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How to Create Otherworldly 3D Composited Artwork

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Though I am a diverse artist who works in many styles, my forte has always been mixing 3D elements with photos to create surreal artwork. If you're interested in such artwork but had no idea how they are done, here is your step through that door.

In this tutorial I give you a crash course on how to approach and create these types of images. Don't worry, you won't need to learn 3D since I'll be providing you with the 3D renders to start. We will simply be compositing and creating a scene with the supplied renders. This tutorial is intended for intermediate to advanced Photoshop users. Get your tablet ready, because you will use it a lot in this tutorial!

You can find the Photoshop PSD file in a directory labeled 'PSD' that came in the ZIP file that you downloaded. You may wish to look through them briefly before we begin.

Step 1 - Preparing the Base Image

For our tutorial, we will be using this landscape photo found here. Note: you will need a SXC.hu account in order to view the stock photo, so if you cannot access it, please take a minute to create an account.

Nonetheless, after you have the stock photo, open it with Photoshop and head to Step 2. In the next few steps, we will be touching up this base image.

Step 2 - Size Down

For the purposes of this tutorial, we will work with a web-friendly dimension. Resize our stock image to 1280px by 915px by going to Images > Image size (Command + Alt + I). In the layers palette, Double-click to unlock and name this layer "Base." Also sharpen up the resized image by going to Filter > Sharpen > Sharpen.

Step 3 - White Clouds, Bad!

Blown out clouds are one of the things that are common in photography, but bad to work with. Blown out clouds can really break an image, by making clouds stand out too much and they also don't play well with adjustment layers - so it is crucial to fix them!

Make a new layer called "CloudFix." With the Clone Stamp Tool (S) at 100% Opacity, set the mode to Darken and make it soft (Shift+ Left Bracket key) and also set it to Sample All Layers.

Zoom into the blown out areas of the clouds in the scene, hold Alt and click on an area with a medium or brighter hue, but not blown out. Now carefully stamp and brush over the areas that are blown out. Refer to the tutorial images below for reference of the before and after images.

Note: A tablet will be a godsend now, because you can set the Clone Stamp settings to Pen Pressure sensitive for both Opacity and Size. It will greatly help with this step.

Step 4 - Color Balance

Now that we've fixed our clouds, let's take a look at our canvas again. I noticed that the scene looks overly yellow, let's go ahead and balance the colors a bit. Create a Color Balance adjustment layer with these settings: Midtones of 0,0,25 and Shadows of 0,0,10. The highlights can be left untouched. Hit OK to finalize the adjustment layer. Refer to image below to see how your layer palette should look like as of now.

Step 5 - Crop and Composition

We're going to do one more thing before we begin to have some fun. The composition at the moment with the horizon line being at approximately 50% of the canvas makes it look rather boring and not so interesting to look at. We're going to crop the canvas a bit to make it more dynamic.

Hit C to bring up the crop tool and put in 1280px in Width and 780px in Height. From the top-left corner of the canvas, drag the Crop Tool down and across the canvas. The Width and Height should now be constrained by the crop tool, so it should crop at around 80% of the image beforehand. Hit Enter to finalize the crop. The image below shows the result after the crop. The horizon line is now at around 35-40% of the canvas.

Step 6 - Fun Starts!

Note: Usually at this point, I would bring the image into Maya and use methods to match the 3D elements with the image. However, it is not a easy process and you would need to truly learn 3D to do so. I will not cover this in this tutorial crash course, but rather just supply you with renders that I have already matched up with the scene.

Now we're going to start bringing in the 3D aspects and composite them. First open up "elephant_beauty.tga". This is the beauty shot of our elephants that we're going to be putting into our scene. Immediately you'll notice that they are on a black background - Don't worry, it's a good thing. Bring up your channels tab and you'll notice an extra channel called "Alpha 1." This is the alpha channel that I created for the elephants in Maya. We're going to use this channel to extract our elephants from the background.

Command-click on the "Alpha 1" channel to bring the transparency up to selection. With the selection up, go back to your layers tab and with the Background layer selected, hit Command + J to put the selection into a new layer. The elephants will now be in their own new layer separated from the black background.

Now with the new layer selected, while holding Shift, drag this layer into our tutorial canvas, which is the landscape. Be sure to drag the elephants in while holding Shift because it will place them in our canvas perfectly. Otherwise if you simply drag it over, it may not match with the canvas. Rename this new layer "ElephantBeauty." The scene is starting to look more interesting, no?

