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  1. Design & Illustration
  2. Photo Manipulation
Design

How to Create a Surreal Photo Manipulation in Adobe Photoshop

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Difficulty:IntermediateLength:LongLanguages:
Final product image
What You'll Be Creating

In this tutorial you'll learn how to create a surreal scene combining photos of the sky. You'll also learn how to easily blend different photos of light effects using Blending Modes and how to create realistic looking lens flare to create the light portal.

I'll show you how to apply textures to add details to your photo manipulation, and how to work with plugins to get beautiful colors. Let's get started.

Tutorial Assets

Download the following photos to create this tutorial:

1. Preparing the Background

Step 1

Open Adobe Photoshop and go to File > New... (or press Control-N on your keyboard) to create a new document.

Set Width to 1400 px, Height to 2100 px and Resolution to 300.

Size of the document

Download all stock photos attached with this tutorial. Open the image named background.jpg and drag it into the document you've just created. Double-click on the new layer and name it BACKGROUND.

(If you don't see the Layers panel go to Window > Layers.)

Take a look at the following image. You should double-click on the place where the arrow shows.

Layer order

Quick tip: It's a good habit to name all your layers. When you have to work with more layers it's easier and quicker to navigate between them.

Step 2

Open the image named clouds.jpg and drag it into your photo manipulation. Place this new layer on top of all the layers and name it CLOUDS. Move the layer to the bottom right corner.

As you can see there is harsh transition between BACKGROUND and CLOUDS. You'll blend it in this step. The part you need to blend is circled in the following image.

Where you should blend

To blend CLOUDS properly with the rest of the image, add a Layer Mask to it. You can find the Add layer mask button in the bottom part of Layers panel.

In the image below you can see how the Add layer mask button looks.

Location of the butto Add layer mask

Grab the Brush Tool (B). Select a soft round brush and set its Opacity to about 60%. Pick black color. Make sure that the layer mask is active (just click on it) and start painting over the areas with harsh transition. Those parts will disappear.

Quick tip: While blending, try to work with different brush sizes and opacities to see what works best for your image.

In the image below you can see how your photo manipulation should look so far.

How your photo manipulation looks so far

2. Color Adjustments

In this part you'll change colors and increase contrast to give the background a more dramatic mood.

Step 1

Let's start by changing the colors. Add a new Hue/Saturation adjustment layer on top of all layers. You can find the Create new fill or adjustment layer button in the bottom part of the Layers panel, right next to the Add new layer mask button you used in the previous step.

The button is highlighted in the following image.

Create new fill or adjustment layer button

Set the Hue value to -30 and Saturation to -30 as well.

HueSaturation settings

Step 2

To make the upper part of the sky more dramatic, you need to darken it a little. Add a new Curves layer mask on top of all the layers, and set the curve roughly as shown in the following image.

Curves settings

You want to adjust only the upper part of the image and not the rest. Grab the Paint Bucket Tool (G), and fill the layer mask of this adjustment layer with black color. The adjustment disappears.

To make it visible only on the upper part, grab the Gradient Tool (G). Choose Linear Gradient (see the image below to see the location of the button.)

Click on the image of the gradient in the upper left corner to open the Gradient Editor.

Select Foreground to Transparent Gradient and set the foreground color to white (#FFFFFF).

Gradient Editor settings

Press OK to apply the changes.

Make sure the layer mask of the Curves adjustment layer is active (click on it) and paint white gradient from the upper part to the middle of the image. 

Look at the image below to see how your photo manipulation should look so far.

Before  After step 4

Step 3

To make the image look a bit more dramatic, you'll increase contrast in this step.

Add a new Curves adjustment layer on top of all the layers, and set the curve as shown in the image below.

Curves settings

You've created five layers so far. Let's take a quick look at them to have everything in order.

Layer order

3. Adding a Man

Step 1

Drag the file man.png into your photo manipulation. Place this new layer on top of all the layers and name it MAN.

To blend it properly with the rest of the image you need to hide part of the legs and make him lighter. Let's start with blending.

Add a layer mask to MAN. Grab the Brush Tool (B), pick black color and select a soft round brush. Set the Opacity to about 70% and gently paint over the man's leg. See the image below to get an idea of where you should paint.

Man before and after blending

Step 2

To make the man lighter, add a new Curves adjustment layer on top of all the layers. Set the curve as you can see in the image below.

You want to lighten only MAN and not the rest of the image. To achieve that, click on the square button in the bottom part of the Curves panel. It creates a clipping mask from it.

