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How to Integrate 3D Images into Dynamic Scenes

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As the medium of photo manipulation becomes more popular among digital artists, we have to continue to explore new and innovative ways to make our work stand out from the crowd. In this tutorial, we'll look at one of them. Usually photo manipulation utilizes stock imagery. However, what if you were to create your own sort of background stock, but in 3D? How could you make it look good? That is the main topic we'll look at today.


Before we start, I ought to point out that this tutorial is not really suitable for beginners. Some familiarity, if not expertise, of Photoshop is required. For example, when I use the expression set that layer to overlay I'm going to expect you to know what I'm talking about. Also, I've left the option of using alternative colors, settings, or even objects for most of the steps. Otherwise, your result would look exactly like mine, which I don't think you want.

Final Image Preview

Let's take a look at the image we'll be creating. You can view the final image preview below or view a larger version here.

Step 1

The first and most important step to utilizing this technique properly is creating the right background. In this case our backgrounds will be 3D. However you can create your own using whatever 3D program you want, but since this tutorial is in Photoshop and not a 3D program, I've provided six pre-made backgrounds for PLUS members to download.

There are tons upon tons of settings that can be created in 3D, but I've chosen two that I think are easy to work with and effective, a vast sky, and a landscape + sky. In this tutorial, I'm going to show you how to work with the vast 3D sky (below) I created this sky using the program Cinema 4D, which I do most of my 3D in. There are two different sky's included for alternative usage.

Step 2

OK, I'm going to start walking you through the best ways of utilizing this sky setting. The main advantage of using a vast sky is that, depending on your concept, you can create a main focal quite easily, while also having a good amount of negative space, which always helps.

For this particular piece, I used the concept of a castle. In general, when using the vast sky setting, adding cloud images in the area were your focal will be gives texture and variation. Any stock clouds will do here. In this instance, I added some and filled my sky with clouds. However, filling your canvas isn't always necessary. My cloud images are set on Screen Mode for blending at 40-60% Opacity.

Step 3

Next, we continue with our prepping of the background before adding the focal point. Designating a particular area for your focal in advance saves time and allows you to distribute details where needed, while maintaining negative space.

I've now drawn a looping line using the Pen tool and I've faded it into my clouds with the Eraser soft brush. Once I place my focal in, then the line will only be visible at the bottom of the piece, where it looks like a continuation of the platform. Keep in mind this line can go in any direction. I've also added two subtle textures on multiply at 50% Opacity, to fade the clouds a bit, any texture works for this.

Step 4

Next we need to take a good look at the main stock image we are going to use for the focal point, as the elements around the focal need to be placed perfectly and we can't do that without setting a location to begin with. So I've made a black box roughly around the area I'm going to put my castle to use as a guideline below.

Step 5

Alright, lets get started on accenting the castle then. The line, texture, and clouds we added before will be barely noticeable in the end result. What we are going to do is to create the objects that will flow around the castle and be noticeable in the end product. One of my favorite objects to use with the sky setting is a planet or moon. You could use this image, or create your own moon, which is what I'll do next. Since my final image will be in a night-time environment I'm using a moon, but a sun, or planet works just fine as well. You can choose whether you want your moon to be photorealistic or not.

So to start creating the moon, make a new document at a large size. Take the Eliptical Marquee tool and hold down Alt + Shift to make a circular selection. Now drag or copy in a metal texture of your choice. Then put a moon texture on the layer above it, and set it to overlay.

On the moon layer texture go to Layer > Create Clipping mask. Place one more texture of your choice in and set that to soft light. I chose a paper texture. Mask this layer also. Now go to Select > Load Selection, Edit > Copy Merged and Place it into your document. Resizing will probably be necessary. After that is done, then go to Filter > Distort > Spherize and apply a spherize at 100%.

Step 6

If you are going for a photorealistic moon, then conventionally it's placed it in the top left or right corners of the image. I did a non-realistic moon and so I want to place mine above and behind my castle image. So I've taken my black box outline and placed the moon right at the upper focal area of my box. I then apply the layer styles shown below.

Step 7

Unfortunately, I can't show you how to make this, but what I've put in is a 3D object composed of exploded splines and such in Cinema 4D. I placed this next to my moon and then desaturated it so that it complements the moon rather than competing with it visually. The desaturation ensures that it does not detracting from the focal point of the moon.

Step 8

Now remember when we added that vector line in step three? We are going to do a few more. Draw these again with the Pen tool, except this time move horizontally. If, however, your first line in step three was primarily horizontal then make these vertical. I drew about three to four lines in neutral colors (gray and white). Next, I duplicated the object three times and transformed it to a different perspective each time to make different areas of the line stand out once my focal had been placed.

Step 9

The next step is one of the most important - the main focal point. I've put my castle stock in right where I said it would be. Notice how my line objects stick out perfectly and my moon and 3D object fit just behind the castle. This is how your image needs to look. Remember, I used a castle, but if you are not going for a realistic image you can use pretty much anything (such as: a city, building, car, airplane).

