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Create a Post-Apocalyptic Photo-Composition

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Read Time: 18 min

In this tutorial we will create a post-apocalyptic photo composition that will take inspiration from movies such as Planet of Apes, where an astronaut finds himself marooned on earth thousands of years into the future only to find scattered relics of mankind.

Tutorial Assets

You'll find some files in the "source" folder. You'll also need the following free stock images and brushes to complete this tutorial.

Step 1

Create a new RGB canvas 4418px wide x 3046px deep at 300dpi with the Background Contents set to White.

Step 2

Add the first landscape as a new layer. Hit Cmd/Ctrl + T to access Transform, then stretch/squash a little and position as shown.

Step 3

Grab the Lasso Tool and create a loose selection around the right side of the landscape. Press Shift + F6 to open the Feather window, enter 10px and click OK. Now press Cmd/Ctrl + J to copy the selection to a new layer and Transform as indicated.

Step 4

Hit Cmd/Ctrl + E to Merge the top layer and name it "Landscape". Now set the Clone Stamp Tool (S) to Current Layer and use a large, soft-edged brush to add some additional sky on the right.

Step 5

Add a mask to the "Landscape" layer and ensure your Foreground color is black. Set the Gradient Tool (G) to Foreground to Transparent and Linear in the Options bar, then Shift-drag as indicated to fade the top of the sky.

Step 6

Choose Color Balance from the drop-down Create new fill or adjustment layer icon at the foot of the Layers tab. In the next window click the double-circle icon to clip it to the "Landscape" layer and reduce the Blue to -46.

Step 7

Use the same technique to clip a Levels adjustment, then change the Input blackpoint/midpoint sliders as shown.

Step 8

Now clip a Hue/Saturation adjustment layer, check the Colorize option and set the Hue to 81 and the Saturation to 25.

Step 9

Target the Hue/Saturation adjustment mask, then add a series of Black to Transparent Radial Gradients to reinstate the central band of color. My adjustment mask is shown at the bottom of the screenshot.

Step 10

Now we'll create a subtle distant haze. Import the first sky image as a new layer at the top of the stack. Position at the bottom, then stretch to fit the canvas width. Mask this layer, first with a Black to Transparent Linear Gradient, then use a large, soft-edged brush as shown. Name the layer "Clouds 1", then reduce its Opacity to 32%.

Step 11

Add the second sky image as a top layer. Hit Cmd/Ctrl + T, then press Ctrl/right-click, then choose Flip Horizontal from the Transform menu and also enlarge. At this point you may need to clone some extra cloud to the right. Reduce the layer Opacity to 82% and label it "Clouds 2". Finally, mask the base of this layer, then clip Levels and Color Balance adjustments with the following settings.

Step 12

Place the final sky image at the top of the stack, then resize/position top left. Name this layer "Clouds 3", change the Blend Mode to Overlay and mask as shown.

Step 13

Clip a Hue/Saturation adjustment to this layer, change all three Master sliders, then use the pull-down menu to modify the Cyans and Blues as well.

Step 14

To keep your layers organized, highlight your top adjustment thumbnail, then hold Shift and highlight the "Landscape" thumbnail (this will highlight all the in-between layers too), then choose New Group from Layers from the top-right fly-out menu in the Layers panel. Name the folder "BACKGROUND" in the following window and click OK.

Step 15

We now need to isolate the statue. Set the Magic Wand Tool (W) to Add to selection and a Tolerance of 60 in the Options bar, Click on bluest portion of the sky, then continue to click the remaining areas to include them. Go to Select > Modify > Expand, enter 1px and press OK. Now hit Shift + Cmd/Ctrl + I to Inverse the selection and Copy to the Clipboard.

Step 16

Paste the selection as a new layer above the "BACKGROUND" folder and name it "Statue". Resize, then rotate anti-clockwise and position to the left as shown.

Depending on your initial selection, you may need to remove any slight edge halos via Layer > Matting > Defringe and enter 1-2px.

Step 17

The carved lettering on the book looks a little too pristine. To fix this add a layer, set the Clone Stamp Tool (S) to Current & Below and use a small brush at 60% Hardness to remove it. Now reduce the cloned layer to 75% and hit Cmd/Ctrl + E to Merge Down.

Step 18

To blend the statue in with its surroundings, first clip a Color Balance adjustment and modify the Midtones and Shadows as below.

Step 19

Next, we need to boost the contrast a little, so clip a Levels adjustment to the statue and copy these settings.

