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  2. Photo Manipulation

How to Create a Cute Baby Dragon Photo Manipulation in Adobe Photoshop

Final product image
What You'll Be Creating

Do you wish dragons were real? They sadly aren't, but we can pretend they are by using the power of Photoshop! In this tutorial I will show you how to create a mini dragon using a few stock photos. You will learn how to build a dragon out of real animals, how to place it in a hand, and then how to color and blend the elements to make them look like a whole.

Tutorial Assets

In order to complete this exercise, you'll need the following resources: 

1. Prepare the Assets

Before you start, you need to find perfect stock photos for your vision. The elements must have a certain perspective, but it's not the only thing you should pay attention to. The quality of all the elements will have to be adjusted to the one with the lowest quality. Make sure all your images are big and high quality to achieve the best results!

Step 1

We have a lot of images, but we only need certain parts of them. For example, I want to use the head of that lizard and nothing more. In order to do this we need to select the area we want separated. There's no magic trick for this—if you want accurate results, use the Pen Tool (P) to draw a path around the area. It sounds scary, but you can learn it in a mere 60 seconds from our video Getting a Grip on the Pen Tool.

how to use the pen tool

Step 2

After you draw the path, right click it and select Make Selection.

how to turn path into selection photoshop

Step 3

Go to Select > Inverse (Control-Shift-I) and delete the background. Then you can crop (C) the image and save it as PSD or PNG to keep the transparent background.

how to save picture without background

Step 4

Repeat the process to isolate the other elements too. We need:

  • Left wing
  • Right wing
  • Body
  • Head
  • Horns
  • Eye
  • Tail

You don't need to place them all together yet.

how to prepare assests for photomanipulation

2. Create a Basic Mock-Up

You may have your vision, but you can't really see it until you put all the elements in place. This will be your job in this part.

Step 1

Take your background image and save it as a new file—this will be our main area of work. Make sure the image is big (mine's 3840 x 7560).

how to create background for photonamipulation

Step 2

Drag all the isolated images into this file.

how to place files in one photoshop file

Step 3

Place the body of the lizard inside the hand, trying to see behind the fingers. Lowering the Opacity for a moment may help in this task. Use the Free Transform Tool (Control-T) to resize and rotate the body.

how to transform a layer in photoshop

Step 4

Ignore the position of the neck and place the head where you want it to be. Again, use the Free Transform Tool to achieve the best results.

how to add head to a body in photoshop

Step 5

Let's adjust the neck to the head now. Select the layer with the body and go to Edit > Puppet Warp. Place pins along the body in this way:

how to use the puppet warp in photoshop

Step 6

Drag a pin to drag the area attached to it. This way you can reshape the body. Press Enter when you've finished.

how to manipulate shape with  puppet warp
how to change neck shape with warp tool

Step 7

Place and resize the tail to fit the body.

how to attach tail

Step 8

Use Puppet Warp again to wrap the tail around the fingers.

how to manipulate tail shape with puppet warp
how to change tail shape in photoshop

Step 9

Place both wings on the back of the body.

how to add wings to a lizard

Step 10

Let's give the lizard bigger eyes to make it look cuter. Select the layer of the head and go to Filter > Liquify. Use the Forward Warp Tool and the Bloat Tool to reshape the eye. You can also keep the eye small, if you want the dragon to be a miniature rather than a baby.

how to change eye size in photoshop

Step 11

Place the isolated eye in the head.

how to place a new eye in photoshop

Step 12

Use all the tricks you have learned here to add the horns to the head.

how to add horns to a lizard in photoshop

3. Fit the Elements

We can roughly see the dragon in all these elements, but they don't look like a whole yet. Let's fix it!

Step 1

Lower the Opacity of all the elements for a moment to see the hand clearly.

How to make layer half transparent photoshop

Step 2

Take the Pen Tool (P) and select the part of the hand that covers the dragon.

how to use pen tool to select
how to make selection with pen tool
Feel free to ignore the shape of the lower part

Step 3

Make a selection (Control-Enter), and then go to Select > Modify > Feather. Make the radius very small, for example 3 pixels. This will make the selection smoother, so that it fits the level of blur in the picture.

how to make selection smoother
how to create a smooth selection in photoshop

Step 4

Go to Select > Inverse (Control-Shift-I). Create a New Layer and use the Paint Bucket Tool (G) to fill the selection with any color. Name the layer Mask and hide it.

how to create mask in photoshop

Step 5

The mask is very simple to use. Hold Control and click the thumbnail of the mask to create a selection. Then click the body layer and select Add Layer Mask.

how to use layer masks in photoshop

Let the magic happen!

how layer masks work

Step 6

Can you see a white thumbnail next to the other on your layer? Hold the Alt key and drag it to other layers to give them the same mask.

how to copy layer mask

Step 7

Most of the elements look much better now, but we need to fix the tail that's behind and in front of the fingers at the same time.

how to use layer masks in photomanipulation

Click the white thumbnail to select it. Then take a Hard Round brush and paint with white to reveal the part of the tail that's supposed to be in front. Use the [ and ] keys to adjust the size of the stroke when you need to be more precise.

Curious how it works? Check out Quick Tip: Layer Mask vs. the Eraser Tool in Adobe Photoshop

how to paint on layer mask

Step 8

Painting on a mask is a great way to blend the elements! This time take a soft brush and use it to blend the borders between the images wherever needed. Decrease the Flow to be more precise.

how to use layer maks for blending

Step 9

The picture is starting to take a clearer form, so it's easier to see what it's lacking. In my case, I decided to add a front leg to make the body more complete. You can use the same stock photos to find these elements.

how to complete photomanipulation
how to create photomanipulation in photoshop

Step 10

Once again, look at the image as a whole and decide what else could or should be reshaped or blended for a better effect. This is the last chance to do it without consequences!

how to modify elements of photomanipulation

4. Adjust the Colors

When we chose the stock photos, we didn't look for matching colors, because they can be easily changed. And that's what we'll do now!

