Create a Snowy Landscape From Desert Photography in Photoshop

Photoshop is a great tool because it allows us to be creative and produce imagery that would be impossible to create otherwise. In this tutorial, we will create a snowy landscape from desert photography and photos of sand. Let’s get started!

Tutorial Assets

You will need the following assets to complete this tutorial. If they are no longer available, you may need to find alternatives.

Before Getting Started

The image we’re going to create is inspired by a scene from the movie Lovely Bones, by Peter Jackson. If you have an interest in photo manipulations I strongly recommend that you see the movie as it contains fantastic pieces of art by Michael Pangrazio. In the scene, we see two girls sliding down a hill in a world made of snow. This kind of world not only is a fantastic visual concept, but it is also a nice technical challenge to learn the powerful possibilities of Photoshop.
Since we’re going for a fantasy world, I planned to use images of desert dunes to create the snow-scape. This will allow us to have the kind of surreal wavy lines in our landscape that would be impossible to obtain from real pictures of snow.

I’m also planning to have some kind of colorful sunset sky to add to the fantasy of our image. Now, those kinds of sky generally imply strong shadows, so the first thing to do is to collect some photo references to understand how lights and shadows work with snow. From these photo references, we can understand that the shadows on the snow are not black, but more of a very saturated blue. We can also notice that the shadow usually take the tint of the sky, be it cyan or a darker blue. These elements will be very important to remember in order to get a believable render while color correcting the desert photos later on.

Step 1 – Setting up the scene

In Photoshop, create a new file. Make the file 4500 by 2750 pixels.

Place Landscapes0143 (File > Place) into your canvas and stretch it so it fits the lenght of your canvas. Name the layer “Background Mountains.”

Usually I don’t recommend stretching photo elements because it usually breaks the realism. However, since this is a background element, it will most likely go unnoticed. Now, give your layer a mask (Layer > Layer Mask > Reveal All) and paint out the sky.

Import Sahara Dunes and name the layer “Background Dunes”. Stretch the layer 245% in width and 135% in height and place it like in the example.

Duplicate the layer (Command/Ctrl + J while having the layer selected), flip it (Edit > Transform > Flip Horizontal) and place it more to the left and under the original layer.

Grab the Rectangular Marquee Tool (M), select the left part of the layer and mask it.

Place Lifes a Journey, Enjoy the ride and Desert Sand. Place Desert Sand to the left and the other one to the right, and name them respectively “Dunes Left” and “Dunes Right”. Now, “Dunes Right” is a little bit small so we’ll have to scale it. Place it to the bottom right corner, hit Command/Ctrl + T, and by clicking the top left corner, scale it up until it reach the left part (should be around 195%). Make sure you hold shift to keep the proportions while scaling. Finally, move down “Dunes Left” until the two fit together.

Step 2 – Masking the skies

Give both “Dunes Left” and “Dunes Right” a mask. Using your favorite method, remove the sky for both images.

Let’s do the same process for the two “Background Dune” layers. Now, since one of them already have a mask, we are going to group them and give the group a mask. This will allow us to manage both masks individually if we ever want to make some changes further on.

Finally, let’s give our white background a cold sky color. This will make our whole image easier to work with until we add the clouds. Give your first Swatch the color #8098D8 and your second swatch the color #D1D9E6. Click the Gradient Tool (G), select the Radial Gradient mode, and drag a gradient across the screen as shown in the example.

Step 3 – Turning the sand into snow

To color correct the sand, we’ll use the Gradient Map adjustment. Gradient Map is a very powerful feature that is often overlooked. It basically uses the luminosity of the image to apply color based on the gradient you create. In other words, this mean that if you apply a red to blue gradient on a black and white image, the blacks will become red, the whites will become blue, and everything in between will become a mix of both depending on their level of gray.

However, the gradient adjustment layer can’t do it all on its own, that’s why we’ll also need a Curves and a Color Balance adjustment. On the top of everything, add the following:

Step 4 – Some adjustments

Now, while this technically looks like snow, there are a few issues we can notice. First, the sky is affected by the adjustments. Secondly, the left and the right part of the dunes don’t have the same contrast. And finally, the distant dunes and mountains are kind of washed out.
First, let’s block our sky. To do this, we will get the selection from our already extracted dunes layers, and use this selection as a mask for our adjustment layers. Select your three layer adjustments along with the dunes layers (holding Shift or Command/Ctrl) and group them (Command/Ctrl + G). Name the group “Dunes”, duplicate the group (Command/Ctrl + J) and merge it.

