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Creating a Themed Collage With Feathered Masks

Let me first note that there are many successful strategies to building a complex collage with Photoshop— I just know what works for me, and I don’t pretend that this approach will work for everyone, or that there might not be a more successful technique. But here’s the general methodology I’ve worked out that works pretty well for my “theme” collages, and an introduction to basic Photoshop concepts like layers and masking.

Before I begin a new collage, I generally already have a subject and a target photo that I want to design for— in other words, I establish in advance that the finished product is intended to work well as a style for a pre-selected photo that is representative of the type of images I plan to use the collage for. This particular collage, I decide, will be aimed at underwater shots like the one pictured here.

Deep Style Ultimate Index

To gather materials, I like to search the Flickr Style Index for related phrases… in this case, “deepstyle underwater” works well.

Next, I create a new document the size that I plan for the finished collage to export at. Usually I make these quite large to give myself more room for collage elements… 6000 pixels by 6000 pixels is an ample canvas for all but the most ambitious style images.

I’m presented with a new, blank canvas.

I import an image using the “Place Embedded” command in the File menu. (There are about 50 ways to get an image into your Photoshop project, this is only one.)

In many of my collages, I want to soften the edges of each layer, so that DDG doesn’t read too much into the edges of each individual piece. I do this by setting the feather value of the marquee selection tool… in this case it softens the edges of the selection over the outer 48 pixels. I then draw a box just inside the edges of the image, and click the “mask” button in the Layers panel. Both are outlined in red in the screen here.

I load two more images onto the canvas, and move them to appropriate places. I soften their edges in a similar fashion.

One thing I like to do with my collages is to include a style with some form of “sky” at the top of the canvas. I feel like this gives the style engine a strong indication of what elements to style any sky-like elements at the top of the photo. It’s possible this is mostly superstition, but it seems to work for me.

After placing another few images and applying similar feathered masks to each, I have a collage I’m happy with.

I’ll export it as a JPG or PNG at a quality that will keep it below 2 MB (so it will load on DDG), and try it as a style image with the “target image” I selected earlier. Note: File sizes as high as 20 MB work most of the time for most users, but the difference in quality is not significant in most cases.

Success! I’m pleased with the dream, so I consider it a successful collage, though I’ve got ideas for ways to further improve or elaborate on it… but those will have to wait for part 2.

There are many other techniques that I’ll cover in other tutorials to come. I’ll demonstrate much more advanced masking using Select and Mask to isolate subjects, in order to layer subjects on top of backgrounds, using blending modes to add lighting effects and additional colors, assessing and modifying a collage’s curves using the histogram, and using Photoshop filters to add special effects. Now go make your own collage, I can’t wait to see what you make with this knowledge!