Create a Biomechanical Floating Ecosystem
We're all aware that an ecosystem is a living community of plants and animals that share the same environment, but what happens when the natural world and man-made technology amalgamate to form a harmonious coexistence? In this tutorial I’ll walk you through the process of creating such a world by combining stock images and 3D renders. Let's get to it!
You'll find some files in the "source" folder. You'll also need the following free stock photography and brushes to complete this tutorial.
- Clouds one
- Clouds two by 6006548654
- Clouds three
- Rust texture by Eastop
- Botanical pack by resurgere
- Moss one by dlritter
- Moss two
- Tree one by Linzee777
- Tree two
- Tree three
- Statue by silegl69
- Waterfall one
- Waterfall two
- Waterfall three
- Fractal by Zakeros
- Parrots by Blonx91
- Cloud brushes
Before We Begin
Throughout this tutorial I'll demonstrate various techniques to isolate images from their backgrounds, so you may need to Defringe (Layer > Matting > Defringe) by a pixel or so when placing images into your working file. into your working file. Also, if you're going to be performing a multitude of transformations and scaling, it's good practice to convert your layer to a Smart Object beforehand (Layer > Smart Objects > Convert) – this way you'll preserve the pixel information. Once you're happy, you can always Rasterize (Layer > Rasterize > Smart Object) to keep your file size manageable.
Set your Foreground color to olive green (# 6e9995). Create a new canvas 20 cm square at 300 dpi in RGB Mode, then use the Background Contents drop-down menu to select Background Color and hit OK.
Double-click the default layer thumbnail to unlock it and rename "Green solid". Now place the layer into a group folder called "BACKGROUND".
Place another layer within the folder and name it "Yellow grad", then activate Full Screen Mode With Menu Bar. Set your Foreground to pale yellow (# eeefd6), then grab the Gradient Tool (G) and Shift-drag a Linear Gradient from beyond the canvas base using the Foreground to Transparent preset. Now reduce the layer Opacity to 46%.
Add another layer called "Green grad" within the folder and change the Blend Mode to Multiply. Now pull down a dark green (# 38726c) gradient, again using the Foreground to Transparent preset.
Place the first cloud image within a new folder called "SKY". Name the layer "Clouds 1" and change the Blend Mode to Screen. Next, hit Command/Ctrl + T, then hold down the Control key and choose Flip Horizontal from the Transform menu and re size. Finally, add a layer mask, then Shift-drag a Black to White linear Gradient to hide the lower half.
Drag the "Clouds 1" thumbnail over the Create new layer icon to duplicate and rename it "Clouds 2". Press D to restore your Foreground/Background colors to black/white, target the duplicate mask thumbnail and hit Command + Delete/Ctrl + Backspace to clear it.
Now rotate the layer content 90 degrees clockwise and position top-left. Target the mask thumbnail and Shift-drag two Foreground to Transparent Linear Gradients as indicated to hide the hard edges.
Place the second cloud image within the same folder and label it "Clouds 3". Rotate 90 degrees anti-clockwise and enlarge to cover the canvas. Change the Blend Mode to Hard Light and lower the Opacity to 56%.
Add the final cloud image within the same folder, label it "Clouds 4" and change the Blend Mode to Overlay. Now choose Levels from the Adjustments tab and change the midtone slider as below. Next, grab the Clone Tool (S) and set it to Current Layer in the options bar. You can now work on each cloud layer in turn using a large, soft-edged brush to add/remove cloud formations as required.
Next, apply a Hue/Saturation adjustment layer; we want this adjustment to affect the underlying layers, so unlink it by Option-clicking between the layer thumbnails as indicated.
Add a mask to the "SKY" folder and hide the base by applying a Black to White Linear Gradient.
We now need to add a guide to help us position all the various elements; grab the Custom Shape Tool (U), then enable both Paths and the Ellipse options. Shift-drag to add a large path. Now select the Path Selection Tool (A) to roughly position centrally.
Tip: You can also re size your selected path by pressing Command/Ctrl + T.
Add a new layer called "Template" above the "SKY" folder, then switch to the Paths tab and Command/Ctrl-click your path thumbnail to generate a selection. Go back to your Layers tab and with the new layer targeted, choose Edit > Stroke and copy the following settings.
