IMAGINARY LANDSCAPES: DIGITAL PHOTOMONTAGE WITH NICK PEDERSEN


In this course we will learn everything you need to know about how to combine your own photographs into an interesting, original composition, and then make this into a believable photomontage image using Photoshop. The major component of the first part of the course will be about “Compositing”, which means layering images together to build up a composition. Then, the next part of the course will be all about “Retouching”, learning how to make adjustments and use effects to make your composite image come to life.

To follow along with step-by-step instructions, or to experiment with the images used in the demos, please visit:

www.nick-pedersen.com/course-images

 

INTRODUCTION

The image below shows the overall layout for Adobe Photoshop. All of your Tools can be found on the toolbar at the left side of the image. On the right side of the image are your palette windows like Layers, Adjustments, and History. Finally, above the image are drop down menus for different editing Commands.

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Remember that using Tool Keys, and Command Keys can make working in Photoshop a lot faster and easier. See chart in the course images file for all the options. Some important ones to remember would be:

 

TOOL KEYS

Brush Tool: B                         Move Tool: V                          Crop Tool: C

Brush Sizes: [ ]                      Zoom Tool: Z                          Marquee Tool: M

Switch Colors: X                    Gradient Tool: G                     Lasso Tool: L

Default Color: D                     Pen Tool: P                             Quick Selection: W

 

Change between the 3 Viewing Modes with: F

Pan around the image by holding: Spacebar

 

COMMAND KEYS

New File:                      <Command> N

Open File:                    <Command> O

Save File:                     <Command> S

Step Backward:           <Command> Z

Step Forward:              <Command> Y

 

Free Transform:           <Command> T

Deselect:                     <Command> D

Copy Layer:                 <Command> J

Group Layers:             <Command> G

Merge Layers:             <Command> E

 

Levels:                         <Command> L

Curves:                        <Command> M

Hue/Saturation:          <Command> U

Color Balance:            <Command> B

Apply Filter:                <Command> F

 

Zoom In:                      <Command> +

Zoom Out:                   <Command> –

Fit on Screen:             <Command> 0

 

To start creating a new image the first thing we need to do is set up a Template. You can do this by going to the top menu and selecting File > New to open a settings box. Change the size option to inches, and a good starting size would be somewhere around 11 x 14 inches. The best resolution would be 300 pixels/inch, because that is the optimal setting to print your work. Color Mode should be RGB Color and starting out at 8-bit. If you do get in to higher-end work you could switch up to 16-bit. Then I usually just set the Background Contents to White with a new image. Finally, make sure to change the color profile from the default to Adobe RGB, because that is the widest gamut color space to work with. Then press Ok to open your new image template in Photoshop.

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Now you can start bringing your photos into Photoshop and insert them onto your template to build up an image. I would recommend always shooting pictures using RAW Format, because it gives you the highest quality and more room for flexibility when photo editing in Camera RAW before bringing it into Photoshop. Starting out Jpegs are completely fine to work with too, but mainly the important thing is that you want the photo to look as good as possible before opening it to use in your composition.

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Adding a new image onto your template is very easy, you just open it and with the Move tool selected, Click-Hold and Drag it to place it in as a new Layer. You can also hold Shift when dragging the image to perfectly center it on your new template. Now, to work your new image (Layer 1) you can rename it by double-clicking its title, and also click the Eye Icon to toggle on/off visibility. Use the Move tool to place the new layer where you want, and if you need to change its size you can use Edit > Free Transform or (<Command> T). Use the surrounding box’s side handles to bring in the image to the size you want, or use one of the corner handles and hold Shift to keep the image’s shape.

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An important thing to note is that if you try to resize an image up it will lose quality. So, if you make a layer small and then enlarge it that will ruin its resolution. I would recommend either knowing the size you want new layers to be in your image, or if you want to play around with sizes you can make the layer a Smart Object. You can easily do this by going to Layer > Smart Objects > Convert to Smart Object when you bring the layer into the composition, that way Photoshop retains all the file information to resize it.

Another important aspect of Photoshop to learn about is the History menu, which you can find by clicking the History Icon to the left of the Layers menu. This records the past 20 states, or changes you make, so you can easily go back if you need to. Another way to quickly undo a mistake or change something is to use Edit > Undo or (<Command> Z).

