Create a Surreal Landscape Using Photo Manipulation

Create a Surreal Landscape Using Photo Manipulation

In this tutorial I will give you some tips on how to make a surreal photo manipulation. The most challenging of doing manipulation is usually finding the right balance between your imported elements. Also the color of your elements and dynamic lightning are important things to make the scene more “believable” (not too realistic in this case).

I’ll use a selection of stock images (free and paid) to build the composition. This is just my selection. If you don’t want to use paid images, there are also tons of free images on the internet to use to complete this tutorial.

Stock images used:

Wooden Boat
Castle 2
Castle 3
Stone House

Wegraphics material used
Noise Effect Textures


Step 1

Start out with opening the landscape image. I used a canvas of 3000 px width with a resolution of 300 dpi. Always try to work on a big canvas with high-resolution images. This gives you more freedom on scaling your images at a later stage.

Step 2

This already is a beautiful heavily colored image but I want choose my own color placement. Place a black and white adjustment layer on top of the background image. The image will now be full black and white. The next thing to do is adding a layer mask to the adjustment layer. After that take a big soft brush (60%) and brush the spots you want to have color.

Step 3

We continue by adding the main image from the composition; the floating castle. Place the image on your canvas, scale it and use your pentool to cut-out everything except the castle. Add a mask to the layer so you can always change or adjust your selection later.

Step 4

The castle looks pretty plain without too much contrast. Let’s add some more depth to the image. Duplicate the image, desaturate the top image and set the blending mode to “soft light”. On top of the duplicated image you can add a “curves” adjustment layer. Play round with the curve until you are satisfied. Don’t forget to clip the adjustment layer to the two layers below them. When you do that it will only affect those layers and not your whole image.

Step 5

Use the mountain image to place under the castle. Cut out the sky and use your warp-tool (edit -> transform -> warp) to position the rock around the castle as shown in the image.

Step 6

When the rock is place on top of the castle layer, it’s time to blend them together. Create a layer mask on the layer and use a soft brush (80%) to remove small piece of the top and sides of the rock image.

Step 7

To finalize the floating castle image for now, you need to also duplicate the rock image, desaturate it and set the blending mode to “soft light”. To add even more depth / shadow to the rock you can add a clipping mask on top of the rock and use a soft black brush to darken certain spots.

Step 8

To add some more focus to your image you can add an inner shadow. I prefer to draw them myself so you have more control over it. Use a big soft black brush (80%) and make the corners of the image a bit darker.

Step 9

To give the scene a more “dreamy” and “warm” look you need to make some color adjustments. Create a new folder on top of all your layers and add the following adjustment layers.

Selective color:
Yellow: 0, 0, 0, +35
Neutrals: +25, 0, 0, 0
Blacks: +2, -3, 0, -4

Photo filter:

Color fill blue:
color: #3ABDEE, set blending to soft light 30%

Color fill yellow:
color: #FFD200, set blending to multiply 15%

Brightness / contrast:
Brightness: 0
Contrast: 35

Step 10

For making the rope I used this texture. As you can see the rope texture needs to be tiled cause it’s too short to use. Just remove the background from the texture and blend the images together. Use a soft brush to clear the hard edges when putting the images on top of one another.

Step 11

Place the tiled texture of the rope on your canvas and scale it / rotate it till it’s in the right place. After that use your perspective tool to give depth to the rope. To add some more realism on the depth you can blur the closest part of the rope a bit with your blur tool and draw a shadow under the rope. To add more contour to the rope you can always use the method used with the rock and the castle. (duplicate the image and blend).

Step 12

At this stage we’re going to add more castles. You can duplicate the one you made, but it’s more fun to add some extra different castles. Use the same technique used in the first castle scale it down and set the opacity of the image to 80%. That way it look less sharp and more in the distance then the main castle. You could also choose to blur it a bit.

Also we need to add an extra light source. Create a big white radial gradient between the two castles and pull the opacity down to 40%. Place the planet image on top of the radial gradient. Create a layer mask and remove the right top of the planet with a soft brush. After that desaturate the image and give it a “soft light” blending mode with a 70% opacity.

Now use the same routine by adding the big planet. Place the image on your canvas. Create a layer mask on your image layer and use a soft brush to remove the lower and left side of the planet. Also desaturate / soft light and set your opacity to 70%.

Step 13

This step is pretty difficult and hard to explain. We are going to add an extra layer on top of the background to add some details to the landscape. Place the cave image on your canvas. Scale it till it’s just as big as your canvas. Now remove the background (air) from the image and only keep the part circled in red. Make sure this image is placed on top of you background so it shows up behind the elements you already added.

It really about spatial awareness and what works best for you in the landscape. In the layer picture you can view the parts I masked from the cave image to achieve this.

