I’ve just finished my newest composite, Sand Goddess. After the last composite walkthrough was so well received, I thought that I would do the same thing again for this one.

The concept: A mysterious ruin lies among desert sands. It is looked over by a dark deity, who protects the sacred space with spies and angry sand storms.

Step 1 – the background

I chose the background from the Angkor Wat package. It’s a mostly uniform picture and there aren’t many elements in it that could distract from the final composite. There are plenty of stones making up the entrance to the ruin. It was really only a case of removing the foliage in the background, which was easy given the hard edges of the stones. All I did was use the Quick Selection tool and mask out the greenery.

Then I changed the warm sunlight into something cooler and more contrast-rich using both the Hue / Saturation and Curves tools.

I composed the sky from two clouds, with the second layer in ‘Hard Light’ mode to create a sense of menace. I added to the surreal, dark mood using colour variations from the Curves tool.

Finally, the background was followed by a black layer. I placed this over the entire background using the Copy layer mode with opacity set to 25%, which darkened everything.

The layers so far

Step 2 – the model

On to the model: Jamari Lior. Her eye-catching pose and masked black costume gave the mysterious touch I was looking for.

Positioning the model correctly in the scene wasn’t as tricky as it might have been. There’s no horizon line in the background nor in the stock image of the model. It was just a case of estimating the size and feeling the perspective.

So the first step is to select the model from her background. In this case, the model isn’t clearly defined because of the multiple shades of blue in the background and the transparency in the dress. Working with the Quick Selection tool is probably best. You can mask everything.

The transparency in the model’s dress also needs to be accommodated. Doing this needs a very simple trick: duplicate the cut-out model’s layer, then hide the top layer (you’ll need it later). Change the model’s layer mode to ‘Multiply’ and the dress’ transparency alters.

Of course, I didn’t want the entire model to be transparent, so then I un-hid the duplicated Model layer. I painted everything with soft black brush in a mask layer.

Next, I need to give the sand goddess a shadow. The light would be coming from the top of the scene and slightly to the right, meaning that the shadow would fall on the left of the figure and be hard and short.

I painted in the shadows with a black brush with little flow on a new layer in the ‘Multiply’ mode. I made sure that the shadow was darkest where the hem of the dress met the ground.

I have to be honest, I wanted to make this entire composite quite dark and shadow isn’t my strongest point so I did neglect it to a certain degree. It isn’t perfect.

I needed to adjust the lighting mood for the model, so that she fit in with the background lighting. It was a case of playing with the colour controls until I found a result that I thought worked.

Honestly, there are more professional ways of handling the colour variations, using Curves and the colour channels. I would recommend looking at the relevant RAWexchange articles to learn more.

Step 3 – the sand swirl

To give the picture some magic, the model needs to be able to ‘summon the sand’. I used several stock images of sand and pebbles, photographed on black backgrounds. Having a black background is perfect for compositing as you don’t have to select your articles by hand. Instead, you can just superimpose the layers in the ‘Negative Multiply’ mode. Anything that is darker than the background can be dimmed.

If you find that elements of your image are too opaque, especially in the bright areas, just duplicate the layer a few times with the help of a Masks layer. It was what I did here to prevent the pebbles from being transparent.

To mould the sand swirl into its shape, I used the distortion filter ‘Strudel’ at a very low angle, together with added shaping from the Edit > Transform > Deformed tool.

This was the most expensive part of the composite: it used five different sand and four different pebble stock photos, all processed several times. Altogether there were 24 different sand swirl layers. Here’s the sand swirl by itself.

I made some more corrections using Curves, and also helped to adjust some of the reddish tones in the sand at the bottom of the picture using a Saturation layer and the channel mixer.

This done, I duplicated the whole group of sand swirl layers and then compressed them into one layer. I also repositioned the model and the sand swirl, as it allowed me to place the sand bird better.

So, why do I duplicate layers so often? It’s a fail-safe. I like to be able to keep track of my changes, and go back to them and adjust them if I feel it necessary.

Here is a general tip for compositing: don’t make any changes that you can’t undo later. Using layers will make your life easier.

