The creation of The Choice, a dramatic and fantasy photo-manipulation

The creation of The Choice, a dramatic and fantasy photo-manipulation

Today I’m going to explain professional photo-manipulation techniques to create a surreal and dramatic scene in Photoshop. We will start building up a vivid background, then we will focus the work on the characters and the meaning of the composition. This tutorial is not so easy to follow for beginners, but I suggest also to them to give a look because there’s certainly something that can be learned and applied in the future projects.

I love to create scenes that tell a story, characters with a soul. It’s incredible how many messages a single image can spread out, and how these messages can differ from people to people. Photoshop is a tool that allows you to give life to your ideas, sometimes it’s like being a cine director who creates and eliminates characters at his own discretion. This is the beauty of digital art in my opinion. The more you study and make experience with the graphic tools, the more your works will reflect what is in your mind, without compromises.

Having said that, let’s switch to the tutorial. Here is what we are going to create:


Click on the image for a larger preview.


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Step 1

Let’s start creating a new document in Photoshop. Since I’d like to create a new poster for my office, the size of my document is A4 landscape.

new document in Photoshop

Step 2

The first thing we need is an image of a desolate landscape. Download this frozen loch and paste it in Photoshop. Then, without a specific reason, I decide to rotate a bit the image. In this phase I’m searching for an original perspective.

frozen landscape

Step 3

Let’s modify the sky. If you take a look at fantasy digital artworks, you can notice that artists always give great importance to the sky. So we will do the same. Download this photo of a desert sunset. Put it into the canvas and rotate it so the skies of the 2 photos will match fine.

desert sunset

Step 4

Switch the layer to overlay, then apply the motion blur (Filter>Blur>Motion Blur) with the highest distance.


Step 5

With the eraser tool, or a layer mask if you prefer, gently erase the area of the sunset that covers the frozen mountains.

erase the mountains

Step 6

We need a third image for the background. My idea is to put in the sea and a beach, because I like to create contrasts, even if they could appear surreal put in together. Download this photo of an african beach and put it into the canvas. Rotate the image so that the two horizons (the one of the beach and the one of the landscape with the mountains) will overlap. By reducing the opacity of the photo you will certainly be more precise:

beach inclined

Step 7

Erase, from the layer of the beach, the area which is above the horizon. You can see how our landscape is taking life. A trick: when you have in mind to give a texturized look to your works, like in this case, you don’t need to be 100% precisely in these steps. You could spend 1 hour to perfectly erase something with great attention to the edges, and then discover only at the end that it was unnecessary. When you have to respect a deadline for your jobs, these trick are fundamental.

beach finished

Step 8

The background is too dark. Also I want it more vivid. Create a new layer and apply the cloud filter (Filter>Render>Clouds). Since we need the effect more sharp, go to Filter>Render>Fibers and enter 16 for variance and 4 for strength.


Apply the motion filter with the same settings of step 4. Set the layer to screen and reduce opacity to 60%. The result is satisfactory, even if the beach is too much saturated. But we will fix this in the next step.

motion to screen

Step 9

Create a new hue/saturation adjustment layer (Layer>New Adjustment Layer>Hue/Saturation) and reduce saturation to -50.

reduce saturation

As I showed in other tutorials, a way to increase contrasts and enhance details is to add a gradient map layer (Layer>New Adjustment Layer>Gradient Map) going from black to white and set to overlay.

gradient map

Step 10

Now that the background is complete, it’s time to introduce the main character. My choice was a gladiator downloaded from shutterstock.


What I like of this photo is the pose of the man. It inspires me a movie scene. The only thing that I absolutely don’t like is the face (sorry man!) because I prefer a head with a helmet. After pasted the photo into the canvas, use the pen tool to remove the background and the head, that we will replace later.

gladiator without head

Step 11

After surfed for a while, I came across another image of a gladiator. We need his head!

gladiator 2

Always using the pen tool, extract the head from the man and paste it over the body of the first gladiator:

head on the body

Step 12

As you may have noticed, there is a visible difference between the body and the head, but we can fix it with a color correction. With the head layer selected, press ctrl+B to open the color balance window and add the following settings:

head balanced

Step 13

Don’t forget to add a shadow. Create a new layer and play with black soft brushes and their opacity to create a gentle shadow effect.


Step 14

There are infinite ways to complete the scene. A warrior in this pose can inspire an huge amount of ideas. In my case, when I closely look at his eyes, he transmits me the idea of repentance, as if he’d made something wrong.

