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Would you like to learn the art of photo manipulation, but don't know where to start? Check out our Tutorial Index, which lists all articles in order from Beginner to Advanced:

SurrealPSD Tutorial Index

Core Skills: Anatomy of a Photo Manipulation


For the first in the ‘Core-Skills’ series of tutorials, we will be looking at the anatomy of a photo manipulation and some of the secrets behind succesful composition. To the un-initiated, the workflow behind some of the more complex photo manipulations may be somewhat of a mystery, so to address this one of my recent manips  ‘SteamPunk: Gunnah’ will be stripped down to it’s base elements and deconstructed.

In the early days of doing these types of compositions photo manippers will spend the bulk of the project time experimenting to get the effects they want, and that’s part and parcel of the process. As a user gets more proficient, the process becomes more streamlined and the store of techniques built up helps the artist to realise their ideas in fewer steps, and that can be said for those with a more ‘experimental’ approach to their work as well.


Before and After



When creating manipulations, I usually use a ‘primary’ high quality image from Fotolia as the base and then build the rest of the composite using supporting elements from other stock sources such as SXC and DeviantArt, but that’s just down to personal preference. New users may decide to use free resources when starting out and then move on to premium stock once a certain level is attained. There’s lot’s to be considered when dealing with stock photography, but that’s an article for another time 8-)

My aim for this composition was to create a cinematic SteamPunk inspired piece that looked like it could be a still from a movie, so when composing the elements I ensured that the light source within my manipulation matched that of the stock image of the girl. There are plenty of occassions when lighting can be ‘faked’ – but Ive found more often than not that it’s best to work with the lighting in your source images instead of against it. Accurate lighting equals realism and is often what elevates a manipulation from a random group of flat images to a great looking composition.


The Stock Elements


Once the concept and primary stock image is in place, I usually seek out and integrate the stock elements as I put the piece together, however the workflow of other manipulators may differ. As you can see from the stock list below, I use resources from a number of different sources including the outstanding DeviantArt stock libraries, SXC and ImageAfter. Always respect the rules of the stock providers and provide credits to your sources when displaying work online.

There are plenty of occasions when you need to tweak the stock elements in order to get them to work in your composition. For instance, the girls hair is cropped in the original image so I had to ‘fake’ the rest of the hairdo by copying existing parts and guessing how the rest of the head would look. Being able to fabricate elements will come up quite often and it’s well worth getting used to painting in cropped parts of stock images.

Stock List

Girl by konradbak, Fotolia Premium, image # 27364757 [link]
Rigging by idnurse41 (DA) [link]
Birdz by jajejijoju (DA) [link]
Hand Rope by WC-Stock (DA) [link]
Rope Bundle by CaptainRedd-Stock (DA) [link]
Opera goggles and cog from HelenaRothStock (DA) [link]
Metal structures from ImageAfter [link]
Clouds 1 from SXC [link]




** Click for Full-View **


The image above outlines 12 stages of the progression, there were around 60 layers in total for the construction of the piece.  The bulk of the layers in the manipulation were used for lighting, shadow and ambience, here is a loose breakdown of the types of layer modes and adjustments used:

- Soft Light layers for colouring and ambience.
- Overlay layers for ambience and shadows.
- Multiply layers for shadows and vignetting.
- Linear Dodge and Screen layers for lighting, highlights and reflected light.
- Adjustment layers for levels and colour balance.




Lighting and ambience play an important role in when creating realistic compositions, setting the mood in a piece is equally as important as precise masking and cutting of objects. Creating elements from scratch and pulling everything together as a unified whole are also key, and in future tutorials these techniques will be explained more in-depth. Hopefully this article can assist you in elevating ‘flat’ work into more visually pleasing pieces of art.


Coming soon to core skills: HD video tutorials on the mightiest of Photoshop’s functions – the Pen Tool!

Did you enjoy this article? Feel free to comment below and subscribe to RSS for updates of new tutorial uploads.

Conzz 8-)

Follow on Twitter >> @Conzpiracy

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17 Responses to “Core Skills: Anatomy of a Photo Manipulation”

  1. Kiren says:

    Great to see you posting your process man, the site is starting to look good!

  2. Orpheus says:

    Great to see the site taking shape!

    Wonderful article, Anatomy of a Photo Manipulation. Always a treat seeing how other people’s creative processes work.


  3. csnyder says:

    the site is looking great my friend!
    looking forward to more

  4. Irene says:

    Great article. I’m always interested to see how other manipulators work. I would be curious to see your workspace in PS; your layer palette, because that also says a lot about the artist’s process. And also, I’m wondering if others are as organizing crazy as I am with my coloured layer groups and shit. :D

    • Conzpiracy says:

      Thanks for the comment! Im a lot more organised these days, so my layers are grouped – but not coloured though, thats intense! To increase user engagement I may post my PS workspace up and speak a bit about it, and get others to show theirs in the comments.

      Appreciate theset ideas, this project is my final assignment, so its of great use to me :)


  5. neil says:

    awsome piece of work this

  6. Great article…simply put and easy to follow your workflow.

  7. Edo Suredo says:

    Thanks a lot Conzz for building this website.
    A newbie like myself absolutely can learn a lot from your articles.

  8. Laelaps Hound says:

    Hey Conz, just found your site. Looks great!
    I’ll be trawling it for tutorials, so please keep them coming. I need all the help I can get ;)

  9. [...] • Core Skills: Anatomy of a Photo Manipulation >> A walkthrough explaining the elements of a complex photo manipulation. [...]

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