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Create a Cool Image-Inside-Image Effect in Adobe InDesign

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Final product image
What You'll Be Creating

Who knew you could create Photoshop-standard effects in Adobe InDesign? Learn how to recreate this dramatic image-inside-image effect, and give your book covers, magazine layouts and posters a cool makeover.

In this tutorial suitable for beginner to intermediate users of InDesign, we’ll walk through the steps of creating the effect and laying it out as part of a book cover design for a paperback novel.

You’ll also need access to Adobe Illustrator for one part of the tutorial. Open up InDesign, and we can get started!

1. Set Up the Paperback Document in InDesign

Step 1

With InDesign opened, select New > Document from the Welcome window, or go to File > New > Document from the main menu.

In the New Document window that opens, keep the Intent set to Print and the Number of Pages to 1. Deselect Facing Pages.

Under Page Size, choose Custom... from the drop-down menu. 

new document

Step 2

Let’s create a new Custom Page Size, suitable for a paperback cover. Type ‘B-Format Paperback’ into the Name text box at the top of the window, and set the Width to 130 mm and Height to 198 mm.

NB: This is a suitable size for a single page of a B-Format paperback book. In this tutorial we won’t be creating the full wrap-around cover, including the back cover and spine. But if you’d like to expand the design later to create a full cover, you can use the Page Tool (Shift-P) to extend the width of the page.

custom page size

Click Add, and then OK to return to the New Document window.

Set the Margins on all sides to 5 mm, and add a Bleed (click the More Options button if you can’t see options for the bleed) of 5 mm on all sides of the page.

new document window

Click OK to create the new document.

new document created

2. Create the Enclosing Image

The image-inside-image effect works best if you place a graphic (a photo or vector image) inside of a completely enclosed vector frame.

You can either use a vector of your own design, or a stock vector, or, for a bit of added realism to the graphic, you can use a vector version of a photograph. Let’s look at how to create the latter.

Step 1

Open up Adobe Illustrator. Select a photo you already have, or choose a photo from a stock site. For this design I’ve used this photograph of a flying crow. Photos set against white backgrounds and with a strong outline will work best for creating the effect.

Once you have selected your image, return to Illustrator and File > Place the photo onto a new document.

photo of crow flying

Step 2

Open up the Image Trace panel (Window > Image Trace), and expand the panel to view the full set of options. With the photo selected, and the Preview box checked in the Image Trace panel, set the Mode to Black and White and check the Ignore White box at the bottom of the panel.

image trace window

Click the Trace button at the bottom right of the panel, and shift the sliders until you’re happy with the final silhouette. Try to preserve as much of the original detail of the photo’s outline as possible.

preview of traced image

When you’re happy with the result, go to the menu at the top of the screen and select Object > Image Trace > Expand

final traced result

Step 3

Ungroup the traced vector (Right-Click [Windows] or Control-Click [Mac] > Ungroup) and delete any outlying background elements or stray parts of the vector. You want to just have one clean silhouetted image.

Select the image and Edit > Copy.

Return to InDesign and Edit > Paste. The vector silhouette will be dropped straight onto the page.

pasted vector

With the vector selected, Right-Click [Windows] or Control-Click [Mac] > Transform > Flip Horizontal; and resize the image (while holding down Shift to maintain the proportions), so that it fits comfortably onto the page.

flipped vector

Step 4

From the Controls panel at the top of the workspace, or from the Swatches panel (Window > Color > Swatches), adjust the Fill Color of the vector to [None].

empty vector frame

This image will form the backdrop of our effect, and it’s going to look really nice with a bit of texture. With the image selected, go to File > Place and select a plain, textured background image. Here I’ve used a papery background texture using this image of a vintage-style sheet of paper.

Rearrange the texture image in the vector so that it fills the whole of the vector (choose Fill Frame Proportionally from the top Controls panel).

placed paper graphic

3. Layer Up to Create the Effect

Building up the graphic in layers is key to getting this effect looking right, just as you would need to do if you were using Photoshop. 

