Artistic photomontage effects

Blending layers in Photoshop and other image editing programs can lead to wonderfully creative surprises

Download these three images and follow along with me using these low-res versions of my working files and your image editor as I show you how to create some stunning effects that rely on blending interactions between image layers.

ollow along with me using these low-res versions of my working files and your image editor as I show you how to create some stunning effects that rely on blending interactions between image layers.


Download and follow along: Click on each thumbnail image to access larger version. Downloading to your computer: Mac users click and hold cursor on image, then drag it into a folder on your computer. Windows XP users: With cursor over image, right-click and choose "Save image as..." and designate a folder. Then open up the images in Photoshop or another image-editing program.

Many artistic effects rely on filters and result in fairly predictable results; the method I'm going to show you gives results that vary greatly depending on the images used. Some will go in the trash, but some will be wonderful.

I have used this technique to create a series I call "Ephemera." Here is Ephemera #5. I'll show you how I created it.

I use Photoshop CS2. Recent versions of Photoshop will work, and you could use other image editing programs as long as they support Blending Modes. Menu items will be different in different programs and versions, of course. And when I use Ctrl-, Mac users will need to substitute Cmd-.

I began with some dry bamboo, photographed under studio lighting.

Then I added some leaves, which I "photographed" with a flatbed scanner. My scanner can do transparencies. Since the leaves were dry and thin, I scanned them in transparency mode to give them a different look. (Flatbed scanning is great fun, and gives amazing resolution of fine detail. I'll make it the subject of another tutorial.)

I wanted the leaves with a clean, white background. That way, the edges of the leaves were well-defined and it was easy to select the white area with the Magic Wand tool. I set the tolerance to a fairly high value of 50 to minimize any light fringe on the edges of the leaves, and clicked on the white area. Then I went to the top menu bar and chose Select > Inverse. With the leaves now selected, I dragged them into the bamboo image. That made the leaves a second layer on top of the bamboo background, as shown below.

I needed to re-size the leaves, so I went to the top menu and clicked on Edit > Transform > Scale. I wanted to keep the proportions constant so I held down the Shift key and dragged on a corner of the box to re-size. (If you drag a side, the Shift key does not constrain the proportions.) I could move them around wherever I wanted to by choosing the Move Tool, clicking on them and holding down the mouse button.

I also needed to clean up the edges of the leaves, which had traces of the background color. Rather than use the Eraser Tool, I used a mask, which is more flexible. I went to the top menu bar and clicked on Layer > Layer Mask > Reveal All, zoomed in to 100 percent, and chose a very small soft brush with the foreground color set to black. This let me paint away the fringe around the leaves. If I went too far, I reversed the foreground/background colors and painted the area back. I used a small, soft brush so the leaf edges were not artificially sharp. (Of course, on the small images posted here, 100 percent isn't much. But on your own files it will be a very significant enlargement, enabling you to do detailed work.)

To further enhance the transparency effect I reduced the opacity of the leaf layer to 73 percent (the box in the upper right of the Layers Palette) and used Layer > Layer Style to add a drop shadow to better integrate the leaves with the bamboo.

The bottom leaf looked too light, so I darkened it with one of my favorite tricks--a masked adjustment layer. I can use an adjustment layer such as Levels to darken the leaf, and I can mask it to affect just part of the leaves. You can make the adjustment first, then darken everything and mask out the parts you don't want darkened, but since I'm usually working on a small area, I like to make the mask first and then I can just darken the part of the image I want to. This way I can better judge how dark I want it to be, and if the mask isn't perfect, I can alter the shape later.

I'm going to do several steps next that sound complicated, so I'll give you an overview. 1) I'm going to create a selection of an area I want to darken, by painting it on in Quick-Mask Mode. 2) I'm going to make an adjustment layer which will incorporate that selection as a mask, but I'm not going to actually make any changes to the adjustment until I have done the next step. 3) I'm going to cause that adjustment layer to affect only the leaf layer, and not all the layers below it, as it normally would. 4) Then I'm going to make the darkening adjustment.

I went into Quick Mask mode by hitting the "Q" key, chose a brush of the right size and hardness to draw the mask, and made sure the brush color was black by clicking the Foreground-Background Color icon at the bottom of the Tools Palette. I also made sure the brush opacity was 100 percent. I painted in the area I wanted to darken, as shown below. I didn't worry if it slopped out onto the bamboo because in the next step I will make it affect only the leaf layer.