Curves settings

Quick tip: You can create a clipping mask not only from an adjustment layers but also from any layer you've created. It clips itself to the layer below and affects only that one and not the rest of the image.

4. Creating the Portal

In the following steps you'll create the light portal.

Quick tip: If you want to shoot stock photos of different light effects yourself, try to visit an optical illusion exhibition. You'll get plenty of materials there.

Step 1

Drag the file inner.jpg into your photo manipulation and place it on top of all the layers. Name it INNER LIGHT 1. 

Right click on the layer and select Duplicate layer. Name the new layer INNER LIGHT 2. Duplicate it one more time and name the new layer INNER LIGHT 3.

Hide INNER LIGHT 2 and 3 so you can focus on blending the first layer. To hide the layers, click on the small eye icon on the left side of each layer.

Eye icon location

In the following image you can see how your photo manipulation looks after placing INNER LIGHT 1. You can check your layer order as well.

Result of this step

Step 2

In this step you'll blend the INNER LIGHT 1 layer properly with the rest of the image. You'll change its Blending Mode and hide some parts with help of a layer mask.

Click on the INNER LIGHT 1 layer to make sure it's active and change its Blending Mode to Screen. You can find that option in the upper part of your Layers panel. 

Screen Blending Mode

To blend it even better, hide the inner sphere. Add a layer mask to the INNER LIGHT 1 layer. Grab the Brush Tool (B), select a soft round brush, and change its Opacity to about 60%. Use black color and start painting over the areas of the sphere you want to hide.

Take a look at the following image to see where you should paint. These areas are highlighted with cyan color.

Which parts you should hide

In the following image you can see the blending of this layer step by step.

Steps of blending

Step 3

Make the INNER LIGHT 2 layer visible. As in the previous step, change its Blending Mode to Screen.

To add some variation to the portal, you need to rotate this layer. To do so, go to Edit > Free Transform. Rotate the layer 180°. Press Enter on your keyboard after you're done to apply the changes.

Create a layer mask for this layer. Grab the Brush Tool (B). Use the same settings as in the previous step and hide the sphere in the center again. 

In the following image you can see the process of blending this layer.

Steps of blending

Step 4

We'll blend this layer the same way as we did in the previous step. First go to Edit > Free Transform and rotate the layer 90° to the right.

Change its Blending Mode to Screen.

Add a layer mask and hide the sphere in the center of this layer.

Steps of blending

Step 5

Drag the file portal.jpg into your photo manipulation and place it on top of all the layers. Name it PORTAL.

As before, change its Blending Mode to Screen.

The orb in the center is too bright. To make it less visible, add a layer mask to PORTAL. Grab the Brush Tool (B). Use the same settings for the brush and gently paint over the center part of the layer.

In the following image, you can see how your photo manipulation should look so far.

Photomanipulation after step 12

Step 6

As you can see, the PORTAL layer is bluer than other parts of portal you've added. You'll adjust it in this step.

Add a new Hue/Saturation adjustment layer and set the Hue to -60, Saturation to -50 and Lightness to -10.

Don't forget to create a clipping mask from this layer to adjust only one layer below (PORTAL) and not the rest of the image.

HueSaturation settings

Step 7

In this quick step you'll make your photo manipulation slightly darker.

Add a new Curves adjustment layer on top of all the layers, and set it as shown below.

Curves settings

5. Adding Details to the Portal

Step 1

Drag the file details.jpg into your photo manipulation and place it on top of all the layers. Name it DETAILS 1. Right click on the layer and select Duplicate layer.

Name the new layer DETAILS 2 and hide it by clicking on the eye icon on the left.

Step 2

The blending of this layer is quite similar to the blending of previous layers. Click on the DETAILS 1 layer and change its Blending Mode to Screen. Lower its Opacity to 40%.

To blend it even better, add a layer mask to this layer. Grab the Brush Tool (B). Use the same settings as in the previous step and make the center and outer left part less visible. Take a look at the following image to see where you should paint. These areas are highlighted with cyan color.

Where you should paint

Step 3

Make the DETAILS 2 layer visible again.

Go to Edit > Free Transform and rotate it 90°. Change its Blending Mode to Screen and lower its Opacity to 40%.

Add a layer mask to DETAILS 2. Grab the Brush Tool (B). Use the same settings as in the previous step and start blending this layer with the rest of the image.

In the following image you can see which parts you should hide in order to blend the layer properly. They're highlighted with cyan color.

Where you should paint

Step 4

To create a vignette, start by adding a new Curves adjustment layer on top of all the layers, and set it as shown below.

