Learn techniques for adding images to a composite, blending images together using layer masks, and changing the shape of an image by transforming a smart object.
In this series of short videos, we’ll explore how to use Photoshop compositing techniques to create a multi-layered image of a dreamlike ocean scene. We’ll be using layers, layer masks, Smart Objects, and blending techniques to build this composite from the ground up.
The first step in creating a composite is to add a new image. I already have the main image open in Photoshop and I want to add a more colorful sky. There are lots of ways to add a new image. For this step, I’ll use a simple copy and paste method.
I’ll choose File > Open and choose the Sunset Sky file. I’ll select the sunset sky image by choosing Select > Select All, then Edit > Copy. Now I’ll go back to my composite file and choose Edit > Paste to paste the sunset sky as a new layer. I’ll double-click on the layer name and rename it “Sunset Sky”.
I want to be able to see both the new sky layer and the background image at the same time, so I’ll get the Move tool in the Tools panel, then click Opacity at the top of the Layers panel, and lower the opacity of the sunset layer. I’ll move the new sky layer up until the horizon line on that layer is just a bit below the horizon line on the underlying pier image. Then I’ll set the layer opacity slider back to 100%.
Next I want to hide the lower part of the sunset sky layer so we can see the pier and the ocean in the background image. I’ll do that with a Layer Mask, which is a tool you’ll use often in your own composites. I’ll click the Add Layer Mask button at the bottom of the Layers panel to add a layer mask. I’ll click on the mask thumbnail to make sure it’s selected, and now I’ll add a black to white gradient to the layer mask.
I’ll choose the Gradient Tool. In the Options Bar, I’ll open the Gradient Picker on the left and choose the 3rd swatch…a black-to-white gradient. I’ll use this first button to set the gradient style to Linear, and I’ll make sure the mode is set to Normal, the Opacity is 100% and Reverse is not checked.
With the Gradient Tool, I’ll click right at the horizon of the sunset sky layer and drag upwards just a bit. When I release the mouse, the gradient is added to the layer mask, creating a convincing blend for the new sky.
To understand how a layer mask works, notice the gradient on the layer mask thumbnail. The black part of the gradient is hiding the Sunset Sky layer so you can see down through that area to the image of the pier below, and the white part of the gradient shows the Sunset Sky layer. The shades of gray in between create a gradual transition from the pier image to the Sunset Sky layer.
Next, we’ll add an element to the pier that will enhance the story of this image — a symbol pointing north. This time I’ll use another method to add an image: File > Place. This method creates a Smart Object layer, which will allow me to resize and reshape the new image multiple times without compromising its quality.
To do this, I’ll choose File > Place Embedded. I’ll navigate to my folder of source images, and I’ll chose North.jpg, and click Place.
The file is added with a bounding box around it, which you can use to scale or transform the image if needed. First I’ll go to the Layers panel and change the blending mode of the layer to Overlay, since that’s what we’ll use to blend this image into the pier. It also makes it easy to see both the new photo and the underlying image, so I can see what I’m doing as I apply some transformations.
To scale the image smaller, I’ll hold down Shift and drag inward on the handle in the upper right corner. The Shift key preserves the proportions of the original photo. If I add in the Option or Alt key, it will transform from the center point. That looks about right. I’ll click the checkmark in the Options bar to accept that change. This symbol on the new placed layer means this is a Smart Object. You can resize and transform a Smart Object as many times as you like without harming the image.
Next, I’ll apply some perspective transformations to this layer.. I’ll choose Edit > Transform > Distort and I’ll drag on the top right corner handle and place it close to the top right corner of the pier. I’ll do the same with the top left corner handle.
I’ll work with some other handles to fine-tune the transformation so it looks as if this element is really part of the pier. To apply the transformation, I’ll click the checkmark button in the Options Bar.
There are still some edges showing on the North layer, so I’ll hide them using another layer mask. I’ll click the Add Layer Mask button at the bottom of the Layers panel and then get my Brush tool. I’ll press X to exchange my colors so that Black is my foreground color, and then I’ll paint with black on the layer mask to hide the obvious edges of the layer.
Now you know some of the basic steps for creating a composite—how to add images, transform an added image, and use layer masks and blend modes to blend them together.
Now it’s time to add one of the central elements of the composite, using selections and layer masks to blend it into the scene. Once again, I’ll choose File > Place Embedded, and I’ll choose the Door.jpg file, and click Place.
In the Layers panel, I’ll lower the opacity a bit so I can see through the door when I resize it. I’ll hold down Shift and drag inward on a corner handle to scale it smaller. I’ll then click the checkmark to apply the transformation.
