Water, by its very nature is difficult to convincingly incorporate into a composition. In this tutorial, you will discover how to combine advanced masking techniques, blending modes, adjustment layers and clever use of filters to part the sea and create a surreal photo manipulation. Let’s get started!
You will need the following stock images and brushes to complete this tutorial.
- Landscape 1
- Landscape 2
- Landscape 3
- Landscape 4
- Tourist (large version)
- Wave 1
- Wave 2
- Dolphin 1
- Dolphin 2
- Bucket and spade
- Fish 1
- Fish 2
- Fish 3
- Shark 1
- Shark 2
- Surf 1
- Surf 2
- Water brushes
Set your Background color to # e7f3fe. Create a new document 27cm x 18cm with the Resolution at 300dpi, the Color Mode in RGB and set the Background Contents to Background Color. This will be your project file for this tutorial.
Open the first landscape image and choose Image > Image Rotation > Flip Horizontal. Drag it’s layer thumbnail into your project file to create a new layer, then Transform to cover the top half of your canvas. Name this layer “Horizon”.
Press D to reset your Foreground color to black. Highlight the Gradient Tool (G), then set it to Foreground to Transparent and Linear in the Options bar. Now Shift-drag a gradient indicated by the length and direction of the arrow to blend the top half into the blue background.
Ensure the new layer thumbnail is active, then choose Levels from the drop-down Create new fill or adjustment layer icon situated at the foot of the Layers tab. In the next window activate the clipping icon so the adjustment only affects the target layer and apply these settings to increase the contrast.
Our image now requires a dramatic sky. Open the second landscape, then use the Lasso Tool (L) to drag a selection around the bird. Now press Shift +F5 to access the Fill window and choose Content-Aware from the drop-down menu.
Place this image as another layer, then resize/squash vertically and position as shown. Name this layer “Sky”, then use the same technique as Step 3 to blend the lower hard-edge into the horizon.
Now clip a Levels adjustment to this layer to boost the contrast.
Clip another adjustment to the same layer, but this time select Color Balance and apply these settings. The color and tone of both layers should now match perfectly.
Photoshop has many tools to help us isolate images from their backgrounds; most rely on a good contrast from the subject and background color. We’ll explore different extraction techniques later in this tutorial.
For our first image, there’s no quick fix to accurately achieve this, so we’ll use a channel, or density mask. Open the third landscape and choose Image > Calculations. In this instance, both Blue channels set to Color Burn produce the best contrast as a starting point for our mask. You’ll also need to select New Channel from the Result pull-down menu.
Switch to the Channels tab and you’ll see the new channel (“Alpha 1”) sitting at the bottom and the visibility of the other channels disabled. To view the channel in relation to the image, switch on the top RGB composite. To make viewing easier, double-click the channel mask icon, then click the color chip to change the default red and alter the Opacity to suit.
The next stage is to produce a clean silhouette, so make sure your new channel is active and use a small white Brush (B) at around 50% Hardness to remove the bottom left area as indicated. Remember to toggle the visibility of the RGB channel as you work.
Set the Dodge Tool (O) to: Range: Highlights, Exposure: 65% and use a medium, soft-edged brush tip to bleach the pixels around the outer edge of the trees.
Carefully use the Brush Tool (B) to paint with black and white to clean up your channel mask.
By default, white acts as selective channel areas, so hit Cmd/Ctrl + I to Invert your channel to negative. Making a reverse channel may also reveal tiny imperfections which can be fixed with the Brush Tool (B).
Cmd/Ctrl-click your channel mask thumbnail to generate a selection. Target the top RGB channel and switch back to the Layers tab. Now hit Cmd/Ctrl + J to float the selection to a new layer, then disable the visibility of the base layer to view the result.
Drag the extracted layer into your working file and label it “Midground 1”. Access Transform > Flip Horizontal and resize/position to the left. To remove any edge halos, go to Layer > Matting > Defringe and enter 1px in the following window.
