Create a Dark and Surreal Photo Manipulation in Photoshop

Create a Dark and Surreal Photo Manipulation in Photoshop
Create a Dark and Surreal Photo Manipulation in Photoshop

Create this intense photo manipulation with Photoshop. This tutorial will show you how to manipulate stock photos and turn them into this dark and surreal scene. A PSD is included with this tutorial.

Preview of Final Results


Dark and Surreal Photo Manipulation Photoshop Tutorial

Avatar, the movie, gave us a beautiful imaginary world with inverted mountains and distinct creatures. We take it to the dark side and turn it into a surreal photo manipulation, inspired also by the Greek legend of Prometheus.


Step 1 - Starting with the Background Layer

We start off by taking the landscape scene as the starting layer.


Step 2 - Adding haze

Next, we duplicate the portion shown by red and similar cloudy areas and change the 'Blending Option' to Soft Light and lower the opacity a bit, to around 85%. We move this duplicated layer to the completely black areas like the mountains on the bottom. This creates a mild sense of haze and mist in the totally dark areas.


Resulting effect:


Step 3 - Using star stock

Next we open up a star stock, any common one would do as we are aiming for a hazy mystic look in the scene. You can even use a nebula stock. Really crank up the contrast of the star stock by either 'Curves' or the 'Brightness/Contrast' adjustment layer and put it on ‘Screen’ Blending mode. Do not bother with the high saturation and distorted color as of yet, which we may have due to high contrast of the star stock, as we would later turn the scene into black and white. Here’s how the stock looks at ‘Screen’ blending mode, 100% opacity, high contrast.


We duplicate the star stock and erase all unwanted parts like the edges of the stock.


Now as we can see, the colors are totally messed up. So, we flatten the image and go to Image -> Adjustments -> Desaturate or press Ctrl+Shift+U. And here we have a not-yet-complete shady and surreal landscape. You could also just use a Black to White ‘Gradient Map’ adjustment layer on top of all layers on ‘Color’ 'Blending Option' to turn the image to greyscale.


Step 4 - Making the artwork wider

Now, in the age of widescreens, the aspect ratio of the image is not too appealing. So we extend the canvas size and make it wider, keeping in mind that the current image remains at the right most corner. To do this, press Alt+Ctrl+C to go to canvas size, click on the right arrow in the 'Anchor' field and increase the width. Now, to fill up the empty canvas on left, we would duplicate the background layer and erase the unwanted parts. In the following image, the lighter reds are the duplicated mountains and the darker red are the duplicates of the same mountain but inverted. The blue part is just the mirror image of the mountain, duplicated to give the inverted mountain more width.


Step 5 - Adding Clouds

To give the landscape a more dynamic look, we add clouds. We use the following stock since the lightning in the clouds in the stock is pretty varied and catches attention. First, we keep it on the right side and use ‘Darken’ blending mode and erase the unwanted parts. Then, we duplicate the layer and use the 'Lighten' mode on the left side so as to keep the right side dark and the center bright.


Here is the shown placement of the clouds stock on 'Darken' blending option.


Here is the same stock on 'Lighten' blending option.


Step 6 - More clouds and haze

Now, we use the aforementioned clouds around the right inverted mountain. You could also use cloud brushes. We then use the soft brush of a large size on low opacity to paint the darker areas with white color, on a new layer, so that the darker areas (most prominently, the inverted mountain on left) are more grayish and hazy.


Step 7 - Making the main rock

Now that the background is taken care of, we move onto the main focal of the artwork, the guy tied to the rock. Notice that the image is in grayscale. See step 3 to know how to turn it to greyscale. Draw out the shape of the rock as you want it as the base layer, I named it ‘Stone Layer’. We use clipping masks on all the further layers on the ‘stone layer’. First would be the stone texture from ‘The Wall’ stock. We use burn tool to create shadow in the marked region.


Step 8 - Darkening Main rock

Now, go to Image -> Adjustments -> Curves and use the following settings to darken the left side a bit.


Step 9 - Adding fabric folds

Now to create the fabric folds, we use various portions of the aforementioned drapery stocks. Position the stocks as shown in the pictorial representation and use the ‘Multiply’ 'Blending Option' on the torn cloth stock. The right side is not important at the moment so erase all unwanted parts on the left while leaving the right side as it is.