Step 10

Our actual stock has been placed in so we can start working on improving its look. I'm going to use a little Liquify action to achieve my result. Duplicate the castle stock image and go to Filter > Liquify. Start using the brush on the tops, bottoms, and edges of the stock and move them out, creating a liquidish image.

Then use the Bulge tool in small areas of the center to make it look more 3D. I did this on the windows. Keep in mind that we still have one more focal to add that will go above the castle and that if you liquefy the bottom of your castle, it probably will not be visible. You artwork should look something like the image below at this point.

Step 11

Now to make the castle look bright and give it a glow I've added a nebula stock that I had handy, though any glowing space image will do for this purpose. Here is a nebula stock image, though choose one that you like. Make sure that you isolate the image to only a certain small portion and desaturate it. Then set it to Screen Mode for Blending.

Step 12

Given that this is a non-realistic night sky with clouds and moon, why not add some stars? To do this create a new document, one that is exactly the same size as your current document, and take two dark colors. I'm using a dark gray and dark blue (#071521 and #1f1d1c).

Go to Filter > Render > Clouds. Make a new layer, take the Brush tool setting your foreground color to white, and select a hard round default brush at 5 Px with a Hardness of around 60%. Now start clicking like crazy in different areas. After your fingers are a little tired, go back and change the settings of your brush to 3 px at 80% Hardness. Keep clicking again until you've filled up the canvas. Now go to the layer style on your star layer and set the following properties.

Step 13

The next step is to Select > All, and then Edit > Copy Merge. Paste your star field into your document and set it to either Soft Light or Color Dodge at 90% Opacity (I used Soft Light). If it stands out too much, you can erase little areas (as I did) with a soft round eraser brush (Flow 35% and Opacity 45%). Below is the star field before and after blending is applied.

Step 14

Here comes the second and final focal: the platform. The castle alone floating just doesn't look complete, so I decided to put this 3D mountain/abstract that will provide some balance (remove your guidelines now). Two of these are included in the package.

First, I added more nebula stock images on a screen mode that is Desaturated at 28% Opacity onto the platform. Second, I duplicated the platform and set it to Color Dodge (this is optional and should only be used to add contrast if needed). After that's done I perform a slight desaturation of the image (this is optional, but I felt it was necessary in my image). To do this, I added a black to white gradient and put it to 53% Opacity.

Step 15

I only want certain portions of the platform to really stand out. To do this I duplicated the object and set it to Multiply, erasing certain parts so that they won't get too dark. The good thing about a platform is you can usually add some sort of landmass on the very top of it and it will appear to be part of the castle stock.

Open up the Grass.TIF file from the package and insert that (duplicate three to four times if necessary). However, you can use other landmasses such as rivers, mountains, etc. Place it at the very top of the platform.

Step 16

At this point, our image needs a little texture, so I added in a metal texture on Multiply at 14% Opacity. A paper texture on Overlay at 8% Opacity, and another paper texture on Multiply Opacity at 16%. They are not completely discernible, but a slight texture is usually good for an image.

Step 17

At this point, I was not particularly satisfied with the level of contrast and color in the image. Establishing a good balance of color is absolutely crucial in any type of piece, and having a good level of contrast always helps. I've added a black to white gradient map at Color Dodge with Opacity of 26%, and a purple to orange gradient map at Soft Light Opacity 25%.

Step 18

Now this step is completely optional and depends only on your current image. I chose to alter the tone of my image. You might ask why? This is a matter of personal preference and experience. I think this tone makes my overall image just looks better.

However, the choice of scale depends on your piece. Sometimes changing a pieces tone can bring out details you didn't see before and achieve better all around balance, and sometimes it can completely mess up the image. It is all up to you. I altered the tone with a black to white gradient map with the Blend Mode set on Darken at 91% Opacity.

Step 19

Now we are coming close to the end result. I am going to add a few subtle details. First, a black to white gradient map at Luminosity with an Opacity of 23%, then we'll use a Displacement Filter. Create a new layer, go to Image > Apply Image. Next, go to Filter > Distort > Displacement. As for displacement settings this is all up to you. As for the displacement map that doesn't really matter as long as it is big. Set that to Color Dodge with an Opacity of 76%.

Step 20

Now for a few final color adjustments. I put in a white to mocha gradient map on hue at 68% Opacity and erased it were it covered my castle because I want that to have a different hue. Then I added in a purple to orange gradient map at Soft Light with an Opacity 26%, a cyan toned channel mixer on Screen Opacity 23%, and black to white Filter on Lighter Color at 42% Opacity and 89% Fill Opacity.


Well that's it for this tutorial. I hope you can now successfully create a image based around a vast sky. Always remember that when using a sky setting, give it environment, negative space, a good focal point and you should be good to go. Thanks for tuning in! You can view the final image below or view a larger version here.

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