What do a rowboat, island, beach, and barrel of crabs all have in common? They’re all images used in illustrating the topic of the day: Composite Imaging. Compositing is basically the process of taking separate photographs and creatively merging them into a single scene. The real fun of compositing is in getting each photo to look like it actually belongs in the picture. This is a task that Photoshop was built for. To accomplish this mission, we’ll be using adjustment layers, masks, transforms, puppet warps, and more. Please note that this tutorial assumes a basic working knowledge of Photoshop tools.
For this scene, I grabbed a couple photos from a quick Google search. The direct links to proper credit acknowledgements are included below. This tutorial is intended for educational purposes only.
The first step was to isolate the crabs in a barrel from its background being careful to cut out the areas in between the barrel cracks. For this lesson, we won’t be covering the specifics of masking and selection, so feel free to use whatever tools you’re most comfortable with in getting the job done. Once the crab barrel is selected, drag the image onto the beach background.
I know technically you wouldn’t find a barrel of Maryland Blue Crabs on a beach in Maui. But for the sake of this design, let’s assume they did a mass migration to the west and ended up here. And besides, what’s the fun of compositing if you can’t bend reality a little.
Next, open up the island photo and select it from its background. I’d recommend keeping some of the water at the base of the island. Having that extra blue padding will allow you to more easily blend the photo into its new background. Once you’ve finished the selection, bring the isolated island over to join the crab barrel on the beach background. You should now have something that looks like this.
You might be noticing that the 3 photos don’t look particularly uniform. The crab barrel is a little over-exposed, the beach is over-saturated in color, and island is too dark. At this point of the process, it looks like someone just grabbed some Google images, selected them, and tossed them on a background. Even though that’s all we’ve technically done, we don’t want it to stay looking that way. This is where adjustment layers come into play.
Adjustment layers are one of Photoshops most powerful tools. These aren’t the same as normal adjustments ( Image > Adjustments). Normal adjustments make permanent changes to information in an image. Say you desaturate an image using Hue Saturation and ten steps down the road, you want to bring back the color.
If you used normal adjustments, you won’t be able to do this. Technically, you could undo everything or paint back each color but both options aren’t ideal at all. Since the standard adjustment literally went into the photo and removed all the color information, the color information no longer exists to be retrieved. However, adjustment layers apply their effects temporarily and are stored on their own layer. They give you the freedom to make tweaks to photo edits at any time during the design process. Invaluable to say the least!
By default, an adjustment layer applies its effects to all the layers beneath it. But say, as is the case with our beach composite, you want certain adjustments to only apply to certain images. You can make an adjustment target a specific layer by using the clipping layer feature. Assuming your adjustment layer is directly above the layer you are trying to affect, right click the adjustment layer and select “create clipping layer”. You’ll notice that the adjustment layer now has a small arrow icon pointing downward indicating that it’s only being applied to immediate layer beneath it.
Using this technique, we can apply the necessary adjustments to each item in the photo. I added a Hue Saturation and Brightness/Contrast adjustment layer to each of the 3 photos. After tweaking each of the settings, I came up with the image below.
I wanted to add a positive spin to this collage and show a crab actually escaping. As I was looking in the crab barrel, I noticed a crab on the right that had its claw stretching out as if it were celebrating. I selected the crab, duplicated his outstretched appendage and connected it to his other side. And there it is, we have the crab of victory.
The crab needed a way to travel to the island over yonder. While I’m aware of a crab’s natural ability to swim, I thought he was entitled to escape in style using a finely-crafted rowboat. I pulled up the row boat photo, selected it from its background, and added it to the composite. I put the freed crab directly into the boat. Using the Hue Saturation and Brightness/Contrast adjustment layers, I edited the boat and crab to fit the scene. For some extra realism, I added a shadow beneath the boat and drew a few small sand moguls near its front.
At this point, it seemed only fitting that after seeing the one crab leave the barrel, a few others were inspired to do the same. I selected one of the crabs near the center of the barrel, added a claw, and positioned him on the sand. From here, I used the transform and puppet warp tool to adjust the crab’s perspective and made it appear as if he were heading out into the water. I edited his claws and hind legs (they’re really more like flipper things) using the puppet warp tool. I made the other two crabs in a similar fashion while adding a few adjustments here and there to keep them looking unique.
Once this was done, it was time to add some sand trails. Using the sand trail image, I selected a few strips of raised sand and overlayed them on the beach scene. Puppet warping each of the strips was necessary to create a realistic-looking path from the barrel to rowboat. I set this layer to “Overlay” and knocked down the opacity so that it would lightly glow on top of the existing sand. With the mask tool, I faded out the sides of each sand trail to make for a better blend. And as an accent to the moment, I added a chat bubble above the victory crab in hopes that it would better help to convey his feelings.
For the next step, I applied HDR toning to make the edges and contrast really standout (Image > Adjustment > HDR Toning). HDR Toning is a great way to add a jolt of vibrance and contrast to a photograph. You should definitely play around with these settings to suit your scene as you can get some pretty wild effects. I’ve posted the HDR settings that I used for this scene.
Unfortunately, the HDR toning option is available only in Photoshop CS5 and above. If you’re using an earlier version of Photoshop, you can still achieve similar HDR affects, but it’ll take a number of additional steps. You’ll need to make use of a lot of contrast, vibrance, and exposure settings to quickly mimic the HDR effect.
One thing you’ll notice is that HDR toning will force you to flatten your layers. A quick way around this is to use the “Merge – All – and Copy” Command which basically copies everything visible and makes a new layer of it (Control-Shift-Alt-E). Select the new layer, and copy/paste it into a new document. Apply the HDR settings to the new document and title it “composite”.By doing this you can still keep the original layered file on archive while continuing work with the flattened HDR image.
The HDR toning was a big help in blending the photo. To add some finishing touches, I added a few adjustment layers: Hue Saturation , Brightness/Contrast, and Curves. I went with a cartoonish / slightly faded / painted look to go along with the humor of the scene. These settings will vary for you depending on the look you’re going for.
I dropped in a textured text box and added some copy to better communicate the great crab escape. As a final step, I applied a canvas texturize filter (Filter > Texture > Texturizer – select canvas) to the image and then tossed the entire scene into a wooden frame. The final composite looks like the image below. If you’d like to see a higher quality version, you can just click the image. And there you have it, how to make a “Crab’s Journey to Freedom”.
– Happy Photoshoppin