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Enhance Stock Images in Photoshop

serj.ca Photo Editing Oct 06, 2011

If you are like me, using stock images for your design projects, then you probably also came across the images that almost meet your needs, but have some minor defects that may prevent you from using them in your design. In this tutorial I'll show you how to get rid of those imperfections and enhance the overall look of the stock image in several simple steps.

Take a look at the two images below. The first one is the original image from Fotolia that I've used in one of my projects, and the second image is the final result we will get by the end of this tutorial.

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1. Remove Background

First, let's get rid of the white background. Double-click the "Background" layer to convert it into the regular layer. Then draw a path using a Pen Tool (Fig. 1.1). It may look pretty complex to make a selection like this at first, but all you need is a bit of practice. Pen Tool is a great tool that gives you a huge amount of control over your selection. Follow this great tutorial at PSDTuts, and you'll be a Pen Tool Master in no time.

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Figure 1.1 - Work Path

After your path is ready, right-click the image and choose Make Selection from the menu. Set 0.2px as a Feather Radius and click Ok. Press Delete button to remove selected area, and then Ctrl+D to deselect. Let's take a look at what we've got (Fig. 1.2):

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Figure 1.2 - Image With Partially Transparent Background

Now we need to get rid of the remaining background. You can do it the same way as we did it in a previous step, using a Pen Tool, or you can use any other tool you prefer (Magic Wand, Quick Selection Tool etc.). I'm a big fan of a Pen Tool (I believe you already got that), so I will use it here again (Fig. 1.3).

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Figure 1.3 - Selecting Remaining Background

2. Increase Contrast

Now that we have our image on a transparent background, let's increase the contrast and make the colors more vibrant.
First, create a new layer (Press Ctrl+Shift+Alt+N) and fill it with the gradient (set the colors to: top #fffaeb and bottom #eee1c0). Position this layer below the current one and name it "Background". It'll help us to see the changes we make more clearly.

Next, go to Layer>New Adjustment Layer>Curves and create a new adjustment layer. Make sure you have checked the "Use Previous Layer to Create Clipping Mask" box (Fig. 2.1).

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Figure 2.1 - Adding Curves Adjustment Layer

Create the curve as shown on the image below (Fig. 2.2):

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Figure 2.2 - Curve

Take a look at our image with the Curves Adjustment Layer applied (Fig. 2.3).

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Figure 2.3 - Image With the Curves Adjustment Layer Applied

You can already see how our image has improved. Next, let's change the mortar texture.

3. Change Texture

First, you need to find a decent wood texture. You can do a quick Google search for the term like "free wood texture", or just buy one. Here is the texture I'll be using (Fig. 3.1):

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Figure 3.1 - Wood Texture

Now let's create the mask for our new texture. Use your Pen Tool to select the mortar. We are not going to change the texture on the top of it, so there's not need to select that part.

Create a new layer (Press Ctrl+Shift+Alt+N) and position it just above our Curves Adjustment Layer. Name this layer "Mortar Mask". Make a selection from your work path in exactly the same way as we did it in the beginning of this tutorial (you can also press Ctrl+Enter to do that). Fill your selection with the red color (Fig. 3.2).

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Figure 3.2 - Mortar Mask

Place your texture on top of the mask we just created. Use Free Transform Tool (Ctrl+T) to resize it as needed. Then go to the Layer>Create Clipping Mask or just press Ctrl+Alt+G. See the result below (Fig. 3.3):

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Figure 3.3 - Texture in Place

Now we're going to use a Warp Transform Tool to distort the texture so it'll look much more realistic than it is now.

Go to Edit>Transform>Warp to bring up the Warp Tool. Distort the Warp grid to get the grid similar to the image below (Fig. 3.4). Press Enter to apply transformation.

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Figure 3.4 - Applying Warp Tool

Next we need to adjust the texture color so it'll match our original mortar.

Make your texture layer active by clicking on it in the Layers palette. Then go to Layer>New Adjustment Layer>Curves and create new adjustment layer. Create the curve as shown on the screen shot below (Fig. 3.5).

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Figure 3.5 - Apply Curve

In the next step we're going to merge all texture layers ("Mortar Mask", "Texture" and Curves Adjustment Layer) into one layer, but first let's create a backup copy of all these layers. It's a good practice to create a backup of the essential layers you're going to change.

Select all 3 layers (Fig. 3.6) and press Ctrl+G, that will group all your layers together. Name the group "Texture". Right-click the group and select Duplicate Group, name it "Texture Backup". Click Ok and make the backup group invisible, by clicking the eye icon next to the layer's thumbnail. You can also move it to the very bottom of the Layers palette, so it won't distract you.

