Replacing backgrounds using Photoshop compositing is a good way to enhance the look of our photos, but we can also add elements to the foreground of an image to give it extra impact. The subject isn’t always the closest thing to your camera, so why not reflect that in your creative composite work? In the following example, I’m going to demonstrate an easy way to use interesting background and foreground elements that can have a huge effect on the overall look of an image.
Note: If you’d like some instruction on how to do creative Photoshop compositing like the example below, check out, Digital Backgrounds and Compositing Techniques.
Do a Cut Out
Here is our original image. This is a photo of Ellen taken in Washington Square Park in late fall. I shot this image on film using a medium format camera.
Next, we mask out the background. We start by drawing a rough selection around Ellen with the Lasso tool. Then, we’ll use that selection to create a mask. Follow that up with Select > Select & Mask. Use that tool to modify and fine-tune the mask. You can also paint in/out parts of the mask with the Brush tool.
Build the Background
For this image, I combined (blended) texture and gradient (starburst) images and dropped their layers under the Ellen layer. They show through the transparent areas of the layer. The background layers were also blurred: Filter -> Blur -> Gaussian Blur. When doing Photoshop compositing like this, you can use almost anything as your background. Combining graphics is easy using the Blend and Opacity adjustments.
Add a Foreground Element
Here’s where we place the foreground element for effect. Photoshop compositing doesn’t have to stop with replacing the background. In this case, I’ve placed a transparent PNG graphic above the other layers and gave it a suitable blur: Filter -> Blur -> Gaussian Blur. This is a simple iPhone image of some tree branches. I’ve converted the image into a vector graphic. We can use the tree branches in any size without loss of quality. Import the tree graphic into the layer stack as a Smart Object layer (instead of as a raster). The graphic can be repeatedly transformed/scaled and you can add filter effects (as Smart Filters) to it that can be adjusted as easily as layer styles.
Here’s a download link for the tree graphic if you’d like to try it out. Once it’s on your computer and unzipped, import it into your Photoshop document using File > Place Embedded…, or just drag it into your document from File Explorer (Windows) or Finder (Mac).
Finally, we’ll apply a Hue/Saturation adjustment layer to give us a cool blue cast.
Photoshop Compositing — Animated!
In the video, I go on to show you how to take your Photoshop compositing a step further. You can create a “moving” version of this image by animating some of the layers. I created the following animated gif in Photoshop:
This should give you an idea of how adding foreground elements to your Photoshop compositing can help create a sense of depth to an image. Notice, it wouldn’t be hard to mask out the tree graphic to make it appear as if it’s behind Ellen. In fact, using blur this way on elements in front of, and behind, the main subject will help create a “focus zone.” This makes the composite much more interesting than just one where everything is in focus.