Step 7 - Magic

If you look closely, you should notice that there is an unpleasant black rim around our elephant render. This is an anti-aliasing issue when you extract them out of the black background. Do not worry, there is a very easy way of fixing this. Simply go to Layer > Matting > Remove Black Matte. Viola! Gone!

Step 8 - Clean-Up

Matching 3D elements with photos is not an easy thing, it takes quite a bit of precision and patience. Sometimes you're off a few pixels. You can simply clean this up in Photoshop. Add a mask to our "ElephantBeauty" layer, and zoom in quite a bit, then with a 100% hard brush set with full black, erase some of the edges of the elephant legs that are bleeding into our hill. Simple enough!

Step 9 - Don't Float

Let's go ahead and ground our elephants with a shadow on the floor. It will also immediately add a big level of realism to the scene.

Open up "elephant_floorShadow.tga" and repeat the instructions in Step 6. Don't panic yet, I know that the file is fully black! It's simply because the data is within the alpha channel.

We're going into our alpha channel to extract the shadows from the background layer. Command-click on the "Alpha 1" channel to bring the transparency up to the selection. With the selection up, go back to your layers tab and with the Background layer selected, hit Command + J to put the selection into a new layer. The shadows will now be in their own new layer separated from the black background. Hold Shift and drag this layer into our tutorial canvas, and place it under our "ElephantBeauty" layer.

Step 10 - Not Quite Convincing

A full black opaque shadow is almost never a good thing. Unless you live in a black hole, there should always be some light in the shadow.

Select the "ElephantShadow" layer and click on the Transparency Lock switch in your layers palette next to the Lock options. This will lock the transparency in the shadow pixels. This way we'll be able to modify the shadow without tweaking the pixels.

Typically what I would do is zoom into the area of where the subject is and eye-drop the darkest shadow color from the photo (in this case, the elephant legs are the subject and the grass around them is our target area). I came to find the color #132128 from the area, and will use that to tint our elephant's shadow so that it can match the original photo.

Click on the foreground color from the Photoshop tool bar and put in our color hex # into the Color Picker and hit OK. Now with our "ElephantShadow" layer locked in transparency, hit Command + Delete to tint our original black shadow into a dark blue-ish color. Now in the layers palette, set the "ElephantShadow" Opacity to 75%. The shadow will now look much more convincing than a solid block of black.

Step 11 - Grass Details

Let's do some detailing before we move on. We need to replace some of the grass from our hill where the elephant feet are. Little details like these are the key to successful realism. Don't forget to do them!

Choose your brush tool and bring up brush presets by hitting F5. Go ahead and load grass brushes of your choice. I used a set called Archeleron_GrassBrushes.abr. There are a million brush presets you could find and download online, and it's very easy to make your own as well!

After you have successfully loaded the grass brushes, then in our layers palette duplicate the "Base" layer and name it "GrassDetail." Now place it on top of our "ElephantBeauty" layer. Yes, the landscape is now overlapping everything...but don't panic yet.

Give this layer a mask and fill it with full black so that the layer is empty. Now go select one of the grass brush presets (any one of them should be fine). Zoom into the areas where the replacement grass needs to be and brush back some grass in the mask with the color white. Refer to the reference images below if you are confused. We are simply brushing back some grass details near the elephant feet.

Step 12 - Light

In this next step I'll explain and show you one of the wonders of working with 3D. Open up "elephant_lightRGB.tga" in Photoshop.

You should immediately notice that in this image, our elephants looks like they are made up of weird colors. Yes, it does look weird all together, but you'll see the beauty in this as soon as you go to your channels tab and click through the channels.

Essentially, the RGB passes in this image consists of three different light sources that I made in Maya. With the data from each of these channels, I could use them in our main canvas as additional lighting and effects. For example, the blue channel in this case has a light source coming from behind the elephants...I could potentially use this data as a backlight if I wanted to. But since we're outdoors and not in a studio, there is no need for that here.

What we will use in this case, is the "green" channel, and here's why: If you look at our main canvas, you should notice that the third elephant (the one smallest and furthest from the camera) looks quite dark. I feel that it's hurting the image because it doesn't seem to look like it's lit by the same outdoors light. That being said, we're going to use the green channel from our lightRGB pass to fix this.

