Pre-Viz and Photoshop Compositing for a Holiday Card

Introduction: Pre-Viz and Photoshop Compositing for a Holiday Card

About: Commercial photographer with a need for some diy projects with the kiddies!
Photoshop layers and layer masks make creating digital photo illustrations easier than ever. But, it still takes a bit of practice, some trial and error, a dash of glancing at the manuals or tutorials and time.

The real key, however, is pre-visualizing how you want your project to look at the end, so you can assemble all of the elements before you begin.

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Step 1: Start With the End in Mind..

I came up with the basic concept last year, after reading a fairy tale in December and looking at last year's card. It was a good card in 07, but not up to what I really wanted.

This idea seemed pretty ambitious. It had a lot of different elements to work with. It would be a good exercise of my skills with practical props and with digital compositing.

And, had a high potential to look really cool.

Plus, my kids loved it.

All of my shoots start here, in my sketchbook or on a napkin, depending on where we are when my brain kicks into gear.

Step 2: Getting the Props...

Props needed:
Shower head
matching jackets

The shower head is just a funnel and some pvc conduit, spray painted gold.
The hats came off the internet from an army navy surplus.
Jackets? Sears, with the added bonus of being able to return them, if the boys didn't trash them.
Presents were easy. Empty boxes, wrapping paper and drafting my wife, who can wrap like a pro.
And the net was a soccer goal net from the sporting goods store.

The bathtub was something else. I checked out the local box store, but the people on the floor didn't have the authority to okay something like that. Plus, it was a special order item for 2 grand and I didn't feel like fighting with them to return it.

The answer was calling the president of Republic Plumbing, a fairly large, and local, plumbing supply company. He was intrigued by my project and was on board for loaning me the tub... As long as I didn't damage it and put up a credit card for collateral.

Now that I had gathered the parts, it was time to put it together...

Step 3: The Telescope

Boy, I wish I had had the piece of mind to record this little build. I think it turned out like a neat little steampunk telescope.

It is simply a compression pipe repair kit I discovered while wandering through the pvc section of my local home renovation store. I added a tube extension for the eye piece, painted it black and gold and added a strip of cheap pleather vinyl for the grip.

It doesn't have a lens, just a hole in the front. Which didn't really matter to me because I knew I would end up compositing some clouds reflected on it. However, my kids were a little upset about it not actually working! ;-)

Step 4: Setting Up and Testing

The night before the shoot, we wheeled the tub into my tiny little studio to figure out the lighting and run a few tests. After repositioning the tub and figuring out what they were going to be doing, we called it a night and vowed to start early the next morning.

I took the test frame and wiped out the background. I had found some wave shots from the North Sea online and used them for proof of concept.

Seemed to work pretty well and gave me some idea about angles.

Step 5: The Real Shoot

Shoot day! Shoot, shoot and shoot some more... but try not to exhaust their patiences (or mine)!

Step 6: Background Plates, or the Real Shoot, Part 2

So, we got our subjects but we don't have a background yet. Unless, of course, we want to steal that wave shot off the net. But, that would be unethical, wrong, illegal and bad for the photographer who put it up there to show of HIS stuff.

So, off to Nantasket, MA to catch some waves. We went to four or five different places to get different types of waves, with the light coming in different directions. It turns out that there was a storm off shore, with a wicked wind blowing. Perfect for getting a face full (lens full!) of spray.

I shot around 600 frames so that I knew I would have plenty to choose from when I got back.

Oh, and I shot some clouds at this point, too.

Step 7: Composite - See and Think

Now, to start the composite:

In photoshop, I opened a new document and made it big enough to fit the end use of my project. I was thinking about prints or possible stock sales.

I opened up my favorite shot of the boys in camera raw and dropped it in the document. Shooting them on grey allows me to easily use a layers mask to cut out around them. If you don't know about layers mask, there are a ton of great resources on the web, starting with the adobe site. There are a few instructables as well, plus Photoshop User's site.

The trick with compositing is to really think about how the sea looks from inside a boat (or tub!) and then choose frames that have similar angles and lighting. It helps to imagine what it would look like if you were sitting in a boat, watching the waves rise and fall. How close to the horizon should they reach? Where should the light becoming from?

That is why I shot so many wave shots: I needed a lot of variety to choose from.

Step 8: The Sky

After picking out a few background waves, I also needed to pick a sky. I wanted something warm and retro, but the day we shot, the light was rather blue. Luckily, camera raw can adjust the color balance of the files and I pushed the sky very warm indeed. If you are not shooting raw, it is definitely something for you to research. It adds some more time to the final edit. Oh, but what kind of control you can have!

Step 9: Back to the Waves

The first waves I chose didn't have the undulation I was looking for. That original NorthSea reference photo really was the direction I wanted to go. So, I went back into the edit and found the photos from this one really rough section between Nantasket Sound and the mainland. Perfect!

Now for the bow wake...

Step 10: The Bow Wake

More work with layer masking. Patient use of the eraser tool on the layer mask, toggling back and forth between the black and white colors to blend the edges. Layer masks mean that you are not actually erasing the pieces of layer you don't want. You are hiding them behind the mask. And, you can always go back and change your mind as to how much is hidden, how much is translucent and how much is revealed.