If you don’t have a high-end computer and working with piles of layers slows down your processor, I have a tip. When you’ve finished one section of your composite that you’re happy with, duplicate and save it as a Photoshop file (.psd) so that you have a backup of all your original layers. You can then merge all the layers in the original version–safe in the knowledge that you have a duplicate that can be altered if necessary–and continue compositing from there with a much less bulky single layer.

Step 4 – the seagull

Yes, you read that correctly, it is a seagull. That it’s a gull is entirely irrelevant for the final composite, but it shows from where the shape of the sand bird came.

I inserted the gull into the composite as a template and the sand as a texture in ‘Negative Multiplication’ layer mode. I used the Liquify filter to mould the sand to the shape of the bird.

Some layers are double overlapping and they vary in opacity, so that the density of the different areas showing sand always looks roughly similar.

By using pebbles to represent an eye and the trailing grains of sand around the bird give the impression that the bird is recently conjured and isn’t really a solid body.

By using Dodge & Burn I was able to give the bird a more three-dimensional feel. Then I created a connection from the sand bird to the sand swirl with a train of sand.

When I felt that the seagull was finished, I changed its position slightly and lightened the sand.

I usually make these kinds of changes after taking a break and before moving on to the next stage. You often have a better eye for these kinds of adjustments if you look at your composite when fresh.

Step 5 – the lizard

I like to hide small details that reveal themselves on close observation within my composites. This time, there’s a spectator, concealed among the stones.

The lizard came from a stock photo, and I used the Transform > Distortion tool to adjust the perspective so that she would fit into the rocks better.

Just as with the model, I used the Quick Selection tool and a layer mask to cut her out from her original image. Next I inserted a hard shadow beneath the animal using a ‘Multiply’ layer and black brush.

Then followed some corrections using Curves and Hue / Saturation layers, as well as dodging and burning.

Step 6 – dust / light / particle / vignette

 

Now it was about getting the right mood into the picture. I thought to myself, if the sand goddess can summon sand storms, it will surely go dusty around her feet. So I placed a dust texture with low opacity in the ‘Negative Multiply’ layer mode over the lower part of the image.

 

I placed a uniform light / colour scheme, using coloured layers, across the entire image. For this composite I chose a picture from the light package, which shows irregular orange streaks. I overlaid this image onto the composite three times, displacing each layer slightly to help with the sharp differences in brightness between the streaks. If I hadn’t, it would have looked too much like individual beams. All of the layers use the ‘Dodge’ colour mode, one with 40% opacity and the other two with 20%.

 

Particles are a great thing to get a little more depth and more chaos in the picture. The idea that there would be swirling dust in this scene feels entirely natural.

I inserted these particles into the picture using the ‘Negative Multiply’ layer mode. In the centre of the image, I toned down the effect using a layer mask so that it doesn’t appear ‘dirty’. With the help of the Curves tool I adjusted the visibility of the particles so that the layers don’t mean that too much contrast is lost.

 

The last step–and a styling element that I think speaks a lot about me–is a strong vignette. To create this vignette I chose a dark image with a structure and inserted it using the layer mode ‘Soft Light’ across the entire composite. This amplifies the contrast and directs the eye of the viewer even more into the centre of the image.

All of the working steps, animated

I love fantasy and mystery. I like to create scenes that can’t be encountered in everyday life and come from a strange, mysterious world. I want for my images to trigger a story in the viewer. I want for it to make sense, but at the same time be open-ended, and allow for a discussion, a thought-process.

Often I find that I’m inspired by one particular element to create a composite. In this case, it was the ruins of Angkor Wat package, and the photos in it, that directed my creativity.

So, if you suddenly find yourself inspired by a snippet of image, get going! Think about the keywords that create the scene. Think about themes from books, film, plays, and works that might work with your scene and go from there.

You can implement and incorporate almost any idea into your visual story-telling if you’re not bound by the rules and limits of the real world. If your Photoshop skills are up to it or not, you can only find out by trying.

It was a great deal of fun making this composite and then writing about it afterwards. Thanks for reading. If you have any comments, questions, or suggestions, I am happy to hear them.

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