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LESSON 1: LAYER MASKS

Now, let’s get into putting some images together to build up a new composition. The first step would be to Open one of your photos in Photoshop and use the methods we talked about like using the Move tool to drag it onto your template, then resize and place it where you want using Free Transform. The next important aspect of Photoshop is to learn how layers are sequenced, with each Layer lying on top of the one below it. The easiest way to start compositing multiple images together is to use Layer Masks, a techniques that lets you mask out parts of an image layer to let the layers below show through.

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To set this up, make sure you’re on the layer you want to mask, and then click on the Layer Mask Icon at the very bottom of the Layers Menu. This sets up a masking box next to your layer image that you can paint in or out using the Brush Tool. To mask out part of the image, select the Mask box and start painting out parts of it with a Brush set to Black (Hardness: 0). Remember that Black ‘Hides’ and White ‘Reveals’, so if you go too far painting out simply switch to a White Brush to paint parts of the image back in.

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Once you figure out how this works, start bringing in more images that you want to blend together. This technique works well for landscapes, or anything where you can use a smooth transition. Decide where each of the layers will go, then make Layer Masks for each one and play with painting on the masks using the Brush tool. You can also experiment with changing the Opacity or Flow of the Brush at the top menu to help blend the layers more seamlessly. Another good tool to try with this technique is the Gradient tool, to create a smooth blend over a wide area.

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Experiment with adding more and more layers, and creating Layer Masks. Understanding how layers and masks work is crucial to creating Photo Composite work in Photoshop. Using masks is a much better way to work because it is non-destructive, and it retains all of the image information for future use rather than just deleting it.

 

LESSON 2: BLENDING MODES

After learning about layers and masking another important aspect is to learn about the options you have to determine how layers lie over each other. To do this you can set the layer’s Blending Mode by using the drop down menu at the top left corner of the Layers window. In this menu you can see a set of different options that determine how the selected image will overlay. Most usefully, the first sets are Darken modes, the second sets are Lighten modes, and the third sets are Contrast modes. For example the mode Soft Light is very useful when creating a new empty layer and then using the Gradient or Brush tools to add a vignette to the edges of the image.

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One of the most important Blending Modes you can use is Multiply, which only allows the dark parts of the image to show through. So if you have an image that shows a good contrast between the subject and the background, like a silhouette of trees against a cloudy sky, this technique can be very useful. Just bring the image in as a new layer and set the Blending Mode to Multiply to make the light parts of the image disappear. Then create a Layer Mask and carefully paint around the edges so it blends in well. If parts of the silhouette aren’t dark enough you can Duplicate the layer with (<Command> J), or if it is too dark you can also try using the Opacity slider at the top right to lighten the layer.

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The other most important Blending Mode, that is the exact opposite of Multiply, is the Screen option. This Blending Mode only allows the light parts of the image to show through. So oppositely, if you have an image that shows contrast between the subject and the background, like falling snow against a dark wall, this works very well. Simply bring the image in as a new layer and set the Blending Mode to Screen to make the dark parts of the image disappear. Sometimes if you have multiple layers using the same effect it helps to combine them by selecting all the layers with Shift and then going to Layer > Merge Layers or just use (<Command> E). Then, again create a Layer Mask and carefully paint to give more or less Opacity so the image blends in well.

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LESSON 3: SELECTIONS

A lot of times the Brush Tool won’t work to extract fine details from an image, so the best way to refine your Layer Masks is to use a Selection.

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There are many techniques for this, the easiest way to make a selection is to use the Marquee Tool and drag out a Selection. Now, any adjustments or moves you make to the layer you are on will only take place in that selected area. After you are finished using a Selection make sure to Deselect by going to Select > Deselect or (<Command> D). Let’s say you want to replace the sky in an image to make it more interesting. The easiest way to create a Layer Mask and cut out the sky would be to use the Quick Selection Tool, and Click to make a selection of the washed out sky. Hold Shift and click to select multiple areas to be masked out. Now Fill your Layer Mask with Black to hide the sky by using the Paint Bucket Tool or pressing Option-Delete.