From this concept, It was clear for me how to complete the scene. A flying lady, the victim. Blood on the sword. A kind of obscure presence, a demon, the real author of the murder. In conclusion, not a so happy end…

For the blood, I’ve used on of our Ink Squirts brushes. Set a dark red as foreground color, create a layer and paint over the sword. Then use a clipping mask to remove the exuberant squirts.


Step 15

For the lady, I’ve found this beautiful shot made by dazzle-stock. Extract the lady and put her behind the gladiator.

lady behind

Step 16

To paint the blood on the victim, there’s no trick. With the help of my tablet, I’ve started from the point where the lady has been run through, that I supposed to be the chest. Then I used a thin brush to paint the trickles of blood.

Step 17

We can work now with some adjustment layers (put them on top of all the other layers). Let’s start with a hue/saturation layer (Layer>New Adjustment Layers>Hue/Saturation) and reduce saturation to -50.

low saturation

Step 18

As I wrote at the beginning, it’s my intention to work with a texture to give to the scene an old look. Download one of our old paper textures and paste it above the hue/saturation layer. After re-sized the texture (ctrl+T), desaturate it by pressing shift+ctrl+U. Then set the layer to overlay with opacity 70%.

Step 19

The scene is cool, but not enough. Color still needs some improvements. Add a new adjustment layer, this time select Curves. We won’t modify directly the RGB curve, but the green curve and the blue one:


Step 20

The atmosphere now is more surreal and “icy”. The last character of the scene is a kind of demoniacal presence. And what’s better than a skull for this purpose? Download this image of a skull, extract it and place it behind the lady, on top right of the canvas.

Step 21

The image of the skull is tool clean and sharp. Let’s start erasing the bottom with a soft brush:

Secondly let’s apply the gaussian blur filter with a radius around 5px, so the skull looks like a ghost.

And finally press ctrl+L to open the levels window and enter the following settings:


The composition is now complete! And below is my result. Hope you’ve enjoyed this tutorial and the brief explanations of what is behind my decisions. In case of any doubts, you can use the comments.


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(+add yours)
  1. Ah nice! 300 style.

    • Yeah mate,
      I was inspired a lot by Frank Miller’s comix

    • Plus some textures and desaturated color, that’s really your style Sebastiano. Nice work.

      • Yeah, there are some techniques like desaturating and re-coloring the composition that I often include in my tutorials. I think these methods, plus the use of cool textures, help to create harmony when using lots of stock images.

        Next time I’ll try to go one step further ;-)

  2. that’s one really cool illustration! thanx on putting the step by step!

    • Thanks Edmar,

      Even if it’s more a summary of what is behind this illustration than a tutorial, I’m sure there are interesting Photoshop tricks

  3. Awesome tut! Thanks! :)

  4. Really great artwork, sebastiano.. Thanks to post!!

  5. Hi Sebastiano,

    You should have let the foot of the gladitor… on the final result I found his position very unnatural. he is too near the foreground.

    Anyway the tutorial and the old texture render is great.


    • Hi Thomas,

      Thanks for stopping by. The position of the gladiator matches the landscape perspective, in my opinion. I didn’t want the usual frontal point of view, but a distor point of view, so that not only the lady, but the watcher himself is floating.

  6. Thank you Sebastiano. very nice tutorial. Thnx again.

  7. Tirath

    Awesome tutorial with nice creative photo-manipulation
    you are genus Sebastiano
    hats off to you
    your all tutorials are awesome
    I learn so much form your grate tutorials
    keep doing good work
    god bless you ;-)

  8. lol kind of amusing a gladiator would be taking a picture while some women is being tossed around in the air rofl.

  9. Excellent job. Very helpful tutorial.

  10. Really great work done. just curiosity to know, when you make this haven’t you think to place the lady over the warrior’s thigh because both the characters position is absolutely matching and it should create a sympathy?

  11. Rockstahrolln

    As always Sebastiano, fantastic work! Thanks for posting :)

  12. beautiful manipulation in this tutorial. thanks

  13. Hi Nice tutorial

  14. Amazing tutorial. Thank You a lot.

  15. This is awesome. However I also would have taken the guy a little bit further away.
    But the final result just rocks nonetheless! Well done!

  16. Jendel

    Wow nice tut sebastiano.. Two thumbs up =)

  17. Wow ! Really nice. I will try this. But, I don’t know I can do it or not. Thank you. I have learned many things from your post.

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