The creative tutorial home of image wrangler, Lesa Snider.

Combine Images Creatively in Photoshop

November 04, 2009 by
Published on creativepro.com
Combine Images Creatively in Photoshop

One of the most rewarding projects you can tackle in Photoshop is combining images. Whether you're swapping skies, creating a collage, or building a panorama, it's a useful procedure that's also a lot of fun.

In this tutorial you'll learn how to fade one image into another using a gradient mask, and then you'll discover a new twist on the classic oval vignette collage.

Fade One Image into Another

By using a layer mask in conjunction with the Gradient tool, you can create a soft, gradual transition from one image to another (or many). However, the first step in any collage project is to combine two or more images into the same document, so they're each on their own layer.

Step 1: Open at least two images and position the document windows so you can see them both at the same time. TIP: If you're using Photoshop CS4, you can use the Arrange Documents pop-up menu in the Applications Bar (circled) and choose the 2 Up preview options.

You can combine the documents by dragging from the Layers panel of one open document into the open window of another, as shown below. Alternatively, you can copy/paste one image into another: Just click to activate one document, choose Select > All (Mac: Command + A, PC: Ctrl + A) and then copy it by pressing Command + C (PC: Ctrl + C). Next, click to activate the other document and then press Command + V (PC: Ctrl + V) to paste. Once you've combined the images into a single document, you'll see them both in your Layers panel, as shown here. Feel free to close the other open window if you like.

Step 2: Over in your Layers panel, click to activate the layer you want to be on top of your collage and then drag it to the top of your layers stack. In this example, it's the dude in the helmet.

Step 3: Add a layer mask to helmet dude by clicking the circle within a square icon at the bottom of your Layers panel. You'll see a white layer mask thumbnail appear in your Layers panel (circled), but you won't see any change on your document because at this point the mask is empty.

Step 4: Press G to grab the Gradient tool. Trot up to the Options bar and click the down-pointing triangle next to open the gradient menu (circled). Choose the black-to-white gradient from the pop-up list (third from the left in the top row), and from the row of gradient types, click the linear gradient button (also circled). Why are you choosing a black-to-white gradient? In the Realm of the Layer Mask, painting with black conceals and white reveals.

Step 5: With the layer mask active (you'll see a tiny hairline rule around its thumbnail as shown in the screen shot above), mouse over to your image and click once where you want the fade to begin and drag to the right for 1 to 2 inches. As you drag, Photoshop draws a line that represents the width of the fade: The shorter the line (the distance you drag), the narrower the fade will be and the harsher the transition. (It won't be a hard edge, but it'll be close.) The farther you drag -- the longer the line -- the wider the gradient and the softer the fade. TIP: If you want the gradient to be perfectly horizontal, click and hold the Shift key as you drag.

As soon as you release your mouse, Photoshop plops the gradient into the layer mask and your images appear faded together. If you're not happy with your first Professional Gradient Dragging Attempt, keep clicking and dragging with the Gradient tool until it looks good to you; Photoshop will update the mask automatically. Be sure to experiment with dragging for different distances and at different angles. If you want to start over, click the mask thumbnail in your Layers panel and select the whole thing by pressing Command + A (PC: Ctrl+A). Press Delete (Backspace) and you're back at square one. Here's the image as it should look now:

Step 6: If you need to move the faded image (helmet dude), make sure that layer is active in your Layers panel, and grab the Move tool by pressing V. Mouse over to your image and drag the image wherever you want it. Here's the final result:

Soft Oval Vector Vignette

Next, let's look at an updated approach to a time-honored technique called the soft oval vignette. In days of old, this technique called for an oval selection that is feathered, tarred (kidding!), and masked. These days you can create a non-destructive and fully resizable vignette using Photoshop's built-in vector Shape tools. After you've combined two images into the same document -- each on its own layer -- follow these steps:

Step 1: Over in your Layers panel, make sure the soon-to-be-vignetted layer (the motorcycle racer) is not locked. If it is, double-click it to make it editable. Since you need to use a layer mask for this technique, you have to unlock the Background layer or Photoshop will squawk rather loudly. If you've worked with the photo before and you've already unlocked the Background layer, you can skip this step. Here's the two images we'll be using:

Step 2: Grab the Elliptical Shape tool and set it to Path mode. Any Shape tool will work, though for this example, press Shift-U to cycle through the Shape tools until the Elliptical Shape tool is on top (circled). Trot up to the Options bar at the top of your screen and click the Path mode button (also circled). This forces Photoshop to draw a path instead of creating a separate Shape layer.

NOTE: Settings in the Options bar are sticky, meaning the next tine you use a Shape tool, it'll remain in Path mode until you change it back to Shape Layer mode. You've been warned!

Step 3: Mouse over to your image and drag diagonally to draw an oval, and Photoshop creates a thin gray outline of the shape. If you want the oval to be perfectly round, press and hold the Shift key as you drag. If you want to draw the oval from the inside out, press and hold the Option key (PC: Alt). If you want to move the oval as you're drawing it (in other words, while you're holding the mouse button down), press and hold the Space bar.

NOTE: The next two steps require you to have Photoshop CS4; scroll down to see a workaround for Photoshop CS2/CS3.

Step 4: Back in your Layers panel, add a vector mask by Command-clicking (PC: Ctrl-clicking) the "Add a layer mask" button at the bottom of the panel (circled at left below). Likewise, you can add a vector mask in Photoshop CS4 by choosing Window > Masks and clicking the "Add a vector mask" button at the top right of the panel (circled at right below).

If you don't want to feather the oval, you can stop here. This is what our collage looks like:

Step 5: Feather the mask by opening the Masks panel and dragging the feather slider to the right to about 40 pixels.

Step 6. If you want to move the motorcycle rider within the vignette mask, you can unlock the mask from the layer by clicking the tiny chainlink icon between the layer and mask thumbnails. Once the thumbnails are unlocked, you can click either one to activate it and then use the Move tool as described earlier. Here's the final collage:

The wonderful thing about using a vector mask is that you can activate the mask and then resize it using Free Transform without losing any quality (Mac: Command + T; PC: Ctrl + T). That's right; the mask's edges will be just as smooth and crisp as they originally were.

Photoshop CS2/CS3 Feathering Workaround

Since there's no Masks panel in Photoshop CS2/CS3, you can't feather a path on the fly. You'll have to turn it into a selection first and add a mask. This workaround produces a pixel-based layer mask instead of a vector mask, which means you lose the ability to resize the mask after you've created it, but you can always resize the path before you create the selection. Here's how:

Step 4: (Optional) Once you've drawn the oval shape, open the Paths panel by choosing Window > Paths, and from the Paths panel fly-out menu (circled below), choose Make Selection.

Step 5: (Optional) In the resulting dialog, enter 40 in the Feather Radius field and press OK.

Step 6: (Optional) Go back to the Layers panel and add a regular layer mask (pixel-based) by clicking the "Add a layer mask" button at the bottom of the Layers panel.

Not bad, eh?! As you can see here, collages are a great opportunity to use your own imagery in conjunction with stock photos. Just think of the possibilities! A wedding photo faded into a bouquet of flowers, piano keys faded into a sheet of music, Captain Kirk faded into a shot of the Starship Enterprise…

In fact, to prove my point I'll give 10 free iStockphoto.com credits to anyone who emails me within 24 hours of this tutorial going live. How's that for enticement?! Until next time, may the creative collage force be with you all!

Lesa Snider, chief evangelist of iStockphoto and founder of GraphicReporter.com, is the author of Photoshop CS4: The Missing Manual (Pogue Press/O'Reilly), along with several video training titles at Kelby Training and Lynda.com. She's a member of the Photoshop World Dream Team of instructors and author of the "Graphic Secrets" column in Photoshop User magazine.