I hit the "Q" key again to return to Standard Mode and I had a selection--but the area I didn't paint is the selected area. (Think of a stencil where the red painted area is the protected area.) I "inversed" the selection by going to the top menu and choosing Select > Inverse. ("Invert" has another meaning in Photoshop--the change from a positive image to a negative.)

Now, with the desired selection in place, I simply made an adjustment layer for Levels. The selection is automatically incorporated as a mask. I darkened the area by moving the middle slider in the Levels dialog box a little to the right. This adjustment layer is the one you see just above the leaf layer in the figure below.

Making Adjustments

Now a neat trick is in order. I wanted this adjustment to affect only the leaf layer and not the bamboo. If I made it using a regular adjustment layer above the leaf layer, it would affect both it and the bamboo layer. Making it affect only the leaves sounds difficult, but it's easy. In Photoshop Elements and some earlier versions of Photoshop it is called "grouping" the adjustment layers to the leaf layer, but in Photoshop CS2 you do it by "creating a clipping mask" (Grouping now has a different meaning.)

In CS2 go to the top menu bar and click on Layer > Create Clipping Mask . In Elements and some earlier versions of Photoshop, the menu choice is Layer > Group with Previous. This will indent the adjustment layer as shown in the figure below, and cause it to affect only the pixel layer immediately below it.

In order to see your adjustment properly, first make the masked adjustment layer and click OK without making any adjustment, then do the grouping/clipping, then double-click on the adjustment icon to go back to the dialog box and make the adjustment. This may seem backwards but it is the best way to do it.

Next, I tweaked the rather flat appearance of the leaves with a Curves adjustment layer and a Hue and Saturation adjustment layer, both also "clipped" to the leaf layer. You see those two layers in the figure below.

Next I wanted to place some Japanese writing over the image, using some lovely old inscriptions I had photographed several years ago. The one I liked most was very monochromatic--a carving in gray wood, shot on a cloudy gray day.

I moved it into the bamboo image just as I did the leaves. I needed it to go below the leaf layer so it would appear to be behind them in the image, so before I moved it I made sure the bamboo was the active layer by clicking on it. The Japanese characters were now automatically placed above it but below the leaf layer. (If this layer had ended up in the wrong order, I could drag it up or down in the Layers Palette, but it would have been a mess if it had gone in between two grouped/clipped adjustment layers, as it would also be grouped/clipped.) I had to re-size the text and move it where I wanted, as I did with the leaves.

I knew I would need to mask the areas outside the text, but couldn't be sure yet if this text would even work. So, I saved that for later. (A mask can apply to an adjustment layer, limiting it to only part of the image, or it can block off part of a pixel layer, making it disappear.)

The unexpected happens

The lack of color in the text proved lucky. I went to the top of the Layers Palette and clicked on the triangle to the right of the word "Normal." This opens a menu of Blending Modes. You can step through them most easily by first clicking on one and then using the up/down arrows on the keyboard to move through the choices.

In this case, Overlay worked absolute magic, bringing out a rich mahogany and gold glow that I didn't expect. There is also the lovely illusion that the text wraps around the bamboo, because it darkens in areas that are darker on the bamboo.

In order to get rid of the extra area around the text I applied a Layer Mask (from the top menu, Layer > Layer Mask > Reveal All) and, with a black brush, painted out the areas outside the rectangular area of the text. The masked layer is shown below in Normal Mode, so you can see what I cut out.

I wanted to add a little of the mahogany tone to the bamboo outside the area of the text layer, so I used the same technique I used to darken the bottom leaf--a masked adjustment layer. In this case I used Levels. I made the layer just above the Background (bamboo) layer and in this case there is no need to make a clipping mask as there is only that one layer below it to be affected. I darkened the unmasked areas with the middle slider, and that brought up enough color. I could have moved the sliders in the color channels if I had needed to change the color more. You can see that adjustment layer in the figure below.

The final touch on Ephemera #5 was to add a ragged-edged border using PhotoFrame 2.5, a product of onOne Software ( You can see the end result at the beginning of this article.

Next month: I'll show how to make selections using the Quick Mask mode--the analog of dodging and burning in the black and white darkroom.


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