Next, I’ll position the door so that the top of the door handle is just under the horizon. And I’ll align the door in relation to the far edge of the pier. Then, I’ll return the layer opacity back to 100%.
I want to hide the red bricks so we just see the white areas of the columns and the arched entry way. I’ll use the Quick Selection Tool to make a selection of the red brick areas on the door image. I’ll click on the bricks with the tool and then continue to click and drag over additional areas to add them to the selection. I added too much to the selection here, so I’ll Option or Alt-drag over that part to subtract it from the selection. Next, I’ll tap on the left Bracket key a few times to make my brush size smaller and I’ll click in the narrow area between the columns and the arched entry way. I’ll continue clicking on these inner bricks to add them to the selection.
Next, I’ll add a layer mask that hides the selected area. To do this I’ll hold the Option or Alt key as I click on the Add Layer Mask button at the bottom of the Layers panel. This automatically fills the selected area of the mask with black.
Now I need to hide the actual door. I’ll switch to the Rectangular Marquee tool, and I’ll double-check that there is no feather value applied in the Options Bar. I’ll position my cursor at the top left corner of the door and drag down to the right to define a selection of the door that overlaps just a bit onto the white areas. With my selection tool still active I can click inside the selection and move it upwards. If I press the Shift key after I start dragging the selection, it will constrain the motion vertically. I want to move this selection up to the point where the arch above begins to noticeably curve inward.
Next, I need to add to my current selection to include the arched window. I’ll switch to the Elliptical Marquee tool. I’ll select the Add to Selection icon in the Options bar to tell Photoshop to add to the current selection. I’ll click near the upper left part of the arched window and drag out an elliptical selection.
As I make the ellipse larger, I can temporarily interrupt the selection by pressing the spacebar. This allows me to re-position the selection and align it so it fits better to the actual shape of the arch. I’ll release the spacebar with my mouse still held down to return to dragging out the selection. My objective is to get a good fit with the edges of the rectangular selection. There…that looks pretty good. I’ll release the mouse button to finish the selection.
I can use this selection to add black to part of the layer mask and hide those areas. In the Layers panel, I’ll click on the layer mask thumbnail for the door layer to make sure it is active. Black is currently my foreground color, so I’ll use the shortcut of Option-Delete on Mac, or Alt-Backspace on Windows to fill the selection with black. If you look at the layer mask thumbnail, you can see that this area has been filled with black, which hides that part of the door layer.
Now I need to mask out the bottom part of the door below the horizon. I’ll switch to the Brush tool. I’ll click on the brush menu in the Options Bar to set the hardness to about 50%. I’ll keep the brush size fairly large. I’ll position my brush on the left side of the door with the top edge of the brush right on the horizon. I’ll click once and release the mouse button, then move the brush cursor to the right side of the door, position the top edge of the brush on the horizon line and Shift-click to draw a straight line between the two clicks. Then, I’ll quickly brush over the rest of the door down below to mask it out.
Selections and the brush tool are common ways to modify layer masks so they reveal only the areas you want to see on a layer.
Add some clouds to the composite for a surreal effect, and paint on a layer mask to shape the clouds. Then learn how to use the Blend If sliders to blend a photo of a sailboat into the scene.
One of the characteristics that can enhance a composite image is to have a strong sense of depth. We already have that at this point in the composite process from the strong perspective created by the pier and the clouds leading to the door.
Let’s bring in two more layers to create additional depth in the scene.
I’ll choose File > Place Embedded and select Clouds for Sky.jpg, and click Place to bring it into the image. I’ll get the Move Tool and drag the layer up until the bottom edge is just below the horizon in the image below. Then I’ll click Enter to place the new layer.
I want to modify the new clouds layer so that only the white clouds are showing, and not the blue sky behind them. To create this effect, I’ll use the Blend If sliders in the Layer Styles dialog again. A shortcut to access the Layer Styles dialog is to double-click just to the right of the layer name in the Layers panel.
In the Blend If sliders, I’ll work with the shadow slider for This Layer. I’ll drag it to the right to about 113. Then I’ll Option or Alt-click on the slider to split it, and move the right half to about 185. This hides the darker parts of the layer, showing only the clouds.
This creates a really cool blend of the clouds with the doorway and seascape below.
If the lower edge of the Clouds for Sky layer is too hard, you can add a simple layer mask. Then use the Click and Shift-click brush technique I showed earlier, to paint a soft edge there.
Now I’ll zoom in for a closer look using the Cmd or Cntrl + shortcut. In the Layers panel, I’ll drag the boat layer up above the new clouds layer. Looks pretty good!