Command/Ctrl + Click on the “Dunes copy” vignette to create a selection from it, then select your “Dunes” folder and create a mask. Now, the previous adjustments won’t affect our sky.

You can now delete the “Dunes copy” layer as we won’t need it anymore.
Next, give both the “Dunes right” and “Dunes left” the following Curve adjustment layer. Make sure they are clipped to the layer so they won’t affect anything else.

Add the following curves adjustments inside the “Background Dunes” folder. There is no need to clip it since the “Dunes” folder’s mask will prevent it from affecting the sky and the mountain below anyway.

Step 5 – Blending & Cleaning

This is starting to look good. In this step, we’ll remove the unwanted plants and car in the right part of our image. Also, we’ll blend the middle together. We can either do this under or over the color adjustments. I choose to do them under because this will give me the flexibility to change the adjustments later if I ever want to, without having to repaint everything over.
First, hide the three adjustment layers used to create the snow. Then, using your favorite tools, paint over the car and the plants.

Let’s improve the composition by adding a small ledge on the right part. Grab the Pen Tool (P) and draw a shape according to the example. In the Path Panel, click the load Path as selection button. Create a new layer, and paint the ledge within the selection. Name the layer “Ledge”.

To make the ledge blend softly with the left part, you can gently erase or mask its side with a large soft brush.

Step 6 – Texturing the snow

In the “Dunes” folder, place Endless Sand Hills. Hit Command/Ctrl + T to enter Free Transform mode and give it a shape that fits with the hills underneath. Add a Curves and a Gradient Map adjustment so the colors fit the scene.

Give the layer a Layer Mask and mask out the top left and the right part of the layer with a soft brush.

Repeat the same process with Desolate Escape. This time, you will also need to use the Wrap transform mode to get the desired transformation.

For the rightmost dunes, do the same process once again only this time with Quiet Dunes.

Finally, import Desolate Escape once again and this time give it the following transformations.

Step 7 – Adding the clouds

Above your “Background” layer, place Landscape 14 and stretch it so it fits the canvas. Name it “Sky1”.

Above, open up Sunset 2, stretch it according to the example, and set it to screen. Name it “Sky2”.

Now we’ll add the pink clouds. This effect was achieved after a lot of playing around by me. It’s kind of a complex process so I’ll try to resume it the best way possible for you.
Open Nov 4 Sunset and place it into your composition. Stretch it so it fits your canvas.

You can remove parts of the sky you don’t want using the Blend If tool in the Layer Styles. To unlock the two handles, hold Alt before clicking and dragging them.

Now I want to do some color corrections adjustment on the layer, but I can’t do it right now because it will mess with the blue pixels we’ve just hidden. To avoid this, merge the layer with a new blank layer. Now, you can Command/Ctrl + Click on the vignette to convert it into a selection.

Import the clouds layer once more, and use the selection to give the layer a mask. This will allow to mask out the dark blues without using the Blend If method.

With the Hue/Saturation adjustment (Command/Ctrl + U), remove the yellowish areas by altering the Reds and the Yellows.

Now, we can distort the layer to give it a little bit more movements. Go to Edit > Transform > Wrap and distort it according to the example.

The Blues still looks kind of too intense to me. We can correct this by playing with the Blend If once again.

Finally, to give the light pink tone to the clouds, you can add the following two adjustment layers. Don’t forget to name the layer “Pink Clouds”.

Once you are done, group everything into a folder and name it “Sky”.

Step 8 – Adding haze

One of the key to achieve realism is to add haze over the distance. It is important to remember that because of the density of the air and other things like dust and mist, objects tend to lose contrast and saturation as they get further away from us. They also tend to get a blue tint. To create this effect, pick up a large soft brush and the color #C0C0DC. Create a new layer directly above the “Dunes” folder, and draw a straight line along the horizon. Set the layer to 30% opacity and name it “Haze”.

Duplicate the layer, increase its luminosity (Command/Ctrl + U), scale it down vertically, and set it to 45% opacity. Name the layer “Haze2”.

Now, the mountains in the back are a little bit to bright to my tastes. Create a new layer above “Background Mountains”, fill it with #C0C9E0 (Edit > Fill > Color…) and set the layer to the Darker Color blending mode.

