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How to Create a Surreal Scene of Flying Bombs on Fire

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Read Time: 13 min

In this tutorial, we'll make a scene with flaming bombs pouring from the sky. This tut is made to show some down and dirty Photoshop tricks that beginners can quickly pick up. It also includes some relatively advanced techniques to help budding designers enhance their workflow. Let's get started!


This is my first tutorial. Although I've done many lectures in person, I've never attempted to move my teachings to the web. The way I structure my tutorials revolves around my primary goal: to not only show you how to do these things, but make you understand why you are doing them. It is one thing to just be aware of how to achieve a certain effect, but to full understand it leads to your own personal modification and application of the things you've learned. In turn, making you a better designer.

Throughout the course of this tutorial you'll see small paragraphs of text that start with "Note:" These paragraphs are just short helpful tips related to whatever technique we may be using. For seasoned photoshop veterans, they'll most likely be common knowledge, but for beginner to intermediate Photoshopers, they may prove to be quite valuable. Well, with that out of the way, let's start making our composition!

Final Image Preview

Take a look at the image we'll be creating. 

Video Tutorial

Our video editor Gavin Steele has created this video tutorial to compliment this text + image tutorial.

Step 1 - Choose Your Images

Choosing your images is a key part of making a successful composition. Anybody can just run out to Google Images and snag whatever they want, but we're better than that aren't we. Sites like Stock.Xchange (sxc.hu) and Stockvault.net offer tons of outstanding stock photos that are free! Unfortunately, sometimes the images you find on these free sites don't match your vision. Oftentimes, you may end up having to go to sites like iStockphoto to purchase professional images for a fee. But we're in luck! For this composition all of the images are free!

When selecting images for a composition, keep one thing in mind: You need to be looking for images that have the same, or very close to the same lighting as each other. Items in your composition need to have the same lighting for your composition to feel plausible.

Granted fantasy scenes aren't necessarily intended to be realistic in the first place, but using images that have different lighting in the same composition can literally ruin the entire thing. One type of lighting that is sometimes an exception to this rule is lighting that is neutral. An example would be a cloudy gray day, where all the lighting is the same. This may need very little or no sprucing to make it fit your composition nicely.

Now, let's take a look at what we've got to work with here. Here are the images we'll be using for this design: Desert, Cloud 1, Cloud 2, Fire, Bomb, and Red Smoke.

Step 2 - Setting Up Your Document

Let's begin by creating a new document. I chose 10in x 8in for this composition. If you don't have a computer with enough power to handle that, then use something smaller but with the same dimensions, 5in x 4in will work.

The first thing we are going to do is get our finishing effects made and out of the way.
Start by making three Gradient Map Adjustment layers with the following properties.

Now, make a new layer, and fill it with 50% gray (Shift + F5 > 50% Gray). Click Filter > Noise > Add Noise with the Amount: 400, Gaussian, Monochromatic. Set the Noise layer's blend mode to Overlay, and set it's Opacity to 40%

Now select all four of your effects layers, and make them into a group. Make the new group of layers invisible by clicking the Eyeball icon in the layers palette.

Step 3 - Desert Image Cleanup

Drag and drop the Desert image into the new document. The horizon on this guy is bowed a bit, and is tilted a little off center. So start out by scaling the image so it takes up the whole frame of the document. You should end up with something like the image below.

Place a guideline along the horizon, we'll be using this as our guide for straightening out the horizon.

Rotate the image to make the horizon match up as best you can with the guideline. Make sure that the guideline isn't touching any of the sky or mountains though. We'll be editing that out next.

Get rid of your guide and then use the Marquee Tool (M) to make a rectangular selection.

Using the Clone Stamp Tool (S), clone the sky across the line of the horizon. You may need to select a few random parts to make sure it doesn't look like there are two of the exact same cloud formations in two different parts of the sky.

Next, create a Curves Adjustment layer and use the settings shown below.

Note: Using adjustment layers is a GREAT way to apply various effects to the items in your composition, but the awesome thing about adjustment layers is that you can go back and tweak the settings at any time.

