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Members Area Tutorial: Composite a Dynamic, Fantasy Winter Scene Using Photoshop

Members Area Tutorial: Composite a Dynamic, Fantasy Winter Scene Using Photoshop

Today’s tutorial is one of the longest, most in depth design lessons you’re likely to come across. At over 8500 words, 70 steps long and 200 meticulously detailed and diagramed images, it’s a true design education.

In this tutorial we will be creating a composite where we will take various photos and blend them together to make them feel like they were all taken at the same time and place. We will be building up a dynamic winter scene with landscapes and wild animals and also integrating abstract shapes and objects to give the composition a fantasy feel.

Here’s a look at what techniques we’ll be covering in today’s lesson:

  • Image compositing (creating a unified, cohesive, blended scene)
  • Working with lighting effects and transparency
  • Expert extraction techniques (including tricky edges)
  • Working with perspective and depth
  • A professional, non-destructive workflow (including advanced smart object and mask management)

Check out the preview image to get an idea of what we will be creating and if you are all ready to go then let’s get started!

Final Image

Let’s take a look at a preview of the image that we are going to be creating:

This piece is so huge it’s worth taking a look at some close ups of the final outcome too:

Step 1

To start things off we are going to open up the first image, which is our panoramic landscape. This is a nice wide photo with a fantasy feel to it that I really love. You can find great images like this for free on Stock Xchng or Deviant Art where they have some great pre-made backgrounds and free photos.

Once your image opens in Photoshop the first thing we want to do is double click on the ‘Background’ layer to unlock it. From here you will be prompted with a dialog box asking you to rename the layer. For now I have just called it ‘Forest’ to keep it simple, but feel free to call it whatever you like.

Once you have renamed your layer you will notice that the small lock icon next to the name has disappeared. This simply means that we now have the ability to change or modify the layer as needed.

Step 2

Next we will click on the small black and white icon at the bottom of the Layers Palette, which is where you go to create an Adjustment Layer. The one we are going to use first is ‘Curves’.

After selecting the Curves Adjustment Layer you will be prompted with the dialog box where you can modify the settings. We only want to target the Blue Channel at this point so click on the dropdown menu and select this channel.

From here we are going to move the bottom left of the line up so that the Output setting is at 80 as show here:

When you move this slider up you will notice that it casts a blue-ish haze over the image that helps to create some nice atmosphere. At this point though we want to retain the richness in the values of the original photograph. We want to switch the Blending Mode of the Curves Adjustment Layer to Overlay and then reduce the opacity to about 60%. This will intensify some of the colors and leave us with a more subtle effect.

Step 3

Hold down the Control Key and click on the Curves Adjustment Layer to reveal a dropdown menu. When the menu appears, we are going to select the ‘Create Clipping Mask’ option.

What this will do is make sure that our Curves Adjustment only affects the layer directly below it and you can now see a small arrow icon next to the layer name to show us that it now has a Clipping Mask applied to it.

Step 4

Make sure that your background ‘Forest’ layer is selected in your Layers Palette and then click on the Adjustment Layer icon once again. This time we will select the ‘Hue/Saturation’ option as indicated below.

When the Hue/Saturation box appears, simply move the Saturation slider to the left until it’s set to about -24.

You may notice that because we had our Forest Layer selected before we applied another Adjustment Layer, it automatically gave us a Clipping Mask. This is because the new Adjustment Layer is sandwiched in between the two. You can do this with as many Adjustment Layers or even regular layers as you like and it will ensure that the effect is only applied to the layer below.

Step 5

Now that we have begun to set up our background we want to bring in some of our other photos to add a focal point to the image. I will be using an image of a woman with a long flowing type of garment that I found while browsing through some photos at Dreamstime, but any image of a man or woman with some type of flowing attire will work equally as well. Keep in mind that all of the techniques I am showing you can work with just about any image.

Once you opened up the image that you would like to use in Photoshop, press Command/Ctrl + J to duplicate the layer. After that, click on the Layer Mask Icon at the bottom of your Layers Palette as indicated below.

Switch to your Brush Tool (B) and select a small to medium sized hard round brush with solid black as your foreground color.

What I usually like to do here is add a new layer (Command/Ctrl + Shift + N) and fill it with a solid color, placing it between the original ‘Background’ layer and the duplicate layer that we placed a Layer Mask onto. This will make it easier for you to see the outline of the figure when silhouetting with your brush.

Here I am using a solid black, but you can use any color you like so long as it’s not too similar to any of the colors found in the image your are masking. Don’t worry too much about the semi-transparent areas or the shadows for now, we just want to get a nice cutout of the woman with her flowing garment.

Once you have masked her out, drag the image into your working document.

