Special Effects with Adobe Photoshop

Special effects on TV, the big screen and in magazine images always come with a large price tag for any production team. Adobe Photoshop allows you to replicate and create your own ‘out of this world’ images for very little cost, or even free if you use your own images.

In this Adobe Photoshop masterclass, I will be showing you how I created the image below. You will learn about many of the most powerful features of Photoshop as well as get an insight into how the pro’s add drama to an image. Perhaps you would like to follow this tutorial with your own images?

Photoshop - Image Manipulation
Photoshop – Image Manipulation

Step 1: Gathering together the images

I always like to pause and think before putting my image together. Some of my best work has been formulated whilst trying to get to sleep at night. Make sure that the images you choose are going to work well together as united elements in your composition.  It’s all about similarities – if the images are similar to each other to begin with, then they will be less work for you and the finished art-piece will yield a better result:

  • Are they of matching resolution? Dropping a small image onto a high resolution image will end in tears. You will end up with a mish-mash of different levels of detail that will scream out ‘copy and paste’.
  • Do the images have similar lighting? One image taken with natural sunlight and another with front on flash will be difficult to match. If the lighting is coming from the opposite direction, you’re in control, you can flip (mirror) elements within your composition to match.
  • Are the textures in the images compatible with each other. Adding a very grainy image element to a fine crisp image will make a rough union. If you have no other choice, may be it would be better to add grain or blur the crisper elements in your image to match the lesser.

Once you have gathered together your image elements, it’s time to create an image document that will form as a container for your composition.


Hold down the CTRL key (Win) or APPLE key (Mac OS) and press ‘N’ for New. This will bring up the New dialogue box. The size of your document will depend largely on what you need it for. If it is just for screen output, then a width or height up to 1000 pixels should be fine – don’t worry about the Resolution setting if this is the case. If you require your image for print, then create a width and height in cm or inches and set your resolution to 288 pixels/inch. I always like to work on a ‘little larger than I need’ basis so that I can be flexible with the image later. For this project, I will be using the following  settings:

Width: 3000 pixels
Height: 3000 pixels
Resolution: Irrelevant (as I am working in pixels)
Click on ‘OK’ to create a blank canvas.

Step 2: Selecting elements for the composition

Now, if you haven’t already done so, open up your other images; the images that you will be taking bits and pieces from. We are now going to use a few selection methods to isolate these elements so that we can copy them into our canvas. I will start with the background image.

Select all - Background Image

  • Background Image – Select All: Bring to focus (click on top bar of image) you background image and Press (CTRL/APPLE A) to ‘Select All’. You should notice ‘marching ants’ around the edge of your background images canvas. This means that all of the canvas is now selected.
  • New Canvas – Paste: Now bring to focus your background canvas and paste (CTRL/APPLE V) the previously selected background onto your canvas. The action of pasting will automatically generate a blank ‘Layer’ within your Layers palette.
  • Free Transform – Pasted Background: Free Transform (CTR/APPLE T) allows you to scale, stretch, rotate and distort a selected element or contents of a non-locked layer. It is an invaluable tool, especially for image manipulation. Scale your background to fit your canvas by clicking and dragging the mouse on the corner points or ‘handles’ of the bounding box that appears. It is a good idea to hold down the SHIFT key whilst doing this to prevent a loss of aspect, resulting in over distortion or stretching of the image element. You can also rotate in Free Transform mode by clicking and dragging outside of the bounding box. If you single click and drag within the bounding box, you can move your transform. Double click on your element, or click on the Confirm icon on the Option Bar, or press Return/Enter on your keyboard (recommended) to make permanent your transformed element.
  • Hand SelectionSelect Hand Element: Now that we have our background shot in place, let’s turn our focus to the hands image. Using the Polygonal Lasso tool,  carefully select around the hands, checking that your are zoomed in at around 100/200% to ensure a good quality selection. You can use the backspace or delete key to unpick bad selection points (whilst selecting only). The Polygonal Tool is excellent for accurate selections – well worth spending a little quality time with.
  • LayersCopy & Paste: Now that you have selected the hand, copy it (CTRL/APPLE C), focus on the background image and paste (CTRL/APPLE V). Make sure that you have your Layers floating palette open so that you can see what is going on. You will now notice that a new layer has appeared, housing your new image element.
  • Free Transform: Use Free Transform to rotate and scale the hand element into place over the mountain’s summit. Confirm to set in place.

There, we have the basic components within our canvas. Now is a good time to save our image document. It is highly advisable that you choose Adobe Photoshop’s native file format: PSD to ensure that all critical elements and settings are save with the document.