Step 20

We'll be adding layers of distress and plant-life to the statue later – but for now let's concentrate on the overall composition. Place all your floating layers into another folder called "LIBERTY".

Step 21

Use the same workflow as the statue to select the rocky terrain. Add this as a new layer at the top of the stack, name it "Rocks" and Transform/position bottom right.

Step 22

Now we'll unify the color and tone with the background. Clip a Color Balance adjustment to the "Rocks" and apply the following settings.

Step 23

Now clip a Levels adjustment to darken the shadows and midtones.

Step 24

Open the pilot photo. To isolate the figure precisely from the background we'll use a channel or density mask. If you're familiar with my tutorials it's a technique I often use.

Choose Image > Calculations, copy these settings in the following window and click OK. This will create a composite channel with the most contrast between the subject and background.

Step 25

Switch to the Channels panel and you'll see the new channel ("Alpha 1") sitting at the bottom. Target it, then press Cmd/Ctrl + L and apply the following Levels adjustment to increase the contrast.

Step 26

The idea is to produce a clean silhouette of the model, so set the Dodge Tool (O) to: Exposure: 70% / Range: Highlights and use a medium soft-edged brush to bleach the edge pixels around the figure.

Step 27

Now darken the inner of the model using the Burn Tool (O) set to Exposure: 70% / Range: Midtones. You'll find this stage easier if you toggle the visibility of the top RGB composite channel – just make sure that "Alpha 1" is the target channel you're working on. You can also adjust the density of the channel by double-clicking its thumbnail to make things easier. Don't sweat over any remaining inner white highlights, or problem areas such as the hands, feet and neck, we'll fix those next.

Step 28

Switch to the Paths panel, then set the Pen Tool (P) to Paths in the Options bar. Zoom in and carefully draw a series of closed paths over the areas to be filled black. My paths are indicated in yellow on the screenshot for clarity.

Step 29

When you're done, Cmd/Ctrl-click your path thumbnail to load it as a selection. Ensure your Foreground/Background colors are set to black and white respectfully, target your channel mask and hit Opt/Alt + Delete to fill the selection with black. Hit Shift + Cmd/Ctrl + I to Inverse the selection, then use a medium-sized hard white brush to carefully eliminate the black around the edges, being careful not to encroach into the established silhouette.

Step 30

Roughly encompass the figure with the Lasso (L), Inverse and press Cmd/Ctrl + Delete to fill the selection with white. Deselect, then remove any spots with a hard-edged black or white brush.

Step 31

By default, white acts as selective areas, so hit Cmd/Ctrl + I to Invert the channel to a negative. Your completed channel mask should now look like this.

Step 32

Cmd/Ctrl-click the "Alpha 1" thumbnail to generate a selection, then target the top RGB composite channel. Switch to the Layers tab, then choose any selection tool and click the Refine Edge button in the Options bar. In the next window choose On Layers (L) from the View Mode drop-down menu, copy these settings and click OK.

Step 33

You'll now see a masked duplicate layer appear and the visibility of the original layer disabled. Add a new layer below the duplicate, hit Shift + F5, then select 50% Grey from the pull-down menu and click OK. This layer should reveal any edge halos picked up from the initial selection. Mask these (if any) with a small black brush at 60% Hardness.

Step 34

At this stage I decided to mask the protruding belt and buckle. When you're happy, delete the middle grey layer, then drag the mask thumbnail into the trash icon and click Apply in the following window.

Step 35

Drag the isolated layer into your project file at the top of the stack. Resize, position as shown then label it "Figure".

Step 36

We now need to extract the first palm tree photo. Repeat the same Calculations command used for the figure, then clean up the channel mask.

Step 37

Load the channel as a selection, target the top RGB composite channel and Copy > Paste the selection into your working file above the "Figure" and name it "Tree 1". Flip Horizontal, Transform and position top right, then clip a Levels adjustment with the following settings.

Step 38

Now clip a Color Balance adjustment to increase the green and yellow tones.

Step 39

To keep things tidy, place all your floating layers into a another folder called "FOREGROUND".

Step 40

Now we'll finish of the mid-ground terrain. Open the second landscape photo. Lasso (L) a feathered selection as indicated, Copy > Paste as a new layer below the "FOREGROUND" folder, then Transform and position just below the statue.

Step 41

Add another chunk of land from the same source image and position to cover the bottom corner. Now use a combination of the Patch (J) and the Clone Stamp tools to remove the road and buildings – don't worry over unwanted detail in the previous layer, we'll fix that next.