This step is optional, as I've supplied all the 3D renders in the "source" folder, but I'll briefly walk you through how they were created using Poser and Cinema 4D.
This futuristic 3D model was just what I was after and I especially liked the industrial black and yellow chevron textures. First the model was loaded into Poser.
Next, I exported the model as a Wavefront OBJ file.
From here I used the free interPoser light plug-in to load the OBJ file into Cinema 4D. I applied some basic lighting, then added some Bend and Twist deformers to create a couple of abstract shapes. These were rendered with separate Alpha Channels so they could easily be extracted using Photoshop.
Now we'll start to assemble the mechanical parts using the "Template" layer as a rough guide. First, place "Mech_1.tif" into a new folder called "MECHANICAL" below the "Template" layer. Re size/rotate, position as shown and label it "Render 1".
Now add "Mech_2.tif", position as shown and label it "Render 2".
Add "Mech_1.tif; again, position as shown and name it "Render 3".
Add "Mech_1.tif" and position at the top ("Render 4"), then again ("Render 5") indicated by the arrow.
Next, we'll add some wear and tear to the metalwork to give it an organic feel. Open the rust texture and Select All (Command/Ctrl + A), then Copy to the clipboard. Back in your project file Command/Ctrl-click the "Render 1" layer thumbnail to load its content as a selection.
Target the "Render 5" layer and with the selection still active choose Edit > Paste Special > Paste Into (Option + Shift + Command/Ctrl + V). This command creates a new layer with an unlinked mask as indicated by the arrow – this means we can Transform and position the layer content independent of its mask. To get a better idea of how the texture will finally appear, change the Blend Mode to Soft Light. When you're happy with the texture's placement restore the Blend Mode back to Normal.
Repeat the previous step for the remaining render layers, then preview in Soft Light Mode. Transform/position each layer, so the rust streaks appear over prominent areas, then change all layers back to Normal.
Target the uppermost texture ("Layer 5") thumbnail, then Shift-click the bottom ("Layer 1") thumbnail – this also highlights the sandwiched layers, then hit Command/Ctrl + E to Merge Layers (this command will also apply all the masks). Now rename the merged layer "Rust" and change the Blend Mode back to Soft Light.
The rust texture has eliminated the clean 3D – rendered look, but we now need to alter the color a little, so clip a Color Balance adjustment layer and increase the Green and Yellow Midtone sliders as shown.
Open the first tree image ("pkg_bot014.jpg") from the download folder and Crop (C) into the roots. Now grab the Quick Selection Tool (W) and highlight Add to selection in the options bar; also select a small brush tip and ensure Auto-Enhance is checked.
Now carefully paint over the root structure. You'll notice as you paint near the edges of the roots the selection extends to follow the edge contours. Don't worry about unwanted areas being added to the selection – we'll fix that next.
Next, highlight the Subtract from selection icon and remove the 'holes' and also areas that were accidentally included from your initial selection.
Note: To temporarily switch between Add and Subtract modes, hold down the Option key.
When you're done Hit Command/Ctrl + J to copy the selection to a new layer, then trash the original layer to view in isolation. At this point you may need to carry out some small modifications using the Clone (S) and/or the Eraser Tools (E).
Add a new folder called "NATURE 1" below the "MECHANICAL" folder, place your isolated roots within it and label it "Large roots". Stretch/rotate into position as shown – don't worry about any gaps for now, we'll be filling these with foliage later. Next, clip a Levels adjustment layer and copy the following settings.
To blend the roots a little better, clip a Color Balance adjustment layer as shown.
Open "pkg_bot006.jpg", then use the Lasso Tool (L) to loosely select the trunk and Copy.
Paste as a new layer called "Large roots texture" at the top of the stack within the "NATURE 1" folder. Change the Blend Mode to Overlay, then Transform/position over the roots. Next, generate a selection from the "Large roots" layer, then hit Shift + Command/Ctrl + I to Inverse the selection. Ensure the "Large roots texture" is the target layer and hit Delete.
Place "Roots_1.psd" through to "Roots_5.psd" from the "source" folder as new layers within the same folder (these images are from my own library, so they've already been isolated). Re size/Transform and position beneath the bottom two mechanical portholes.