Step 3: Blending your layers

Next, we are going to look at two a very simple approaches to blend the hands layer into the background shot.  We will need to use both methods to get the best result.

  • Layer MaskCreate a Layer Mask: This Adobe Photoshop function will allow you to effectively hide/show pixels in a non-locked (not background) layer using, for instance, the Paintbrush tool. To enable Layer Mask, simply choose the layer with which you wish to hide content and then click on the ‘Add layer mask’ button at the button of the Layers palette. If you are not sure which one this is, let your mouse hover over each icon to reveal the function names. After clicking, you should notice an extra ‘thumbnail’ appear in your layer stack. This will store mask information.
  • photoshopUsing Your Layer Mask: It is important to point out that in order to go back to the normal editing of your layer, you must click on the actual layer thumbnail. You will see a small white border appear around it to signify it’s selection. To go to ‘Layer Mask Mode’, click on the Layer Mask thumbnail.
    To start making the most of this function, select the Brush tool from the tools palette and set your primary colour chip (painting colour) to black. Black will hide pixels whilst in Layer Mask mode, but white will make them visible again. This method is far more flexible than using the Eraser tool – which I personally never use. Change the size of your brush (‘{‘ smaller, ‘}’ bigger) to vary the softness of the blend.
    Now erode away at any unwanted pixels. Pay special attention to the way in which the wrist of the hands element meets with the rocky outcrop of the mountain.
  • Color OverlayAdding Atmospherics Using Blending Options: Right click (PC) or alt-click (APPLE) on your hands layer and choose ‘Blending Options‘ from the drop-down. This will bring up the ‘Layer Style‘ dialogue interface. Take a look at the menu to the left of the interface  and click on ‘Color Overlay‘ (Tip: click on the name, not the tick box to reveal style settings). Now click on the colour chip within the the ‘Color’ field-set. Take your mouse out on to your image canvas and click on (or ‘Sample‘) a neutral colour within the backdrop – the sky is usually good. Your hands element should now turn that colour. Now reduce the opacity via the slider to 20%-30% or until it look right. This should create the effect of atmospheric depth adding to the realism of the blend.

Step 4: The Finishing Touches

Now, all we have to do is make the hands look a little more like rock, change the sky and tweak the lighting.

  • Stone EffectCreating the Stone Effect on Skin: To achieve this, all I did was to simply select around an area of the mountain side and (CTRL/APPLE C) and Paste (CTRL/APPLE V) it onto a new layer. Then, I reduced the opacity of that layer to about 50% by dragging the Opacity slide bar (top of Layer palette) and Free Transformed it over much of the hand. I then used Layer Mask to remove any overhanging bits and a larger brush to blend it out into the rest of the hand.
  • Adding a New Sky: Focus on the image of the sky and do a ‘Select All’ (CTRL/APPLE A). Focus on our manipulation canvas and Paste (CTRL/APPLE V) the sky. Depending on which layer was active when you pasted, you may need to move your sky layer down the layer stack and behind the layer of the hand. To do this, simply click and drag the layer and drop under the hand layer. Use Free Transform to get the sky into position.
  • Blending the Sky: Again, same process as with the hand – use Layer Mask to hide/show pixels within the sky layer, to create the illusion of it being behind the mountains. Remember, you can change the softness of the blend, simply by increasing/decreasing the size of your brush.
  • Adjustment LayerLighting Effects – Adjustment Layer: Now that the composition is complete, let’s add an Adjustment Layer (Levels) to bring a few lighting effects to our scene. This will need to be added to the top of the layer stack, so click on the highest layer before adding the Adjustment Layer. Click on the Adjustment Layer icon at the bottom of the Layers palette (hover your mouse over the icons to find out which one it is). You will see the an Adjustment Layer appear in the layer stack with two thumbnails. Also, a histogram should appear on screen. We want to add a few dark and dramatic areas to our image, so drag the points around to create the desired effect – experiment (see image opposite – red circles). Now darken the entire image – the great thing about Adjustment Layers is that you can mask out the effects of, say the Levels, afterward in the same way as with Layer Mask. Once you have achieved the desired effect – click on OK. Making sure you are in the Adjustment Layer’s – Layer Mask mode, paint back the areas of the image that you don’t want this adjustment to effect using your Brush tool, with black as your selected colour chip. Easy! You can even re-adjust the Levels settings at any point by clicking on the thumbnail of the histogram on the adjustment layer.

All done.


All of the things that you have learned about in the Adobe Photoshop tutorial can be applied to practically any image manipulation project. You will also find that these skills will give you and extra edge in the areas of photo-restoration and image preparation. Good Luck!

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