You want to make only the edges of the image darker. To achieve that, grab the Elliptical Marquee Tool (M) and create an ellipse in the center of the image.

Feather the selection. Go to Select > Modify > Feather... (This path may differ in different versions of Photoshop. If you can't find it, simply press Shift-F6 on your keyboard.)

Set the Feather Radius to 250 px and press Enter.

Feather radius

Grab the Paint Bucket Tool (G) with black color. Make sure that the layer mask of the Curves adjustment layer is active by clicking on it. Fill the selection with black. The adjustment disappears there, and you should get a vignette as in the following image.

Result of Step 18

Step 5

To add even more depth to the image you'll lighten the center of the photo manipulation in this step.

Add a new empty layer under the layer DETAILS 1. Name it MIST. Grab the Brush Tool (B). Select a big, soft round brush and set its Opacity to 20%. Pick a very bright blue color.

Now simply paint one dot in the center of the image. To blend it well with the rest of the image, change its Blending Mode from Normal to Screen.

In the image below you can see where and what you should paint. Paint the dot in the same place as the cyan dot in the first image.

In the second image you can see how the photo manipulation looks with MIST set to Normal Blending Mode, and in the third picture with Screen Blending Mode.

Different blending modes of MIST

Step 6

To make the image more balanced, you'll add some more details to the portal in this step. The process of blending is the same as in the previous step, so I'll only show you where you should place new layers.

Drag details.jpg into your photo manipulation, and duplicate it twice so you'll have three layers. Name them LIGHT DETAILS 1, 2 and 3. Change their Blending Modes to Screen and blend them with the rest of the image.

Look at the following image to see where to place these layers.

Where to place light details

6. Color Adjustment

All the main elements are already placed in your photo manipulation. In the following steps you'll focus on color adjustment to create the dreamy atmosphere of the image.

Step 1

In this step you'll make the image darker and less contrasted. Add a new Curves adjustment layer on top of all the layers and set it as shown below.

Curves settings

Step 2

For this step you need to have a Photoshop plugin called Color Efex Pro. It's a paid plugin but offers a 14-day trial period, so you should be able to finish this tutorial without buying it.

Download the plugin and install it. After installation is complete, go back to Photoshop.

Grab the Rectangular Marquee Tool (M) and select the whole image. Go to Edit > Copy Merged and Edit > Paste to paste the merged image. Place the new layer on top of all the layers and name it COLORS.

Go to Filter > Nik Software > Color Efex Pro. In the left menu, select the filter called Bleach Bypass

Bleach Bypass

Set it as shown in the following image.

Bleach Bypass settings

Click on + Add Filter to apply the changes.

Step 3

Leave the plugin open and choose another filter called Cross Processing.

Cross Processing

Set the filter as shown below and press OK to apply all changes.

Cross processing settings

In the following image you can see how these adjustments affect your photo manipulation.

Adjustments

Step 4

The photo manipulation will look better if it's less saturated. To achieve that, add a new Hue/Saturation adjustment layer on top of all the layers and set the Saturation to -20.

HueSaturation settings

Step 5

Drag the file texture.jpg into your photo manipulation and place it on top of all the layers. Name it TEXTURE.

To blend it properly, change its Blending Mode from Normal to Soft Light and change its Opacity to 20%.

Step 6

To add a little more depth to the photo manipulation, you'll darken its edges in this step.

Add a new empty layer on top of all the layers and name it DARKENING. Change its Blending Mode from Normal to Soft Light.

Grab the Brush Tool (B). Select a soft round brush and set its Opacity to 10%. Pick black color and start painting over the edges. Take a look at the following image to see where you should paint. It's highlighted with cyan color.

Where you should paint

Step 7

In this last step you'll add a lens flare to create more interesting lighting.

Add a new empty layer on top of all the layers and name it LENS FLARE. Grab the Paint Bucket Tool (G), pick black color and fill the layer with it.

Go to Filter > Render > Lens Flare. Choose the Lens Type 105mm Prime and set it as shown in the following image.

Lens Flare settings

To blend the layer properly with the rest of the image, change its Blending Mode from Normal to Screen and lower its Opacity to 75%.

Conclusion

Congratulations! You've just finished your surreal photo manipulation. You've learnt how to:

  • use Blending Modes to create interesting lighting effects
  • work in external Photoshop plugins to create more interesting color adjustments
  • apply textures to bring details to your work

Let me know if the tutorial was useful and inspiring for you in the comments below!

Final image
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