Step 9 – Adding the castle

Now that our plate is done we can get ourselves started with the real stuff! For the main part of the castle, I will use Sand Castle 4. However, if you don’t want to pay for the stock image, you can use this image from DeviantArt instead. In fact, I strongly recommend that you use this one instead as it has more contrast and more volume, which is what we are aiming for. Using your favorite tool, extract the upper part of the castle from the picture. Place the image inside your working file and give it a Gradient Map using colors sampled from your scene. Name the layer “Castle” and place it in a group of the same name.

Open up Untitled and this time extract the right part with the door and the two towers. Place it in your document and flip it. Scale it down, and using the Distort transform mode, distort it so the towers to the left and the right are vertical. In this step, I also used the Wrap transform mode to adjust the lower right part so it is straight. I also moved the castle a little bit more to the right so it fits better with the gate.

Step 10 – Drawing the bridge

Using the Pen Tool (P), we’ll draw the bridge. Make sure your pen is in Path mode and draw the shape of the ledges of the bridge on your canvas, convert it into a selection, and fill it with any color.

Repeat the same process until the bridge is completed. Make sure that every part is on a different layer and place them all in a folder named “Bridge”

Lock the transparency of each layer, and using a soft brush (B), sample colors from your scene and paint inside your layer so they fit with the rest of the castle.

Using the same technique, add two new layer under the “Castle” group, and give them the appropriate light and colors.

Step 11 – More castle parts

Open up Castle in a new window and extract it from the background, leaving out the flags. Don’t forget to clean the middle window with the people in it. To do so, you can easily sample the one of the other window and paste it over. I also went ahead and cleaned out the people and the grassy areas in the bottom using the Clone Stamp Tool (S) inside a selection. Save this file as we are going to need it twice.

Merge everything and bring the right part of the castle into your composition. Scale it down to about 38%, select the left part and distort it a little so it to give it a little bit of perspective. Finally, give it the following gradient:

Name the layer “Right Part” and place it into a folder of the same name.

By duplicating the layer and using the Clone Stamp Tool (S), draw the rest of the wall. Be careful to follow the perspective to maintain realism.

Let’s do the same for the left part. Place to the left and scale it down. Since the light would be blocked by the snow castle, this part should logically be in full shadow. To do so, create a Curves adjustment layer, clip it to the layer and drop the highlights. Mask out the darker part so the overall light is even.

Step 12 – The tower

Open Tower VI and extract the sky. Select the middle part of the tower and bring it into your work area. Scale it up until it reaches the ground. Give the layer a black to white Gradient Overlay layer style in the soft light blending mode and merge it with a new layer to apply the layer style (this is important otherwise the next part won’t work). Clip a Gradient Map to it sampling colors from the upper castle so it fits the upper part of the tower. Finally, create a circular selection at the bottom using the Elliptical Marquee Tool (M), invert it (Shift + Command/Ctrl + I) and mask out the bottom of the tower.

Also, name your layer “Tower” and place it in a folder of the same name. Make sure that the folder is on top of everything. Once you are done, group every part of the castle together and name the folder “Castle Group”

In case you missed anything, here is what your composition should look like.

Step 13 – More stuff

Open Sandsation Stock VI and extract it from the background. Place the layer between “Castle Group” and “Dunes”. Give it a Gradient Map adjustment, name it “Elephant” and place it in a folder of the same name. You can also clip a new layer on top of it and give it a little bit more of white on to top right (by simply painting with a soft white brush).

Open IMG_0198 and once again, go through the same process for the three pillars.

Group every pillars in a folder and name them according to their positions.

Step 14 – Shadows

In order to create a shadow for the castle, we’ll need to first have a selection of its shape. Duplicate your “Castle” folder and merge it (Right-Click > Merge Group). Command/Ctrl + Click on its vignette to get the selection and fill it with a dark saturated blue. Using the Distort transform mode, give it the appropriate angle and perspective. You can also use Wrap to give it the rounded shape of the hill. The key for realistic shadows is to have a layer set to Multiply (for the darker tone) and one set to Normal (to diminish the detail), both with low opacity. Once you are done, you can group the layers and mask out the part of the shadow that cross the top of the hill, because logically it wouldn’t be seen.

In the same folder, create a new layer, and with a soft brush, paint the shadow in front of the castle.

Do the same process for the rightmost pillar. Since the object is very close to the screen, give the shadow a little bit of Motion Blur to increase the realism. Also, because the object is close to us, the shadow should be a darker. Set the Normal layer to 40% opacity and the Multiply layer to 20%

Group the two layers and gently mask out the shadows as it goes away from the pillar.

You can now use the same technique to create the shadows for the two other pillars and the elephant.

