Using Cloud Overlays and Textures to Create a Composite Photo Illustration
I have a confession to make. I have never used a cloud overlay. Well, not before I started experimenting with them for this image anyway. When SLR Lounge released their Cloud Pack, I thought, “Oh, that might be kind of fun to play around with.” Blown out, boring, cloudless skies are often something I deal with, especially when shooting with natural light only. A cloud overlay can be a simple solution to adding a little interest to the sky. There are several tutorials on our site for adding a simple cloud overlay to engagement and wedding photos (I’ll include links at the end of the article), but today I wanted to show you how to do something a little more involved and fun. I’ll show you, step by step, how to create this Little Witch Composite Photo Illustration in Photoshop.
Camera (I used a Canon 5D Mark III)
Lens (I used a Canon 24-70mm f/2.8L)
Adobe Lightroom and/or Photoshop
Graphics Tablet & Pen (I use a Wacom Intuos Pro Medium)
SLR Lounge Photoshop Paper Texture Collection
First things first, you’ll need to take your photograph! I wanted to do something cute and fun with my daughter, so we grabbed a bunch of props and headed out to the lake in my neighborhood. It was cold (like super cold) and wet, so she didn’t last long, but we got some shots I could play with.
When I got home, I loaded the photos into Adobe Lightroom, chose a favorite and applied the basic color, contrast and other adjustments I usually make using the SLR Lounge Lightroom Preset System. In a few quick and easy clicks, my image was ready to go. Then I opened it up in Adobe Photoshop.
Straightening the Horizon Line
Next, I copied my layer and straightened the horizon line. I do this the old fashioned way by dragging a line down from the rulers, hitting command-T, and dragging the little center axis marker over to the edge of the line. Then I mouse over a corner of the image and rotate it until the horizon line is straight.
Next, you have two choices. You can either crop out the parts of the image that are showing some of the original behind it, or you can merge the two layers and then do a little cloning to preserve more of the background. I chose to do the latter because I didn’t want to crop in too tightly to the feet.
You can see here that the sand has a weird pattern look from the rotation, so I used some careful cloning to disguise that. The key to cloning textures so they look “real” is to make sure you’re not seeing patterns anywhere within the texture. Read more about using the clone stamp tool by clicking here.
Choosing the Right Cloud Overlay
Next up, I had to choose the right image from the SLR Lounge Cloud Pack for my composite. I have the cloud pack loaded into a collection in Lightroom. SLR Lounge has cleverly organized the cloud images in the following categories: Daytime, Daytime Sun Direction, Mostly Cloudy, Sunset No Sun, and Sunset Sun Direction. Within each of those folders, the images are organized by focal length, which is very important! As previously mentioned, I’ve never tried any other cloud images, but I found this organizational method to be very helpful in choosing the right photo for my particular needs.
The sky in my original image is actually quite beautiful. It’s a nice, soft, pastel sky. But to fit my vision for the little witch, I wanted something darker and stormier looking. To find the best cloud image, I scrolled through the cloud pack folders looking for something that matched the focal length my original images was shot at (24mm) and just started opening up a few in Photoshop and trying them out. I eventually settled on the above image and placed it on its own layer above my original photo in Photoshop.
Adding the Cloud Overlay
I lowered the opacity of the cloud layer so I could see the horizon line on both images.
Then lined up the horizon lines by moving the cloud layer up.
Next, I right clicked on the cloud layer, and this dialog box comes up. Choose Blending Options.
Since my skyline is pretty simple, I used the “blend-if” technique to mask out the parts of the sky that I don’t want to show. There are some in-depth videos for using this technique in the workshop section of this website. I’ll post links at the end of the article. It’s very simple. You basically go the bottom of the blending options dialog box and choose “Blend if GRAY”. Then you use the sliders to manipulate which areas of your top layer (the cloud layer) will blend with the bottom layer.
You’ll still have to do some masking, but for the most part, Blend If saves so much time. You can see there are parts of the scarf, hand, and hat that ended up blending into the sky layer. It’s ok, though, I just used a brush or the pen tool to make a selection and mask those parts away.
You can also see the tree/mountain line has somewhat of a hard edge in places. I just took a soft brush at a low opacity and masked some of the background back in to soften that line.
Adding a Cloud Reflection
After doing a little more cleaning up with the brush and pen tool in the mask area, I duplicated my cloud layer and deleted the mask from that duplicate layer. This will end up being the cloud reflection in the lake.
Next up, with the new cloud layer selected, click on Flip Vertical (Edit > Transform > Flip Vertical).
Then I moved the layer down, so the clouds are showing on the lake. Generally, you’ll want to align the horizon lines and mask out from there. You can use Blend If again to mask out the sky, or whatever method is your favorite. Then you’ll want to choose a blending mode for that layer, so it looks like a reflection in the lake. I ended up using Multiply and took the opacity down a bit.
Adding the lightning
I wanted to show more action in the image and thought it would be fun to have some lightning coming out of her wand. I’m always a fan of using your own images for composites, but I didn’t happen to have any photos of lightning, so I did a google search for free lightning images and found a few that would work. Always do your diligence and make sure the images you grab online are truly “free” so you aren’t stealing another artist’s work. These lightning images came from Brusheezy.
Here’s where things really get fun. I started playing around with blending modes to see which gave me the designed glowing lightning effect.
Then I used free transform to manipulate the lightning.
I didn’t like the pinkish hue of the lightning, so I changed it using a Hue/Saturation adjustment layer. To create an adjustment layer, click on the little black and white circle at the bottom of your layers palette. Then you can adjust the sliders as needed to change the color of your lightning. To make sure it’s only affecting the color of the lightning, though, you have to hold down the option key and click on the line between your adjustment layer the layer just below it. This will make sure your adjustment layer is only affecting that layer.
Next, I cleaned up the edges of the lightning using a mask and brush. I also added a few more streaks of lighting using the same process.
Once I had the lightning in place, I decided I wanted to flip my sky around so that light patch of clouds wouldn’t be behind the lightning. To flip the sky without messing up the mask you worked so hard creating, all you have to do is click on the little chain link icon that links your mask and the image on your layer. When there’s no chain link icon showing, that means you can flip your image, but it won’t flip the mask.
Adding the Birds
I decided the image needed more life or another character of sorts. How about some looming vultures circling in the sky? Again, I didn’t happen to have an image of vultures, so I went searching. I found this one on Pixabay.
Using the quick selection tool, I selected the sky area around the birds and masked out the sky. Then I used the transform tool to scale them down a bit and place them where I wanted them in the image.
At this point, I was pretty happy with my image, but I felt it still lacked some darkness and texture. Thank goodness I have the SLR Lounge Photoshop Paper Texture Collection, which is so fun to play with.
To add a texture, I first went back to my Lightroom catalog, where I have the texture collection images stored in a smart collection in my library. I scrolled through until I found one that might add a feeling of rain to my image. Then I opened it in Photoshop and pasted it into my working file.
Then I chose the Multiply blend mode for the texture layer and took the opacity down a bit.
Lastly, I created a layer mask and masked away a little bit of the texture from the witch. And that’s it! I’m done. Here’s the straight out of camera image vs. my fun composite illustration.
What do you think? Will you be giving cloud overlays a try? Here are some more resources for learning how to use the SLR Lounge Cloud Pack and the SLR Lounge Photoshop Paper Texture Collection.