Taking a great landscape photo is extremely rewarding because a lot of things need to come together to be successful. But sometimes, no matter how hard you try, just a little something is missing. In this walkthrough, I will show you how to enhance your landscape images with a composite in Photoshop CC.
The main principle is to compose two or more images together to create a new scene. It could be as simple as planting a deer in a forest or it could be more involved with multiple photographs put together to generate something otherworldly. Either way, the tips and techniques are the same. All of this involves working with colors, tones, and masks to produce something that not only looks realistic, but a photo that’s greater than the sum of its parts.
For this example, I’m going to take two of my shots, one of a red deer and the other of a misty forest, and combine them to make it look like the deer has been in the forest from the start. In a few simple steps, I’ll show you how to balance colors, make curve adjustments, and create precise masks that allow images to blend seamlessly.
1. Import your photos
The first thing to do is to put your images together in one Photoshop document. My favorite way to do this is to open a photo in Photoshop by clicking and dragging the image in the Photoshop CC window, then simply clicking and dragging the other over it. Once the second image appears as a separate layer, be sure to press Enter or click the check mark at the top of the window to allow it to be imported.
2. Make a quick selection
Then I have to make a selection around the deer. I chose to isolate the deer in the foreground because that’s where I focus on the image, using the deer in the back wouldn’t have been as successful as it is slightly out of focus. I selected the deer layer in the layers palette and used the Object Selection Tool (W) to draw a square around the deer. Photoshop then automatically selected the deer using its AI-powered brain and I was halfway through getting a decent cutout.
3. Refine with the lasso
I’m saying halfway because there were a few areas where the object picker didn’t do a perfect job. That’s okay, I just zoomed in and used the Lasso Tool (L) to add or subtract from my selection. If you want to toggle between adding or subtracting the selection, just head to the respective icons in the toolbar at the top of the window while you have the tool selected.
There are better ways to make cutouts, especially when it’s a bit more complicated and the auto selection tools aren’t very precise. I like to use the Pen Tool (P) when this happens because I can trace a path around my subject, which contorts and bends depending on how you use it. The Pen tool also lets you change the path so that if you make a mistake halfway through, you can correct it. But there were only a few sections I had to grapple with for this example, so I used the Lasso tool instead.
4. Apply a mask
Now that the selection is perfect, it’s time to turn it into a mask. Head to the bottom of the Layers palette and click the Add Layer Mask button. The selection will now appear with the rest of the layer disappearing. If you find that the very thing you wanted to cut out is gone and the whole background is still visible (the opposite of what we’re trying to get), then with the mask selected, press Ctrl + I to l ‘reverse and your subject will come back (with the background cut out).
5. Resize and reposition
Now obviously your two images may not match perfectly when it comes to relative sizes or proportions, so you’ll need to make some changes if you want things to look more realistic. With the newly hidden layer selected, grab the Move Tool (V) and grab the transform controls around the edge of the frame, then click and drag to resize the image. I prefer to choose one of the angle transform controls.
Depending on your version of Photoshop, you may either be able to resize the image proportionally or hold down the Shift key while maintaining the correct aspect ratio. You will see what you need to do by simply moving the transform controls back and forth. I then repositioned the deer so that it appeared to be walking among the dead ferns in the distance.
6. Refine the mask
I needed to further refine the mask to take into account the extra foliage that would be in front of my repositioned deer. I noticed that a few overhanging branches of the evergreen trees in the foreground were hidden behind the deer. So I lowered the opacity of the deer layer so that I could see both where the deer was and the position of the branches. I then selected the mask and used the Brush Tool (B) to paint over the branches to reveal them.
The amount revealed by the brush depends on the foreground color, so it is best to go back to pure white for the foreground color. To make sure you’re using pure white, just press D then X on your keyboard respectively while the Brush tool is selected. This will ensure that your foreground color is white.
7. Mix the background
Then I had to mix the bottom of the deer with the ferns under its body. I took the Brush tool back and right clicked on the image to adjust the brush properties. I defined a relatively soft brush (12% hardness) and chose a large brush size (150px). This is because I wanted to gently blend the bottom of the deer with the foliage below, taking advantage of the hazy nature of the forest scene which offered a slight gradation between the foreground and background in the photo. I did a few passes on the deer’s legs and belly with 100% brush opacity before lowering it to 20% (in the toolbar at the top of the window) and blurring a few brush strokes additional for a more graduated look.
8. Add a curve filter
The deer is now in the right place and has been masked effectively to adapt to its position in the forest. But it still comes out like a sore thumb and that’s because the tonal values don’t match the misty forest scene. It’s time to do my first deer look adjustment. At the bottom of the Layers palette, I clicked Create New Fill or Adjustment Layer and chose Curves. The Curves adjustment layer allows me to manipulate the tonal value from the deepest blacks to the brightest whites. I wanted the adjustment layer to only control the deer. So I put my cursor under the new adjustment layer, held Alt on the keyboard, and clicked when a box with an arrow appeared. The adjustment layer will now only control the layer below and will not make any changes to the forest scene.
The haze in the photo erases a lot of dark blacks, so I made sure to pull the black point up on the graphic to further develop a gray tone that matched the shadows of the foliage around the deer. The highlights on the deer were a bit bright as well, so I placed a dot on the curves graph near the top right corner and dragged it down slightly. This darkens the shadows a bit too much (the curves graph will react to any points you drop on it and bend slightly) so I added another near the bottom left to amplify the shadows again.
9. Make a global adjustment
Now that the deer and the forest match, I wanted to add one last adjustment layer to tie the two images together. Clicking on a new adjustment layer and choosing Hue / Saturation, I then checked the Colorize box in the window that appeared and set a blue hue. The effect can be quite strong, so I lowered the Saturation slider to +18. To balance the two photos, I then lowered the opacity of the Hue / Saturation adjustment layer until I felt there was a good mix between the warm tones of the original photograph and the new adjustment layer. .
10. Make a crop to finish
You can leave it there if your photo is complete, but since the deer was so small in the frame, I wanted to crop it slightly smaller to make it more noticeable. I used the Crop Tool (C) and set my aspect ratio to 16: 9. I then dragged the handles around the edge of the crop overlay until I found a crop that worked for me. You can reposition the crop by clicking anywhere in the crop area and dragging it. Now that my composite landscape was complete, all I had to do was save.