When you're happy, merge them to one layer and rename it "Small roots". Now clip a Levels adjustment layer to darken slightly.
Revisit "pkg_bot006.jpg" and Crop (C), then select the tree as before using the Quick Selection Tool (W).
Now click the Refine Edge button in the options bar, then from the View Mode drop-down menu choose On Layers – this option gives the most accurate view when refining the edges.
Next, Check the Decontaminate Colors checkbox and leave the Amount slider at 50% – this replaces the background pixels with a more appropriate color. Now paint over the complex leaf edges using a 35 px brush, but leave the more defined edges, such as the trunk and branches intact.
You can now trash the original layer, drag the mask icon into the trash and accept the Apply prompt in the next window.
Place as an uppermost layer within the "NATURE 1" folder and label it "Tree 1". Flip Horizontal, then use your "Template" layer as a guide to rotate/re size to form the right-hand side of the globe. Next, clip a Color Balance adjustment layer and copy these settings.
Now apply a Levels adjustment layer and copy these settings.
We'll now prepare some moss to resemble small clumps of vegetation. Because this image is pretty complex we'll use a channel, or density mask to extract it.
Switch to your Channels tab and cycle through each channel in turn to determine which holds the most contrast for the green (in this instance it's the Blue channel). Duplicate this channel by dragging its thumbnail over the Create new channel icon at the foot of the palette.
Now hit Command/Ctrl + L and apply a Levels adjustment directly to the duplicate channel.
Grab a medium, soft-edged brush (B) to roughly paint over the stone wall as shown.
Tip: Toggling the visibility of the top RGB composite channel as you work will make this step easier – just make sure that the duplicate is the target channel when painting.
Enter Refine Edge mode and choose the On Layers option again. Now adjust the Edge parameters, then check Decontaminate Colors and leave the Amount slider at 50% and hit OK.
Commit the layer mask, then add as an uppermost layer called "Moss 1" within the same folder. Re size/position over the large tree to create a carpet of vegetation, then lower the Opacity to 93%. Add a mask, then use a small, soft-edged brush to blend into the tree.
Add a Hue/Saturation adjustment layer and reduce the Greens from the drop-down menu
Open the second moss image and use a combination of the Quick Selection (W) Tool and Refine Edge commands to extract the central chunk.
Place within a new folder called "NATURE 2" above the "MECHANICAL" folder and name it "Grass 1". Flip Horizontal and Transform/position over the top mechanical dome. Add a mask, then use an assortment of soft and natural-media bristle brushes to gently blend the edges. The completed mask is shown in isolation below.
Next, clip a Hue/Saturation adjustment layer.
Shift-click (to highlight) both the "Grass 1" and its adjustment thumbnail and drag them over the Create new layer icon at the foot of the palette to duplicate. Clear the content of the mask and flip the layer content horizontal. Enlarge and position over the right of the upper dome, then use an assortment of brushes on the mask to blend the edges.
Duplicate "Moss 1" and it's adjustment layer from the "NATURE 1" folder and place at the top within the "NATURE 2" folder and position as shown. Now adjust the mask as required and rename it "Moss 2".
Open the rocks image and select the foreground structure with the Quick Selection Tool (W) and Copy.
Paste the selection as an uppermost layer within the same folder, label it "Rocks", then Transform/position as shown.
Clip a Levels adjustment layer and apply following settings.
Duplicate "Moss 2" (along with its adjustment layer) a couple more times and place them over different areas of the metalwork as well as the rocks. Remember to modify their masks as well as adjusting their opacities to suit.
Use the same technique as step 13 to extract the next tree ("pkg_bot009.jpg") and place as an uppermost layer within the same folder. Re size/position as shown, name it "Tree 2", then clip a Levels adjustment layer.
Next, apply a Hue/Saturation adjustment layer and set the Reds as below.
Open this layered
tree file and place "Layer 2" into the same folder and rename it "Tree 3". Re size/position and then clip a Levels adjustment layer.
Next, clip a Hue/Saturation adjustment layer and modify the Reds as shown.