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This makes a detailed mask by selecting everything around the subject. But, a lot of times this mask needs to be more refined to blend well. A good technique for this would be Refine Mask. Going to the top menu choose Select > Refine Mask to open a dialogue box where you can make settings to soften the transition. Select View On Layers to see the image on top of the other layers. Then select a Radius around 10 px, select Feather at 1.0 px, and Shift Edge around – 15%. Play around with these settings to find what works for you. Make the Output to Layer Mask and press Ok. This alters the Layer Mask and softens the transition between the selected layer and the ones below.

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Another good technique for making refined selections, like selecting out a blue sky to replace, is called Color Range. To do this select the image you want to mask and go to Select > Color Range to open a color selection box. Have the Fuzziness set around 40 and start clicking on the parts of the image you want to mask out, holding Shift to select multiple colors. Do this until you have a pure black and white image showing what will be masked.

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Then press Ok to load the Selection, and I usually add a small feather to make it smoother by going to Select > Modify > Feather and selecting 1 px. After that simply Fill the Layer Mask with Black to hide the part of the image that is selected and show the layers beneath. Finally, remember to Deselect by going to Select > Deselect or (<Command> D) before proceeding further with the image.

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LESSON 4: ALPHA CHANNELS

This is more advanced technique for making Selections, but it is one of the best techniques when there is good contrast between the subject and the background, like something photographed against a white backdrop. It can make your job of compositing a whole lot easier by figuring out how use photography in this way. This technique uses Alpha Channels, and you can get to this by selecting the tab right next to Layers called Channels. This shows the image’s Red, Green, and Blue channels which combine together to create an RGB image.

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The trick to making Selections using this technique is to Copy the channel with the most contrast, usually the Blue channel. You can do this by using Right-Click on the layer and choosing Duplicate Channel. Then select the Copy, and to make this work well you need to make the Copy completely black and white. You can do this by using a Levels adjustment, just go to the top Image > Adjustments > Levels and drag the middle slider until the subject is mostly Black. Paint Black into any parts that need to be in the selection, and White out any other parts.

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Now to make this a Selection, either go up to Select > Load Selection or just click the Selection Button at the bottom left of the Layers menu. This makes a very detailed selection of the subject that you can further refine by giving it a slight Feather of 1.0 px, and even moving the edge in a bit if needed. For this go up to Select > Modify > Contract and set it at 1-2 px. Then you can easily take this selected part of the image and Drag it onto your template to work with.

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LESSON 5: PEN TOOL 

Lastly with Selections, the Pen Tool is the most precise method to cut out part of an image that can’t be easily separated from the background using the previous methods. I would say this is one of the most important tools to learn how to use in Photoshop. It lets you perfectly trace a Path around the contours of the subject, that you can then Save and Load as a Selection for Compositing.

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To work with this technique, select the tab to the far right of your Layers menu called Paths, and then select the Pen Tool. Now Click somewhere along the contour of the subject you want to extract to place a Point, then start Clicking and Dragging out more points to trace the shape of the image you want. When working with the Pen Tool you should Zoom in to 100% to accurately trace an outline. This takes some practice to figure out but it becomes very intuitive the more you use it.

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Finish tracing the contours of the image and click back on the point where you first started to make it into a Shape. Then Double-Click to Name the Shape if you wan to save it. After that you can Convert the Path to a Selection by Right-Clicking the Path and choosing Make Selection, or simply clicking the Selection Button at the bottom left of the Layers menu. Usually it helps to give this Selection a slight Feather of 1-2 px to smooth the transition. Then with your subject selected you can Drag this image onto your template to work with.

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LESSON 6: COMPOSITING

The key to Compositing is using all of these techniques in concert to build up a layered image and make it into a believable composite. Here is a review of the digital imaging techniques we have learned so far, and how you can use them to put together a complete Photomontage image.

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  1. Drag New Layers onto your Template and create Layer Masks, then blend images together using Black / White Brushes.

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  1. Use Selection techniques for masking like the Quick Selection Tool and then Refine Mask to smooth the transition.

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  1. Experiment with Blending Modes like Soft Light, which you can use with a Brush or Gradient Tool to darken edges and add contrast to certain areas.

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  1. For more refined Selections when there is good contrast between the subject and background, the Color Range technique works well to extract images.