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Figure 3.6 - Grouping Texture Layers

Now let's finally merge the texture layers. Right-click the "Texture" group and select Merge Group, you can also press Ctrl+E to achieve the same result.

Next what we're going to do, is to blur the top edge of the texture out a little bit, so it'll blend in better with the original image.

Select the Blur Tool, set Strength to 30% and blur the top edge, just a touch. You can also use a soft-edged Eraser Tool for the areas where you feel you need to erase some parts.

Okay, let's now take a look at our image (Fig. 3.7):

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Figure 3.7 - Image With Merged Texture Layers

We're almost done with the texture. Let's just add some shadows/highlights to it.

Create 2 duplicates of the Texture layer (Press Ctrl+J). Name first layer "Texture Shadow" and the second one - "Texture Light" (Fig. 3.8).

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Figure 3.8 - "Texture Shadow" and "Texture Light" layers

First, let's work on the "Texture Light" layer. Add new Curves Adjustment Layer in the same manner as we did it before. Create the curve as shown on the image below (Fig. 3.9). Then merge the "Texture Light" layer with the Curves layer. Select both layers and press Ctrl+E.

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Figure 3.9 - "Texture Light" Layer Curve

Let's move on to the "Texture Shadow" layer. First, make the "Texture Light" layer invisible, so we can see our Shadow layer. Then add a new Curves Adjustment Layer. Draw a curve like on the image below (Fig. 3.10). Merge the "Texture Shadow" layer with its Curves layer, by selecting layers and pressing Ctrl+E.

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Figure 3.10 - "Texture Shadow" Layer Curve

Here is how your layers should look like (Fig. 3.11):

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Figure 3.11 - "Texture Light" and "Texture Shadow" layers with Curves applied

Let's add the layer masks to our layers. Select the "Texture Light" layer and go to Layer>Layer Mask>Hide All. Do the same with the "Texture Shadow" layer (Fig. 3.12).

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Figure 3.12 - Layer Masks

Now all we have to do is to take white soft-edged brush and draw on respective layer masks, depending on where we want the shadow and the highlights to show up. Use your common sense and our original image as a reference. Take a look at the masks below (Fig. 3.13).

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Figure 3.13 - "Texture Shadow" and "Texture Light" Masks

Below is our image with the layer masks applied (Fig. 3.14):

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Figure 3.14 - Image With the Layer Masks Applied

The very last thing we need to do with the "Texture" layer is to add some shadows from the leaves.

Create a new layer and move it to the very top of the Layers palette. Ctrl+click the "Texture" layer thumbnail to load a selection. With the selection still on, go to Layer>Layer Mask>Reveal Selection. Now we have a new layer with the mask for our shadows. Name this layer "Leaves Shadows" and set the Blending Mode to Multiply (Fig. 3.15).

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Figure 3.15 - "Leaves Shadows" Layer Mask

Set your foreground color to #5e2a00 and draw some shadows on the "Leaves Shadow" layer, using a soft-edged brush. Again, use your common sense and original image as a reference.

Here is our image with the shadows added (Fig. 3.16):

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Figure 3.16 - Image With the Shadows Added

4. Enhance Details

Details are always very important. In our case if we're trying to enhance the overall look of the image we should definitely be attentive to details.

First, let's merge all our layers except the background. Don't forget to group them and make a backup copy, as we did earlier with the "Texture" layer. Merge the layers by pressing Ctrl+E and name the new layer "Mortar".

Now select the Dodge Tool, set Range to Highlights, Exposure to 10% and draw over the existing highlights or parts of the image you'd like to emphasize (Fig. 4.1).

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Figure 4.1 - Areas to apply Dodge Tool

Take a look at our image with the Dodge Tool applied (Fig. 4.2):

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Figure 4.2 - Image with the Dodge Tool Applied

A few more things and we're done. Last step on this tutorial will be the adding shadow to the whole image.

5. Add Shadow

Adding a shadow should be a simple task for you by now. Create a new layer, set Blending Mode to Multiply and name it "Shadow". Position this layer just below the "Mortar" layer. Set the foreground color to #625738 (use a bit darker color for the areas where object touches the ground), and draw shadow with the soft-edged brush. Make sure to study the shadow on the original image.

Quick Tip: If you look closely on the original shadow you'll notice that it changes the color depending on the object that casts it (it's greener under the leaf, more reddish near the red berry etc.). To change the color of your shadow you just need to create a new layer on top of your "Shadow" layer and set its Blending Mode to Color. That's it, now you can paint on this layer with whichever color you like and the shadow will change the color as well.

Here is how your "Shadow" layer should look like (Fig. 5.1):

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Figure 5.1 - "Shadow" layer

Below is our final image:

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I hope you enjoyed this tutorial and learned something useful from it. Please feel free to ask any questions in the comments section below.

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