5-Step Photo Illustration Walkthrough and Photoshop Tips by Jamie Carroll

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Ever wonder how digital artists create a photo illustration or composite image? This walkthrough outlines one of my photo illustrations with a few added Photoshop (★) TIPS. Although this is not a step-by-step tutorial, I hope you find the general concepts informative and useful in your work. The walkthrough is based on my photo illustration “Dark Matters,” which was selected as Design of the Week at iStockPhoto.

(Step 1) Concept, composition and image choices

First things first: I decided my concept would be an assassin (or perhaps a vampire) facing off against a werewolf around his lair. I then photographed a series of images of a female assassin and intended to use one of the photos in the illustration. When working on a photo illustration, you are somewhat at the mercy of ‘the stock photo,’ or the lack thereof. Photographing your own elements, or at least a dominant element, gives you more control over the composition.

After roughing out a sketch for the basic composition in Photoshop, I searched for stock images to fit my composition. I usually find core images for my composition and then begin work in Photoshop. I often seek out minor elements for the layout throughout the rest of the process. I am always adding additional minor elements and details; this allows the scene to evolve and change with the creative process.

(TIP) When searching for stock images, have a clear idea of what eye level and angle is needed to fit your scene. Are you searching for a stock photo that is photographed at a high or low angle? Does the stock photo have harsh lighting that won’t fit the scene or be hard to adjust later? Always download a ‘comp’ image and place it roughly into your composition to see if the element will fit the scene before downloading or licensing it.

There are many websites to license and purchase stock images such as iStockPhoto, Fotolia, and Big Stock. There are even a few sites that offer free-to-license images like MorgueFile, Stock Exchange, and CG Textures. I license the majority of my images from iStockPhoto. If you don’t have an account, sign up and get 10 free credits with your new account.

Step 2) Isolation and placement of main elements

After the composition was roughed out, I was ready to isolate and composite images for the scene. The background is made of two primary images that were placed according to my rough sketch and comp image. The two images were blended together with layer masks. Blending the two images is accomplished by hiding parts of one background image and revealing parts of another.

(TIP) Layer masks are a great way to make non-destructive changes to images. After creating the layer mask, you can paint with black paint to hide parts of the image, while painting with white will reveal parts of the image. This allows for large sweeping changes or fine detailing, depending on your brush size.

When isolating an element from a background for placement into my composition, my tool of choice is the pen tool. That’s not to say I don’t use other isolation techniques, but the pen tool creates an accurate selection with less cleanup. I generally isolate elements outside of the file I am working in. I do this so that I have a working copy of the isolated image in case I need to access the original file. After completing my selection with the pen tool, I create a mask based on the pen tool selection and place the element into my scene. I can then fine tune the selection with a layer mask as needed.

Step 3) Choosing a light source, then lighting & toning elements individually

A key concept in lighting the scene is choosing where the light is coming from and deciding how that light influences each element. One of my favorite parts of working on a photo illustration is imagining what the light may look like based on my established light source. Each element within the scene will have its own adjustment for lighting; this is a key part of making sure your elements look integrated into the scene.

(TIP) By using a series of clipped layers, adjust the parent layer that contains the photo element, as opposed to applying adjustments to all the layers in the Photoshop document. Clipped layers allow you to add adjustments such as levels, as well as layers with painted highlights and shadows that only affect the parent layer they are applied to. If you decide you need a different adjustment, you can easily adjust the clipped layers with masks, blending modes or varying opacities to achieve the desired result. To learn how to create clipped layers, see my Photoshop Tutorial: Integrating Elements In A Scene.

Lighting elements individually is important, but so is adjusting the color and saturation of elements to match the scene. As I work on the photo illustration, I am considering how each element’s color fits into the scene. For instance, the forest image was already blue, but I needed the bottom background image to match in tone. To accomplish this, I desaturated the lower background image and added blue tones from the top image.

Step 4) Additional elements, details and evolution of the file

I usually add additional elements and textures throughout the process. I started this photo illustration without every element in place. I was confident I would be able to find the additional elements I would need, like a werewolf and a set of gates. After I work on a photo illustration for a while, I may decide I want to try a different element or a different placement, so I like to leave a few elements to be discovered and allow the image to evolve as I am working.

Beyond seeking out minor photo elements throughout the process for the composition, I am constantly adding photo elements that embellish the work, such as light rays, sparkles, smoke, or textures. I have a small collection of these types of elements that I reuse when they are fitting.

Step 5) Overall effects and toning

After the elements are in place and all my detailing and adjustments are made, I like to apply a few overall effects to the image to tie everything together. The finishing effects vary per project. I have experimented with many effects and continue to experiment in order to achieve a cohesive look for the finished product.

(TIP) In the figure below, I highlight a few common effects that are helpful as finishing adjustments. Start with a folder at the top of your layers and add adjustment layers that may achieve some cohesion. Beyond adding adjustment layers, you can explore hand painted effects for a painterly look, Photoshop filters, and third-party plugins. This is very much a creative choice and varies from work to work.

Please comment and share with your friends in the digital art and Photoshop community.

Copyright Jamie Carroll 2011 | www.JamieC.com

CSS/Wordpress styling: Stephen Emlund | Copy-editing: Lee Cashatt

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