(Note: The images in this blog appear somewhat dull and flat compared to when they are viewed in any other application. I was unable to determine the cause of this but wanted to alert you to the fact. – BW)
For several years now we have designed our own Christmas cards using nativity sets that I have photographed either on-site somewhere or in a table-top studio in my home. If I’m not using my table-top set-up, the setting usually leaves a bit to be desired. Such was the case this year as I used a nativity set in our church sanctuary. The choir loft and stained glass window were really distracting (see Figure 1) so I knew I had to do something. The steps that follow explain what I did in Photoshop CS-5.
Figure 1 - Original Photograph
Looking at Figure 1 you can see it’s not a bad photo but it’s just not suitable as-is for a greeting card. I knew I had to get rid of the distracting background. So, I started by duplicating the background layer (Ctrl-J) and went to work on the new layer.
I grabbed the mighty Quick Selection Tool (W), set the brush size to about the width of the edge of the roof of the scene and did a really quick selection of the crèche, angel, figures and the table top, excluding the choir chairs, organ ranks and window. I then zoomed way in, reduced the size of the selection brush and fine-tuned the selection at the pixel level paying particular attention to the angel’s wings and robe. (Note: At this point when I’m satisfied with the selection I save it so I can come back and use it later without doing any more work. Just click on Select > Save Selection, give it a name and click OK. To use it later, just Select > Load Selection, scroll to the named selection and click OK and the selection is made for you.)
With the crèche selected I added a Levels adjustment layer (Layer > New Adjustment Layer > Levels) and brightened the figures a bit.
Now let’s get rid of the background. With the crèche still selected I inverted the selection (Select > Inverse), hit delete and voilà, I am left with only the nativity. See Figure 2.
Figure 2 - Selection
Well, the selection certainly got rid of the background but I need something behind the crèche or it will just look really blah. So I created another layer with a gradient fill (Layer > New Fill Layer > Gradient) and set the color to a blue that I thought would help with creating a pleasing shade reminiscent of the sky. See Figure 3.
Figure 3 - Gradient Fill Layer
OK, now I think I need to do something to make it look more like sky and less uniform in color/gradient so I selected a colored, mottled, background image that I could use to add some subtle texture to the background. See Figure 4.
Figure 4 - Texture Layer
I opened the texture file, copied it (Ctrl-A = Select All, then Ctrl-C = Copy) and pasted it into the nativity photo I was working on by going back to that image and doing a Ctrl-V to paste it as a new layer. I then positioned that layer underneath the blue gradient layer and lowered the opacity of the gradient layer to about 62% to allow the texture to show through.
I positioned these two layers UNDER the crèche selection (Figure 2) layer, which as you are looking at an image, places them BEHIND the crèche and knew I was getting close. See Figure 5.
Figure 5 - Almost There
Now all I needed to do was darken the “sky” a bit for a more night-like look but I didn’t want to darken the crèche. Remember that selection we saved earlier? Because I saved it, all I needed to do was Select > Load Selection and click on the name of that selection and it snapped back into place selecting the nativity set. I inverted the selection so the “sky” portion was selected instead of the nativity and then added a new adjustment layer at the very top of my layer stack (Layer > New Adjustment Layer > Levels). Because the sky portion was selected when I added the Levels layer, only that portion would be affected by my Levels adjustment. The final product is shown in Figure 6.
Figure 6 - Finished Image
So, while this might sound like a lot of work, it isn’t really and with practice it can be done pretty quickly – well, except for the selection process which can be tedious but is the most critical part of the process.
FYI – The 6 layers in the final TIFF image are arranged as follows (from top to bottom): Levels layer for the sky, Levels layer for the crèche, selected crèche with background deleted, gradient layer, texture layer, original image background layer.