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.

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  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.

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  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!

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  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?

    Thanks!
    Donna

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  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

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  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)

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  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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