Open this Tree image, set the Magic Wand Tool (W) to a Tolerance of 1 and uncheck the Contiguous option. Now select the white background, hit Command/Ctrl + I to Inverse the selection and Copy.
Paste as a new layer within the same folder and name it "Tree 5", then add a mask to hide its base. Now clip a Levels adjustment layer and copy these settings.
Next, clip a Hue/Saturation adjustment layer and reduce the Yellows to -33.
Duplicate selective tree layers (along with their accompanying adjustment layers) and Transform/position to build up the foliage around the mechanical parts; also, remember to modify their masks accordingly and rename these duplicate layers "Tree 6" etc.
The only accurate method to isolate this statue is by using paths. Set the Pen Tool (P) to Paths in the options bar and carefully draw a closed path around the edge as indicated in red.
Note: You can fine-tune your path at any time by holding the Command/Ctrl key to access the Direct Selection Tool (A) to adjust individual direction/anchor points as required.
Next, highlight the Subtract From Path Area option to plot the inner sub-path around the statue's head and arm.
When you're done Command/Ctrl-click the path thumbnail to generate a selection and Copy > Paste as an uppermost layer called "Statue" within the "NATURE 2" folder. Now clip a Levels adjustment layer and change the midpoint input slider to 0.59.
Now clip a Color Balance adjustment layer and copy these settings.
Open the waterfall image, place it within the same folder and label it "Waterfall". Re size/position as shown, add a mask, then use an assortment of soft-edges brushes to gently blend it into the environment. Next fill a layer-based selection from "Render 5" with black the mask too.
Clip a Hue/Saturation adjustment layer to the "Waterfall" layer and modify the Red Hue to +180.
Now change the Cyan Saturation to -100.
Finally, set the Blue Saturation to -100.
Next, clip a Color Balance adjustment layer and modify the Midtone sliders.
Now change the Red and Green Highlight sliders.
Target the "Color Balance" mask and use a soft-edge brush to hide all areas except the lake.
Clip a final Levels adjustment layer to the "Waterfall" and apply the following settings.
Target the "Levels" mask and hide the areas as shown to tonally blend the waterfall better.
Use the same technique covered in step 23 to extract tree 3. Place as an uppermost layer called "Tree 10" within the "NATURE 2" folder. Re size/position, then mask its base. Now clip a Color Balance adjustment layer and reduce the Yellow to -49.
Next, clip a Levels adjustment layer and apply these settings.
At this stage we need to intensify the foliage by adding some dense pockets of vegetation. Copy the "Tree 10" layer (as well as its adjustment) a couple of times and place around the composition – remember to modify any Levels settings as required. When you're done rename these layers accordingly.
Duplicate some more tree layers and place them within a new folder called "NATURE 3" – remember to rename these layers as you work and also modify their masks and adjustment layers accordingly.
Now duplicate some moss layers to really intensify the effect.
Finally, duplicate some more tree layers. Now take some time to Transform/position all your duplicate layers until you're satisfied.
To bring our scene to life we need some creatures; open the birds image and set the Magic Wand Tool (W) to a Tolerance of 50 and uncheck Contiguous in the Options bar. Now click on the silhouette to select the birds and Copy.
Add a folder below the "Template" and label it "CREATURES". Paste the selection into this folder and name it "Birds". Transform > Flip Horizontal, re size and place below the hanging roots. To add a sense of depth, change the Blend Mode to Multiply and reduce the Opacity to 72%.
Place the first parrot so it’s perched on the wire and label it "Parrot 1". Now clip a Levels adjustment layer to darken slightly.
Add the second parrot top right and name it "Parrot 2".
Use the Pen Tool (P) to create a path around the flamingo, remembering to include the inner sub path.
Load your path as a selection and Copy > Paste as a new layer and name it "Flamingo". Duplicate the layer, rename it "Flamingo shadow" and position below the original. Rotate the duplicate 180 degrees and Flip Horizontal. Finally, set the layer to Multiply and mask as shown.
Now clip a Levels adjustment layer to darken slightly.
If you zoom in you'll notice some foliage layers are more in focus than others. To fix this, set the Blur Tool to a Strength of around 35% and use a medium, soft-edged bush on any layers that appear too sharp.