Command-click on the "green" channel to bring up the white data of the selection. Go back to the layers palette and make a new layer. Select 100% white as your foreground color and hit Command + Delete to fill the data with white. You will now have converted the green channel data into a new layer to be used.

Hold Shift and drag the "light" layer into our tutorial canvas. Place it on top of our "ElephantBeauty" layer and then clip it to "ElephantBeauty" by holding Alt and clicking in between the two layers. This will make the "light" layer only affect the pixel data in "ElephantBeauty." Name this light layer "ElephantLighten." The light source is affecting all of the elephants at the moment, but we're going to fix that in the next step.

Step 13 - Light Mask

Now that we have set our light source in place, we can truly put it to use. It's simple.

Set the "ElephantLighten" layer blending mode to Screen and immediately you'll see where this is going. We only want it to affect the smallest elephant here, so simply marquee a selection around the smallest elephant and then set a layer mask. This will isolate the light to only affect the third elephant. It seems like the light is too strong too, so I've set the Opacity to 35. Our elephant will now pop out of the shadows and look better for the scene!

Note: In the future if you want the light to affect certain parts of the subjects, simply make a mask and paint the light in where you want it to come up. It can be as broad and as detail as you wish.

Step 14 - Glow!

Let's give the image some eye candy. I must say, I'm a sucker for glowing things - and the rings around the stone on the elephants are supposed to glow! You could make this in Photoshop, but I have provided a glow pass for this purpose, so let's do it.

Open up "elephant_glow.tga." This time it doesn't even require going into channels to extract data. We're going to use the image as is. Hold Shift and drag this layer into our tutorial canvas and place it at the top of the layer hierarchy. Name this layer "RingsGlow." Again, we're going to isolate the black and use only the glow data, and to do this we're simply going to set the blending mode to Screen. Tada! You have yourself some glowing rings!

Step 15 - Creativity

In the next few steps, it's rather a creative process than a technical one. I've decided that the scene looked too ordinary so I'm going to go ahead and use my imagination and just think of some structures to add into the scene.

Create a new layer and name this "StructureBase." With a hard brush, begin painting some vertigo structures into the scene. Remember that there is no right or wrongs here. Sketch in your structure and pay attention to overall shape instead of precision. If you don't know yet, holding Alt while using the Brush Tool will quickly let you eye-drop colors. Burn this hot key into your head because it's VERY useful. Eye-drop adjacent colors of the scene when painting structures so that you can have realistic hues. Remember that we're simply making shapes here, don't make any highlights or shadows yet.

I have made four structures of different depths created.

Step 16 - Shading

Now that we have the base of our structures, it's time to go in and shade them. Make a new layer named "StructureShades" and clip it on top of our base layer. Go in again with the brush tool and eye-dropper and begin shading the structures based on the lighting. You can also use the dodge and burn tools to help you.

Refer to the images below if you need help visualizing the shading. This is not anything technical, it comes strictly from observation and knowledge of how light affects something. I am by no means an expert in digital painting - practice and observation is key!

Remember that details slowly gets lost the further the object is away, so in our case the main concern is really just the two structure closest to us.

I have also decided to add some more details to the closest structure to make a "balcony" sort of piece.

Step 17 - Texturing

Painting the base and shading is only the initial steps, we will now texture the structure. I've decided to use a wooden texture found here. Open it with Photoshop and drag the texture into our canvas.

We're going to texture the biggest structure first. Lower the texture opacity down so you could see transparency, then move and scale it to fit the structure. Clip it to our structure's layer hierarchy on top of our shading layer. Now hit Command + Shift + U to desaturate the texture and set the blending mode to Overlay. Bring the Opacity back to 100% and name this layer "Structure1Texture."

The texture is quite weak right now because of contrast, so we're going to fix it with levels. Hit Command + L to bring up the levels and use the input values of 75, 1, and 140, then hit OK. The texture should now come through much better.

Step 18 - Clean Up

Make a mask for our "Structure1Texture" layer, and with a black brush, paint away areas of texture that you feel are affecting the volume of the structure. Sometimes a texture could make the subject look rather flat, and you could fix that with masking. The key is to make sure highlights aren't showing up on the darks and vice versa.

Step 19 - Repeat

Repeat Steps 17 and 18 on the center structure, which is the only other structure whose textures should still show through, even the slightest. Remember, details do add up! Also refer to the screenshot below to see how your layer palette should be structured up until this step.