Step 15 – Adding the children

Adding people to your artwork is often a really good idea, as it help establish the scale of the objects as well as adding some life to it. However, I couldn’t find good enough stocks from the free websites. I had to resign myself to buy the stock from paying websites. If you do not want to do so, feel free to skip this step. Otherwise, open Happy Little Kids Running and extract them from their background. Separate the two children and place them so it looks like they are holding their hands. You can adjust the color of their coats with a Hue/Saturation layer set to colorize, using the mask layer to block the other areas. In the end, give both layers a Photo Filter adjustment.

Open Cute Little Girl Running and do the same process, only this time, use the curves to soften the contrast.

Do the same process once again with Children Playing Outside. Since this image doesn’t have prominent light direction, we’ll add more shadow on the left using the Inner Shadow layer style.

We’ll add another Inner Shadow adjustment, only this time to increase the light on the right side. To do so without removing the already in place Inner Shadow, duplicate the layer, and add the Layer style. Make sure that the layer’s Fill is set to 0% so it won’t hide the underlying one.

Open Happy Winter Day and place it on the Elephant like he is sliding down it. This helps convey the reader toward the center of the image.

Open Casper 1 and do the same process for the dog as well.

Step 16 – Children’s shadows

Using the same technique as in step 14, create a shadow for every child.

By grouping the layers and giving the group a mask, we can attenuate the shadows a little bit as they get further away from their subject.

Step 17 – Castle’s bricks

When we zoom in into the castle, we can see these big bricks coming out of the wall. These small details help selling the fact that the castle is made of snow and give the image a fantasy feels. We’ll add the same bricks to the rest of the castle’s walls. On a new layer, create a black rectangular shape. Select it, and go to Edit > Define Brush Preset. Now, using our new brush shape, draw a bunch of rectangles according to the example. Select them, and using the Distort transformation mode, place them in perspective.

Duplicate the layer. Move the one underneath (in red in the example) a little bit upward and toward the left. Give it a dark blue color and apply the following layer styles to the layer above.

With the same technique, you can do the front part of the castle as well.

Once again, with the same technique, draw a bunch of flattened circles on the bridge, and give them the following layer styles.

Step 18 – Snow traces

Open Snow Path and place it in perspective according to your example. Make sure the layer is under the “Castle Group”, “Childrens” and all these layers, but over the “Dunes” folder. You can hide most of the layer using the Blend If method, and hide the rest with a mask.

At this point, you can merge the layer with a blank one to apply the Blend If, then give it the following adjustment.

Using yet another mask, you can draw out some parts of the path to make it look less stretched.

With the Photoshop default’s chalk brushes, paint traces on the snow behind the dog and give it the following layer styles.

You can use the same technique to create more traces where the children are.

Step 19 – Texture and small details

You can also apply some snow texture in the Soft Light blending mode to give your castle a more convincing look. The key here is to place the texture in perspective using the Distort transformation mode.

You can proceed to do the rest of the bridge using this technique.

On a new layer, you can paint over the part of the image that don’t blend well together. In this example, all of the painting was made with the default Chalk brush sampling colors from the image.

Step 20 – Color correction and final adjustments

Another way to bring the whole image together is to add Gradient Map adjustments set to low opacity and different blending modes. These two Gradient Maps will also give a warmer tone to our image’s highlights.

We can also create a more dense and convincing light by drawing a huge soft circle in the upper right corner. For a convincing effect, it is important that you let the layer in the Normal blending mode. Lower the layer’s opacity to 20%.

Once you are done, duplicate every layer and merge them together. Give them the following Smart Sharpen and Add Noise effects. These two effects will help bringing he whole image together as well as making it pop-out a little bit more.

For a little touch of realism, we can also add some gentle falling snow. Place Snowfall into your canvas. Now, we could simply set the layer to the Screen blending mode, but there’s a way to get a more convincing snow. First, mask out the black using the Blend If technique.

Duplicate the layer a few times, and scale them down according to the example.

Hit Command/Ctrl + U to enter the Hue/Saturation adjustment. Check the Colorize icon and give the layer a blue tint. Set the layer to Soft Light.


We’re done! The big idea of this tutorial was to show how we can change the stock photography nature to get a completely different result that what it was made for. When creating an artwork, it is important to try to see beyond the stock colors and shapes. Photoshop is really a powerful application, and all combined, its tools really make for endless possibilities. It’s up to you to find them. In case you missed something, here’s your final layer setup.

Final Image

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