already have your base image and you want to shoot stock to composite into that base image, you must shoot it with matching light and angles.

Building your stock library

If you’re building a stock library you’ll need some type of image organiser to help you sort your shots. I personally swear by Adobe Lightroom but others use Photoshop Bridge or Capture One. On1 also has their own version called ‘Perfect Browse’ which you can currently get for free through Fstoppers. When you import your photos you’ll need to go through them and assign keywords to the ones you’ll want to find in future. Decide on your keywords early on to keep them uniform. I use words like ‘texture, location, composite, sky, prop, tree, flower’. It’s important to remember to do this. Then when I need a sky I can just type ‘sky’ into my keyword search bar and have all suitable images at my fingertips. Whenever I import photos I always instantly hate them and can’t bear to look at them for at least a few days (it’s weird, I know) so I need to make time later to keyword them. Because of this only about a third of my 80,000 images are keyworded which is obviously not recommended!

You are likely going to need more computer memory to store your stock as well as at least one external hard drive to keep a backup on. I’m a big fan of Western Digital products, particularly their palm-sized 2TB ‘My Passport’ external drives.

About ‘The Parting’

Coming up with a concept for this week’s image was tough. I wanted to create an image entirely out of pre-existing stock without having to shoot something new but it seems my imagination doesn’t extend as far as building scenes from scratch. I first started out browsing the reasonably priced stock site Fotolia for photos of elements I haven’t been able to shoot myself. The great thing about stock sites is that you can download low res ‘comp’ images to play around with before committing to purchase. I built two concepts out of these but ditched them because they only included a couple of stock elements and I wanted a concept that used more.

Abbey Medieval Festival boyNext I browsed through my own catalogue using the ‘composite’ keyword and settled on an image that I’ve always liked taken at the Abbey Medieval Festival of a boy in costume. I went searching for a ‘location’ to place him in and found these images of Eilean Donan castle which I shot in Scotland a few years back. I think they’re really nice landscapes but as my landscapes never see the light of day I thought I’d repurpose them in a composite. I liked that I’d shot the castle from a few different angles and I started thinking about how I could tell a story using companion photographs that takes place on different sides of the bridge. The two birds of prey and the dog were also photographed at the Abbey Medieval Festival, as was the girl. It took a bit of experimenting to find a costumed girl in a pose that worked. As I don’t have permission from either the boy or the girl to use their photos I covered both their faces in masks, also composited from photos of different people at the festival (taken on a different year). This was quite handy in the girl’s case because her face and chest were overexposed which is damn near impossible to fix. The boy’s horse was photographed at my cousin’s property, his sky was shot while I was riding a local ferry, hers in Malaysia. Her silhouetted birds were shot in Bath and his at a local beach. Because the light hit all these components in different ways it took a tonne of editing to make everything fit. I finished by overlaying the images with four different textures.


A stock library is not only handy for creating composites but shooting stock is also a fantastic way to improve your photography skills. Plus a great little money spinner if you decide to sell your stock to an agency. So grab your camera and start collecting!