Now, use the shimery drape stocks on the left side on 'Normal' blending option. Next, we can use the torn cloth stocks on multiply to create a more rugged look to the fabric folds and give it more details.


Step 10 - Seperating right side of Main rock

Now we put a different texture stock on the right side, shown by the white, and darken it a bit using 'Curves' or 'Levels' blending option.


Step 11 - Adjusting drapery

Select the white drapery stock shown below and turn it to grayscale. Press Ctrl+I to invert the image and the result is shown below, marked 2. Use the ‘Curves’ adjustment layer with the settings shown in 3 to darken the cloth and get the result similar to the one shown below, marked 4.


Step 12 - Adding drapery on Main rock

Flip the resultant image of step 11 horizontally. Put this image on the right side, with ‘Darken’ 'Blending Option', positioned as shown below. Also, use another drapery stock shown below and position it as shown. Use burn tool to darken the portion shown below.


Step 13 - Cutting out the face

Now, open the face stock image. Use the 'Quick Selection' tool to select out the face from the background.


Press Alt + Ctrl + R or go to Select -> Refine Edge.Use the following settings to mask out the face better. Use the Refine Radius tool on the boundaries of the face to select out more details.


Lastly, erase out all the unnecessary details using the Eraser tool.


Step 14 - Cutting out the body

Using similar technique as used in step 13, select out the body/abdomen from the stock image.


Use the 'Curves' adjustment layer with the shown settings to increase the contrast a bit.


Step 15 - Compositing the Body on Main rock

Put the combined image of the guy onto the Stone. Position it as shown by turning it through ~19 degrees, with the abdomen in the middle of the right face of rock and the face coming out on the right side enough. Erase the side areas which are not required.


Here is a preview with and without the combined image of guy onto the stone.


Step 16 - Making the face mask

On a new layer, roughly draw out the veil/cover on the face so we could use drapery layers with clipping masks on it.


Step 17 - Adding drapery to face mask

Now, similar to what we did with the fabric on the left, we make the face cover using multiple drapery stocks.


Use the flowing gown of the lady from DazzleStock and position it as shown. Add a ‘Curves’ adjustment layer with the following values to increase the contrast and clip it to the face cover using clipping mask.


Using the same stock as that in step 12, we add more folds to the face cover. We can use more and more drapery stocks to get unique looks. Or, you could take a shortcut by duplicating the drapery on left side and flipping it horizontally and then placing it on the face cover layer with clipping masks.


Step 18 - Adding fabric wraping the body

Make a new layer and use ‘Multiply’ as the 'Blending Option'. Use the paint brush to draw out the torn drapery, as shown below, marked with blue outline. Next, put the marked portion of the girl stock on darken, on the areas marked red.


Step 19 - Adding more details

Now take the Shimmer drape stock pack and put the marked area of the stock on 'Darken'/'Multiply' 'Blending Option' to make the fabric appear like its folding around the rock.


The guy image is almost complete. You could add more details to make it more realistic and more interesting, like those shown in the image below. Also, you could erase some parts from the edges to give it a rough outline, which is far more realistic. You could also let some portion of the drapery go beyond the outline, like on the left side, so that it appears wrapped around, and not stuck to it.


Step 20 - Adjusting light setup

Moving back to the background image, we try and increase the contrast and consequently the depth of the image. Create a new layer, with ‘Soft Light’ 'Blending Option' and paint the areas as shown.


Step 21 - Adding blur for depth

Create a new layer, go to Image -> Apply image. Now go to Filters -> Blur -> Blur. Now add a layer mask to this layer and erase the parts you want to show nearer to the viewer, i.e. make the closer objects appear sharper. The layer mask of the layer is shown below along with the result.


Step 22 - Increasing contrast

Now make a Brightness/Contrast adjustment layer with the shown settings. The layer mask is also shown to give an idea of the areas it is applied to.


Step 23 - Adding additional rock columns

Now place the guy tied to the rock, which we’ve already made, a bit to the left of the center and put two other similar blocks on the edges. Having an odd number of focal objects in the scene helps the composition greatly while having the main object in the center can be counterproductive. Create a new layer clipped to the guy, with ‘Soft Light’ or ‘Screen’ 'Blending Option' and use the paint brush to bright the right edge of the guy with the rock. This creates a sense of light reflection on the guy, making it more realistic.