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  1. Use Blending Modes like Multiply or Screen to add high contrast elements that only show the dark or light parts of the image.

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  1. Using the Pen Tool is the best option to cut out sharp details that would be impossible using the other Selection techniques.

 

LESSON 7: ADJUSTMENT LAYERS

After learning how to Composite your images together to create a Photomontage composition, now we will focus on the next major aspect of Photoshop called Retouching. This means learning how to make adjustments to things like the Tone, Color, and Contrast of your image layers. There are a few ways to do this, such as going up to Image > Adjustments to see all your options. Then you could apply any of those adjustments if you know exactly what you want to alter. But, a better way to do this and keep all your options open is to use Adjustment Layers.

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Start a new image in Photoshop, and then to create an Adjustment Layer you can very easily click on the Adjustment Layer Icon at the bottom of the layers menu (the half-white, half-black circle). This opens a window of options to make adjustments. Selecting one will create a new layer that affects everything below it, and the great thing is that you can make changes to it at any time. A good place to start would be a simple Levels adjustment. With this you can quickly see how you can change the brightness and contrast of an image by dragging the Black, White, and Mid-Tone Sliders. Another important idea is that it creates a Layer Mask along with the adjustment, so you can paint in or paint out parts of the effect. An easy example of this would be to add a Black and White Adjustment Layer, and then paint into the mask to reveal the color underneath the adjustment.

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LESSON 8: CURVES

One of the most powerful Adjustment Layer options that I use most frequently is called Curves. This tool is a bit tricky at first but basically it allows you to alter the Lightness, Darkness, and Contrast of the image. Select Curves to create this new Adjustment Layer, which opens a box showing a grid with a diagonal curve line. Click on the Curve to make a Point and then Pull Up to Lighten the image or Down to Darken it. You can also place multiple points and make this Curve into an S-shape to Increase or Decrease Contrast. A good way to see how this works is to preview some of the Presets in the dialogue box.

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So far with Adjustment Layers we have been making global adjustments, meaning it affects all the layers below where it is placed. But, let’s say you want to make an adjustment to only one layer. The easiest way to do this for something simple would be to Right-Click the Adjustment Layer and select Create Clipping Mask. This ties the adjustment to only the layer that is directly below it. If you have a more complicated image and you want the adjustments to affect some layers and not others, or you wan to make multiple adjustments. The best option is to create a Group, and put everything involving that part of the image into that folder. To do this you can either select all the layers you want with Shift and then go up to Layer > Group Layers or press (<Command> G). More easily you can also just click the Create New Group Icon at the bottom of the layers menu and Move the layers you want into that Group.

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When working with Groups you should name the Folder by Double-Clicking it, and also make sure to change the default setting from Pass Through to Normal. This makes the Group self-contained, so that any Adjustment Layers you make only affect other image layers within that Group. Now you can experiment with adding multiple adjustments to many different layers in the group folder and everything outside the group stays the same. In a Group, I usually add a Hue/Saturation or Color Balance adjustment to match the colors, as well as multiple Curve layers for Lightening, Darkening, and Contrast. It helps to Name these Curve layers so you know what you are working on. Then a good technique is to Fill each Curve Layer Mask with Black, and paint in just the parts you want to make Lighter or Darker.

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LESSON 9: DODGE + BURN

You can quickly Darken and Lighten parts of an image using the Dodge/Burn Tool, but you have to be very careful with this because it creates a permanent change to your image layer. A better technique for adding overall Darkness, Lightness, and Contrast is to set up a new empty layer with the Blending Mode – Soft Light, and then paint in the parts of the image you want to alter. For example this technique works very well using a Black Gradient to darken the edges and create a vignette.

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This technique works best when you have everything in your Composition placed where you want, because moving layers might affect the overlay. But, once everything is set up for this technique, it can make your image look much more visually dramatic. Basically, by using the Brush Tool and painting on the Soft Light layer with Black and Dark Grays you will make the Dark parts of the image Darker, and by painting with White and Light Grays you will make the Light parts of the image Lighter. You can use this technique to affect overall areas with a large Brush (Hardness: 0) or the Gradient Tool. You can also target specific parts of the image by loading your Layer Masks as a Selection. You can do this by clicking on the mask and then going up to Select > Load Selection, or by just Holding <Command> and Clicking the Layer Mask. Once the Selection is loaded anything you paint will only affect that area, so you can make more detailed changes. It also helps to experiment with the Opacity and Flow of the Brush as you’re working, as well as the overall Opacity of the entire Soft Light Layer.