Step 20 - Details Pt 1

Our structures are pretty much set now. It's time to play around a bit and experiment with details.

First, I've decided that I wanted to add more highlights to the structures to bring them out more. Create a new layer named "Highlights" and clip it to our structure's hierarchy. Set the blending mode to Overlay.

Choose white as your color and with a semi-soft brush, go in and paint some highlights on the structures. Now I use the word "highlight" loosely, you could call it simply adding more dimension to our structures. Refer to the images below.

Step 21 - Details Pt 2

Let's add more details to our structures to make them more interesting.

I've decided to add lights and windows to them. Create a new layer called "Lights" and with a small 100% hard brush, go into our structures and place some windows and lights in them. Again, this is a creative process and there is no right or wrong. You may refer to the images below if you need some visual direction.

Now that you've placed the elements in there, right-click on our layer and go into Blending Options toggle and turn on Outer Glow. Usually you would want to experiment and play with the settings, but for our scene, I found that the default settings looked perfect, so I'm going to leave it as is. Hit OK to finalize this and to make our "lights" glow.

Step 22 - Details Pt 3

Since we're approaching the end, we're simply going to keep working on detailing.

Make a new layer called "Details1" and begin painting more details on the structures. Now that we have the the shading done we could easily eye-drop hues from the structure for future painting of details. I decided to add some wires around the building, which I will continue in the next step to make a power plant out of these structures.

Step 23 - Details Pt 4

We will now make the wires which will connect our structures like a power plant. Again, this is a creative process, it is perfectly fine if your outcome is not a duplicate of mine. Have fun!

Create a new layer named "Details2" and place it under our elephants so that we do not work on top of them. Eye-drop a hue from our biggest structure (Don't worry about getting exact colors, we will fix that). Now use the Pen tool to create some paths where you feel the wires would be. Right-click to stroke path with the brush tool. Make sure your brush is set to a very small and hard round brush. I used both 2px and 1px brush strokes here.

After you have set all your wires down, we can now work on getting the colors to match the lighting. First, lock our "Details2" layer's transparency by clicking on the transparency lock box like we did earlier. This will now allow us to tint our wires any color we want without having to worry about messing with their shape.

To be honest, it is all based on good judgement and your eye for color. You simply just need to zoom out and look at it and see if it looks natural. I simply eye-dropped colors from each pillar and did a gradient from their side of the wire, to obtain their convincing colors.

Step 24 - Details Pt 5

I chose to add a moon in this piece. It is simply up to you what details you'd like to add, be creative!

Let's review how I made the moon. Go here and get the moon stock image. Open it up in Photoshop and paste it into our canvas. Name this layer "Moon." Lower the opacity so you can see through the canvas and size down this big stock image to the ideal size for the moon. Feel free to refer to the provided image for reference.

After you have set it in place, set the blending mode to "Screen", then you could begin masking the moon. Again, this is all about preference, if you want to have a full moon, you can skip the masking.

The glow on the moon is achieved by simply duplicating the masked moon layer and adding a Gaussian blur, then masking out unwanted parts. I used a Gaussian blur setting of 5 and masked some of the glow around the tips of the moon because it looked sloppy. You can name this layer "MoonGlow."

Head to the next step for the final touch-ups.

Step 25 - Final Adjustments

We're very close to done. Now is the time to make final adjustments and tweaks to the overall canvas. First, make a color balance adjustment layer. Under Shadows, input -15,0,5. Hit OK.

Make a Photo Filter adjustment layer and use the preset "Deep Yellow." This will take down the over saturated sky tone and make it look more realistic.

Finally, I have decided to tweak and add final details. I removed the furthest structure because it was hurting the composition. I also lowered the opacity of textures on the structures. And I added some birds in the sky and on the wires by simply painting them in with a small brush.

Final Image

That is all folks! We are done! I hope you enjoyed the tutorial and that it has taught you a thing or two about creating images like these.

Remember, practice, observe, and just let your brain loose! When working with images like these it is crucial to let your mind wonder and create. As you can see from completing the tutorial, most of the work is not so much technical, but rather creative. The fundamentals and the ground rules still apply, but knowing how to be free but not breaking the rules at the same time will make you a better artist. I guarantee it!

Thank you for your time and please feel free to visit me at thefifthorder.net for future portfolio updates or networking. The final image is below. You can view the large version here.

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