Step 1

Open up the Layers panel (Window > Layers) and double-click the default Layer 1 name to open up the Layer Options window. Rename the layer Paper Image, and click OK.

paper image layer

Select New Layer... from the Layers panel’s drop-down menu, and double-click the layer, as before, to rename the layer Photo. Create a further two layers, naming them Image 3 and then Image 4, until you have a sequence of four layers.

layers panel

Step 2

Select the paper-filled image of the crow and Edit > Copy.

Then return to the Layers panel and Lock three layers: Paper image, Image 3 and Image 4. Click on the Photo layer to activate it.

locked layers

Go to Edit on the top menu and select Paste in Place, to create an exactly placed duplicate of the crow image. InDesign might want to paste this onto the same layer as the original image, so allow it to do so, and then manually shift it onto the appropriate layer directly from the Layers panel.

Double-click inside the vector to select the paper image directly. Delete it. 

Go to File > Place to fill the crow vector with a new image. This will be your inside image. The profile of a person, or a detailed close-up of someone’s face, will look striking and dramatic. Here, I’ve used this image of a woman, which I’ve converted to a black and white image in Photoshop using the Channel Mixer adjustment.

Once the image is placed, you can experiment with resizing it inside the vector. Hold Shift while resizing to avoid distorting the image, and try to position the part of the image you want to highlight in the center of the vector frame.

photo placed

With the crow vector selected, go to Object > Effects > Transparency. In the Effects window that opens, set the Mode to Multiply and reduce the Opacity to 75%. This will bring through some of the texture of the paper image sitting below. Click OK.

effects transparency

Step 3

Return to the Layers panel and Lock the Photo layer. Unlock the next layer up, Image 3. We can now add a bit of color on top of the photo to give it a moodier, more dramatic look.

Open up the Swatches panel (Window > Color > Swatches) and select New Color Swatch from the panel’s drop-down menu.

Keep the Color Type set to Process, and create a deep purple-blue shade by setting the sliders to the following levels: C=100 M=92 Y=40 K=36. Click Add and then OK.

new blue swatch

Back on the page, go to Edit > Paste in Place to drop another copy of the crow vector onto the page. Delete the paper image inside, and then set the Fill Color of the vector to your new dark blue color swatch.

blue vector

Step 4

With the blue vector selected, go to Object > Effects > Transparency. Set the Mode to Multiply and keep the Opacity at 100%.

transparency settings

From the left-hand menu in the Effects window, click on Gradient Feather to apply a gradient and edit the options for the gradient. Pull the sliders close together towards the center of the bar, as shown below, until the photo below appears towards the top and center of the vector.

effects panel
completed effect

Step 5

Select the crow vector on the Image 3 layer, and Edit > Copy. 

Return to the Layers panel and Lock the Image 3 layer. Unlock the next layer up, Image 4.

layers panel

Edit > Paste in Place a copy of the crow vector onto the top layer.

Go back to the Swatches panel and create another New Color Swatch. You can name this CMYK swatch Inky Black if you like. Set the percentage levels to the following: C=60 M=40 Y=40 K=100. Click Add and then OK.

new color swatch

Adjust the Fill Color of the crow vector on the Image 4 layer to Inky Black. Then, with the image selected, go to Object > Effects > Gradient Feather. Adjust the Angle to the opposite direction, so the gradient switches to the top of the vector. Only the central part of the graphic should now be revealing the photo beneath.

gradient effect

Click OK to return to the page.

swatches panel
completed image-inside-image effect

Great work! Your image-inside-image effect is finished, and it’s looking fantastic! Now that you have the graphic prepared, you can use it across all kinds of media—posters, brochures, flyers, magazines—whatever you feel could benefit from having a cool image effect.

In this example, I’ve incorporated the effect into a book cover design. 

mocked-up book cover

If you want to recreate the cover design pictured here, read on to find out how you can embellish your cover design and create something special...