Now we’ll remove some unwanted brown colors. Target the “Midground 1” layer and choose Image > Adjustments > Replace Color. Set the Fuzziness amount to 88 to increase the range to be altered, then change the Replacement Hue value to +68. Now click the darkest brown in the preview window with the eyedropper. To remove similar colors, use the plus dropper.
We’ll also use a channel mask to extract our fourth landscape. Repeat the the Calculations command again, but this time set both Blue channels to Linear Burn.
This channel lacks the contrast of the previous one. Rather than using the dodge technique over the whole image, press Cmd/Ctrl + L to access the Levels dialogue box. Now click the Whitepoint dropper over any greys a few times to make them white.
Repeat the same workflow as previous to clean-up and create an inversed channel mask.
Now copy a channel-based selection to a new layer.
Add this as a new layer to your project file, then Flip Horizontal/resize and position to the right. Defringe to fix any edge halos, then name the layer “Midground 2”.
Repeat the Replace Color command on this layer to convert browns to green.
Next, we’ll fill the foreground gap with some sand. Use the Lasso Tool (L) to loosely select a segment of sand from your “Midground 2” layer. Hit Shift + F6 to open the Feather window and enter 5px. With the selection still active, press Cmd/Ctrl + J to copy it to a new layer. Move it to the left, then enlarge and stretch as shown.
Duplicate your sand patch layer a few times, then resize and position to cover the remaining gaps.
Shift-click all your patch layer thumbnails and press Cmd/Ctrl + E to Merge Layers.
Add a mask to your merged layer, then hit Cmd/Ctrl + I to Invert the mask to black. Now use an assortment of white Brushes (B) to reinstate the sand. My mask is shown at the bottom of the screenshot for clarity.
Now press Cmd/Ctrl + E again to to merge this layer with the “Midground 2” layer.
Over the next few steps we’ll modify the color and contrast of both midground layers. First, clip a Levels adjustment to the “Midground 1” and apply the following settings.
Now clip a Color Balance adjustment to the same layer and modify the Midtones and Highlights as shown.
To limit the Color Balance adjustment to just the sand beneath the foliage, Invert the mask and paint back with white.
Now clip a Levels adjustment to the “Midground 2” layer.
As a final modification, clip a Color Balance adjustment to the same layer.
Next, we’ll add some distant sand on the horizon. Target the “Midground 2” layer, grab the Rectangular Marquee Tool (M) and drag a selection as shown. Feather the selection by 2px, then copy to the Clipboard.
Now target the “Levels” adjustment thumbnail above the “Horizon” and paste to create a new layer. Resize/position to cover the water, then label it “Distant sand”.
Open the tourist photo. This has been shot on a white background, so making a clean extraction will be a lot easier.
Set the Magic Wand Tool (W) to Add to selection, the Tolerance to 7 and activate Anti-alias and Contiguous in the Options bar. Now click to select the background, including the gap between the shirt and forearm.
Press Shift + Cmd/Ctrl + I to Inverse your selection, then click the Refine Edge button in the Options bar. In the following window choose On Black (B) from the drop-down menu to give the best preview of removing the white background. Now change Smart Radius to 0.5px, Decontaminate Colors to 100% and Output to New Layer with Layer Mask.
You’ll now see a duplicate masked layer and the visibility of the original layer disabled. At this point your mask may need some small refinements. First, place a middle black filled layer to reveal any remaining white. Now zoom right in and use a 3px Brush (B) at around 50% Hardness to clean up your mask as required.
When you’re satisfied with your cut-out, drag the mask thumbnail into the trash icon at the foot of the Layers tab and hit Apply in the following window.
Add the figure to your working file at the top of the layer stack and name it “Figure” Defringe by 1px, then reduce in size and place centrally over the sand.
Open the shoreline image and roughly Lasso (L) a selection excluding the beach ball. Copy > Paste the selection below the “Figure”, then Transform and position to the left. Now Cmd/Ctrl-drag the corner points to follow the perspective of the beach.
