Isolating elements

When placing one element into another background you'll probably be starting with two distinct images. To copy an image, or just part of an image, you can do several things.

Copying images

If you are pulling images from your local drive (such as a system folder or from your desktop) then you can simply use the "Place" command from the file menu. Unlike "Open" the "Place" command will open a new file *within* the currently open file. Be aware this will add the new file as a "smart object" which are discussed below.

You can just drag and drop the file from your system into the Photoshop work area. Remember that if you have Photoshop minimized in the taskbar at the bottom of the screen you can hold a file over the Photoshop taskbar rectangle itself to get Photoshop to enlarge again. When dropping files directly onto a pre-existing canvas they will probably be created as smart objects.

You can also copy pixels from separate files open in Photoshop. If two files are open you can select an area of one (either the entire image or a specific selection using a marquee tool) and simply press "CTRL-C" to copy the selected pixels. Then in the target image use "CTRL-V" to paste them. You can also use the "Move" tool if both images are open at the same time.

One thing many people don't realize is that you can copy images directly from a web browser without saving them to your hard drive first. You can't just click and drag from most browsers but you typically *can* Right-Click and select Copy from the browser's context menu. After this is you select "File > New" within Photoshop you should see that Photoshop has automatically read the information on your clipboard (the place your computer saves information that is being copied) and will have adjusted the "width" and "height" values to give you a blank canvas the same size as your copied image. Once made you can then hit "CTRL-V" to paste the image into the new canvas.

Smart Objects

When isolating images in Photoshop in preparation for combining them later it will always be of the utmost importance to minimize destructive editing as much as possible.

One way in which we can do this is through the use of so called "Smart Objects".

The strength of smart objects is that it allows you to treat individual elements of a project as little projects in and of themselves.

  • Smart objects can be scaled down and up and retain the original resolution of their linked object.
  • Since smart objects are like projects within themselves they can contain layers, adjustment layers, etc. within them.

Smart objects are easy to create. They can be made in one of two ways.

  1. Drag and drop a file from your a system folder onto the CANVAS area (not the title bar) of an open project (the file will become a smart object within the open project). When doing this the newly inserted object will be in transform mode and so will require you to "confirm" the placement by hitting the checkmark icon at the top of the screen.
  2. Right-Click an existing layer (the name area, not the preview icon) within an open project and select "Convert to Smart Object".

In either case you will know that the new object / layer is a smart object by the smart object icon that appears within the layer preview icon. Look at the difference between a regular raster layer preview icon and a smart object preview icon below...

In later versions of Photoshop there is a distinction made between "Linked" smart objects and "Embedded" smart objects. "Embedded" objects are simply kept within the Photoshop file like layer information. If you want to have just one single ".psd" file for your entire project then this is what you want.

"Linked" objects will save temporary information within your Photoshop file that acts like an embedded object but will also point towards an external file that should be considered the "source" of that smart object. When you open the smart object from the layer browser you will simply be openeing that file. If the file is modified outside of Photoshop, by another user, or in another program, then you can update the linked file within Photoshop by simply right clicking the layer and selecting "Update Modified Content".

Matching Element Qualities

Matching elements in Photoshop will be done primarily through the use of two things.

  1. Adjustment layers (probably with masks).
  2. More adjustment layers (probably with masks).

I guess it would be better to try and divide the actual uses of adjustment layers for matching elements. Adjustment layers can be made to edit all of the following considerations.

  • Directional light.
  • Atmospheric light / stylistic hue.
  • Surface color.
  • Element contrast / black density.

I list them separately because it's rare that you'll be able to get an element to match with only one adjustment layer and one mask.

Inserting Single Elements

Obviously layers will be used to insert an isolated element into a background image. We NEVER want to actually drop an element onto another layer and leave only one layer to work with later.

  • As usual, NAME you layers to keep track of them.
  • Try to keep layers that pertain to a single element (the inserted image, adjustment layers for it, and shadow you might add for it) within a single folder. While in a folder / group you can hide / show the entire element for better effeciency.
  • If you need to add a mask which can make due with a hard edge then consider using a vector mask instead of a raster-based mask to keep the file size down.