10 essential tips to improve your manipulations with examples

Photo manipulations are one of the most challenging Photoshop type of edit but probably the most rewarding too. I’ve been creating photoshop manipulations from my early days with Photoshop and almost 10 years later I can say that is by far my favorite type of digital art. In this post I will talk about a few aspects which could help you improve your photo manipulations works.

Next I will list what I consider to be the most essential aspects you should keep in mind when you work on any of photo manipulation project.

  1. Use good resources
  2. Scale and perspective
  3. Inspiration
  4. Simplicity
  5. Attention to details
  6. Master blend modes
  7. Stay away from actions
  8. Shadows
  9. Contrast and illumination
  10. Color palette

1) Use good quality resources/stock

Click on the image to view this tutorial

I think this is straightforward and very obvious. If you want good quality artworks you have to use high quality materials.

Using good quality stock images doesn’t necessarily mean you have to pay. There are lots of great stock websites which allow you to use their photos for free even on commercial projects.

On PSD Box I use stock photos mosty from Unshash and Pixabay because they allow commercial use of their photos. For paid works I usually use Depositphotos or 123RF which are low cost stock sites.

Click on the image to view this tutorial

You can also use my stock photos and resources which I provide for free on Resources Box, my free stock site. I provide high quality renders, brushes, actions, psd templates, etc and you can use them for commercial projects too.

2) Scale and perspective

Unless you’re creating something abstract or surreal on purpose, you will want to make sure, everything has the right size and the right perspective, otherwise it will look very weird.

Use reference images from your stock images to scale objects accordingly. For example if you want to place a person next to a car, imagine how that person would look like next to it n real life and adjust the size.

There are more precise ways of doing it and if you want to match perspective and create a sense of depth you could try using the Vanishing Point tool and create a perspective grid. Also, don’t discard the possibility of finding another stock image wit the right perspective.

As you can see on the image below the different objects have different scales to create visual tension. The focus is the big stone in the center surrounded by smaller floating rocks which were placed on an imagnary ellipse with different sizes to create perspective and a sense of depth and distance on the rocks further away from the big rock.

Click on the image to go to the tutorial

3) Inspiration not plagiarism

Everybody goes through a creative block at some point or another and when that happens, other artists or creative communities like Behance or DeviantArt or even Pinterest are a great source of inspiration.

But remember, you are looking for ideas, new concepts that help you think differently. You don’t want to copy someone’s else’s ideas. Also, don’t get obsessed on creating something exactly as the artwork that inspired you, give it your personal touch. Remember that inspiration is just that, a guide that helps you think differently.

As you can see on the image below 2 different artists used the same stock image of the woman with completely different results.

Credits: Left image by Maria José (CrisestepArt) https://www.deviantart.com/crisestepart/art/The-lady-of-crows-723832688 Right image by Jasmin (kuschelirmel) https://www.deviantart.com/kuschelirmel/art/Zeit-zu-Traeumen-721380277

4) Simplicity

This is especially true if you’re a beginner and you’re not mastering all the techniques and your eye is not fully trained.

Sometimes less is more. If you cannot create catchy effects or complex scenarios, better don’t try it. You will end up creating a poor manipulation and frustration will kick in if your results are not as you envisioned hem.
Instead, just keep the most relevant elements of you manipulation and focus on blending them as seamlessly as possible.

Usually what I do to enhance my manipulations is use adjustment layers and add textures to enhance atmospherics (dust overlays, smoke, bokeh, etc)

With a bit of creative thinking you can create nice concepts without needing too advanced technical skills. Click on the image to go to this free tutorial

5) The secret is on the details

If you don’t want to create ordinary or poor looking manipulations, you better pay attention to details. Add elements to fill in your background but don’t just add random stuff. Particles, dust or smoke almost always help enhance pretty much any photo manipulation. Add a little bit of blur and you’ll create nice depth of field.

This is a simple manipulation which received a decent amount of post processing to treat colors and add a considerable amount of particles to fill the scene. Click on the image to view this tutorial

6) Master the blend modes

This could take a bit of time at first but you will soon learn the effect they will produce. Remember though that you can layer the same layer with different blend modes to intensify the effects or get new original looks.

7) Stay away from actions

In my experience they almost never work as advertised and I would never spend my money in a pack of actions which does something I can do myself. In my opinion, actions are for lazy and inexperienced people that are looking after quick results. Even if you’re a not a very experienced user, creating the effects yourself is a perfect way to develop your own style and gain experience.

Don’t get me wrong, actions are great for repetitive tasks and for simple effects. I created actions myself and you can try them yourself for free.

8) Be careful with those shadows

Most beginner don’t give shadows the importance they deserve. Sometimes even the slightest shadow can make a big difference.

A great tip when creating shadows manually, is to use low opacity brushes because that allows you to gradually build up the shadow and have full control.

Pay special attention to your main light. identify the main source of light and create the shadows accordingly. I made a mini series of tutorials called “Manipulation secrets” where you can learn more about shading techniques.

Example of bad shading. Credit: Image by seadarkbr – https://www.deviantart.com/seadarkbr/art/Unicornio-771790638

9) Realistic contrast and lighting (Histogram)

I’ve seen so many manipulations that are either too dark or lacking contrast. That’s maybe one of the most difficult aspects to master on photo-manipulation because usually you will be working with different stock photos, each with its own contrast and lighting. Checking the histogram could give you a clue of what’s going on your canvas.

Your job is to blend them seamlessly using adjustment layers or other tools and techniques. That’s why choosing the right stock photos is crucial and can save lots of editing headaches. Keep contrast and lighting consistent through all layers and elements of your manipulation.

This image is almost completely dark. You can barely see the scene. Image credit: https://www.deviantart.com/pjenz/art/Waiting-for-you-321822075

10) Color palette

If you have any knowledge about color theory you will get better and more pleasant colors on your works. Not all colors work well together and there are many tools that help you create cool color palettes and color combinations that work well together.

In time your eyes will get better at judging colors and I think the most important of all is having a clear idea of what dominant color you want on your work and than simply make color corrections on each layer as needed.

10 tips to improve your photo manipulations
Color palette used on one of my advanced tutorials. Click on the image to view the tutorial

Wrapping up

Invest some time in analyzing and thinking on this aspects when you create your manipulations. When you’re just starting out maybe a good practice would be to make some preparation work and think about a few key technical aspects before you even start to work. Hopefuly these tips will help you improve your workflow and artworks.

Let me know what do you think about these tips in the comments section below and rate this post if you liked it.

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I'm a self-taught Photoshop artist and like teaching other how to improve their skills. I love design and graphic communication. I've been creating Photoshop tutorials since 2009 for beginners and advanced users
  • These are excellent! I have around 15 years with Photoshop, but, at every turn, I learn something new! There’s a place in one’s learning, though, where one realizes, there is not a lot more ABOUT the program one needs to learn. Much of it, now, is HOW to use that learning, like techniques! I could learn this stuff forever!! LOL Photo-manips are about my favorite, too.
    This post would be awesome as a checklist for planning a manip! Thank you!!

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