Step 6

After bringing in the image of the silhouetted woman, make sure to place her layer at the top of your Layers Palette. Hold down the Control Key and click on the layer to reveal a dropdown menu. Once this menu appears, we want to choose ‘Convert to Smart Object’ as shown here:

You should now notice that there is a small icon appearing on this layer to indicate the change we have made. There are several reasons for using Smart Objects in your document, but the main reason we are doing it here is so that if we decide to play with the scale of our figure (i.e shrinking her down and blowing her back up) we won’t get any deterioration in the quality of our image. If you were to do this with a regular raster image you would notice that after resizing it a few times it would start to look pretty bad.

Step 7

Next, we want to return to the image of the woman with the flowing garment from the previous step. Make another copy of the original ‘Background’ layer as indicated below:

Just as we did the first time around, add a Layer Mask to the duplicated layer by clicking on the icon at the bottom of your Layers Palette.

Switch over to your Pen Tool (P) and begin to trace around the shadow. This doesn’t have to be 100% precise as we are going to blur it slightly, but just try to get around the general shape.

Once you have closed your path, hold down the Control Key and click anywhere along the line to reveal a dropdown menu. When the menu appears, choose ‘Make Selection’ to make this area active.

When you are prompted with the following dialog box, you can simply hit OK – just make sure that your Feather Radius setting is at 0.

Now that we have an active selection area, make sure that your foreground color is set to solid black. Press Command/Ctrl + Shift + I to inverse your selection. Once you have done that, press the Alt/Option Key + Delete to fill this area with solid black. You will now have masked your shadow out successfully. Be sure to save your image again at this point.

Step 8

With your shadow layer selected, go to the Filter Menu and choose Blur>Surface Blur as shown here:

For your settings use a Radius of about 5 pixels and a Threshold of about 15 pixels and press OK to apply the changes.

Step 9

Bring your shadow layer into your working document and position it beneath the feet of the woman, just like in the original image. Hold down the Control Key and click on your Shadow Layer and convert this layer to a Smart Object like we did with the image of our figure.

After doing that, hold down the Shift Key and click on both the girl and her shadow so that both layers are highlighted.

Hold down the Control Key and click on either of these two layers to reveal a dropdown menu. When this menu appears, choose ‘Link Layers’ as shown here:

By linking our layers they will remain connected together whenever we move one layer or the other, making sure that these two elements don’t get separated.

Select your Shadow Layer and change the Blending Mode to Multiply. Once you have done that, press Command/Ctrl + T to initiate a Free Transform and drag any one of the four corners inwards while holding down the Shift Key to constrain the proportions of your image in order to scale it down.

We want to position the girl and her shadow in the light area on the right side of the forest. For now, don’t worry if she is covering up some tree branches or anything else, just try to get the scale to look correct.

Step 10

Next, add a Layer Mask to the Shadow Layer. You will notice that the left edge and the bottom of the shadow are a bit hard, so we just want to use a large soft round brush at a low opacity to soften this area a bit.

Using a solid black color, go over the bottom and left edges of the shadow in a swooping direction with your low opacity brush.

After softening up the edges of the shadow, hold down the Shift Key and select both the girl and the shadow together. When both layers are highlighted, press Command/Ctrl + G to place them into a Group Folder and call it ‘Girl & Shadow’ or something similar. Once both of these layers are in a folder together, add a Layer Mask to the whole folder.

Step 11

At this point we are going to turn off the visibility of the newly created Group Folder containing the girl and her shadow together. What we are going to focus on here is the original forest background. Using your Magic Wand Tool (W) select the lighter areas around the snow covered tree branches that were hidden behind the girl. You can hold down the Shift Key as you click to add more areas to your selection until you have all of the gaps and edges selected.

Turn the visibility of the Group Folder back on and you will still see your active selection area and where it overlaps.

Press Command/Ctrl + Shift + I to invert your active selection area, and then with a solid hard round brush, fill the selection area with black. This will give the illusion that the trees are in front of the girl when masked out. You should now have something like the image below:

The image is already beginning to take shape, so at this point we can work on blending the girl into the scene more.

Step 12

Go into your Group Folder and select only the layer with the girl.

Click on the Adjustment Layer Icon at the bottom of your Layers Palette and then choose ‘Hue/Saturation’ from the menu.

Hold down the Control Key and click on the Hue/Saturation Adjustment Layer that will now be placed right above the layer containing our figure. When this menu appears we are going to select ‘Create Clipping Mask’ as shown below:

Next, we are going to apply the following settings for the Hue/Saturation Adjustment Layer:

Check off the box that says ‘Colorize’
Hue: 221
Saturation: 25
Lightness: 0

Now change the Blending Mode of your Hue/Saturation Adjustment Layer to Multiply.

That’s the end of the preview!

About the Author:

Eric is a Graphic Designer, specializing in Print and Web Design. He's a graduate of the New England Institute of Art in Boston and has over 4 years of professional and freelance work experience. He lives in Brooklyn, New York working as a Graphic Designer and he has been featured in Advanced Photoshop Magazine, The Art of Fashion Art Exhibit and Artists In The Station Art Exhibit. Visit Eric's portfolio at

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