Do you know how to combine photos in PhotoShop or any other photo editor?
Do you know why that knowledge is important to you as an artist?
There is no such thing as the “perfect reference photo.” Close to perfect, yes, but most of us find something that could be better about almost every reference photo we consider.
Even for those of us who do our own photography, there comes a time when the best photograph would be even better—if one thing was changed.
Today, I’m going to walk you through the process of combining photographs in Photoshop.
How to Combine Photos in Photoshop
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.
You can also combine photos with many other photo editors including GIMP and online photo editors, including Photoshop. GIMP is a free download and has a lot of the same features as Photoshop 7. If you’d like to see a tutorial using GIMP, let me know.
Now let’s see how to combine photos in Photoshop.
Step 1: Select the photos you want to combine.
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 horizontally to match the rest. Additional corrections can be made at the drawing or painting stage, but aren’t within the scope of this article.
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 drawing (or with the working title.)
Step 3: Create a new layer over the base image.
Click on the drop down LAYER menu, and select NEW LAYER. The new layer won’t be visible because it’s transparent. You can “see” it by clicking on the drop down VIEW menu and clicking LAYERS.
You can name the layer if you wish, but don’t have to.
Step 4: Choose an image to combine with the base image.
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 choose 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.
The copied image will be pasted into the new layer you created in Step 3. You will be able to move it around, erase part of it, and make other changes without changing the background layer.
Step 5: Erase unnecessary parts of the image.
Erase the larger areas first.
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.
Position your cursor over a part of the image you want to remove. Hold down the right mouse button and move the cursor over the image. Everything the cursor moves over is erased.
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 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 along the left side of the illustration below.) Click anywhere in the area you want to remove.
To select multiple areas, as shown above, 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.
Then erase the smaller areas.
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.
Step 6: Repeat steps 3, 4 and 5 for each additional photo you want to add.
One horse in a wide open landscape might be interesting, but I want to add a bit more interest. So I copied the second picture of horses and added it to my composition.
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-order 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).
Step 7: Arrange the images to find a good composition.
You can also move each image around the picture plane by selecting each layer. 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.
Layer 2 is selected. That’s the layer with the red horses. 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.
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.
To simplify matters, rename each layer as you create it. In this example, I could have renamed the first layer White Horse and the second layer Red Horses. That eliminates confusion if you add more than one or two layers.
Repeat steps 3-5 for each layer you want to work with.
Step 8: Fine tune your best composition or try new compositions.
Now 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…
…and with the red horses in front.
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. The illustrations in this article are jpg files.
Step 9: Prepare the best composition.
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.
Once you do that, you can save your best composition as a jpg file to your digital device and it’s ready for you to draw.
That’s how I combine photos in Photoshop.
For me, this is just the beginning of the process.
I also use photo editors to decide on the best compositions. Sometimes, I save them into my screen saver rotation so I can study them for a while.
After choosing a design, I make a drawing grid on the image for the more traditional steps in making art.