Step 11: Add Some More Waves to the Foreground

I really liked these waves and they added a nice sense of depth to the image. The original foreground was pretty flat. A nice soft eraser brush on the layer mask makes blending the edges pretty simple.

Step 12: The Sprayer

The needs to be powered some how. Inspiration came from an old Popeye cartoon, where he pulled out the shower head and shoved it into the drain. The water came up through the drain and out the shower head, which he used to push the tub on to rescue fair Olive Oil.

I used a fairly soft brush on a blank layer, with the brush's Shape Dynamics size jitter set to 0% and pen pressure set to blank, and Other Dynamics > flow jitter set to 0% and the control set to fade and 75.

Then I drew in the layer and used the transform tool to stretch and rotate the spray to the direction I liked.

Step 13: Ocean Spray

I added extra bow spray and ocean spray to the net by getting a splatter brush that I found on adobe's exchange forum and painting white splotches on a new layer. By adjusting the size, rotation and scatter in the brush dialog, I was able to make the marks random and more natural.

After adding a bunch of spray, I made a layer mask and painted back the areas I didn't want spray. I used another splatter brush for painting on the opacity.

Step 14: Adding Presents

Going back to my pre-visualization of the shot, I knew I needed to shoot a couple of presents, on the grey background, so I could add them in the water. I wanted them to appear either as dolphins in the wake or fish escaping the net.

I also had an idea for putting a ribbon in the air, like seagulls following the boat, but ended up thinking that they would have been too distracting. I shot them any way, so that I would have them on file, just in case or for a future composite.

I cropped the present file and used yet another layers mask to get rid of the grey and the bottom of the box. Dropping it above the water layer, I could adjust how deep the box was swimming by how much of the bottom of the box I revealed or hid with the layers mask.

By keeping the mask, I could duplicate this layer and easily put multiple boxes at different depths .

The spray was added using the splatter brush on a new layer and painting in the flow of the box's wake. And, another layer mask allowed me to be flexible with how much wake/box showed.

Step 15: Presents Multiply

Duplicate the box/wake layers a few times, adjust their layer masks and size and you have a school of presents!

Step 16: Add Vignette

One of the ways to help guide your viewers' eyes around your composition is to darken the edges. Create a curves adjustment layer as a new top layer. Play around with the curves until the edges look as dark as you want them to be.

Now the center is too dark, so get the eraser tool and go to work on the... yes! Layer Mask!

Step 17: Adding Retro/contrast Look

I cannot take credit for this step. Scott Kelby and Felix Nelson wrote a Down and Dirty Tricks article in the December 05 issue of Photoshop User. If you are using PS a lot, this is a great magazine to get. It is aimed at all levels and I almost always come away with one new idea/technique in each issue.

Step 1: Select all and edit > copy merged
Step 2: paste on a new top layer. This gives you the entire image in one layer. You could just flatten the image, but I firmly believe in keeping the ability to go back and tweak, if I need to. So, I keep all of my layers as long as possible.
Step 3: duplicate that layer 3 times (layer A, B, C)
Step 4: layer A ( the bottom most one) gets converted to black and white (Image>Adjust>Hue>saturation -100)
Step 5: Layer B gets the same treatment and it's layer mode gets changed to Screen. Change its opacity to about 50%.
Step 6: Layer C stays in color but its mode gets changed to either Overlay or color burn.
Step 7: Change the Opacity of the layers until you get the color and contrast you want. By changing the opacity of layer A, you allow some of the original colors to bleed through.

To further the effect, copy merged and paste on a new top layer. Since you can't see the effect so well on the web resolution, I'll just walk you through it.
On this new layer, add noise (filter>noise>add noise). I did about 4.5%, monochrome, gaussian.
And then sharpen it a little.

Step 18: Add Some Text

I used Burton's Revenge to continue the retro look.

Add a little layer style to it to make it as stylized as the rest of the image.

Step 19: And, Get Ready to Print!

My version was intended for a postcard, plus some other options.

I downloaded a template from my printing company and used it to match up my layout and color and uploaded it to get printed. I could have also printed cards from my computer, but I knew I need to make a lot and the commercial printer was more cost effective.

I also uploaded a slightly different version for my stock licensing site at photoshelterphotoshelter.

And, of course, I needed to make a lower resolution version for my blogblog.

Here is my happy crew, back in the original shot!

I hope this helped a bit in your own compositions. The key is to think your image through as much as possible!

Participated in the
Homemade Holidays: Holiday Card Contest

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    4 Discussions


    11 years ago on Introduction

    very clean photoshopping i like it! do you have a flickr/photobuckett account for your photography? id like to see some


    Reply 11 years ago on Introduction

    Thanks for the compliment. I do have a flickr account but it is for my family photos. Doesn't really relate. However, you can see some of my other commercial work at my web site httP:// While I have done composites for a long time, this is one of my more adventuresome projects. Most of my work is more straight forward... up until now! lol.


    11 years ago on Introduction

    Amazing! Thanks for opening my mind to more possibilities for PS and for the Holiday season... well done!