Applying the effects right to the raw item itself is all well and fine if the adjustment will not have to be touched again throughout the comp process. However, if you continuously apply effects to the raw item, each time it degrades the quality of the item ultimately resulting in loss of pixel information. So, in a nutshell, adjustment layers are good to use.

Step 4 - Bombs

Open up the Bomb image. Using the Magic Wand Tool (W) with the settings shown, select the white area of the image. Select Inverse (Command + Shift + I).

Note: There are tons of ways to make selections. Most of the time, we'd go in with the Pen Tool and trace the bomb, and make the path into a selection. In this case, however, the bomb is on a nice, solid white background and the bomb already has nice solid lines, so in this case we'll use the quick and easy Magic Wand Tool.

Drag and drop your newly selected bullet into your comp window and resize as shown below.

Create a curves adjustment layer with the settings shown. Then make the curves adjustment a clipping mask (Command + Alt + G).

Note: Clipping masks take the effect layer that you've created and apply it only to the layer underneath it. Practice with these. Once you get the hang of them, you'll wonder how you ever got by without them.

Select both the "Bomb 1" layer and its curves clipping mask by holding the Command key and selecting them both in the layers palette. Duplicate this bomb twice. Make sure you keep each bomb's curves adjustment layer as its own clipping mask. Move and resize as shown.

Step 5 - Smoke

Now that we've got our bombs where we want them, lets add some smoke! We'll start by creating our own smoke using custom brush settings. Create a new layer, and use the brush settings shown.

Note: Custom brush settings are also a great tool for designers to use. It's extremely versatile and is valuable to learn. My best suggestion, would be to just go in and start playing around with different settings. Experimentation is one of the most efficient ways to learn Photoshop because you're learning along the way.

Next, using the brush settings we previously set up, paint in a line of smoke. Drop the "Smoke 1" layer's Opacity to 70%.

Note: When using the "Scatter" brush setting, it randomly generates where your brush spots will end up. So to get the exact spray of smoke you want, you may have to make a stroke, undo it, and try again until you get it just right.

Duplicate your "Smoke 1" layer and apply a Motion Blur (settings shown) to give the bullet a better sense of motion.

Duplicate the "Smoke 1 Copy" layer twice. Select the three "Smoke 1 Copy" layers using the Command key like we did before. Now Merge the Layers (Command + E) to combine them into one layer.

Note: You can also use Shift in this case to select the whole range by clicking on "Smoke 1 copy," holding Shift, and clicking on "Smoke 1 copy 3."

Hit (Command + T) to bring up your transform controls. While holding the Command Key, drag the corners of your transform box to the settings shown below to stretch the smoke out. Drop the "Smoke 1 copy 3" layer's Opacity down to 50%.

Select the "Smoke 1" and the "Smoke 1 copy 3" and Merge Layers (Command + E). Duplicate this layer twice (Command + J twice). Rename your new layers if that helps you keep things organized.

Move and resize each of the two new smoke layers and put one behind each of the two remaining bombs. You should have something close to the image below.

Apply a Layer Mask to each of your two new smoke layers. In their layer masks (you'll have to do each separately), apply a black to transparent gradient starting from the tail end of the smoke, ending at the base of the bomb, as shown.

Step 6 - Clouds

Now those clouds in the background sure look boring. Lets make things a little more interesting. Open up the Cloud 1 and Cloud 2 images. Drag the cloud image that has grass at the bottom of the image into the composition. Line the bottom of the tree line up with the horizon of our desert image.

Use the Marquee Tool (M) to select the bottom half of the "cloud" layer. Hit Delete and check your results against the image below.

Now add three adjustment layers, Curves, Hue-Saturation, and Color Balance, all with no effects. Using our nifty Command selection method we've been using, select the three new adjustment layers in the layers palette. Make them all Clipping Masks (Command + Alt + G).

Now that we've got them all made into clipping masks, lets add some effects using the settings below.

Now, click and drag your other cloud layer into the comp. We're going to try and use the large cloud formation from this image to create an opening in the clouds for our text to go in.

First, put a layer mask on the "New Cloud" Layer, and paint with a black, soft edge brush so that the only thing left visible of our "New Cloud" layer, is the biggest cloud puff, as shown.

