Taking Stock Photos to Strange New Places with Photoshop

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One look at the website of Joonas Paloheimo makes it clear that this 28-year-old Helsinki-based illustrator takes a playful view of life and design. But underlying the cheeky graphics are solid Photoshop skills and an inventive use of existing image sources, such as stock photography sites.

Paloheimo has a knack for looking beyond a photo’s composed scene and seeing the new possibilities within. He often lets the stock image be his inspiration. Rather than search for a photo that serves a theme, he may see an image and create the subject from it. For example, he came across two images with "fantastic poses [that] were begging for me to create something."

The result places these two figures in a dynamic scene with new meaning.

I talked to Joonas (via email, given the 10-hour time difference between Finland and Oregon) about his work.

CP: What is your design and art background?
JP: I'm mostly self-educated when it comes to creating. I was never that good at concentrating on studies that I found irrelevant to my rebellious ways. Instead, I spent a lot of time in school entertaining classmates with drawings of foxy women or beasts of unthinkable horrors.

After high school I drifted kind of accidentally into advertising, thanks to a friend’s suggestion. He was working as an IT support guy in a well-known advertising firm. He said that the ad game seemed interesting and suggested that we enroll in Helsinki Marketing Institute. Because the studies took place in the evenings, I had the opportunity to do internships at agencies during the daytime to get hands-on experience to enhance the theory taught in school.

After two years, I got my first full-time job at Rientola [now Zeeland Helsinki] from which I was fired soon after. But that just made my skin tougher and I had developed a taste for the sweet, sweet nectar they call advertising. So I climbed back on the saddle and spammed the agencies with my portfolio and landed myself a new job at Hasan&Partners, a marketing company. From there I was recruited to another firm, international advertising and marketing company Euro RSCG.

It's been quite a fun five-year ride working for various agencies, but now it's time for me to test how far my own wings can carry me by going freelance.

CP: When did you start making images in Photoshop?
JP: I started messing around with the program at the age of 15 or 16, but playtime got serious just a couple of years ago when I was introduced to the true potential of the program by a Brazilian art director named Luiz Risi, whom I met while working at Euro RSCG in Helsinki. Luiz showed me what you can get out of Photoshop if you really put your mind to it. He also taught me about the Brazilian work methods/morality by spending many nights at the office. Good times.

CP: Why do you like using stock images? What is the advantage for artists?
JP: Stock images are a timesaver and sometimes a great source of inspiration. I do like photography, but as hectic as the working world is, there's rarely time to shoot all of the pieces I want to use. When I can find a high-quality image, it speeds up the process.

CP: What do you look for when searching for a stock image?
JP: It depends so much on the case. Quality is a big factor. By quality I don't mean that the image is big in size, but that there's some kind of effort behind it. Any snapshot won’t do. Taking pictures these days is accessible to so many people, and with the masses comes a certain amount of amateurism, which I try to dodge.

CP: Where do you get your inspiration for your montages? For example, the "Date Night Gone Wrong" series [see below].

JP: It definitely comes from real life. The idea for the "Date Night Gone Wrong" series started just after I had been on a date, so it came from everyday inspiration. It's all around. You just have to be in that state of mind to recognize the idea when it comes buzzing.

And now as you are thinking of how bad my date must have gone, I must spoil your fun by saying that "the Missus" and I are still going strong!

CP: Do you have a different approach when creating illustrations for clients?
JP: Usually when art directors choose their illustrators, they are coming after that certain style you offer. Of course, I try to grant every hope and desire that the client might have. I do have a serious business side to me and this is still a customer-service occupation. So it's possible for me to step out of my own style and become more universal when necessary. Although I think the more freedom I get from the client when it comes to the visual direction, the better the results in the end.

CP: I love the Lasinen Lapsuus images, especially how you incorporated the shape of a bottle, pint, glass etc. into the design. Can you tell me about those?

JP: It's sad but the "Lasinen Lapsuus" or "Fragile Childhood" series also got its inspiration from real-life events.