Step 14

Place the image of the bridge on your canvas. Scale it down to the size as shown in the image. I choose a image of a bridge where the viewpoint already is good to use. If you have for example use a image of a bridge shot from the side you can use your perspective tool the change give it more depth.

Don’t pen-tool the bridge image out completely. Keep some of the water parts under the bridge in tact and try to blend them together with the water which is in the background. Duplicate the bridge and give the top layer a “multiply” blending mode of 70%

Use the folowing settings to change to color of the bridge and clip them to the top layer of the bridge

Brightness / contrast:
Brightness: 2
Contrast: 20

54 / 1,00 / 255

Step 15

As you can see in the steps before it’s recommendable to use adjustment layers to change the color of your elements. This way you work non-destructive and can always tweak the settings at a later stage.
The last thing I want to explain is adding the “houses” to the rock on the left. ?Place the image of the stone house on your canvas and give it the following adjustment layers:

Brightness / contrast:
Brightness: -3
Contrast: 5

Hue / Saturation:
-12, -6, -12

Remove the sky from the image and try to blend in the image into the background with a soft brush on a layer mask. Now duplicate the layer and set the blending mode to “overlay”. This gives the image a little more contrast.

I added some hi-lites to some parts of the rock to add contrast and depth. To add hi-lites, you simple put a layer on top of your image and use a white brush (50%) with “overlay” blend mode.

Step 16

The rest of building the composition is really up to your own imagination. To finalize the piece I added some extra elements that were placed with the various techniques explained in the tutorial. To give the image a even more vintage / dreamy look I added a noise effect texture. Place this texture on top of your image and set blend mode to “soft light” (50%).

Final Result

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Patrick Monkel

I'm active in design for 7 years and worked for several great clients. Passion is the word for me when it comes to design. I love all kinds of design and (digital) art. In my daily work I try to keep evolving my style and am eager to learn about new things. At the moment I mix up my freelance activities with a job over at Talmon bv in Bilthoven.


(+add yours)
  1. This is great! so many technical aspects! I love it! It will get a shout out on my design website for sure!

  2. Patrick your photo manipulations are awesome!

  3. and the way he has got the river looking amazing, ahhhh its all just so realistic!!!!

  4. Patrick, this is such a cool tutorial and the outcome is inspiring. I’m a big fan of photo manipulations, and your works is a big part of it! Great JOB!

  5. Awesome manipulation.Thanks so much!

  6. This is incredible! Thank you for sharing your process!

  7. Cristian Valverde

    new thecniques learned! thanks

  8. Very beautiful! Awesome! :)

  9. Arman

    This is effrontery. Are you nuts? Why don’t you give links for free photos??? You have agreed with to ruin me. If you want earn money then find other idiots.


  10. Great tutorial and techniques well explained.
    Thanks for sharing…

  11. love the colors, beautiful theme
    thank you for this tut

  12. nice work ! This is awesome .
    thanks for sharing

  13. These are the designs that I really want to practice. This is such an inspiration.

  14. Needs a reflection of the floating castle in the water!

  15. rick

    i see the reflect of the bridge but it needs the reflect of the castle, nice work.

  16. Awesome tutorial!
    Always wanted to learn how to do this kind of photo manipulation

  17. siva4503

    Realy Great Job, Its very uselful to all designer

  18. alex

    Show valeu Parabéns!!!

  19. Hotdog

    Great tut, but it’s a shame you had to use paid for stock photo’s, would have loved to have tried this picture. I’m with Arman who says it all….. Should use FREE stock photo’s.

  20. Blanco111

    I managed to follow most of the tutorial using PS Elements 10 and some free use resources. Here’s my effort: Thanks for making this tutorial available. It looks really cool.

  21. Awesome. Thank you

  22. Prateek

    This is grate…………… Awesome tutorial!!!!!!!!!!!

  23. Anonymous

    Ummm I’m in a high school computer graphics class and we got this tutorial and it’s haaaard bro. How the f**** do you do step 10-15 ?! LEL

  24. YOLO !

    Instructions not clear…dick got stuck in the USB port.

  25. #SWAG

    I’m not sure where to find the duck. I can’t complete the tutorial with out the duck. SOMEONE HELP ME PLEASE!!!!!!!!

    • YOLO !

      Yeah. Yeah that was unclear…

      • #SWAG

        I got my dick stuck in the disc tray wansn’t clear at all.

  26. Cig Bock

    My mom came in and asked what I was making. When I told her she started beating me. I don’t know what to do. Please help

  27. Greetings, I think your web site might be having browser compatibbility problems.
    When I look at your site in Safari, it looks fine but when opening in I.E., it has some overlapping
    issues. I merely wanted to provide you wiuth a quick heads up!
    Aside from that, wonderful blog!

  28. s-k-design

    I translated and save you a lot of Ayranym.amvzsh Brdm.mrsy

  29. Very, very nice, Patrick! Thanks for your tutorial. Your picture is Awesome.

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