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LESSON 10: LIGHTS / SHADOWS

Now, after building up a Composition and then creating all the Tone, Color, and Contrast adjustments to make everything look integrated in the scene, the last topic to cover is adding Special Effects to make the whole image come to life. First, let’s go over some of the Retouching topics we just covered to create a believable Photomontage image.

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  1. Drag New Layers onto your Template and create Layer Masks, then blend images together using Black / White Brushes.
  1. Experiment with Soft Light, which you can use with a Gradient Tool to darken edges, and alter the Opacity of layers to blend better with the background.

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  1. Use Adjustment Layers like Curves to Darken, Lighten, or Add Contrast to your image layers, and place specific elements into Groups as needed.
  1. Other Adjustment Layers like Hue/Saturation and Color Balance are also very important to alter the overall color of the image, or specific elements in Groups.

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After taking all of these steps to make our Photomontage look as good as possible, the last steps are to create the Effects that will make it look believable. Most importantly, you need to determine where the main Light Source is and how the shadows will fall on the image. Your Curves layers should be based on this idea, by lightening the parts of each element where the Light hits, and darkening the parts that are in Shadow. To make everything look right, you should also create Cast Shadows that fall along the direction of the Light Source.

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To do this Create a New Layer, then Load the Selection of the image layer by going up to Select > Load Selection, or by just Holding <Command> and Clicking the Layer Mask. Then, Fill the new empty layer with Black, and go to Edit > Transform > Flip Vertical. Now you have a black upside-down version of the element to create a Cast Shadow. To complete this technique, go to Edit > Transform > Distort and move the surrounding box’s handles to Transform the image into where the shadow should be. After that just lower the layer’s Opacity, and create a Layer Mask to paint a smooth gradient. If needed you can also add a slight Blur to the Shadow layer by going up to Filter > Blur > Gaussian Blur and move the slider to get what you want. Finally, if you need to alter the shadow’s color just use a Hue/Saturation adjustment and click on Colorize to move the tool’s sliders and get the right color.

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To finish, you might also want to Sharpen certain parts of the image if some things are too blurry or don’t line up. You can easily do this by going up to Filter > Sharpen > Unsharp Mask and move the Amount to around 100, the Radius to around 1.0 px, and Threshold to around 15 as a good starting point. Then, the last things to add would be some special Light Effects to complete the image. A good technique is to just bring in photos of light effects like Lens Flares shot against a Black Background, then set its Blending Mode to Screen and place the effect in the image. Another option is to create effects coming from the Light Source or a Reflection, like incorporating Light Rays. For this Create a New Layer then use the Polygonal Lasso Tool to draw out the shape of each ray, Holding-Shift to create multiple ones. Once you have the Selection of Light Rays, go up to Select > Modify > Feather to smooth the effect. Then just use the Gradient Tool to drag out a White gradient in the right direction and create the Light Rays. Change the Opacity of this Light Effect layer as needed, and you might also want to add a Layer Mask to further paint and refine any of your special effects.

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CONCLUSION

Finally, after our Photomontage image is complete make sure to save a version including all of your Layers as a Photoshop Document (PSD) by going up to File > Save As, then make sure Photoshop is selected as the Format, the box for Save Layers is checked, and the Color Profile (Adobe RGB) is embedded. Click Save to save all the work you have done in case you need to make any changes later.

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Now, to save the completed image for printing or for online uses, you need to then Flatten the image by going up to Layer > Flatten Image. This combines all the layers into one flattened background image that you can save again using File > Save As. For Printing the best and most versatile file format is TIFF, and for the Web the most frequently used file format is JPEG. Select the file format you need, make sure the Color Profile (Adobe RGB) is embedded, and click Save.

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IMAGINARY LANDSCAPES: DIGITAL PHOTOMONTAGE WITH NICK PEDERSEN

To follow along with step-by-step instructions, or to experiment with the images used in the demos, please visit:

www.nick-pedersen.com/course-images