Photo manipulation has come a long way from tweaking celebrities to give them brighter smiles. It’s an entire art form, one used from something as quotidian as combining buildings to create a unique city skyline or collage one of those so-hot-right-now faux double exposures, to making entire complex imaginary worlds come to life.

But some photo manipulations are much more successful than the others. The trick? Attention to detail. You can have the most fascinating wildest dream of a fantasy land, but if you don’t know how to find the materials you need to make it and fit them together like a perfect puzzle, you’re not going to be able to make your dream come to life.

So here’s our guide to getting started. It’s one of those art forms that takes a lot of practice to perfect, so the sooner you start practicing, the better!

1. Select the right materials

Magda Woźniak

So, we’ll admit that the title of this article is a little misleading. You can’t actually start with nothing – it is critical to find the right tools and materials to use as the basis of your work. While you can probably make up for some flaws in the imagery you use through this digital manipulation, why not start with the best of the best so that you don’t have to? Here are some important things to consider:

Light

This is one that you don’t want to have to fake — though you can, in a pinch (Photoshop is a powerful tool). The first thing that’s going to throw a viewer off is if there are multiple sources of light in the image. So when you’re selecting stock imagery to compose your piece with, give yourself an easier task by finding those that were photographed with similar angles of lighting source.

Color

A little bit easier to vary, as when elements are added to Photoshop in different layers, you have a lot of power to easily manipulate the tones. But it is still a good idea to find images that can naturally impart the colors you’re looking for.

Quality

How big are the images you’re looking for? What resolution are they in? Can you see any visible evidence of pixelation? Perform a check on every image to make sure you’re using high level graphics, particularly if you’re going to be modifying them significantly yourself. Think of it as a blank canvas for you to get started on.

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2. Put your elements together

Alex Samsonov

This is where the heavy-duty legwork comes in! You’ve got to structure your image so that it looks organic. This follows naturally if you’re trying to create a realistic image for a website or brochure. But even when creating a fantasy world, if it follows the laws of everyday physics it will be more believable.

Pick your poison

You gotta decide if you’re going to plan or improvise your piece. Designers all work in different ways. When creating an image that doesn’t exist in the real world, some like to try and sketch out everything in advance, and then search for elements to fit. Some like to go off the cuff, knowing vaguely what the concept of the piece will be and searching for elements that inspire, then riffing off those with accompanying images.

Keep organized

When you start importing and isolating your images to combine, the key to making any task like this manageable is organizing your layers. Name each layer for exactly what it is, and use folders as much as you can. You’re going to have to treat each layer individually, and then following that combine certain layers in groups to modify. You’ll thank yourself for not having to click through each layer to try and find the one you want to edit next.

Details, details, details

It’s easy to try and find ways to shortcut here. It can take a long time to get just the right cutout of a shape, or figure that there’s some point later that you can blend away your mistakes. But if you take just a little more time to refine your techniques at this stage, it’ll make the next one, unifying the aesthetics of your image, much easier. So take that extra time to refine the edge of your Magic Wand or Quick Selection.

Get these skills

Lasso, Magic Wand and Quick Selection are three popular options for isolating certain parts of images. Masks are also a huge deal, particularly when you want to preserve detail.

Free Transform will help you change the shape and perspective of your objects (ex. Scale, Perspective, Rotate/Flip, Warp.)

Blur Tool with the assistance of the Smudge Tool, Clone Stamp, Healing/Spot Healing, and Patch Tools will help you blend objects together into one image.

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3. Add those final touches

lambda256

OK – now you’ve got a bunch of pieces that proportionally fit together. The next step is to unify the aesthetics of your piece.

Play to a specific look

If you scroll through all of the examples that we have on this page, you’ll notice that they all have their own look. Some are dark and grungy, some bright and polished, and others are gauzy and surreal. Know what feeling you’re trying to accomplish with the illustration, and use that as a guide for the color and texture decisions that you make.

Texture-ify

Speaking of which — texture! It’s something that too many people overlook. Adding the right subtle texture to the various elements of your design will bring it up to that more realistic level, as pieces with a uniformly smooth surface can be eerily sterile.

Get these skills

Adjustment Layers: just learn all of these. They’re the key to getting that coloring correct! One handy tip is to pay attention to how different tools adjust shadow, midtone, and highlights. All of your light layers don’t have to be adjusted at the same level.

Blending Modes go pretty hand-in-hand with some of the other tools we mentioned above to help combine images. But they can also be a great way to combine other digital effects with your work, like brushes or textures.

Brushes can be very powerful tools to help create movement and flow within a photographic piece. They’re also a great tool if you want to create a more abstract art piece with photographic components, allowing you to draw around the central objects in your illustration.

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Featured image: Kinga Britschgi uses all of these techniques to create magical Steampunk landscapes!