1. Design & Illustration
  2. Graphic Design
  3. Photo Manipulation

Exploring Photo Manipulation: Analysis and Interviews

Scroll to top
Read Time: 13 min
Final product imageFinal product imageFinal product image
What You'll Be Creating

Photo manipulation and photo effects—they could cover anything from touching up a face to adding an entire universe right into your favorite photo. The manipulation of imagery is often associated with Adobe Photoshop, but photo manipulation itself predates Photoshop by many, many years. Perhaps we, as artists, designers, and people, have always had a fascination with altering the visual space around us.

In this article, we'll discuss what makes photo manipulation tick—what makes it good? What makes it work? How do we approach it, as content creators? And we'll ask some other artists for their insights too.

Take a look around the Internet, social media, advertisements, and in other spaces where you interact with media. Photo effects are everywhere, from photo filters to portrait effects, and it’s not uncommon to refer to an altered image as “Photoshopped”. 

Here's an example of photo manipulation for a music festival advert, by Melody Nieves—a fun composition with some retro throwbacks! 

Festival Advert by Melody NievesFestival Advert by Melody NievesFestival Advert by Melody Nieves

Photo manipulation can be imaginative, communicative, and artistic—it can be controversial or even unethical. We can do amazing things with imagery today, with the limitations largely being our imagination and our available skill set. Even then, effects for pictures are accessible to the masses via a multitude of user-friendly applications.

Escher Ribbon Photoshop FX by Gianluca GiacoppoEscher Ribbon Photoshop FX by Gianluca GiacoppoEscher Ribbon Photoshop FX by Gianluca Giacoppo
An example of Photo Manipulation, by Gianluca Giacoppo—Gianluca's amazing Escher Ribbon Photoshop FX in action.

So, how do we take a photograph and successfully change it into something different, interesting, and visually engaging in a new way?

I would argue that photo manipulation’s success—or lack thereof—can be attributed to message and purpose. Even a “simple” manipulation, like editing out (or in) a mark on a face, has a communicative property and purpose: to make the skin look different, for whatever ends that is meant to potentially serve.

A food advertisement might deliberately use manipulated menu items to make them look more appetizing. An artist might superimpose the sky onto a ballgown to make it look and feel magical. Or, if we want to remove ourselves from the commercial, we could view it as simply art for art’s sake: to create something visually enticing or interesting. Maybe we’re hopping on the latest visual trend to try to capture the cool factor in a unique way, or maybe it's a method of expressing ourselves. 

Let's Take a Look at a Few Examples

Lady and the Tramp by Melody NievesLady and the Tramp by Melody NievesLady and the Tramp by Melody Nieves

Above is a fun take on some of the iconic imagery from "Lady and the Tramp", by Melody Nieves. It gives us a stylized, more realistic look than what would likely come to mind, initially, for most.

This is a case where we have a visual starting point; the objective is to play into preconceived ideas and associations. This is going to require a reference point, when it comes to the chosen photography, as Melody has shared with us above.

Lady and the Tramp Process by Melody NievesLady and the Tramp Process by Melody NievesLady and the Tramp Process by Melody Nieves

But it's not enough just to find the right reference imagery; it's about the artistic and skillful manipulation of the visual content. Here's another sneak peek into Melody's process. Take note of the edits here on the dog's face. 

Lady and the Tramp by Melody NievesLady and the Tramp by Melody NievesLady and the Tramp by Melody Nieves

You'll notice that those edits were just the beginning; there have been color adjustments, enlargement of the eyes, and other edits here to achieve those visual goals. When a viewer familiar with the association sees this, it'll spark that ah-ha moment—but with its own twist.

Want to see more? You can check out the entire process for this piece, step by step, right here:

Same Premise, Different Associations

But what about when we're not necessarily drawing upon preconceived associations with specific imagery? In the previous case, this was in reference to an iconic scene. What if we want to create something without that association?

Personally, I would say "pause" that thought. Preconceived ideas are an important part of photo manipulation. For example, we know where we expect to see eyes on a face. We know where we expect to see clouds in the sky. These points of reference are what we can use to create associations or subvert expectations. 

Seasonal Growth by Shaylin WallaceSeasonal Growth by Shaylin WallaceSeasonal Growth by Shaylin Wallace

As an example, let's take a look at "Seasonal Growth", by Shaylin Wallace, above.

We expect to see the neck above the shoulders; the tree trunk visually relates to this preconceived association, both in terms of proximity and proportion. The movement, visually implied by the tree, could communicate growth, inner thought, blooming, or even a change of heart, as the leaves are in a mid-season change. 

Teleportation Transportation by Shaylin WallaceTeleportation Transportation by Shaylin WallaceTeleportation Transportation by Shaylin Wallace

However, associations don't always have to be as direct. In "Teleportation Transportation", by Shaylin Wallace, above, this time we see movement created via the use of implied line. It's a whole new association, inspired by the shape of the tallest building and the way it "points". 