While I’m in here… I’ll edit the layer mask for the new clouds to suggest more depth and layering there. I’ll click the mask thumbnail to make the mask active, press B to make the Brush tool active, and then paint with black on the closer door structures. I want the far background clouds to appear behind the door, while the close clouds are slightly obscuring the main door image.
If I make a mistake panting the mask, I can just tap X to exchange the colors, and then paint with the opposite color to undo the changes.
I’ll soften the clouds on the right by making my brush size larger, and then painting with black at 50% opacity to hide them and show more of the point at the top of the door. Painting with a lower opacity makes it easier to gradually apply an effect.
Next, I think the scene needs some wildlife….
I’ll choose File > Place Embedded and select the Birds.jpg file, and click Place.
The white or nearly white areas in this new layer can be used with a blending mode that will hide that color. In the Layers panel, I‘ll open the blending mode menu and choose Multiply. In addition to hiding most of the lighter sky tones, it also darkens the birds.
Now let’s scale the layer smaller before we place it. I’ll use the Width and Height field in the Options bar to scale the layer down. I’ll enter 50% for the Width and then click the chain link icon to sync the height setting, making it the same as the value I entered for the Width. Then I’ll press Enter or click the checkmark to apply those changes.
I’ll choose the Move tool and use it to re-position the layer so that the boat is in the space between the seagulls.
Since I don’t need to see the outer edges of that layer, I’ll add a layer mask here. Then I’ll paint w/ black to mask those parts of the layer.
Bringing in new layers that suggest foreground-to-background elements in the scene, such as the birds and the new clouds over the doorway, can often be an effective way to build a sense of depth in a composite image.
Increase perspective in the scene with additional layers that suggest foreground and background elements. Paint on a layer mask to interlace clouds with other objects. Then use a layer Blend Mode to knock out a white background on a layer.
With the addition of the doorway in the distance, our composite is now well on the way to becoming a more fantastical scene. Let’s add some new elements to make it even more dreamlike and surreal. Along the way, we’ll explore some more layer masking and use the Blend If sliders for a masking effect.
I’ll choose File > Place Embedded, select the Clouds for Pier.jpg file, and then click Place. I’ll lower the opacity a bit so I can see the clouds in relation to the underlying layers. Then I’ll get the Move tool from the Tools panel and move the layer down a bit until the center pillar of clouds is arranged within the arched opening of the doorway. I’ll press Enter or click the checkmark button in the Options Bar to place the layer. Then I’ll return the layer opacity to 100%
I only want some of the clouds to show up around the pier and a layer mask will allow me to create this effect. I’ll start with a layer mask that hides the entire layer and then use the Brush tool to reveal the clouds where I want to see them. I can add a layer mask that hides the layer by Option, or Alt-clicking the add layer mask button at the bottom of the Layers panel.
Next, I’ll go to the Tools panel and make the Brush Tool active, and make sure that White is my foreground color. In the Options Bar, I’ll make sure that the opacity is set to 100%.
If I look at the Layers panel, I can see the highlight border around the layer mask, which indicates that it is active. I’ll use a large, soft-edged brush and paint on the layer mask on either side of the pier to reveal the clouds. I’ll tap the left Bracket key to make the brush a bit smaller and add in some clouds at the end of the pier and up into the doorway.
Then, I’ll press X to exchange the colors so I can paint with black. In the Options Bar, I’ll lower the brush opacity to 30%, and then paint on the mask to gradually hide parts of the layer where I don’t want the clouds to show.
There can be a lot of back-and-forth with the Brush tool until you get it looking the way you want. The great thing about working with layer masks, is that the process is very flexible; nothing on the image layer is ever deleted and you can always modify the mask to refine the blending effect further.
Now we’ll add another important part of the story. I’ll choose File > Place Embedded and choose the Sailboat.jpg image, and click Place.
For this image I’m not going to resize it, so I’ll just press enter to place the sailboat image.
I want to hide the empty gray sky around the boat, and to do this we’ll use a technique that’s different from a layer mask. I’ll go to the main Layer menu and I’ll choose Layer Style > Blending Options. Near the bottom of the Layer Style dialog are the Blend If sliders. These allow you to show or hide parts of a layer based on their brightness value.
To hide the lighter parts of the sailboat layer, I’ll move the highlight slider for This Layer towards the left, until the number on the right above the slider shows about 135. Then, I’ll Option, or Alt-click on the right half of the slider to split it apart and I’ll bring that half back to the right to about 170. This creates a more gradual transition between what is being shown and hidden on the layer.
The numbers mean that any tonal value brighter than 170 will be hidden on the layer. Then, there will be a gradual transition to level 135, and any tonal value below that level will be visible.