Duplicate this layer, Flip Horizontal and position on the opposite side. Lasso (L) small areas of the water’s edge, Feather by 3px and copy to new layers. Now reposition them so the shoreline isn’t an exact replica of the left side. My patch layers are shown at the bottom of the screenshot.
Merge your patch layers and both sides of the shoreline to a single layer and label it “Base water”. Now add a layer mask and use an assortment of soft-edged Brushes (B) to blend the hard edges.
Clip a Levels adjustment to this layer and apply these settings to lighten it.
We’ll now start to build up the towering walls of water in either side. Place this wave photo below the “Figure” layer, then resize and position to the left. Duplicate, then Flip Horizontal and move to the right. Merge both layers and name it “Rising water 1”.
Add a layer mask, then gently fade the top and bottom edges.
To blend the waves further, clip a Levels adjustment to it and set the midpoint to 1.34.
Now clip a Color Balance adjustment to the same layer and increase the Blue in the Midtones and Shadows.
The shoreline and waves still need some blending. First, clip a Hue/Saturation adjustment to the “Base water” layer, check the Colorize option and apply the following settings.
We don’t want the very edge of the shoreline too blue, so Invert the Hue/Saturation adjustment mask to black and paint back the areas as indicated.
Over the next few steps, we’ll extend the water upwards. Opt/Alt-click between the “Levels” adjustment and the “Rising water 1” thumbnails to unclip both adjustments. Now switch off the visibility of both adjustment – we’ll reapply these later.
Now target the “Rising water 1” layer, Lasso (L) a selection and Feather by 5px.
Copy the selection to a new layer. This layer will undergo some radical distortion, so to preserve the image detail choose Convert to Smart Object from the top-right fly-out menu. This change is indicated by the icon next to the layer name.
Here’s where the fun begins! Access Warp via the Transform menu and drag the control points around. Continue to click and drag on the rectangles to further distort the water upwards. When you’re happy, hit return, or click the Commit tick icon in the Options bar.
Repeat this workflow to add another wall of water on the left, then build up right side.
At this stage, I wanted more palm trees protruding behind the right wall of water. To do this, first highlight the “Midground 2” layer and it’s adjustments thumbnails and duplicate them. Now position them below the original “Midground 2” layer.
Slide the layer to the left, then resize and mask the hard edge on the duplicate as circled. I’ve switched off the water layers in the screenshot for clarity.
Copy selection of breaking water from the wave image and Feather by 5px. Copy > Paste a couple of times and Transform/Warp to extend the height of the water on the left.
Repeat this for the opposite side, then merge them to a single layer and blend with a mask. Name this layer “Rising water 2”.
Use the same workflow to take the water almost to the top of your canvas. Merge to one layer, mask and label it “Rising water 3”.
Add a feathered selection from the second wave above the “Rising water 3” layer and rotate it 90 degrees clockwise. Now access Warp, then apply the Arc preset, now click to change the Change warp orientation button and drag the central handle to match the left curvature of the water.
Duplicate this layer, Flip Horizontal and position on the right. Merge both layers and name it “Rising water 4”. Add an inverted mask, then paint back with a small white Brush (B) as shown.
When you’re happy, highlight the “Rising water 2”, “Rising water 3” and “Rising water 4” layer thumbnails and press Cmd/Ctrl + E create single layer. Rename this layer “Rising water 2”.
Enable the visibility of the Levels and Color Balance adjustments above the “Rising water 1” layer. Duplicate these and move/clip them to the “Rising water 2” layer. Now clip both original adjustments back to the “Rising water 1” layer.
Open the first dolphin image. To extract the creature’s head set the Pen Tool (P) to Path in the Options bar and carefully plot a closed path as indicated. Now click the Selection button, enter a Feather Radius of 3px and Copy to the Clipboard.
To keep your layers tidy, place all the floating ones except the “Figure” into a group folder called “WATER”.
Now Paste the selection as an upper layer and name it “Dolphin head”. Resize/position over the left wall of water, then blend the hard-edge with a mask.
