Creating a Christmas Card – Layers and Selections to the Rescue

(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.

9 thoughts on “Creating a Christmas Card – Layers and Selections to the Rescue

  1. Thanks Bill for that educational post. I do not think I will be taking that task on anytime soon but glad you let me know how to do it.


  2. Nice job. One day I hope to have the knowledge to be able to do things like this. Thanks for sharing….it’s always nice to know what can be done and how to do it.


  3. Hey Bill – I just got that card today in the mail – looks super! I particularly appreciated the included history of the creche. I better save this blog so I can figure out how to duplicate your work with my own project someday. Many thanks!


  4. Great work, Bill! Just wondering, would it have worked to use a handy sheet of white posterboard behind the creche when you took the photo, then replace the white with your blue background? Probably not easier, but an alternate?



  5. Donna, that would, indeed, work just fine but I didn’t have any with me. Actually, if you used a green or blue (or any color not in your subject) it would probably be easier to extract using a Magic Wand tool. – B


  6. Finally, a high level description of layers that I can understand and even apply! Thank you Bill for helping to make Photoshop a ‘little’ easier to understand! :o)


  7. Bill I appreciate your knowledge and willingess to share. Your process description is valuable and helpful. Great photo, thanks for sharing.


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