For many artists, working from photographs is the only option for creating their art. For others, it’s only one option among many.

Even for those of us who do our own photography, there comes a time when your best photograph would be even better—if one thing was changed.

Sometimes, though, you need to do a lot of post-photography work to create the ideal reference photo.

Today, I’m going to walk you through the process of combining photographs in Photoshop.

How to Combine Photos in Photoshop to Get the Ideal Reference Photo


This demonstration was created using PhotoShop 7.0 on a Mac G4. The process may vary depending on the version of PhotoShop you’re using and the type of computer.

Step 1

Select the photographs you want to combine. I’ve selected a collection of landscape photographs and photographs of horses.

It’s helpful if the light source is the same general location (upper left, upper right, etc.) among all the photographs, but it’s not necessary. If one of the photographs you want to use shows opposite lighting, one easy correction is to flip the photo to match the rest. Additional corrections can be made at the painting stage, but aren’t within the scope of this article.

Combining Photos in PhotoShop 1

Combining Photos in PhotoShop 2

Step 2

Select the image you want to use as the base image. In most cases, this will be the background image or landscape.

Save it with a new name and put it into a folder labeled with the name of the painting or work.

Step 3

Select the image you want to combine with the first one to create a new composition.

In the illustration below, I reduced the size of the horse photo, then typed CONTROL+A (you can also select SELECT ALL from the drop-down EDIT menu) to select the entire image. The dotted line around picture of the horse shows it selected.

Type CONTROL+C to copy or select copy from the drop-down EDIT menu.

Click on the background image to make it active, then paste the copied image into the main image by typing CONTROL+V or choosing PASTE from the drop-down EDIT menu.

Combining Photos in PhotoShop 3

The copied image will be pasted over top the main image, as shown above.

Step 4

All I want of the smaller image is the white horse. Everything else must be removed. I use the eraser tool to remove unwanted parts of the picture.

In the version of Photoshop I use (7.0), the eraser tool is the sixth tool down on the left side of the tool bar. See the shaded box on the left side of the illustration below.

If you’re using another version of Photoshop, your eraser tool may be in a slightly different location, but the icon will be similar.

Combining Photos in PhotoShop 4
Position your cursor over a part of the image you want to remove. Hold down the right click button and move the cursor over the image. Everything the cursor moves over will be erased.

Combining Photos in PhotoShop 5

While erasing is ideal for small areas and detail work, it can be tedious when removing large areas. In this sample, the sky is a large area with a fairly flat color. It’s much easier to remove such areas by selecting the wand tool (second tool from the top on the right side of the tool bar—see the shaded box below), then clicking anywhere in the area you want to remove. Every part of that color will be selected.

To select multiple areas, as shown here, click on the first area, then hold down the shift key while you click in additional areas.

When you’ve selected all the areas, type CONTROL+X to cut those areas or select CLEAR from the drop down EDIT menu at the top of the screen.

Combining Photos in PhotoShop 6
For some of the smaller areas, such as around the horse’s head, I enlarged the image to 50% or larger by highlighting the number in the lower left hand corner and typing in a larger number. This gives me a much larger view of the image. I can scroll side to side or top to bottom to see small portions of the image and erase anything I don’t want in the composition.

This is what the two images look like when I finish cleaning up the photograph of the white horse.

Combining Photos in PhotoShop 7

Step 5

One horse in a wide open landscape might be interesting, but I want to add a bit more interest. So I’m going to copy the second picture of horses and add it to my composition.

I repeat steps 3 and 4 to copy the new image into the composition and clean it up.

But the second picture of horses isn’t where I want it because Photoshop automatically pastes new images into the center of the main image. Each new image automatically covers the last previous one.

To re-arrange these pictures, click on the LAYER drop down menu and select arrange. This will reveal your options. Moving a layer backward will move it backward one layer. Choosing MOVE TO BACK will move it backward to the first layer over the background (the landscape).

Combining Photos in PhotoShop 8

Step 6

I also want to move my horses around to get the best possible arrangement. In order to do this, I have to be able to select each copied image and the layer it’s on. To do this, open the Window drop down menu and click on LAYERS. This opens the Layers dialogue box, which you can see at the bottom of the illustration below.

In that window, Layer 2 is selected. That’s the layer with the red horses on it. As long as Layer 2 is selected, I can click anywhere on the image and grab hold of the red horses. By holding down the mouse button and dragging the mouse, I can move those red horses anywhere I want them.

Combining Photos in PhotoShop 9

Even up into the sky, where I can get a better look at them, make sure I’ve removed all the stray bits I don’t want, and do whatever other work might be necessary.

Combining Photos in PhotoShop 10
Repeat steps 3-5 for each element you want to work with.

Step 7

All the hard work is done at this point. You have a single image (the landscape) with several other images copied into it (white horse, red horses).

You can now have a little fun and arrange the elements anyway you wish. Obviously, the more elements you add, the more different arrangements you might come up with.

Two possible compositions for this demonstration is with the white horse in front…

Combining Photos in PhotoShop 11

…and with the red horses in front.

Computer Composition Illustration 12

You might also make the horses quite small relative to the landscape or try any of  a number of other things.

Save each composition separately as a .PSD (Photoshop) file. A .psd file preserves the layers and allows you to move them around any time you want.

I also save each file as a .JPG (.JPEG), which is a much smaller file.

Before you can save a .psd file as a .jpg file, you need to flatten the layers. Select the LAYER drop down menu and click on FLATTEN IMAGE at the bottom. All of the layers are combined into a single layer. You won’t be able to move the layers around afterward, but the file will be much smaller.


For me, this is just the beginning of the process. I use Photoshop to decide on the best compositions. Sometimes, I save them into my screen saver rotation so I can study them for a while. Once I choose a design, I can then make a drawing grid on the image get started on the more traditional steps in making art.


Do you have a question about using your computer for art? Leave it in the comments box and if it’s something I can help you with, I’ll let you know. If not, I’ll find someone who does know.

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