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Creating montages in Adobe Photoshop has always been one of my favorite creative outlets. It gives me an opportunity to set my mind free and see my photography from a totally different perspective. It also enables me to use photos that are flawed, or that I might not be able to use otherwise for whatever reason.

Here’s a step by step walkthrough of how I created a montage I call “Hidden Falls” using Adobe Photoshop.

I started with a photograph of the sky at dusk in the Valley of Fire, Nevada with the outline of the rocks in silhouette. I always loved the simplicity of this photo, but never had the opportunity to use it.

Dusk sky at Valley of Fire, Nevada

I then created a new image sized at 4800 by 6000 pixels. It was an arbitrary choice, but I didn’t think I would need more than this, and it’s a good idea to give yourself a fair amount of room to work when you haven’t totally visualized your creation yet.

Bonus tip: it’s probably best to work in low resolution until you solidify your ideas and know which images you’re going to use, then create the final montage in high resolution. Working in high resolution can be slow and frustrating when you’re trying to be creative unless you have a fast computer.

Conveniently, the rocks were silhouetted in the sky photo, giving me a blank canvas to work with, so I filled the background layer in my new image with black, then copied the photo into the image as a new layer, resizing it with Free Transform until it fit at the top. Now I had a large silhouette of a mountain scene with a nice dusk sky.

I found a photo of Yosemite Fall I’d taken from the walking trail, and brought it into the montage, moving it around until I found the right spot for it. The next step was to change the blend mode of that layer to Screen, removing all the black pixels against the sky. Then I added a layer mask and used a soft-edged brush to paint away the artifacts that the Screen blend mode didn’t eliminate. The concept was starting to take shape—a waterfall hidden away in a larger set of rocks. What I needed were some rock textures that I could blend in.

Bonus tip: whenever possible, make your changes non-destructively, using adjustment layers or smart objects, and label your layers, so you remember what you did. This gives you a path of retreat when you don’t like the way things are going, and enables you to make changes to any adjustments you make.
The face of El Capitan, Yosemite National Park

I knew just the perfect image for that—a detail photo of El Capitan I’d taken on that same trip to Yosemite. I brought that photo into the canvas and positioned it to the left of the falls, then resized it to fit using Free Transform. Then I changed the blend mode of that layer to Linear Light, giving it a rich, warm color. I didn’t want to steal too much thunder from the falls themselves, so I decided to tone down the rock texture a bit by lowering the opacity of that layer to about 80%.

Photo of El Capitan added as a new layer.

Then I added a layer mask and painted away the parts of the rock that didn’t belong in the sky and the bottom of the canvas, and varied the opacity of the brush to create some dramatic shadows along the edges of the rock textures.

Now I needed more rocks on the right side of the falls. I tried using that same image of El Capitan again, but the textures didn’t blend with the rocks on the bottom of original falls image. I couldn’t find a photo in my collection that had better textures, so I decided to use the same image of the falls again. I enlarged it and cropped out a piece of the rocks.

There was some greenery that didn’t quite fit at the bottom of that piece, so I flipped it horizontally and positioned it where I could blend it in more easily. I brought the flipped piece into the scene and positioned it where I wanted it, to the right of the falls, then adjusted the color tones to match the rest of the canvas. Then I lowered the opacity to about 70% to blend it in further, added a layer mask and painted away the parts I didn’t need.

Almost done. What’s missing?

I decided to try adding a Gradient Fill, creating an effect similar to using an ND grad filter in real life for the sky. I then added a Photo Filter adjustment layer to deepen the colors and give the sky a more surreal look.

I added a few more Photo Filter adjustment layers to change the colors in the rocks so that they would blend with the rest of the scene a little better. I decided to go for a warmer glow in the larger rock faces and a cooler tone in the rocks immediately next to the bluish part of the falls.

At this point, I was going to crop off the bottom part of the canvas and call it done, but the montage didn’t feel complete to me. After some thought, I decided what the scene needed was a foreground element of some kind. I thought about adding in a grassy patch or perhaps the sandy part of a beach, but then it occurred to me—not sandy, watery. I needed a reflection.

I cropped a piece out of the bottom of the falls and flipped it upside down, then nudged it into place on the bottom part of the canvas. Then I went into Free Transform and widened the bottom part of the cropped piece slightly, to give it the correct perspective (as if I were viewing the scene while standing in that location).

I lowered the opacity of that layer to about 75% (the water would be 1 or 2 stops lower exposure-wise in real life), then added a little Motion Blur and a Ripple effect to that piece, giving it a more realistic watery look.

I hope this has inspired you to try creating montages of your own, if you haven’t already. If you have any montages you’d like to share, post the links here. I’d love to see them.