Now we're going to get the color of this cloud to match the color from the clouds behind it. So, add three new Adjustment Layers: Curves, Hue-Saturation, and Color Balance. All with no effects. Select all three of the new Adjustment Layers, and turn them into clipping masks (Command + Alt + G). Then apply the settings shown below.

Now that we've got that taken care of, lets put the same thing only smaller on the other side. Select your "New Cloud" Layer and all three of its Adjustment Layers. Click Layer > Duplicate Layers > OK. Now we're going to flip the duplicated layers horizontally. So using (Command + T) open up your Free Transform Tools. Right-click inside the transform box, and hit Flip Horizontal.

Resize the "New Cloud copy" layer, and clean up its layer mask so you have something similar to this.

Remember those effects we set up in the very beginning? Well, lets make them visible again (by clicking in the empty box where the eyeball used to be in the layers palette) and have a peek at what we've got. You should have something like this.

Looking good. Lets get our type in there. For the purpose of this design, the theme is relatively strong and we want to compliment that with a nice bold font. After generating your words, and resizing them how you'd like, add the layer style shown to your text. Move and resize your type to fit inside the big blotch of cloudless sky. Set the blend mode to Lighten, and the layer Opacity to 35%.

Step 7 - Fire!

Lets put some flames on these puppies. Start by opening up your Fire image and dragging it into the composition. Set the "Fire 1" layer's blend mode to Screen. Move and resize it so you have something close to this.

Create a curves adjustment layer for the fire, and make it a clipping mask. Use the settings shown.

Duplicate your fire twice, and move one set of flames to each of the remaining two bombs.

Put a layer mask on the large flames, and using a black, soft-edged brush, paint out parts of your flames in the mask as shown.

Open up the Red Smoke Image. Drag it into the comp. Desaturate the "Front Smoke" layer (Command + Shift + U). Set its blend mode to Multiply, and its Opacity to 50%. Move and resize so you have the following result.

Step 8 - Rain

There are a ton of ways to make artificial rain, This particular method, although not the most realistic, is really great practice with duplicating, merging and changing layers. Start by making a new layer. Select a small, white, hard-edged brush. Make a single point by left clicking once. Hold the Shift key, and click somewhere diagonally below your original point.

Add a motion blur to your new artificial rain drop. Set the "Rain" layer's blend mode to Overlay.

Now, to make sure that all the rain is going at the exact same angle as all the other droplets, just duplicate (Command + J) your initial droplet, move it around the screen, possibly change the opacity around and/or resize it. And repeat this process until you're happy.

Usually if I'm doing something that requires a lot of layer duplication, I'll merge (select layers, Command + E) the finished product into one or two layers to keep the clutter down. At this point, you should have something along the lines of the image shown below..

Step 9 - Finishing Touches

We're almost there! The end is in site! Lets wrap this sucker up! Lets start by adding a vignette to generate a better focal point. Make a new layer. Now, using a black to transparent Gradient (G), draw from the corners of the comp to around just outside the general vicinity of the bombs, as shown.

Now the text is good, but we can make it great. To make the text seem like it's behind the clouds, lets put a layer mask on our text layer, and using a large, soft edge brush, paint out the areas that are in or around any clouds. To leave you with this.

Now, let's make it look like the bombs are casting a shadow on the ground! Start by selecting all of the layers that comprise all three of the bombs, that means the bombs themselves, all three fire layers, all the smoke layers, and the smoke wisp in front of the big bomb.

Duplicate them. Then, after you have a copy of all two billion layers, merge them (Command + E). Using Hue-Saturation, take the lightness all the way down to -100. Apply a Gaussian Blur to the layer ( Filter > Gaussian Blur) with a Radius of 6.0 pixels. Flip the layer Vertically. Set the layer Opacity to 60%.


And we're done! I hope you enjoyed this tutorial, but most of all, I hope you learned something useful. Whether it's just a new way to do something you already knew how to do a different way, or a whole new skill. I hope you took something away from this tutorial. Thanks for reading and keep practicing!

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