Amy Patterson wearing a red dress jumping in a daylit room with a cyan wall. Amy's photo by Kevin Ames
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Creating custom backdrops for your photos using stock images

To me, the backdrop or background of a photograph is its foundation. The backdrop sets the stage, the tone and reveals or hides things that might add or detract from the subject respectively. The go-to backdrop is seamless paper in its myriad of colors. Many companies sell custom painted backdrops on canvas or muslin for the “old master” look. Still, others, use big printers to make backgrounds. Backdrops can be made in Photoshop. Then the subject can be inserted in front of it. Rather than shooting backgrounds yourself, there is a vast library you can access from within Photoshop itself–Adobe Stock.

Adobe Stock in Photoshop

Go to the Libraries panel in Photoshop. If it’s not showing you can reveal it from Photoshop’s Window menu.

Libraries panel in Photoshop

One of the choices in the Library drop-down is Adobe Stock. After the Adobe Stock Library shows, you’ll find a search field. Enter a keyword or two to see some selections.

I’ve made a custom workspace in Photoshop just for Adobe Stock. I pulled the Libraries tab out of its group and then made it as big as Photoshop’s document area. This size on a 27″ monitor is almost the first page of a search on a browser using stock.adobe.com. At the bottom of the panel is a link to “see more results on the web”. Click it to open into Adobe Stock with the same keywords already set in the default browser. I saved the workspace by choosing Window > New Workspace…

Kevin's Adobe Stock Library workspace in Photoshop

After looking at the offerings in the Adobe Stock panel, I went to their website for more choices. I have a library for Adobe Stock previews and purchases. If I’m not sure which image I want to use for a composition, I’ll download the preview and work on it. When I like the result, I license (a clever way of saying “pay for”) the photo and the watermarked version is replaced with the licensed photo. Easy! Pick several photos then download their previews. They appear in the Downloads Library. I prefer to drag them to on I made named Adobe Stock Previews. Here’s my process…

Which comes first? The subject or the background?

A photo in desperate want of a new backdropBest case, the background photo is chosen first. Then the subject is lit to match it. While ideal, this rarely happens. Usually, a new background is chosen to replace an existing one. Pay attention to the shadow direction when choosing a backdrop photo to be the foundation of any composition. In this case, the subject is a photo of a model dressed in red is jumping in the air. It’s time to replace the white background with something a little bit, well, more.

Considerations when selecting backdrop photos

The first part starts with thinking visually not literally. Some questions to think about:

  • What will ground my composition?
  • Will abstract work?
  • What about realistic?
  • What changes will make the background more appropriate for the composition?
  • Will the colors in the backdrop work as they are?
  • If not, which colors would be better?

Make some choices

With the photograph of Amy on the screen in Photoshop, I entered “wall painting” in the search field. I avoided the obvious term “backdrop.” I was thinking about where I might find a location in real life. That informed my search terms. Did I see a lot of possibilities that just would not work? You bet I did. And I found some gems. Here are a some of the choices I found. Tip: Download the “preview” version to see if it works with the composition. At this point, ignore the colors of the background photos. They can be changed afterward. If a stock background checks all the requirements even if its color is not ideal, keep it in the running.

Realistic or representational backgrounds

Two of the previews from Adobe Stock are realistic–a brick wall with a wooden floor and a room lit by a window that has a red wall and white floor. The other one is representative of a painted canvas backdrop. I did quick composites to see which one would work for my concept. Let’s look at all three.

Amy against the white brick wall from Adobe Stock. Amy's photo is by Kevin AmesWhite brick wall with wooden floor

This image is from a lower camera angle. The small amount of floor in relationship to the wall is the indicator. I placed Amy in the room. The image just doesn’t look right. What’s wrong here?

The problem is there are two different perspectives. The first one is the background. The second perspective is of Amy. The camera that created the wall and floor combination is lower than the one that made the photo of Amy. The net effect is that she appears to be positioned almost completely back against the brick wall.

Sunlit room

This is a beautifully simple interior. The sun is streaming in, casting a shadow of the window frame on the red wall behind Amy. This one works a lot better because the perspectives match. Amy now appears to be closer to the camera and a good distance away from the red wall.

Amy in front of the red wall from Adobe Stock. Amy's photo is by Kevin Ames

There is something wrong with this picture too. Do you see it? Yup. You got it in one. The light on Amy is on the opposite side from the sunlight entering the room. A quick trip into Photoshop and Edit > Transform > Flip Horizontal fixes the lighting issue. I chose to flip the room. This works well as long as there is not type that will get reversed in the image. The copy seen in this version is from an Adobe Stock preview image that will be replaced with the non-watermarked version later. Another option is to flip Amy’s photo. This is fine if the side the window is on matters.

Amy in front of the red wall from Adobe Stock. The room is flipped horizontally to match the light on her face. Amy's photo is by Kevin Ames

Amy and the painterly backdrop. Amy's photo by Kevin AmesPainterly backdrop

The third background is a portrait-oriented choice. It’s a wall with a grungy, distressed look in blue. The original is a horizontal (landscape) format. For this version of my portrait of Amy, put it in a vertical (portrait) orientation using Photoshop’s Edit > Image Rotation > Clockwise. Then I added the photo of Amy. I positioned her in front of the brightest part of the center of the background to give the hint of backlight that is part of the original photograph. When using this abstract type of background the direction of light on it is usually not an issue.

Creative and aesthetic decisions

I like both the red room and painterly backdrop versions. I believe there are still a few ideas to add to finish each one.

Painterly background

Here, my thinking is all about the color of the background. I’m not certain that the blue tone serves Amy as well as something a lot warmer and perhaps, with more contrast. Maybe a greenish version. What about cyan? It’s the complementary color for red. I wasn’t sure so I made all of them.

I’ll have to live with the warm and cyan backgrounds before I decide which one really makes me happy. I’ll print each one, hang them up and look at them for a week or so, then choose.

Realistic background

I noodled around with this one quite a bit to get to the version I used in this post’s opening photo. While the red wall in the room definitely works, I believe the contrasting cyan wall makes Amy jump both literally and figuratively in the photo.

Adobe Stock is an idea goldmine

I’m finding that the more time I spend browsing through the pages of Adobe Stock, more and more ideas come to mind. These ideas are not only about finding photos that will complement my work, the ideas for making new photographs are coming to me in abundance. I’m busy. You are busy. We are creatives, you and me. We must invest the time in activities that expand our creative base. Where better to wander than a place where thousands of our creative fellows are contributing millions of visual, still and video, ideas?

Photographs of Amy Patterson are ©2018 Kevin Ames. All other photos are from Adobe Stock.

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