Dragon Pictures - Creating a Stock Photograph of a Fire Breathing Dragon in Photoshop

Fire Breathing Dragons - From childhood doodling to a professional stock photography shoot.

When I was young I constantly doodled.  I doodled a lot of things…but mainly I doodled dragons.  Fast forward a number of years…well…a whole lot of years…and my twin brother is showing me pictures of his pet iguana…pretty cool looking creature….  Then it occurs to me…what a perfect dragon the iguana would make…and now I had the ultimate doodle tool…Photoshop!

Part of my nature, however, is very pragmatic.  If I am going to spend the time, effort and even monetary resources to create an image…be it a dragon or a business man riding a bucking piggy bank, I would like to at least have the hope that the image will not only pay for itself but return me some profit.  That is where stock photography comes in.  So the question I have to ask myself is: “Is there a market for an image of a fire-breathing dragon?”.  My first answer is that I have no idea.  But, I did do some research and found that there was no competition…that is there were no other “photos” of dragons in the marketplace that I could find.  That was enough motivation for me to dive into the project.  I could only hope that the market was bigger than teen-aged boys looking for free prints!

With Photoshop a picture of an iguana becomes a Photograph of a Dragon

Photoshop is an incredibly powerful tool of alchemy…given the right raw materials any new photographic reality can be created.  Without those raw materials Photoshop can be an exercise in frustration and a road to mediocrity. To make sure that I have the raw materials to create my photographic visions it helps to begin with a sketch.  Once I have the sketch I can systematically photograph those raw materials, comparing them with the sketch, until I know I have the parts to complete my stock image.

My brother brought in his iguana to my studio and we did the necessary photography.  I also had a pile of cobblestones that had been dug up form the street in my San Francisco studio (I have since re-located to Sausalito).  I used those to create a “perch” or “roost” for my dragon.  For the background I went through my own stock files and found an image of the Teton mountain range shot near Jackson Hole, Wyoming while on a family vacation.  For a final detail I found an image of a castle I shot in Spain to put in the distant background.

With all the raw materials shot and scanned (this project was before digital capture had reached it’s now exalted state) I set to work.

Making Dragon Parts

To create the long neck of the dragon the tail can be manipulated by creating a clipping path around it, converting the clipping path to a selection, creating a new layer from that selection, and then using the warp tool and the liquefy brush to reshape it.  Free Transform can be used to position and size the new “neck”.   The same tools can be used to stretch the jaws of the iguana into a more “dragonesque” look.  Once again those tools can be used to convert the spines of the iguanas back into dagger-like teeth and fangs.  The flap of skin under the iguana’s jaw can be selected (again with a clipping path…I believe the most important selection tool in Photoshop), turned into a new layer, and then reshaped to become the dragon’s wings.  Each element, be it a leg, claw, tail or whatever, can be selected with an appropriately hard edge (usually a 1-pixel feather when converting the clipping path to a selection) and then “faded” into it’s new adjoining part by using large soft brushes and a layer mask.

I find it truly increases the effectiveness of an image by using adjustment layers and their accompanying masks to add shadow and lightness to enhance the dimensionality of a given part.  I mostly use “curves” (usually again with an adjustment layer) to adjust the density of a part in order to match the part with it’s new neighboring parts and environment. An adjustment layer using Color Balance can help with fine-tuning color variations…and sometimes Hue/Saturation for major color changes. Of course, throughout the project I use the clone tool as necessary.  A wonderful new feature of CS4 is the “preview” that is shown through the brush as it is moved over the area to be cloned.  That alone might be worth the upgrade!

Once the image is looking complete I “Merge Visible Layers” with the option (Mac) key held down thereby creating a new layer that is a composite of all the visible layers.  This gives me a final image in one layer facilitating dust-spotting and other touch up work without losing the ability to go back and revisit the underlying layers if need be.

This brings me to yet another observation about the business of stock photography…the need for patience.  The entire process of stock photography is slow…from submitting the image, providing metadata including key wording, and waiting for the image to appear online…to waiting for sales to waiting for the money to transfer from sub-distributor, to distributor to, finally, the photographer…or at least what’s left of the money! 

Dragon pictures make money!

And what about that dragon image?  For two years it languished, unwanted, unloved and unsold.  But, I am happy to say; in the last two years it has yielded over $4,000.00 in returns (my share) and is a timeless image that ought to provide income well into the future.