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How to Create a Surreal Photo Collage

By Terri Stone

When you composite photos, you usually don’t want the result to look like a composite. Even if the final scene is fantastical, your aim is to transport viewers into another world. Filip Hodas, a 24-year-old freelance artist from Prague, has been creating convincing digital realities for years. Now he’s agreed to share his process.

To make the otherworldly landscape featured here, Hodas relied heavily on Adobe Photoshop CC layer masks. He placed each source image on its own layer and then used layer masks to hide and reveal parts of each. He also used layer masks to adjust color and add highlights and shadows. 

Watch Hodas’s image come to life, layer by layer. 

Do you want to try compositing photos yourself? You can download 10 images from Adobe Stock for free.

Hodas spent several hours getting his dreamlike image just right, so what follows isn’t an exhaustive step-by-step tutorial—instead, think of it as a highlights reel. If you’d like an introduction to Photoshop compositing before attempting some of these techniques, check out this crash course.

ASSEMBLING SOURCE PHOTOS

Hodas constructed this scene out of several photos (found on Adobe Stock). He began by opening a foreground image of a rich, green landscape. He masked out its sky using Photoshop’s Quick Selection tool and a Quick Mask.

Hodas resized the image to 7,000 pixels wide, because he likes to work at a very high resolution so that details are as crisp as possible. (Before he exports a final image, he reduces its size for a more manageable file.) He extended the canvas height to 4,200 pixels and imported both a dramatic sky photo and a photo he used to create a new horizon line. He scaled and positioned these pictures and then masked out some of the clouds using a soft brush in a new layer mask.

Filip Hodas demonstrates his Adobe Photoshop CC compositing techniques

EARLY REFINEMENTS

Next came a Color Balance adjustment layer, which he added to the background images so their colors would be a better match. Trees on the right side of the horizon image were distracting, so he removed them with the Clone Stamp tool.

Hodas knows that small details can have a big impact on a composite’s overall look, so his next step was to refine the foreground image’s mask. That softened jagged edges a little and removed a slight yellow outline.

Then he got to work on the horizon layer. He shifted its hue with a Hue/Saturation adjustment layer; then he added a color-correction layer, painting its mask with a soft brush so only the hills’ colors were changed, not the sky’s. Lastly, he used that same mask to slightly boost the blacks.

PLACING AND PERFECTING THE PILLAR

Hodas imported another photo, which he edited using similar techniques and then duplicated to form the cliffs on the left and right sides of the scene. At last, he was ready for this piece’s biggest challenge: adding the mysterious monolith and making it interact believably with the landscape.

Hodas imported the pillar, a 3D object, on a new layer and then used the Magnetic Lasso tool to select the foreground rocks and create a mask on the pillar layer from the selection. He softened the mask with the Blur tool. This mask made the pillar’s base appear to be under the edge of the foreground rocks. (If you’re not experienced in 3D, you could buy a model on Adobe Stock or try Project Felix, a new 2D and 3D compositing app for designers.)

Filip Hodas shows how to combine a 3D model and 2D photos in Adobe Photoshop

With a low-opacity soft brush, Hodas gave the pillar a subtle shadow that stretches toward the foreground. Next, he brushed in a soft, yellow light source on a new layer behind the pillar and set the layer to Overlay with low opacity.

Hodas envisioned the pillar as an ancient artifact. He aged it by placing an image of a cracked surface and used Photoshop’s Perspective transformation to match the cracks to the angles of the pillar’s two visible sides. He pumped up the blacks with a Levels mask.  

He then placed a rough concrete texture on a new layer and made a selection that became a hole for the texture to show through. After he desaturated and darkened the concrete, the final effect is that of a break in the original surface that has exposed the pillar’s interior to weathering. He placed several of these breaks on the pillar.

In this final video clip of his creative process, Filip Hodas applies a concrete texture to the 3D object in Adobe Photoshop CC

Hodas finished with a lot of painstaking work that really sells the scene, including color corrections, the High Pass filter to bring out details, a vignette (created with the Radial Gradient tool), and a monochromatic noise layer.

When you collage multiple photos, you’re constructing a new reality. What reality will you create with your 10 free Adobe Stock assets?