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Create Art: Make Your Own Photo Background

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If the background of your picture is getting more attention than the subjects in the foreground, try Helen Bradley's Photoshop trick for making the background more attractive and a lot less distracting.

Great photo? Crummy background? Don’t despair! It’s easy to put your Photoshop skills to work to turn a photo with a messy, distracting background into something you’d be pleased to hang on your wall. This technique harnesses the power of Photoshop adjustment layers to create an effect that can be tweaked easily to suit just about any image. It’s fun, effective, and, in our spirit of "show and tell," you not only can read how it’s done, but sit back and watch the video!

How often do you take a photo in which the subject looks great but the background is lackluster, or, worse still, distracting? It might be that the photo has been shot in a messy room or that the background of an outdoor shot distracts from the photo. When this happens, Photoshop has tools that you can use to manipulate the background so it’s less distracting. In this article, I’ll show you a creative way to fix unpleasant backgrounds.

The technique I’ll show you for dealing with backgrounds turns them into more of a feature than a distraction (see Figure 1). It has the effect of reducing the detail and color in the background and overlaying the darker areas with a series of halftone dots. The technique uses adjustment layers and masks, so it doesn’t alter the original image at all.

Figure 1

Figure 1 The original photo on the left has an untidy background. The version on the right shows how the background can be altered so it’s more creative and visually interesting.

Here’s how to achieve this result:

  1. Choose Layer > Duplicate Layer to duplicate the background layer of the image, and click OK. Add a layer group by choosing Layer > New > Group and clicking OK (see Figure 2).
    Figure 2

    Figure 2 The first step is to create a duplicate of the original image and create a new group so that you can limit the effect of the changes you’re about to make to the image.

  2. If it isn’t already visible, display the Layers palette by choosing Window, Layers. Drag the background copy layer and drop it onto the new group layer in the Layers palette (see Figure 3). Using a layer group lets you limit the effect of the adjustment layers that you’re about to create to the background copy layer only.
    Figure 3

    Figure 3 One copy of the image is moved to the new layer group—this will become the source for the new background for the image.

  3. Click the background copy layer in the Layers palette, choose Layer > New Adjustment Layer > Levels, and click OK. Drag the black and white sliders under the chart toward the middle of the chart, and move the midtones slider until the image shows more contrast and fewer colors, with much of its detail removed (see Figure 4). Click OK. In this step and the next two, focus on how the changes affect the background of the image, rather than its subject.
    Figure 4

    Figure 4 Applying a Levels adjustment lets you simplify the image by removing much of the color and detail.

  4. Choose Layer > New Adjustment Layer > Threshold. This adjustment converts the image to black-and-white. Move the slider under the chart to a position where you retain some interesting detail in the background. Generally, this will be somewhere toward the right of the chart (see Figure 5). Click OK.
    Figure 5

    Figure 5 The Threshold adjustment converts the image to black-and-white, and the slider lets you determine where the divide is between pixels made white and those made black.

  5. Choose Layer > New Adjustment Layer > Hue/Saturation and click OK. Drag the Lightness slider to the right to lighten the black to a mid gray (see Figure 6). Click OK.
    Figure 6

    Figure 6 The Hue/Saturation correction lightens the black pixels so that they appear gray instead.

  6. Click the Group layer in the Layers palette and then click the Add Layer Mask button at the foot of the Layers palette. With the mask in place, paint with black to reveal the underlying image and paint with white to redo the changes to the image. Start by selecting a soft brush, selecting black as the foreground color, and then select a large soft-edged round brush. Select an Opacity value of around 80% and paint over the subject in the image to reveal the original version below (see Figure 7). If you make a mistake, select white as the foreground color and paint the background effect back into place.
    Figure 7

    Figure 7 Painting on the Group mask lets you recover the detail of the subject of the image from the image at the very bottom of the Layers palette.

  7. When you’ve revealed your subject, select a very large brush size and a very low opacity (around 10%). Still working on the layer mask, paint with black over the background area to bring back just a hint of the original color (see Figure 8).
    Figure 8

    Figure 8 Using a large brush and a very small opacity lets you recover just the merest hint of color from the original image.

  8. To add the dots, click the Hue/Saturation layer in the Layers palette and choose Filter > Sketch > Halftone Pattern. Select Dot Pattern as the type and set a low contrast and medium size. Click OK to apply the filter to the layer. The result is a pattern of dots over the background areas of the image (see Figure 9).
    Figure 9

    Figure 9 The halftone filter is used with the Hue/Saturation adjustment layer to create a pattern of dots in the darker areas of the image.

The entire effect can be adjusted using the adjustment layers. Double-click any of the adjustment layers to open the appropriate dialog box, and make changes to its settings as needed. As you do this, you’ll see the results on the image.

Other Options

Although the halftone filter is one of the few filters that will work on an adjustment layer, you can use other filters to enhance this effect; however, you have to apply them to the image itself. For example, select the background copy layer and choose Filter > Artistic > Colored Pencil (see Figure 10).

Figure 10

Figure 10 Experiment with applying a filter to the image layer used for the background. The Colored Pencil filter is used here to create a background that looks almost hand-drawn.

If you later decide that you want to undo the filter step, duplicate the background layer and add it as the bottommost layer in the layer group. Delete the layer to which you applied the filter, and the filter effect will be removed.

There are lots of things you can do to an untidy image background to tone it down so that it doesn’t overshadow the subject of the photo. The technique shown here is one possibility for capitalizing on untidy backgrounds. It’s also a technique that you can use when you simply want to create an interesting effect for any photo.

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