Step 42

Merge the upper layer, then rename it "Forest floor". Add a mask and blend the edges into the background using a selection of brushes from the custom pack.

Step 43

Clip a Color Balance adjustment to this layer and boost the cyan, green and yellow as shown.

Step 44

Cmd/Ctrl-click the "Statue" layer thumbnail to make a selection. Place a new layer in Multiply Mode called "Statue shadow" above the Color Balance adjustment and fill with # 2a3616.

Step 45

Hold Cmd/Ctrl, then skew and squash the layer content to create a cast shadow across the landscape.

Step 46

Reduce the layer Opacity to 78%, add a mask, then fill a layer-based selection from the "Statue" with black. Drag an angled black to transparent Linear Gradient from the top left corner to fade the shadow into the distance. Now drag a white to transparent Linear Gradient from the bottom-left corner to blend the shadow base. You can now finish the mask off with an assortment of custom and soft-edged brushes.

Step 47

Target the "Statue shadow" layer, go to Filter > Noise > Add Noise and enter 8% and check the Uniform and Monochromatic options. Now choose Filter > Noise > Median and enter a 1px Radius to smooth out the graininess. These combined filters break up any smoothness, so shadows look more realistic.

Step 48

Now place all your floating layers into a new folder called "MIDGROUND".

Step 49

Use the same Calculations command to extract the second palm tree photo. Place as a new upper layer within the "FOREGROUND" folder. Resize, position bottom left and label it "Tree 2".

Now clip a Levels adjustment and copy these settings to increase the contrast.

Step 50

Clip another adjustment, this time select Photo Filter, click the Color option, then use the Color Picker to choose # a2ff00 and reduce the Density to 40%. The Opacity of this layer can also be lowered to 74%.

Step 51

Next, clip a Selective Color adjustment and modify the Cyan and Neutral settings as shown.

Step 52

Finally, clip a Hue/Saturation adjustment layer and set the Yellows as shown.

Step 53

Target the "Rocks" layer and use the Clone Stamp Tool (S) to infill the missing top area. Now add a layer mask and hide the areas as shown.

Step 54

Add the first moss image as a new layer below the "Figure" and name it "Foreground moss". Skew, Transform and position over the foreground terrain, then change the Blend Mode to Soft Light.

Generate a layer-based selection from the "Rocks" layer, then click on the Add layer mask icon at the foot of the Layers tab. Now use and assortment of custom brushes to modify the mask further.

Step 55

Clip a Hue/Saturation adjustment and copy these settings to blend the moss a little more.

Step 56

Open the foliage photo and lasso a feathered selection around the roots. Copy > Paste below the "Figure", then add more elements such as ferns and leaves from the same source image.

To keep your file size manageable, apply modifications such as Levels, Color Balance and Hue/Saturation directly to these layers, also use masks to blend as required. It's also important to name layers as you work.

Step 57

Use the same source photo to add more foliage elements, also try reducing their opacities to around 75% if they look too dominant.

Step 58

Use the same workflow as you did for the statue to create cast shadows on separate layers for the "Figure" and "Tree 1"

Step 59

Use the Clone Stamp Tool (S) set to Current Layer to remove areas such as the awkward shadow on the "Rocks" layer. Add a new layer below the "Rocks", sample some colors from the image and paint in some extra foliage with some custom brushes.

Step 60

With the foreground complete, we can now move onto what I think is the fun part of this tutorial – transporting the Statue of Liberty thousands of years into the future! First off we need some stress lines and small fractures.

Open the peeling paint photo and place as a new layer above the statue's Levels adjustment. Rotate anti-clockwise and position over the top of the statue. Duplicate the layer and position over the statue's chest. Merge the upper layer, rename it "Cracksquot;, change the Blend Mode to Hard Light and reduce the Opacity to 90%. Double-click the layer thumbnail to access its Blending Options, then Opt/Alt click, drag (to split) the top right Blend If slider to 142 and hit OK.

Step 61

Make a layer-based selection from the "Statue", then with the "Cracks" layer targeted, click the Add layer mask icon. Now modify the mask with some custom brushes to hide areas as required.

Step 62

Clip a Hue/Saturation adjustment to the "Cracks" layer and copy these settings to match the color of the statue.

Step 63

Add a new layer in Overlay Mode. Sample some olive greens and use some of the more speckled custom brushes to paint some dappled moss over the statue. This effect works best if you concentrate more on the side in the shade.

