Composite Unique Landscapes in Photoshop
This article is provided courtesy of Peachpit Press. All text and images © Dan Moughamian, unless otherwise noted.
This article details useful techniques for creating surreal composite images in Photoshop CS4. We all have our own definition of what it means for something to be "surreal," but the idea is to bring elements together seamlessly that you traditionally don't associate with one another.
For this example, I utilized three stock images from iStockphoto: the amazing Iguaçu Falls in South America, a woman taking in her surroundings, and a statue of Buddha (Figure 1).
Figure 1. I'll show you how to blend these three stock images into one finished landscape.
Aside from the context provided by the subjects themselves, the lighting and the coloring of those subjects are also important. I made sure that the shot of the woman and the statue were captured in something approximating cloudy, diffuse light (similar to the shot of the falls), and that the colors of the subjects would blend well with the background scene. For example, the off-white coloring of the Buddha status could blend well with the water in the falls or the clouds; the woman's dark clothing could blend well with the rocks or grassy areas in the waterfall shot.
Artistically, the goal of this composite was to bridge the plausible and implausible in a single scene, while providing some message to the viewer. Here the message is left to the imagination. It could be environmental, spiritual, or a mix of the two. It's up to you as the artist to decide what you want your scenes to mean.
I used the falls as the starting point. This provided areas in the foreground, middle-ground, and background for placing my other images into the scene, effectively widening the scope of creative options. A photograph of a woman with her back to the camera gives us an opportunity to add a human element, similar to what we might imagine in the real world at an eco-tourist location like this. Granted, she's not necessarily dressed for the occasion, but sometimes details like this can bring the viewer in to really examine things; everything doesn't have to be perfectly logical. Finally, the statue of Buddha provides the surreal element to this scene.
NOTE: Often, especially in the world of marketing and advertising, stock images are a common source of material for compositing projects. If you don't have your own set of images to use, exploring sites like iStockphoto.com can be a big help, and usually it's quite easy to set up an account. Just be aware of each image's licensing limitations when choosing shots for your composite artwork.
Gathering All the Shots into One Document
The first step is to open the shot of the falls and save it as a PSD file. Next, I had to bring in the shots of the Buddha statue and the woman. We want to maintain as much editing flexibility as possible when compositing, so use File > Place to bring all of your images into the main scene (see Figure 2). This will create a Smart Object Layer for each placed image. Note that Smart Object Layers have distinct icons and layer masks in the Layers panel. These masks will be important later in the process.
Once you've gathered your images together in one document, the next problem is usually the simplest to address: Placed images often require scaling to make the visual illusion possible. Anything that looks obviously too small or large will detract from the quality of the final image. For this concept, the woman needed to be smaller so that she could be placed somewhere in the foreground or middle-ground of the landscape shot (among the rocks and grass); the statue of Buddha also needed to be smaller, although it ends up being a very large object relative to the scene as a whole.
To scale a Smart Object Layer, select the layer and choose Edit > Free Transform (Ctrl-T on the PC, Command-T on the Mac). Next, hold down the Shift key to constrain the image's proportions, click a corner handle, and drag it inward to reduce the image (as shown in Figure 3), or drag outward to enlarge it. Click the Enter or Return key when you have a good approximation of the size you want to use.
Figure 3. Use the Free Transform command to scale Smart Object Layers properly. Click on the image to see a larger version. NOTE: You should be able to scale your Smart Object Layer up to its native pixel dimensions before you notice any softening. Reducing the size of an image layer usually doesn't have a pronounced impact on quality, though obviously the details get smaller as you go. Don't worry if you're not absolutely sure how large you want each layer to be -- just get close. You're likely to tweak the scaling during the project.
Beginning the Detail Work
The next part of the process is placing the Smart Object Layers in the appropriate area of the scene so you can begin your detail work. Since you won't yet have masks in place to hide the extraneous subject background (in this example, the white area around the Buddha statue and the nature scene surrounding the woman), you can reduce their opacity by 40–50% to allow some of the background to show through as we're roughing out our scene (see Figure 4). Once you've got the final masks created for your layers, you'll make pixel-precise placements, so again just get close when starting out.
NOTE: Masks will be covered in detail on the next page of this article.
Figure 4. While you will eventually mask away the parts of your subjects you don't want to see, a quicker way to get started is to reduce their opacity temporarily to find the proper image placements. Click on the image to see a larger version.
Another placement choice involves depth. Sometimes that means deciding whether you want to create the appearance that one of your subjects is "between" two other elements in the background scene. The alternative is to place one or more of your subjects directly "onto" a surface in your scene that's not hidden by other parts of the scene (such as the rocks along the river plateaus in this example). This placement only requires that you mask your subject so that it appears to be naturally at rest on the surface in question.
To place a subject "between" areas of your scene, you have two options:
* Zoom in closely and precisely mask away the areas of the subject that must be hidden for any given placement.
* Mask out the background of your subject (once), and then sandwich that layer between two copies of the background image. From there, you can mask away the top background layer to reveal your subject. To demonstrate this trick, I "floated" the statue of Buddha between the vegetation in the middle of the scene and the falls in the background (see Figure 5).
I generally prefer the "sandwich" technique, as it allows me to make a precise mask of my placed subject one time and then move it from place to place, masking and unmasking things more quickly than I could otherwise. So, for this example, I first masked the exact shape of the Buddha statue, placed the statue in the right spot, and then masked away the top background layer to reveal the statue "ascending" toward the top of the vegetation.
It's important to get the brush hardness correct in these situations. If you mask with too soft a brush, you can end up with an unnatural "glow" or haloing effect where the placed subject is revealed, instead of slightly crisp edge details as you would expect to see in the real world.
The Next Step
On page 2, I'll discuss masking in more detail. On page 3, I'll explain how to make improvements to the tone, colors, and focus of your subjects, so that they appear to blend more accurately with the parts of the scene they occupy.
Liked This? Read These!
The makers of the Fanta soft drink are running a multi-part ad campaign that uses an interesting effect that's very easy to achieve: Read More
Layer Comps -- new in Adobe Photoshop CS -- may well be one of the first great inventions of the 21st century (at least in the digital world). A simple click in the palette to Save New Layer Comp,... Read More
The following is an excerpt from Speaking Photoshop CS6 by Dave Bate. You can also download this excerpt as a PDF. Reprinted, with permission of the publisher, from Speaking Photoshop... Read More
Learn how to extract images with hair using Photoshop's Refine Mask command in this excerpt from Speaking Photoshop CS6. Read More