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Creating the Perfect Complementary Collage for Your Source Image

In this post, I’ll be presenting an experimental process of mine for creating detailed, vivid dreams. I’ve developed these steps over time to help me maximize the visual impact of my dreams and all but ensure an extremely high level of visual synergy between source and style. I’m hoping that a closer look into my process will give you a few new ideas to integrate into your own approach. I hope you’ll agree that this is a lot more fun and educational than the less structured experimentation of throwing spaghetti at the wall and hoping you’ll stumble across a style with this level of synergy with your source image (spoiler: you almost certainly won’t).

I’m using Photoshop Mix for iOS in this example, but you don’t need to use the same tool to apply this process. The principles translate fairly easily to any other tool or combination of tools that offers photo editing and collage making functionality (PS Express, Photoshop, GIMP, BeFunky, LunaPic, or many of the other tools we review in our lists of Image Editors and Image Utilities).

The first thing I will do is prepare the source image. Generally the first thing I will do is click the “Auto Enhance” option (Auto Levels or Auto Curves in Photoshop) and see if it’s an improvement. (It won’t always look better, but when it does it can be a big time saver). I’ll then try adjusting exposure and contrast to taste. I might also experiment with color presets, which are something like Instagram filters and help you draw out certain qualities in your photos. In Photoshop Mix these are called “Looks” and I use the one called “Punch”. One final thing I almost always do is boost the saturation to the point where it’s somewhat exaggerated and cheesy—my reasoning being that this is not the final output, and I’m giving DDG more color information to work with, which will result in a more colorful dream. If you don’t like your dreams extra-colorful, just saturate to taste.

Other color and light-related sliders I’ve seen in various photo editors that are less universal but very useful for DDG manipulation include:

  • Verve
  • Pop (Google Photos)
  • Clarity (Photoshop Mix)
  • Dehaze (Photoshop Lightroom)
  • Brilliance (Apple Photos)
  • Temperature (Almost universal)

These are highlights, but I suggest experimenting with every color-and-light-related slider you can find at least once; you can always undo, every option adds to your library of techniques, and the best way to learn this stuff is with hands-on experimentation.

I will then load the optimized photo into DDG as a source image, and run test dreams with a variety of styles that I suspect might do something interesting to style parts of the source image. I’m not expecting any dream to be a perfect match for all elements; I plan to combine the most promising to better address all the details of the scenery and subject. I’m looking for colors, shapes, and patterns that I think might stylistically “match” specific elements from the source photo. When my batch of tests finish, I find a few styles that show some promise.

Style A does a nice job with the pinks, while Style C’s handling of the cat is clean and colorful, and Styles B and C both seem to do a neat job of styling the darker trees and other foliage in the background. I’ll combine all three images to better capture the complete range of colors and shapes in the source photo. I also experiment with some color presets applied to the style images to add some extra pizzazz and variety to the palette.

I’ll also mention an optional step that I’m using in this example: I sometimes like to soften transitions by feathering the edges of the collage elements. In this example, I use Photoshop Mix’s Cut Out feature (which works similarly to a masking (or alpha) layer in Photoshop, or an alpha channel in some other tools). I’ll set the brush to be quite large and make its edges as soft as I can, set “subtract” mode, then “paint” along or just outside the edges of the image to soften the transitions.

Not bad for a first attempt, but the colors are a little off. The fastest way to fix that is by adjusting color-related settings on the images in the collage, by changing color presets and/or slider settings. I dial down the dark blues in the bottom image, and dial up the pastels in the top right image, among other color tweaks, export the revised collage, and use it in a new test dream.


As you can see, these adjustments are a big improvement, and we’re getting a lot closer to the look I’m going for. But I’m still not happy with the styling of water behind the cat; the collage may be missing some colors needed to capture the cool waters in a more pleasing way. What the dream looks like it’s missing is more light blue/teal elements that would work well for styling a body of water. I look through my collection of styles, and realize that I’ve got a fractal image that I made with Frax that has the right color and “aquatic” look to be a likely match. (Remember, you can always search Flickr with “deepstyle” and the color you’re looking for if your own style collection is missing the element you need.)

I add the fractal image to the bottom of the collage. To soften the transition, I again use “Cut Out” to fade the fractal in below the existing landscape style.


Final collage
This version of the collage adds a light teal fractal collage to give DDG plenty to work with in styling the body of water.
Success! I’m pleased with the output from this test, time to go public!

Hopefully this gives you some insight into my process, and maybe teaches you a few tricks that can give you more control over your dreams. I’ll be adding more tips for using this process with other tools as they occur to me, so bookmark this page, and happy dreaming!