When You Can’t Find the Perfect Image, Create One (In Photoshop)!

For this post, I’m going to be referring to this image:

Calendar copy

This is the end result of an internal calendar project I designed for AgencyNet. When I first began this venture, I had a “floating-castle-with-a-moat-in-the-clouds” vision I wanted to work toward. Although my final piece didn’t end up exactly the way I had initially imagined, I’ll explain why it’s “okay” to digress from your initial revelation during the early project/asset mining process.

Finding resources for a new project can be an intimidating and sometimes frustrating practice. Having a system in place, for example, knowing how and where you are going to search for images, can help make the foundation of your project smooth and logical, providing a comfortable starting ground for the rest of your Photoshop endeavor.

One of the most important things about starting up a project is to remember the big picture. You could become so consumed with looking for an image of a “gloomy, floating, castle in the clouds with a moat around it” that you might be forgetting one important detail: The specific image you are looking for probably doesn’t exist. And if it does exist, you can bet your bottom you can purchase it off of istockphoto.com for 15 credits.

But isn’t the entire point of creativity to make something that no one else has seen before? Sure, there might be hundreds of variations of the same thought, but crafting a piece of Photoshop magic unique to you is part of the fun.

The following is a series of steps and tricks that I use in the beginning stages of my asset gathering process. Although this is a good basis to start with, you can always alter the technique to better suit your needs and working habits.

ONE: Create An Image Folder (Organize).

I know this sounds like a bit of a “duh” statement, but organizing and consolidating all of your images in one place helps more than you might imagine. There’s nothing worse than finding a great image and forgetting where you saved it.

Tips for Organizing:

  1. If using stock photo websites, make folders pertaining to where you’ve sourced your image. If Getty Images is the source, make a folder for those images and leave the image number intact so later, when you purchase the photo, you can find it quickly.
  2. If using photos that you’ve taken yourself or stock images that you have from previous projects/sources, I find that giving them a name that pertains to the image helps me to find assets that I’m looking for with ease.
  3. If you are looking for several different images, break down your folder structure according to what you’re looking for. For example, in one folder you may have all of your castle-related images. In a second folder you may have all of your sky and cloud related images.

TWO: Don’t look for a specific picture, look for a general feeling.

I know that the above statement seems a bit ambiguous, so let me clarify what I mean.  Take a step back from Photoshop and write down the basic idea that you want to convey. Once you get that figured out, break down that idea into images. If I broke down my “floating castle in the clouds” idea, my list of images to hunt for would look up a something like this:

Image 1: A Castle

Image 2: Clouds

Now break down those thoughts even more.

  • What kind of castle am I looking for?
  • Does this castle have a moat?
  • What are the walls made out of?
  • Are there any characters in or around this castle?
  • Are there birds in the sky?
  • What time of day will my castle be shown in?

After thinking about it for several minutes my new image list would be something like this:

Image 1: A Castle

Image 2: Clouds

Image 3: Sky

Image 4: Brick wall

Image 5: Moat

Image 6: Gargoyles

Image 7: Sun in Sky

Image 8: Birds


THREE: Start Hunting!

Using the keywords that you just came up with (Castle, Clouds, Sky, Brick wall, Moat, Gargoyles, Sun in Sky, Birds), start your search. Don’t spend hours upon hours hunting for that one specific image of a castle in the clouds, look for a castle. Look for variations of castle parts including doors, windows and stairwells. Look for several different castles. While you might want your end result to be one whole castle, using several different images to create your own structure that doesn’t exist is a perfect way to make your piece more unique and one-of-a-kind.

I find this part of the process very hypnotic. As I’m looking for my skies and castles, I always seem to stumble upon different images that get my creative juices flowing. That picture of a cannon that I found while searching for a brick wall might be just the thing that my final image needs. In other words, I save everything that I deem interesting. Below is an example of what my image folder looked like before I even opened Photoshop.

Folder copy

Tips for Hunting:

  1. Use variations on your wording to find different results (i.e.: instead of just “sky” search for “ominous sky” or “night sky”)
  2. Don’t be turned off by images that contain details you’re looking for, even if they are part of a bigger scene. You can always cut and crop photos to use only what you need.  For example, when I found the image below, I really liked the idea of vines clinging to a wall, but I didn’t want the entire wall to be made up of vines. I integrated a bit of this image with 3 or 4 others to create the end result.

FOUR: Give yourself a time limit.

I find asset mining a very engaging part of the process. I can get lost in it pretty easily, and I catch myself saving images that might inspire me for future projects. While this can be a good thing (coming up with new ideas for the future), it’s can also be counterproductive for deadlines. So unless it’s a personal project, I find it imperative to give myself a time constraint. We all know that in the creative industry, time definitely equals money.

Time Limit Tip:

Although everyone works differently, a good time measurement for asset mining would be about an hour and a half or when you reach 60 to 90 photos to work with. You’ll be surprised at how quickly your images will add up.

Ivy copy

FIVE: Start putting the pieces together.

If time permits, walk away from your computer for ten minutes to really wrap your head around what you are trying to achieve. When you get back to your workstation, open up your image folder and review it with a fresh eye. Start connecting the dots. Is there a color theme going on? Are there images that are similar in nature, texture or theme? Try to imagine all of the images in your folder as a story that’s waiting to be told and then start putting the pieces together.

On my project, I noticed that I had saved lots of hanging vines and foliage. This got me thinking about a castle overgrown with vines and greenery. In my quest to find some birds flying through the sky, I stumbled upon a beautiful image of a white peacock. This became a theme that I wanted to explore more, and thus a central fixture in my final image. Although it’s not my original vision of a castle in the sky with a moat around it, it’s still the same general idea.

While I may not have used every image that I saved in my images folder, each one of them played a part in the final piece that I produced. The more images I found, the more I started to look at my concept from a different angle. Does my castle really need to be floating? If it’s not floating, can’t it have a courtyard instead of a moat? Be flexible.  Most of the time, the end result is not going match the beginning vision. This definitely doesn’t mean that the outcome won’t be just as, if not more spectacular.