Step 1

Select the head layer and open Window > Adjustments. Select Hue/Saturation and clip it to the layer. Then play with the sliders to make it fit the body.

how to add hue saturation adjustment

Step 2

Do the same with the other elements. In some cases you'll want to keep some areas unchanged; in this case, paint on the mask next to the adjustment (white thumbnail) to hide some parts of it.

how to paint on mask of adjustment

You can also use this adjustment to make the eyes more vibrant.

how to use saturation adjustment

Step 3

The head looks a little off, because it has a much finer texture than the rest of the body. You can fix it by selecting parts of the scales with the Lasso Tool (L) and copying them as a whole (Control-Shift-C). Place the scales on the head and modify them to fit their surroundings.

how to add scales to head

Step 4

Use the Layer Mask to blend them with the head.

how to blend scales

5. Blend the Elements With the Environment

The position and shape are correct, the colors are matching, but all the elements still look kind of separate. It's because each of them has shadows coming from a different light source. We need to adjust them to a single light source—the one established by the background.

Step 1

We've got a lot of layers, masks, and adjustments, which makes it hard to see anything. Save your project as a new file to create a backup, and then select and merge (Control-E) some layers to make it look more like it did in the beginning.

how to clean up layers

Step 2

Add another Hue/Saturation adjustment to one of the wings. Clip it and give it a shade that it would have in the shadow.

how to clip adjustment layer

Step 3

Use a Layer Mask to reveal the parts that are actually in light. Make sure you're basing the lighting on the background!

how to use adjustment layers for shading

Step 4

Do the same with the other parts.

how to shade dark wings
how to shade elements in photomanipulation
how to shade photomanipulation

Step 5

Some parts still contain shadows coming from their original background. Let's fix it. Add another Hue/Saturation adjustment, check Colorize and make the wing brighter, with the color of the surroundings.

how to increase light in photoshop

Step 6

Use a Layer Mask to blend it.

how to blend lighting with layer mask

Step 7

In some cases this trick may fade the contrast in the illuminated places, like here:

how to make light more contrasting

In such a case, double click the adjustment and play with the lower Blend If slider. Hold Alt and click the marker to split it for a smoother transition. You can learn more about Blend If from my quick tip the Magic of Photoshop's Blend If and from the 60-second video How to Use Blend If in Adobe Photoshop.

how to use blend if
how to increase contrast with blend if

Step 8

Use these tricks to fix the shading on all the elements.

how to adjust lighting in photomanipulation

Step 9

We need to blend the dragon with the hand as well. To achieve this effect, add the Hue/Saturation adjustment to the background layer. Make the hand dark, but highly saturated, fill the mask with black, and then reveal the parts that the dragon touches.

how to blend elements of photomanipulation

Step 10

Create one more adjustment layer like this and darken the parts that are closest to the dragon.

how to create blending in photoshop

Step 11

Once again, look at the picture as a whole and try to see its weak spots. Which parts kill the illusion? Find and fix them!

how to create realistic photomanipulation

Step 12

Use a mix of the tricks you have just learned to add reflected colors to certain areas. This will integrate the scene even more.

how to use reflected colors in photomanipulation

6. Add the Finishing Touches

The dragon looks real already! But if you want to make it even prettier, you need to use a few more tricks.

Step 1

Select the tail layer and go into Quick Mask mode (Q). Take a soft brush and paint over the edges of the tail.

how to use quick mask in photoshop

Step 2

Exit the mode (Q) and invert the selection (Control-Shift-I). Hide the selection for a moment (Control-H).

how to use quick mask for selection

Step 3

Go to Filter > Blur > Gaussian Blur and use it to blend the tail into the blurriness of the picture.

how to use gaussian blur

Step 4

Do the same with all the other elements to soften their sharp edges.

how to soften sharp edges in photoshop

Step 5

One wing goes deeper into the background, so we need to put it slightly out of focus. Select it and go to Filter > Blur > Tilt Shift. Experiment to achieve the effect you want.

how to use tilt shift blur

Step 6

Let's make the other wing slightly translucent. Hide it for a moment, and then select the part of the background behind it and copy it to a new layer above the wing.

how to make wings translucent in photoshop

Step 7

Make that copied part blurry.

how to make translucency effect

Step 8

Use a Layer Mask to blend the part.

how to blend everything with layer mask

Step 9

Let's make the eye more lively. Use the Elliptical Marquee Tool (M) to create an elliptical-shaped selection.

how to create realistic eye effect

Use a soft brush to paint a blue glow within the selection.

how to add glow to the eye

Use a harder brush to add a white shine within the selection.

how to create shiny eye in photoshop

Step 10

The dragon is finished, so you can now only add small fixes here and there, depending on what you missed during the process. One major thing you can add after merging all the layers is Filter > Noise > Add Noise. The dragon should fit the quality of the background.

how to add noise in photoshop
how to create realistic baby dragon in photoshop
Mirroring the image can help you see your work from a distance to see the mistakes better.

So Cute!

Now you have your own mini dragon! And, by the way, you have learned many useful Photoshop tricks you can use in your future projects. Do you want to learn more about photo manipulation? Try these:

realistic baby dragon in hand tutorial
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