Clip a Levels adjustment to the “Dolphin head” and copy the following settings to lighten it.
Now use the Replace Color technique to remove the green color cast on the “Dolphin head” layer.
We’ll use paths again to cut-out our bucket and spade. Draw a closed path around the object, leaving a small amount of sand at the bottom as indicated in blue. Now double-click your path thumbnail to save it.
Now set the tool to Subtract and draw the inner sub-path around the handle.
Click the Selection button in the Options bar and generate a 1px Feather Radius selection, then Copy to the Clipboard.
Paste as a new top layer and label it “Bucket and spade”. resize and position to the right of the figure’s foot. Blend the hard-edge of the sand with a mask, then clip a Levels adjustment to boost the contrast.
Now clip a Hue/Saturation adjustment to the same layer. We’ll add some wet, darker sand later, so Invert the adjustment mask negative and use a small Brush (B) to paint back the sand within the bucket.
To extract the crab, we’ll use a combination of techniques. Set the Quick Selection Tool (W) to Add to selection and use a 30px tip to select the top half of the background around the creature.
Inverse your selection, then access the Refine Edge window. Set the View to On Black and copy the following settings.
Now use an assortment of hard and soft-edged Brushes (B) on the mask to remove areas left from the original selection and to gently fade the bottom edge of sand.
Apply the mask, drag across to create a new layer at the top of the stack. Resize/position to the left rear the shoreline, then mask the bottom area of sand as required. Name this layer “Crab”, then modify with a clipped Levels adjustment.
Now clip a Color Balance adjustment to the same layer and reduce the Blue to -33.
Next, we’ll add a couple of dead fish. Use the Pen (P) to draw around the first fish, make a 1px feathered selection and Copy Paste as a top layer. Resize/position just in front of the crab, then hide parts of its fins with a mask.
Repeat this for the second fish, then position to the right.
At this point, I decided to create a central area of wet, reflective sand where the water was. Use the Rectangular Marquee Tool (M) to select the bottom area from this beach and Copy > Paste as a top layer within the “BACKGROUND/FOREGROUND” folder. Resize/position centrally and label it “Wet sand”.
Add a mask to this layer and hide any hard edges with a large, Brush (B).
Now we’ll cast some shadows from the the man. Place a new layer in Multiply Mode below the “Figure” and name it “Shadow 1”. Sample a dark brown from your image (I used # 3b1f1f), then use a small soft-edged Brush (B) and paint the first, darker shadow. If you feel the shadow is too strong, reduce the layer Opacity accordingly (mine’s at 91%). Feel free to mask excess shadow if needed.
Add another layer, again in Multiply Mode below the “Figure” and label it “Shadow 2”. Paint with a slightly lighter brown (I used # bca49e), then reduce the Opacity again to suit (mine’s at 72%). You can also mask this layer if necessary.
The next stage is to create reflections from the larger objects. Duplicate the “Figure” layer, position below both shadow layers and rename it “Figure reflection”. Next, access Transform and pull the top control point down beyond the canvas.
Reduce the Opacity of the “Figure reflection” layer to 30%, then add a mask. Drag a Linear Gradient set to 50% Opacity from the bottom up, then modify the mask with a small soft-edged black Brush (B).
Now we’ll do the same for the bucket and spade. Duplicate it, along with its two adjustment layers, then with all 3 highlighted hit Cmd/Ctrl + E to merge them to a single layer. Rename this layer “Bucket and spade reflection” and stack it below the original “Bucket and spade” layer. Now repeat the transformation and masking process as you did for the figure.
Now place all your floating layers within a group folder called “LAND OBJECTS”.
We can now move onto extracting and placing our sea creatures. Open the first shark. You could use the Pen (P) Tool to cut this one out, but a combination of the Magic Wand Tool (W) and the Refine Edge command produced a satisfactory result.
First, copy these settings for the Magic Wand Tool (W) and select as much as the background as possible.
Now set the Lasso Tool (L) to Add to selection to remove the remaining background from your selection.