Be aware of your composition and the elements within it. Even though photo manipulations and effects have their own unique challenges and advantages, they're still compositions that generally employ the principles of design—so keep the principles of design in mind. They are some of your greatest tools, as an artist and/or designer! 

But how do you capture a visual trend or a style you're really feeling—and even make it your own? How do you find or how do you photograph just the right imagery? Where do you find your inspiration?

Research, research, research! View imagery, gather imagery, capture imagery, inspect it, and dissect it. Mood board! Experiment. 

In my opinion, there’s no better way to understand an aesthetic or even a medium than to experiment with it. 

I had the pleasure of sitting down with some remarkable creatives to ask them for their thoughts on photo manipulation and on their process. Have a look and a listen; I hope their work and insights inspire you as much as they inspired me. 

Shaylin Wallace

Shaylin WallaceShaylin WallaceShaylin Wallace
As an artist, I specialize in photo-manipulation and I create surrealistic, yet minimal compositions using Adobe Photoshop. I've been manipulating photos for almost five years now. 
Works by Shaylin WallaceWorks by Shaylin WallaceWorks by Shaylin Wallace
I consider my artwork to be very surrealistically minimal since some edits are very complex, while others are very simple. 
Using Photoshop, I combine multiple images and photos together to create my own unique compositions. Also, I tend to use different textured brushes and tools in Photoshop to create different manipulation styles that do not involve merging photos together. This is such a passion of mine and I love creating the impossible.
Works by Shaylin WallaceWorks by Shaylin WallaceWorks by Shaylin Wallace
Photo Manipulation has no barriers, no restraints, but rather gives artists a fun way to create their own realities. There are so many different, unique ways to manipulate a photo and that type of freedom is what I love the most about it. 
Works by Shaylin WallaceWorks by Shaylin WallaceWorks by Shaylin Wallace
My creative process is not necessarily a process for me. I rarely plan out any of the ideas I come up with. What I usually do is spend a few hours looking at free stock photos and while I'm browsing, if I see a photo and a cool idea pops into my head based off that first look, I download the stock photo onto my laptop and go from there. The idea that pops into my head based off of a photo I find is more of a vision/visualization of what I want to create from that very photo. So no, I do not really plan out what photos I'm going to use to create a manipulation nor what concepts I want to create. 
Works by Shaylin WallaceWorks by Shaylin WallaceWorks by Shaylin Wallace
The reason why I work like this because I tend to overthink the process if I do try and plan out an edit. I rather have the ideas come to me at random because I love seeing how my visions turn out once I finish an edit. I'm not really into sketching out ideas, but I will write words or short descriptions in my notes sometimes. This type of creative process may not work for many, but it does for me. 

Check out more of Shaylin's inspiring work at:

Tayane da Costa

Tayane da CostaTayane da CostaTayane da Costa
I've always been very attached to all kinds of art as an expressive form since I was a child, I drew well for my age and I also used to perform at dance festivals. That feeling got me into the world of design, which expanded my vision and also made me see how important and transformative it is in people's lives. 
Works by Tayane da CostaWorks by Tayane da CostaWorks by Tayane da Costa
I think it's amazing how much [photo manipulation] can bring diverse sensibilities to people, if it makes the public feel something, it's considered art to me. 
Works by Tayane da CostaWorks by Tayane da CostaWorks by Tayane da Costa
From this premise of instigating the public, it is [why I feel] that manipulations have become so popular in the media, either for advertisements or simply as a way of propagating an idea, a concept, shocking people. It's interesting to think that digital manipulation today is an evolution of collages from magazine clippings, newspapers and photos from years ago.
Works by Tayane da CostaWorks by Tayane da CostaWorks by Tayane da Costa
My process is fluid. I usually try to realize a feeling that I'm feeling at the moment, and I try to get that into the software. 
Works by Tayane da CostaWorks by Tayane da CostaWorks by Tayane da Costa
I try to create based on something, bring meaning behind it, something I've been through, something I feel, pain, happiness, and so on, so I bring elements that translate that feeling.