Now we'll add the cascading water flowing from the lower portholes. First add a new folder called "WATER" below the "Template" layer. Place a new layer called "Painted water" within the folder, then use a soft bristle brush at low Opacity to add some vertical streaks over the larger mechanical opening, then mask as required.
Open this waterfall image and Crop as shown, then go to Select > Color Range. In the next window, set the Fuzziness slider to 109 and hit OK.
Copy > Paste the selection as a new layer within the same folder and label it "Water 1". Change the Blend Mode to Screen, then Transform/position as below. Again, feel free to mask areas as required.
Duplicate this layer and rename it "Water 2" and Flip Horizontal/re size, then modify its mask.
Open the second waterfall image and select the water with a Rectangular Marquee (M). Now choose Select > Modify > Feather and enter 20 px and Copy.
Paste the selection as new layer and label it "Water 3", then change its Blend Mode to Overlay. Position over your previous layers, Transform by stretching vertically beyond your canvas and mask as required.
Duplicate this layer, rename it "Water 4" and Transform/position over the smaller mechanical opening.
Continue to duplicate as many layers as necessary to build up the effect – remember to modify their masks and flip some layers to avoid repetition.
Add a mask to the "WATER" folder, then set your Foreground to 50% black and Shift-drag a Foreground to Transparent Linear Gradient to hide the bottom of the water.
At this point remove the black artifacts on "Render 3" and "Render 4" layers by using a Clone brush (S) set to Current Layer.
Add a new folder called "EFFECTS" below the "Template" layer. Place a new layer within the folder and name it "Haze". Now add some white mist over both waterfalls using these cloud brushes – if you feel you've overdone the effect, mask accordingly.
Import this fractal image as an uppermost layer within the same folder and name it "Fractal". Enlarge to cover your canvas, then change the Blend Mode to Soft Light. Next, clip a Hue/Saturation adjustment layer and copy these settings.
Now add a mask to the "Fractal" layer and use a large, soft-edged brush to hide areas as shown below.
Place "IMG_0993.JPG" from these smoke textures as a new layer within the "EFFECTS" folder and name it "Smoke 1". Transform/position as shown, change the Blend Mode to Screen and then mask any hard edges.
Now add "IMG_1031.JPG", Flip Horizontal and position over your first smoke layer. Name it "Smoke 2" change the Blend Mode to Screen and then mask accordingly.
Finally add "IMG_1031.JPG", again in Screen Mode over the right-hand porthole and mask as required.
Next, we'll apply a non-destructive dodge and burn technique to add highlight and shadow; for this to work, we first need to establish our light source – in this case top-right as indicated in the screen shot.
First, add an uppermost layer within the "EFFECTS" folder and label it "Dodge and burn". Go to Edit > Fill and press Shift + F5 and select 50% Gray from the Contents drop-down menu and hit OK. Now if you change the layer's Blend Mode to Overlay the grey will disappear. From here load "Tree 1" as a selection, then grab the Brush Tool (B) and paint shadows and highlights using black and white respectively at 20% Opacity.
Repeat this technique using the remaining larger areas, such as the mechanical parts and the large roots. Now use selections from the smaller elements, such as the trees – you can also paint freely to add highlights over the cascading water etc.
Tip: If you make a mistake and need to reinstate the 50% Gray, set the layer back to normal and pick up the grey using the Eyedropper Tool (I), or use the Color Picker to set all three RGB fields to 128, then paint at 100% Opacity.
Now let's modify the overall color scheme a little; add a Hue/Saturation adjustment layer at the top of the stack, then unclip it and copy these settings. Now reduce the adjustment's Opacity to 30%.
To finish off, we'll add a little more contrast; add an empty layer at the top of the stack and name it "High pass". Now choose Image > Apply Image, ensure the Blending is set to Normal and hit OK. This command creates a single composite layer.
Now select Filter > Other > High Pass, set the Radius to 3.2 px and hit OK.
Finally, change the Blend Mode to Soft Light and you're done.
Conclusion and Scope
I hope this tutorial demonstrates how to combine multiple images – all of which have various degrees of tone, shadow and color. Now you've discovered how it's done, why not apply these techniques to create your own fantastical worlds – the only limit is your imagination!