Recently I have been having dreams of great flying jellyfish. I decided to photoshop up a concept for what became the first piece in a collection of a 9 conceptual compositing pieces around the idea of giant jellyfish and other sea creatures living in the skies of our world. In this tutorial I am going to explain the general tools I used, and the logic behind why I chose each processing technique. I am going to assume a basic familiarity with Photoshop and masking.
Starting with a photo of San Francisco from several years ago, I brought the image into Adobe Photoshop CC and combined it with another photo of some moon jellyfish from one of my favorite haunts, the Aquarium of the Bay, using masks and adjustment layers.
Step 1: Compositing the Two Images Together
In Photoshop I composited the jellyfish onto the city by making a new layer and removing the background lock on the image. I then made a color selection on the blue in the background of the jellyfish image, with a high level of like pixels. After deleting the blue background (much like the technique for dealing with greenscreen images) I brought the rest of the image into the city image as a new layer. I then made a layer mask, and masked out anything else with the paintbrush that was irrelevant to the single jellyfish I wanted as a subject. I also softened the edges a bit to match the focus of the area in which I wanted the jellyfish to be placed.
Next, I added tentacles wrapped around 555 California for some image story narrative. I really phoned the tentacles in, technique-wise, but as I was planning on altering the image still further in Lightroom I knew it would good enough once the color transformations were added. To create the tentacles, I drew lines on the image based on the logic of how I wanted the tentacles to be wrapped, and I used the "Bevel and Emboss" layer style to make the tentacles appear more 3d. The next step was to do a color adjustment to bring them away from the look of the layer style towards a more natural look. Lastly, I blurred the tentacles by hand to match the focal length of that area of the image.
Step 2: Lightroom Global Adjustments
At this point I brought the file into Lightroom. After adding a vignette using the vignette slider panel, I did some work on the shadows/highlights balance to bring less contrast to the image. I toned up the shadows, and brought the highlights down a bit so as not to be as blown out. I also toned down the color a bit making the two parts of the image blend together better to give the whole thing a more united feel.
Step 3: Lightroom Color Toning, Round 1
The last step was to figure out a color treatment that would tie everything in the image together. First I tried playing the image cooler, but it ended up making the image too flat and boring. I also tried a full monotone treatment, based on dirty wash c-41 monochrome process, but had the same problem. The jellyfish was fading right into the background, and there wasn’t enough separation to highlight it as the main subject.
Step 4: Lightroom Color Toning, Round 2: the Warmening
Next, I tried a warming treatment which was a better direction as far as softening the image feel and bringing the two concepts together, but it was still lacking the cohesive and powerful feel I was going for. Now the city was getting lost, even while the Jellyfish was looking fabulous.
Step 5: Lightroom Color Toning, Final Battle!
Finally I decided to split-tone the image with the highlights in a rich golden shade, and the shadows in a blue-based purple. Lightroom's split-toning tool is excellent for this purpose, no need to bring the file back into Photoshop. In the split-tone tool, choose a warm golden shade in the mid-point between grey and full color. For the shadows, choose a grey/blue/purple shade to compliment the gold. This means that all your shadows on the image darken to a grey/blue/purple instead of grey or pure black, and all the highlights on your image will move towards light gold instead of full white. This split-toning has the same softening effect as warming the image did, but does not have the problem of flattening the city that the more monotone treatments had. The clouds retain their pillowy feel, the jellyfish is no longer getting lost in the sky, and the feeling of a dreamy afternoon is restored to the final piece.
You can see the full collection of images here on Medium.