Step 24 - Adding Drips

We add small details to the artwork in this step. First, on a new layer, we draw out dripping liquid on the side rocks, which gives it a more surreal look. Also, we take the stock image of the inverted islands, turn it to grayscale and put it over the mountain behind the guy, to give it a more prominent texture.


Step 25 - Adding leaves

The tiniest of the details are what makes a great artwork. So now, we add random flowing leaves near the guy using the stock leaves/particles brushes and add clouds with the cloud brushes on the left rock.


Step 26 - Adding birds and splatter

Next, we add a few birds to the scene. Also, we use splatter brushes to make the birds more interesting and give them a mystique disintegrating look. The splatter brush on itself may look flat, hence we use the bird stock on clipping mask with the splatter brushes.


Step 27 - Adjusting light on birds

Now, we try to further highlight and give details to the birds. Create a new layer on ‘Soft Light’ 'Blending Option' and use the paint brush to roughly highlight the feathers and the structure of the birds. The resultant layer is shown besides the respective bird below.


Step 28 - Adding dripping blood

Next, we create the dripping blood on the guy tied to the rock. This needs plenty of work to get right but I would skip it here as it has been done quite many times in countless tutorials. Notice that the blood is not shown in grayscale, this helps create focus and makes the whole scene more interesting, similar to effect like in the movie Sin City. To do it, mask out the blood drips and put them above the B&W gradient map layer.


Step 29 - Using soft light to add details

Create a new layer, go to Edit -> Fill -> 50% gray and put it on ‘Soft Light’ 'Blending Option'. Using the paint brush on low opacity (~10%) draw out the highlights of the scene, with white brush making it lighter and black brush making it darker. The resultant layer is also shown below.


Step 30 - Increasing contrast

Create a new ‘Levels’ adjustments layer and use the shown settings. Also, further increase the contrast by using another ‘Brightness/Contrast’ adjustments layer with the layer mask and settings as shown pictorially.


Step 31 - Adding partial vignette

Now we give it a partial vignette kind of effect, only better. We use the ‘Curves’ adjustments layer with the shown settings to darken the image and use the layer mask to only darken the required edges.


Step 32 - Gradient map adjustment layer

Create a new ‘Gradient Map’ adjustment layer on ‘Soft Light’ 'Blending Option' and use the values shown for the gradient. You could also mask out the blood drips here to prevent application of this layer on the blood (to get the blood to stay true red), as this gradient causes a shift in color.


Step 33 - Partial desaturation

The image with the gradient map on 'Soft Light' looks oversaturated, so make a new ‘Black to white’ ‘Gradient Map’ adjustment layer on ‘Color’ 'Blending Option' at 30% opacity. Also, there are places on the bottom left and right corners where the image is too black. Make a new layer with 'Lighten' 'Blending Option' and use the paint brush with #071922 color and use the brush in those corners. And there you have it, the final image.


Step 34 (Optional) - Optical flares

You could add some custom optical flares to add a more interesting look. The ones used here are a part of the Video Copilot’s Optical Flares Bundle which cannot be shared publicly. Notice though, that the optical flares are different in color than the whole scene, this adds more ‘color’ appeal and makes it look more interesting.


Step 35 - Saving the final result

The image is finally finished, you could add a border and sharpen the image. Go to Filter -> Sharpen -> Smart Sharpen and use the following given values. Then, save it as a PSD file.

  • Amount: 130%
  • Radius: 1.0
  • Remove: Gaussian Blur
  • Check the More Accurate

Final Results


Download the PSD

Throes Of Perdition by Rockerdish | 13 MB

Authors Comment

profile[5]Hi! My name is Ishan Dahiya, from India.I am just a self-proclaimed, self-righteous artist of sorts who lives in an dream and paints with a mouse. You can catch me at deviantart under the username Rockerdish.

- Ishan Dahiya

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4 comments on “Create a Dark and Surreal Photo Manipulation in Photoshop”

  1. This tutorial sucks so much... You forgot to link half the stock photos used, one of the links is broken. You forgott a lot of steps, I jumped adding some stuff because I thought you would explain it later but you didn't.

    Your tutorial is bad
    and you should feel bad

  2. Although not much explanation, I really did get a lot off inspiration and ideas here. Especially the part with the rock and the dude with the drapes, just excellent!!

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