You can check out more of Tayane's work at:

Gianluca Giacoppo (Giallo)

Gianluca GiacoppoGianluca GiacoppoGianluca Giacoppo
I'm a graphic designer with experience in web and print design; I specialize in Photo Manipulation. My job, for several years, was to bring life to our team's ideas, creating advertising images and photo-manipulations, trying to represent the perfect visual campaign that would satisfy our customer's brand.
Works by GialloWorks by GialloWorks by Giallo
It's hard to imagine a world where advertising images or videos are not manipulated in any form. Brands and Companies need to sell a "dream" to their customers, engaging their expectations and creating new ones.
Works by GialloWorks by GialloWorks by Giallo
This is more likely to be achieved with "photos" and images that surprise the viewer and represent the advertised product in the most ideal way. This sometimes goes beyond what things would look like in reality, even under the best conditions: models retouched to the point where they're another person, cars that are not even real but perfect 3D renders, hamburgers made of plastic and soaps to make it look more delicious. The "manipulation" is not only a matter of images, it's part of the advertising process at this point.
Works by GialloWorks by GialloWorks by Giallo
This happens for everything: print advertising, web advertising, videos and even the most personal instagram photos are nowadays manipulated to the point where we don't see the reality anymore, but an actual better version of it that is created between the reality and the digital device (but actually doesn't exist?).
The impact of these trends is massive across all the digital medias and in our lives as human beings, and the way we perceive reality.
Works by GialloWorks by GialloWorks by Giallo
My creative process involves phases depending on what I've to do, but generally these are the steps I go through every time, intentionally or not:

Brainstorming: thinking about and researching around the matter without excluding anything.
Mood board: a collection of images that would represent the mood of the final product - sketching: simple drawings or simple lines that would help define the final art and the direction to take
Then, Realization.

You can check out more of Gianluca's lovely work at:

Gianluca also has a series of wonderful Photoshop add-ons; check out these beautiful abstractions and effects that you can add to your own library of content for easy and simple use:

Escher Ribbon FX - Photoshop Add-On

Transform your photos with this dramatic and beautiful Photoshop add-on, for Photoshop CS and CC. Simply open your image, define the area, and experiment with the script!

Escher Ribbon FXEscher Ribbon FXEscher Ribbon FX

Artistic Smoke Photo Effect

These beautiful smoke effects are appropriate for both print and web use; the included PSD files work with Smart Objects for added ease of use!

Artistic Smoke Photo EffectArtistic Smoke Photo EffectArtistic Smoke Photo Effect

Animated Pencil Sketch FX Photoshop Add-On

I can't get enough of this fun add-on! Check it out; there's a video demo and video tutorial too! This one is both CS and CC friendly, too!

Pencil Sketch FXPencil Sketch FXPencil Sketch FX

Melody Nieves

Melody NievesMelody NievesMelody Nieves
I create lots of things, but mostly I find fulfillment when I'm able to express myself in any form, literally. Recently, I fell in love with photo art for its versatility and I use this art form now to create mixed media pieces dedicated to symbolism, ancestry, nature, and life.
Works by Melody NievesWorks by Melody NievesWorks by Melody Nieves
It's funny, I wasn't the biggest fan of photo manipulations until I realized how much faster I could create the visuals. The art form itself is generally pretty cool; it allows lots of room for expression and better time management, as opposed to the more laborious aspects of digital painting (which I still prefer). Nowadays, I find myself creating mixed media pieces so that I can compensate for the lack of information some photo stocks provide. It might be easier for me alone in this regard, since my digital painting background allows me to say, when in doubt—just paint it!
Works by Melody NievesWorks by Melody NievesWorks by Melody Nieves
Photo manipulations have been around for a good while, but it's nice to see the subject matters changing. Overall, I think it's important to honor the fact that this kind of art can exist from a "community effort." We can only make photo art because of the photographers and creators who are able and willing to give their work as resources for our designs. So gratitude for their generosity is a must in my eyes.
Works by Melody NievesWorks by Melody NievesWorks by Melody Nieves
Creativity can often come down to 3 scenarios: expression, service, or practice. Depending on which mode I'm in, I try to give myself leeway on what I can do. Because I'm an instructor, I also don't want to limit myself to style because then I can't relay the message of the lesson as well.
Works by Melody NievesWorks by Melody NievesWorks by Melody Nieves
I've always liked art that captures moments, so I start with a moment. Any idea that comes to mind is then quickly added to my notes and thoroughly researched. Now if a stock stops me in my tracks though, I'm willing to make it work with painting. I can spend hours alone just finding the right images. The results don't do the process justice, honestly. Photo art is a juggling act essentially, but a very satisfying game to play. 

You can check out more of Melody's work at:

In addition, Melody is a talented educator; check out some of her tutorials, both on photo manipulation and other useful topics in the realm of illustration and design:

Thanks for Joining Me in This Exploration of Photo Manipulation! 

I hope you enjoyed these insights and imagery as much as I did; thank you so much again to the wonderful artists featured for the time and for sharing their work with us. Here's to creating many wonderful things in the future—good luck with your own photo manipulations and creative projects!

If you enjoyed this article, here are some others you might enjoy:

Did you find this post useful?
Want a weekly email summary?
Subscribe below and we’ll send you a weekly email summary of all new Design & Illustration tutorials. Never miss out on learning about the next big thing.
One subscription. Unlimited Downloads.
Get unlimited downloads