Tuesday, 29 June 2010

Course Notes 3 - Blending new backgrounds (Sky)

I'm still experimenting with the possibilities of blending photos together using Photoshop. The camera magazines merrily talk about 'putting a new sky in' when photos have dull skies - but it seems to me harder than you might think. I had a go with this silhouetted statue of Billy Fury, taken on Albert Dock in Liverpool one evening.

I like the rim light and the form of the statue - it's quite an iconic silhouette. But the background is undoubtedly a bit too cluttered. I couldn't get any closer or lower to take the photo, as the area was cordoned off and a policewoman standing there! (All to do with the Tall Ships Race a couple of years back). So...what to do?

Well, I also have this attractive sky picture. (It's actually dawn over the Sea of Galilee, but could just as easily be sunset over the River Mersey... ?)

In order to blend the two images together I had to lift the silhouette off its background and place it on the 'new' sunset sky. Easier said than done, to make it look realistic! You need a very precise selection around the part of the image you want to move.

So, firstly working with the photo of Billy Fury, I needed to make a selection right to the edges of the silhoutted statue. I have found that for me the easiest way of making a selection in this kind of scenario is to use Photoshop's 'Magic Wand' tool to highlight the sky behind the statue. The selection can then be tidied up and made more accurate by clicking on the 'Edit in Quick Mask Mode'
icon (bottom of tools palette) to make the selected area coloured, and then using the brush tool (with black as the foreground colour) to paint more into the selection or alternatively (with white as the foreground colour) to subtract from the selection. It's easy to toggle between the modes and to vary the size of the brush to get it neat.

I only have the basic Photoshop CS, and that doesn't have a 'Refine Edge' facility but using Select - Modify - Contract, set to 2 or 3 pixels, you can pull the selection in fractionally. Using 'Create a New Layer' and 'Apply Image' I pasted the cut-out statue onto a transparent layer (which isolates the statue from its original background.) Then using the Move tool I dragged it onto my sunset sky background photo. Resizing and repositioning the image to fit the background is easy enough, by dragging the 'handles' around the statue image.

I then flattened the image, slightly adjusted the whole new image using Adjustments - Levels
and cropped it, before adding a stroke border.

The finished picture may not look wholly realistic, but it gives the silhouette more impact, I think.

A similar technique can be used to drag a picture onto any nice sky - blue with white fluffy clouds, storm clouds or whatever. But I find this only really works for images that have strong edges. For example, it is difficult to move a picture with trees on the skyline because you can't get a good enough selection on the delicate edges. In my picture above, the rim lighting works quite well, in itself sharply defining the shape of the statue. But with some subjects the precise selection necessary to drag the image onto the new background leaves the composite image looking very much 'pasted on' and unreal.

The method outlined is only one of several ways to achieve much the same outcome in Photoshop. As time goes on and they continue to refine Photoshop, I have no doubt it will all become much easier. As it is, we just have to be thoughtful about what images we can give this kind of treatment to.

So, not a cure-all for every dull sky by any means, but sometimes this can be a trick worth trying. Far better, as always, to try and get good results straight out of your camera! Though we all know that English weather, in particular, can be prone to flat grey or white skies.


  1. You are doing a great job with your photoshop. I keep learning new things as I use it and this is nice to know what you have shared. Thanks.

  2. Very nice job on these. I think you picked some excellent photos to do this with. I tried the "Putting a new sky in" here if you want to take a look.

  3. Forever having dull skies. I am too impatient to put skies in so I put up with the dull ones. You did an excellent job on yours. I would believe it to be real.

  4. I would love to do that to my header photo of the Pittsburgh skyline. Sadly I don't think I have a steady enough hand or a deep enough reserve of patience.

    Yours turned out awesome.

  5. Really like how the final picture turned out. You also chose two great picture to mold together.

  6. This is a success, your selection was accurate, and the sky was natural. However you forgot one thing - there was no sun to cause the white reflection on the base, but it would be easy to clone some sky here with 60/70% transparency. Lassoo a bit -Ctr C,V,T this and pull it down by the top handle so it's up-side-down, move it somewhere where you can clone it from. I used to extend the canvass to clone things to. (CVT is copy,paste,transform)

    Hope you are feeling better Jenny. I'll be back, Bob

  7. Hi, like the blog. You've got some really interesting things going on here. Use photoshop a lot myself so great to see someone blog on the subject. Keep up the great work.

  8. Interesting work you do here, Jenny. I like it when people (read: Bob) give honest and useful feedback.

  9. Hi,
    So glad you left a comment on my blog, now I can "travel" to a place I know nothing about through your camera lens. I love what you did with the photo above by the way! I have PSE 6, but will try to follow along...I'm always up for learning new things!