As we Finns are a nation that likes to drink, there are some shameful and serious side effects that we just don't want to realize. You'll read once in a while in the papers how some parents have left their sleeping kid at home while they've gone to get drunk at a shady saloon. Meanwhile the kid wakes up, realizes that Mom's not home and decides to go looking outside. Kids going outdoors in pajamas and a cold Finnish winter are not a good combination. The same is true for alcohol and bad parenting. This was a pro-bono campaign that rose from the perpetual stupidity of too many parents. The whole campaign and full credits can been seen at http://adsoftheworld.com/taxonomy/brand/lasinen_lapsuus.CP: Can you walk me through the creation of one of your illustrations?
JP: Sure. This is from the "Date Night Gone Wrong" series:

1. First you decide to do that giant tentacle thing that you've seen people do. (It's funny--you come across giant tentacle themes every so often. Guess it originates somewhere from the tales of the Kraken in Scandinavian folklore mixed with Japanese manga/anime culture). You go through Shutterstock’s library searching for the right pictures. Here’s the list:


Tentacles: Check.


Semi-naked girl: Check.


Rioting boyfriend: Check.


Old pier: Check.


Stormy ocean: Check.

Open your images in Photoshop and crop them with the lasso tool. Yeah--you're a real cowboy now. Yee-haw! Start by finding places for every one. Use a mask on the girl and the Warp tool for the tentacle, and you'll fit the hussy right inside the tentacle’s grasp. Then smile and think, "That's for not returning my phone calls!"

Set the colors and tones. Hone and polish. After a few hours, you'll realize that this is not working at all.

2. Start again. All is not lost. Use the parts you're happy with. Go deeper inside the story. Find a composition that's balanced. Mercilessly replace the pictures that don't work.

3. Details. More details! It's night. We need a moon!

We're at sea. We have to have a boat!

Gaussian-blurring the tentacles up front gives some depth to the picture. Oh yes! We're getting there. Think about the glory and fame this picture will bring you once it has been released on the Internet.

4. Oh no! The lighting is all wrong. Create a new layer. Use the Paint Brush tool and the darkest black. Go wild with it! Try to think about where the light source is. The moon! That must be it!

Now how will the light impact the surfaces? I usually first paint the places where there should be shadows. Use an illustration of the moon for reference.

Add a little Gaussian blur for the layer and set the mode to soft light or just reduce the opacity of the layer -- let's call this our penumbra. Then zoom in and paint the umbra with more detail. You'll probably need to add some blur to this layer as well.

This is just one way to do the shadows. There's rarely one right way to do stuff in Photoshop. Find the way that suits the occasion. Keep in mind that the purpose is to misuse the program as much as possible to find new ways to achieve results. Give it hell!

At this point you realize how badly you cropped the tentacles and decide to cover up your laziness by adding water splashes. Quickly find different stock photo splashes, like this one:

Choose the Blending Mode that seems to place the splashes best into the picture (use Shift + - to toggle blending modes faster). It won’t be perfect at first, but you can make it work by masking off the most obvious edges.

When you get into the good stuff -- being the splash itself -- just lasso a small area at a time of the splash’s background that's still showing at the layer. Change to quick mask mode from the bottom of your toolbar (everything but the selected area should turn red). Give the mask some Gaussian Blur. Then switch back to standard mode (by clicking the quick mask button again) and apply some curves to the selection so that the images start to blend, little by little. Repeat as necessary. You can also do this in reverse by curving up the details in the splashes. The masked Gaussian Blur helps the curving blend better to rest of the surroundings. Settle on whatever pleases your eye.

5. You're doing it! You're really, really doing it! Now there's nothing left but the final adjustments. Photoshop's Selective Color is my favorite adjustment because you can easily even out the color differences in the picture. Maybe try some High-Pass sharpening set to linear light or overlay to get those details to pop. Set the Curves as you see fit. I usually end up going through all of the adjustment layers to see if I can get that last little bit of magic out of one.

Now save it for the Web, post it, and just sit back and start to wonder why nobody is noticing. That’s probably because the idea is unoriginal. But hey, it's not your fault. It's my picture!

See Joonas Paloheimo’s portfolio on the Behance Network and on his own website.

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