4. Create Your Book Cover

Step 1

Let’s keep the image-inside-image graphic separate from the rest of the cover artwork, so return to the Layers panel and Lock all four layers.

Create a New Layer and drag it down to sit below the Paper Image layer. Rename the layer Color Background. 

Select the Rectangle Tool (M) from the Tools panel and drag onto the page to create a rectangle that extends across the whole of the page and up to the edge of the bleed. 

NB: If you want to extend your front cover to create a full cover later on, just take the rectangle up to the edge of the page on the left side, as the content of the bleed will otherwise spill onto your spine.

Create a New Color Swatch from the Swatches panel, setting the CMYK values to C=43 M=47 Y=64 K=0, to create a beige-brown shade.

layers panel

Set the Fill of the rectangle shape to this new beige swatch, and, from the top of the Swatches panel, pull down the Tint slider to 57%.

swatches panel

Step 2

Select the rectangle and go to Object > Effects > Gradient Feather. Adjust the sliders and Angle to apply a subtle gradient that makes the color darker at the top and lighter towards the bottom of the page. Click OK to return to your page.

effects panel
beige background color

Select the rectangle and Edit > Copy, Edit > Paste in Place. Create another New Color Swatch, C=47 M=22 Y=25 K=0, a lovely turquoise shade.

new color swatch

Set the Fill of the pasted rectangle to this new turquoise swatch. Go to Object > Effects > Gradient Feather and reverse the Angle of the gradient to switch the direction of color to the bottom of the page. Click OK.

gradient feather
final background color

Step 3

With your background color now looking fantastic, you can introduce some text onto the cover design. We can layer text above and below the crow graphic to create a 3D-style effect.

Firstly, let’s set some typography behind the graphic. Return to the Layers panel and Lock the Color Background layer. 

Create a new layer, rename it as Typography in Background, and position above the bottom layer, Color Background but below the Paper Image layer.

layers panel

We’re going to use two different fonts on the cover, one more suited to the main titles—Vinta will look great—and another for the B-headings—Adobe Caslon Pro will be perfect for that. Download the fonts (Adobe Caslon Pro will probably already be in your list of installed fonts in InDesign) and return to InDesign.

Take the Type Tool (T) from the Tools panel and drag to create a new text frame on the page. Position at the top right of the page, and type ‘Author Name’. Set the Font to Vinta, Size 33 pt, and set the Font Color to [Paper].

From the Character Formatting Controls panel running along the top of the workspace, increase the Tracking to 230, set the text to All Caps and adjust the text to Align Right.

author name

Step 4

Return to the Layers panel and Lock the Typography in Background layer. Create a final new layer, rename it Typography in Foreground, and move it to the very top of the sequence of layers.

Create a new text frame using the Type Tool (T) and position it centrally at the bottom of the page. Type ‘Going North’ (or a title of your choice!) and set the Font to Vinta, Size 80 pt, Leading 95 pt, All Caps, 140 Tracking, Align Center and Font Color to [Paper].

title of book

Step 5

Bring in another text frame, with a tagline, set in Adobe Caslon Pro Italic, Size 13 pt, Tracking 80, Align Center and with a Font Color of [Paper].

tagline at bottom

You can also dot a few more text frames, with critics' reviews perhaps, along the left and right sides of the cover, setting them in Adobe Caslon Pro, Size 12 pt.

critics reviews

Fabulous! Your front cover design is finished, and it’s looking awesome.

final cover
mocked up covers


In this tutorial, we’ve walked through the steps of creating a cool image-inside-image effect in InDesign. This is a really striking effect that you can create directly in InDesign, just by layering vector graphics generated in Illustrator. 

You’ve acquired some really useful skills in the tutorial, including:

  • How to transform photos into versatile silhouetted vectors
  • How to use the Layers panel to layer vector and raster graphics to create a complex-looking effect
  • How to add texture to your image-inside-image effects using a background image
  • How to adjust transparencies and gradients from the Effects window to give your effect an uber-professional look
  • How to integrate your graphic into a complete layout, with background color and typography
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