Inverse your selection, then open the Refine Edge window and apply the following settings.
Apply the mask created by the Refine Edge command, then add as a new layer below the “LAND OBJECTS” folder. Resize/position to the right and name it “Shark 1”. Now clip a Color Balance adjustment to this layer.
Clip a Levels adjustment to the same layer to slightly increase the contrast.
The next stage is to create a body for the dolphin, as sharks have a very similar shape, we’ll use the same one from Step 81. Place it as new layer above the last adjustment and label it “Dolphin body”. Transform/flip and rotate to match the dolphin’s head, then mask the right fin, plus the head.
We now need to match the body to the head. First, clip a Color Balance adjustment to the “Dolphin body” and copy these settings.
Now modify the same layer with a Hue/Saturation adjustment.
Finally, clip a Levels adjustment to the same layer.
To extract the turtle, set the Quick Selection Tool (W) to Add to selection and use a 10px tip to select the background. Now change to Subtract mode and draw around any missing areas as circled.
Inverse your selection, then open the Refine Edge window and copy these settings.
Apply the mask to the Refine Edge layer, then place as a new layer below the “LAND OBJECTS” folder. Resize/position above the shark, flip it and label it “Turtle”.
Reduce the Opacity of this layer to 70% to give the illusion of being further away, then clip a Levels adjustment to it.
Now clip a Hue/Saturation to the “Turtle” so it matches the underwater colors better.
Use your preferred method to extract the second shark – I used a 2px feathered path selection. Paste it below the “LAND OBJECTS” folder and name it “Shark 2”. Transform/position, facing off the left edge of the scene, then clip a Levels adjustment as shown.
Clip a Color Balance adjustment to the same layer and increase the Blue to +20.
Use the techniques you’ve learnt to cut out and place these fish. Add beneath the “LAND OBJECTS” folder and label it “Fish”. Resize/position above the second shark and lower the Opacity to 45%. Now clip a Levels adjustment to boost the contrast.
As a final modification, clip a Color Balance adjustment to the “Fish” layer.
Now add all your creature layers and their adjustments into another group folder called “UNDERWATER CREATURES”.
Open the ocean image and use the Rectangular Marquee Tool (M) to select the sea. Copy > Paste to create a new layer above all your folders and rotate 90 degrees clock-wise.
Now Warp the layer to follow the contour of the left wall of water.
Duplicate this layer and flip it to the opposite side, then merge both layers. Hit Cmd/Ctrl + A to Select All and Copy to the Clipboard.
Press Cmd/Ctrl + N to create a new document. Accept the Clipboard preset and set the Color Mode to Greyscale and the Background Contents as White. Now Paste your selection and flatten.
Go to Filter > Blur > Gaussian Blur and enter a Radius of 5px. Now press Cmd/Ctrl + L to open the Levels window and apply the following settings. We’ll use this file to distort the sea creatures, so save as “Displacement.psd” to a handy location.
We no longer require the merged layer from Step 99, so delete it. Next, duplicate the “UNDERWATER CREATURES” folder, then press Cmd/Ctrl + E to merge it. Rename the resulting layer “Underwater creatures displaced”, then turn off the visibility of the original folder. In order for the filter in next step to work correctly select your canvas (Cmd/Ctrl + A) and choose Image > Crop.
Ensure the “Underwater creatures displaced” is the target layer, then choose Filter > Distort > Displace. Set both Scale fields to 12, then check Stretch To Fit and Repeat Edge Pixels and click OK. the filter will now prompt you to locate and select your “Displacement.psd” file.
The Displace filter behaves the same as a bump map in a 3D application; it uses greyscale information to push and distort pixels. It’s done a great job of mimicking the effect of refraction seen in nature, but we’re not done yet.
Change the “Underwater creatures displaced” Blend Mode to Overlay, then clip a Hue/Saturation adjustment to it as shown.
We now need some of the background visible through the water. Duplicate the “BACKGROUND/FOREGROUND” folder and merge it to a single layer. Rename it “Background blur” and stack it above “Underwater creatures displaced” layer.