Remember, the statue is in the distance, so if your brush strokes appear too in focus, choose Filter > Blur > Blur More, then Hit Cmd/Ctrl + F to repeat the filter if required, also reduce the layer's Opacity to suit (I used 94%). There's no need to mask this layer, just load the "Statue" as a selection, press Shift + Cmd/Ctrl + I to Inverse the selection and hit delete. Name this layer "Foliage 1".

Step 64

Now we'll move onto populating the statue with some plant-life. Use the Magic Wand (W) to extract and add tree one within the same folder, reduce in size, bearing in mind the scale of the statue and place around the crown. Use the Eraser Tool (E) to remove the plant pot. Duplicate a few times and merge to create a cluster of trees. Now modify with Levels and Hue/Saturation adjustments, as well as the Dodge and Burn Tools (O) to match the scenes light and shadow.

Apply the methods you've learnt to extract "006.jpg", "008.jpg" and "009" from this botanical pack. Now use the same workflow to add these to the composition.

Step 65

Now to prepare some moss to resemble small clumps of vegetation. We'll use a channel mask as before (minus Calculations) to extract the information we need.

First, duplicate the channel which holds the most contrast for the green (the Blue channel). Now apply a Levels adjustment directly to the duplicate channel as shown.

Step 66

Next, grab a medium soft-edged brush to roughly paint out the stone wall – remember to toggle the visibility of the top RGB composite channel as you work.

Step 67

Enter Refine Edge mode and choose the On Layers option. Now apply these Adjust Edge settings, check Decontaminate Colors, leave the Amount slider at 50% and hit OK.

Step 68

Apply the mask to the new layer, then place it as an uppermost layer within the same folder and name it accordingly. Reduce and place over the statue, then access Warp from the Transform menu to conform the vegetation as required. Adjust color, tone, then Dodge and Burn. A feathered selection from this moss photo can also be added.

Step 69

You'll find some ready isolated root files in the "source" folder. Place these within the same folder to create some hanging vines around the torch, crown and book. Transform, Warp, then adjust with Levels, Color Balance as well as Dodge and Burn.

Step 70

Now we'll add some debris to represent metal reinforcement girders and smashed concrete. First, roughly select this car wreck and Copy > Paste as a new layer above the foliage layers. Resize, then rotate clock-wise and place at the foot of the statue. Name this layer "Debris 1".

Step 71

Change the "Debris 1" Blend Mode to Overlay, then mask as shown.

Step 72

Now clip a Hue/Saturation and a Levels adjustment to compliment the color and tone of the statue.

Step 73

Duplicate "Debris 1", along with its adjustment layers, then Flip Horizontal. reposition to the left.

Step 74

Duplicate the "Debris 1" a final time and position under the original. Change the Blend Mode to Lighten and reduce the Opacity to 51%.

Step 75

Create a rough selection from this ship wreck and Copy > Paste within the same folder. Transform and position over the statue's arm, then darken with a Levels adjustment.

Step 76

Duplicate the previous debris layer and Transform/place over the second crown spike from the right. Now add a mask to the "Statue" layer and hide the corresponding areas on the arm and spike. You can now duplicate and position further debris layers as well as some more foliage.

Step 77

Now we'll incorporate some wildlife. Extract the first birds and place them at the top of the stack within the "MIDGROUND" folder. Transform and position them in the distance. Repeat this for the second birds, then duplicate a few times and reduce their opacities slightly.

Step 78

To create a subtle rainforest mist, add the first sky image again at the top within the same folder and Flip Horizontal. Resize to cover the entire canvas, change the Blend Mode to Lighten and reduce the Opacity to 29%. Now Shift-drag a black to transparent Linear gradient down from the top and name the layer "Haze".

Step 79

At this late stage I decided to add a couple of adjustment layers to the "Figure" layer as shown below.

Step 80

With the composition almost complete, it's time for some refinements. First, apply the Blur More command to any layers in the "FOREGROUND" folder which appear too sharp compared to the rest of the scene, such as the "Figure", "Tree 1", "Tree 2" and the "Rocks".

Next, add a new layer filled with 50% grey above all your folders. Now add some noise, change the Blend Mode to Overlay and reduce the Opacity to 70%.

Step 81

Finally, add an unclipped Hue/Saturation adjustment layer to slightly desaturate the whole image and you're done!

Conclusion and Scope

Now you know how it's done, why not create your own post-apocalyptic photo-composition using a different man-made monument or famous landmark?

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