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Saving objects using Photoshop

Sometimes you have an image where you think "If only there was an XXX on that YYY"

Well, there can be. You can create a library of objects that YOU photographed and drop them into your images, flip, resize and harmonise to the background.


In my folder structure under /pictures/ I have "_Library" and under that several folders one of which is "Birds". Whenever I need a bird (or flock etc) I can look here and drag it into my image. NB I have not added a shadow to "ground" the seagull on this occasion as it is a tiny part of a large image and the existing dirt on the top of the pole is where the shadow would go anyway. You will need to think about shadows - another topic?


If only there was a Seagull on that pole!
If only there was a Seagull on that pole!

So how do you create that library file?

Start by taking pictures of "useful things" Birds flying, standing, dogs, cats, cows, the moon at night etc.

Once you have that you isolate the object and save it as a PNG file. How? That's what this article will teach you.


Why PNG? You can save those with a transparent background so it is a little like a rubber stamp and, like a rubber stamp, less is more. Just drop one 'stamp' not dozens!

Starting image, with the seagull selected
Starting image, with the seagull selected

As you can see I took a picture of the gull, fairly close, eyeing my pasty. The whole picture was to capture the gull so all the background can be deleted - it will clearly not win an award, but that was not its purpose.


NB All comments on this process relates to Photoshop. Elements, Gimp and several other programs can do this but the commands will be different.


Roughly select the gull, using no or very little feathering. (Several other articles talk about selections, this one is about the process). At this point I like to use Image > Crop which crops the images to just include the selection (the marching ants). Next choose select and mask and adjust those setting so the mask is close to the object. Output to New layer with layer mask.


Depending on your setting, your Karma and good luck you will find the selection is good but not great. Zoom in 300% or more depending on the picture - this is Pixel-peeping and you are editing at a very fine level;

The masking needs some help
The masking needs some help

Next select the "Layer mask thumbnail" - It will be mostly black with a white silhouette. You should see a white box around it as shown here;

Layer mask thumbnail

Select your brush, make sure the default colours (White and Black) are available and Black is selected. Reduce you brush size to 10 pixels to start with and think if you need a hard edge brush (for legs and beak) or a soft edge brush (for feathers or fur).

You now need to spend time refining the mask all around the object so it is fairly clean all around - unlike the starting point above. Some Photoshop keyboard shortcuts to help;

  • X swaps Black (paint out) with White (paint in) on the mask

  • Spacebar lets you click-drag the image with your mouse as you work around the object

  • [ reduces and ] increases the brush size - you will do this often

  • shift-[ or shift-] reduces or increases the brush hardness

  • cntl-+ (or command-+) to zoom in, cntl-- (minus) to zoom out

  • \ turns on the mask so you can see it. Hit \ again to turn it off.

I will not lie, this is a time consuming part of this process. Please stick with it, you will use the final stamp often and the more time you spend now the better ALL those future stamps will be. If you get tired mid-way save the file as a PDS file and re-open it another day to continue.


When painting masks it is better to do a little at a time than a lot in one go. When you make a mistake cntl-z (command-Z on the Mac) lets you erase the last edit. If that is a small edit you will not lose much, which is a 'good thing'. It is common to need to paint over an area more than once and turning on and off the mask (use the \ key) helps you spot missed bits.


Eventually it will look something like this (mask shown);


Mask tidied up
Mask tidied up

Note; there is a little bit of transparent mask around the edges - more on the feathers, less on the legs. The more often you paint over this the less transparent you will see BUT some is good as that helps the stamp blend in with the final image.


Save the file as a PSD (Photoshop) image - you may spot a mistake later and want to re-edit. If you do not save the PSD file you will have to start from scratch!


Finally File > Export > Export As > and save as a PNG file. Make sure the Transparency is ticked and don't adjust the other settings from whatever they are (different for every image). Better to start with a high resolution stamp and reduce that to match the image than to start with a low res stamp and try and find some extra pixels from somewhere.

Export as a Transparent PNG file at full resolution
Export as a Transparent PNG file at full resolution

OK, the final bit is how to use the stamp. It's easy. One way (there are many); Open the image you want to add the item and open the item in a separate window. Click on the stamp image and look in the layers panel for the stamp (a seagull in this case). It will probably be called "Background". Click-drag the icon from the layers panel and drop it anywhere in your wanted image. This will drop it as a new layer on top of the pile of layers. Rename that layer to match the stamp content and flip, (Edit > Transform > Flip) resize (Edit > Transform > Scale) and harmonise (Curves or Layers) until you are happy it "fits". Simples!


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