Apply a 7px Gaussian Blur the the “Background blur” layer, then reduce the Opacity to 16%. Now add an inverted mask and paint back the areas behind the water with a large soft-edged brush. Finally, Cmd/Ctrl – click the “Underwater creatures displaced” thumbnail to generate a selection and fill with black on the “Background blur” mask.
Over the next few steps, we’ll add further detail to the water. First, use the Lasso Tool (L) to roughly select an area of water from this wave. Feather by 5px and Copy > Paste as a new layer at the top within the “WATER” folder.
Name this layer “Foam 1”, then Transform and warp into shape. Change the Blend Mode to Screen, then double-click its layer thumbnail to open the Blending Options window. Opt/Alt click, drag (to split) the top right Grey Blend If slider to 235. Now select Green from the Blend If menu and split the same slider to 140. Finally, add a layer mask and remove any hard edges.
Duplicate the “Foam 1” layer several times and Transform/reposition them over both walls of water. Reapply the Warp command and modify their masks as well. Rename your duplicate layers accordingly.
Open this wave image and go to Select > Color Range, click on the whitest part of the image and set the Fuzziness to 99 and the Range to 33%. Copy the selection to the Clipboard.
Paste the selection above the “LAND OBJECTS” folder and label it “Spray 1”. Transform/position as shown, then change the Blend Mode to Screen. Now clip a Levels adjustment to lighten further, then mask any excess.
Duplicate the “Spray 1” layer and its adjustment several times, then Transform/position over both peaks of water and modify their masks. Rename all your duplicate layers accordingly.
Follow the same workflow to add a white water layer in Screen Mode around the top of the dolphin’s head. Now place one under its neck, but change the Blend Mode to Overlay. Mask these layers as well and label them “Top foam 1” and “Top foam 2”.
Add a new top layer in Screen Mode and name it “Spray brushes”. Set the Brush Tool (B) to around 70% Opacity and use these water brushes to add spray over both peaks of water. For best results rotate and flip your brush tips in the Brush Panel to avoid repetition.
It’s now time to carry out some final modifications. First, reduce the Opacity of the Levels adjustment clipped to the “Base water” layer to 52%, then clip a small Levels adjustment to the “Figure” layer.
Revisit the “Sky” layer and reduce its Opacity to 80%, then double-click to modify the same layer’s Color Balance adjustment.
Place a new layer at the top within the “BACKGROUND/FOREGROUND” folder and name it “Haze”. Fill the layer with a pale blue (# d2dce9), then reduce the Opacity to just 15%. Now mask the bottom with a Foreground (black) to Transparent Linear Gradient (G).
For natural looking shadows, add a small amount of Noise via the Filter menu to both “Figure” shadow layers.
Place a new layer at the very top above all your folders and label it “Retouch”. Now use an assortment of Brushes (B) to paint additional pale colored foam and water; remember to Opt/Alt-click to pick up the underlying colors as you work. This layer is shown over black in the screenshot for clarity.
Now set the Clone Stamp Tool (S) to Current & Below and repair any small flaws on this layer too.
Next, we’ll add some selective sharpening. Hit Cmd/Ctrl + Shift + Alt + E to create a new merged layer at the top of the stack, name it “Sharpened”, then change the Blend Mode to Overlay. Go to Filter > Other > High Pass and enter 2px in the following window.
We only want the foreground elements sharp, so add a mask and use a large, soft-edged Brush (B) to paint over the background. Now Cmd/Ctrl-click the “Dolphin head” layer thumbnail to create a selection and fill with white on the mask. Repeat this with a selection from the “Figure” layer.
Finally, we’ll apply an overall color tweak. Place an unclipped (to affect all layers) Selective Color adjustment at the very top and copy these settings.
Conclusion and Scope
I hope you’ve enjoyed this tutorial and discovered some new techniques along the way. Now you know how it’s achieved, why not create your own water photo-manipulation?