I like to think of the Blend If sliders as “masking without a mask”. In some situations, they can be highly useful compositing tools!
I’ll click OK to apply that effect. The boat is now blended very well, but there are some minor touch-ups on the outer parts of the boat layer that will require a simple layer mask.
I’ll add a layer mask and then use a soft-edged brush tool to paint w/ black to hide the edges of the layer.
Adding the sailboat to the composite helps to build the story of the scene we’re creating, and the billowy clouds around the pier are another step to draw the image away from reality and closer to a dreamlike world.
Color is an important element in composite. Learn techniques for using fill layers, layer Blending Modes, and clipping masks to control color. Finally, polish your fantasy composite by adjusting lighting and contrast with Curves.
The overall composite is looking pretty good now, but the colors in the door and new clouds are bit out of sync with the background sky.
To fix that I’ll sample some colors from the sunset image. I’ll click the Sunset Sky layer to make it active, and select the Eyedropper tool in the Tools panel. I’ll click on some of the bright yellow/orange color on the right side. This places that color in the foreground swatch.
Now I’ll make the Clouds for Sky layer active. Then I’ll bring up the New Layer dialog by Option- or Alt-clicking the Add Adjustment Layer button in the layers panel, and choosing Solid Color.
The Option or Alt key shortcut calls up the New Layer dialog where you can set some different options before creating the layer. In this case, I’ll enable the checkbox for “Use Previous Layer to Create Clipping Mask”.
In the Color Picker dialog, I’ll click OK to accept the color that I had already sampled with the Eyedropper tool.
The clipping mask effect that I chose in the New Layer dialog uses the transparency of the underlying layer as a virtual mask. Since the layer transparency is controlled by the Blend If sliders, the new color is only applied to the clouds over the door.
Right now the color is obscuring all the cloud detail, so I’ll fix that by changing the blend mode for the Color Fill layer to Color.
The effect is a bit too strong, though, so I’ll lower the layer opacity to about 65%.
That’s working nicely for the clouds over the door, but I also want to create a stronger color look that uses both the yellow/orange as well as the purple hues in the sunset. I’ll click back on the Sunset Sky layer to make it active.
The yellow/orange color I sampled earlier to create the Color Fill layer should still be in the Foreground color swatch. I want a more saturated version of this color, so I’ll click on the Foreground swatch to bring up the Color Picker. In the large box that controls brightness and saturation I’ll move the color sampler a bit over to the right to choose a more saturated version of the color. Then I’ll click OK.
I’ll tap X on the keyboard to exchange the colors and now I’ll get the Eyedropper tool and sample some of the soft purple color on the left side of the Sunset Sky layer. With that color in the Foreground swatch, I’ll click on the swatch to bring up the Color Picker, and once again I’ll move the color sampler to the right to select a more saturated version of the soft purple color. Then I’ll click OK to close the Color Picker, and I’ll tap X to exchange the colors once more, placing the yellow/orange color in the foreground swatch.
Now I’ll add a gradient layer with a blending mode to add the orange-to-purple gradient into the image. In order to place the layer at the top of the layer stack, I’ll click on the topmost layer, the sailboat, to make it active.
I’ll click on the Add Adjustment layer button at the bottom of the Layers panel and choose Gradient.
In the Gradient Fill dialog, I’ll open the gradient picker at the top and choose the first swatch, which are the foreground and background colors I’ve already chosen. Then I’ll set the angle to 180, which will place purple on the left and orange on the right. Then I’ll click OK to close the Gradient Fill dialog.
Now I just need to blend the colors into the image below. To do that, I’ll open the Mode menu at the top of the Layers panel and choose Soft Light.
The far right side of the scene is looking a bit too yellow, so I’ll get the Brush tool and set the Brush opacity to 50% in the Options Bar. Then I’ll paint with black on the Gradient layer mask to minimize that effect in those areas.
Finally, I’ll add a bit more contrast to the entire image. I’ll click the Add Adjustment Layer button and choose Curves. In the Curves Properties panel, I’ll drag down on the lower part of the curve to darken the darker tones, and then drag up a bit on the upper part of the curve, to brighten the lighter tones. This provides a nice contrast boost to both the image and the new color gradient.
So, that’s looking very good now. The Color Fill and Gradient layers really help to tie it all together.
Of course, creating multi-image composites is sometimes all about the details, and you could spend additional time fine-tuning and finessing the layer masks, and the color effects.
Well, I hope you enjoyed this video series and are inspired to find new ways to apply some of these techniques to you own imaging projects. Thanks for watching!