This week marked Jenn’s ____th birthday. A few years ago on her birthday I asked her if she had an image request, perhaps an animal photo in the archive that I should post on social media. Her answer:
“A weasel wearing a party hat.”
I’ve seen a lot during my photography trips over the years, but that wasn’t in the archive. So I had to improvise a bit.
You’d think I’d have learned my lesson, but another birthday rolled around and I asked again. Things got a little more complicated, and each year some random, zany idea was blurted out.
“An echidna and a weasel having a dance party.”
“Tiny animals dancing in a conga line.”
Occasionally when I solicit random image requests on my Facebook page, I get silly suggestions. Jenn couldn’t resist throwing this one out there.
“A marmot hula-hooping in a Santa hat.”
Some else once asked for Manbearpig.
With each suggestion, these folks were throwing down the gauntlet, at least that’s how I looked at it. Could I pull off an illustration that would look reasonably competent? It was a challenge I was willing to undertake, a nice diversion from the usual processing and posting ritual.
Let’s clear a few things up. I am not a professional digital illustrator… which is probably obvious from these imperfect sketches. These compositions are something I’ll normally put together in an hour or less, and I have no doubt I could improve on them if I wanted to devote proper time and if I had a wider range of images to work with. BUT, I do actually have a background in design, and had a history of dabbling in digital photo illustration for things like web comics fifteen years or so ago. So the occasional outlandish animal illustration idea gives me an excuse to kick the tires and see if I still have any artsy PhotoShop skills left in my system.
When broaching the topic of digital illustration, there are actually some ethical considerations in play, even when it’s a one-off composite made just for fun. As I hinted in my recent Black and White article, I generally try to avoid illustrative flourishes when processing my photos, which stems from my roots in a journalistic approach to photography. If I ever significantly alter a photo outside of what I’d consider normal processing, I’ll label it as an illustration. The goofy stuff above is an exception of course, and is quite obviously manhandled in terms of alteration.
But there’s another ethical point I try to adhere to when putting this types of composites together: proper image licensing and usage. So what if it’s simply being posted on social media? If I don’t have my own hula hoop photo, I’ll actually pay a licensing fee for one. The Santa hat that marmot is wearing is part of a series of hat images that have appeared on many animal heads during my winter promotions throughout the years…
They’re clichéd… but they’re paid for and being used legally (actually, I drew the one on that weasel… not bad!). Sticking to this ethical guideline limits my options at times. This year I paid twice as much as I normally do for a stock image because my go-to stock provider didn’t have a good unicycle photo for the birthday composition.
“A quokka on a unicycle.”
As always, I had fun putting this one together. It was as challenging as ever, and it took the usual hour or so to create. For those who aren’t familiar with what goes into creating an illustration like this, I thought I’d show you some of the steps that went into it. I recognize that a digital illustration article may not be too interesting to most of you, and in many cases my readers don’t even use an advanced program like PhotoShop that helps make these creations possible… but maybe this will at least give you some ideas to play around with your photos for fun 1.
Step 1: Find Your Major Ingredients
An image like this can’t come together if you don’t have the right pieces to fit together. In this case, my list of “ingredients” was pretty short. I needed a quokka and a unicycle. Something like the party hat is optional and thus, a secondary concern. So could I a) find a quokka photo and a unicycle image, and b) could they be put together somehow to make this work?
Normally finding photos isn’t that difficult, as long as I actually have some images of the specific animal in my library. The accessories (unicycles, hats, hula hoops) can be found from stock image providers. Typically it’s a smooth process, but as mentioned, I initially struggled to find an appropriate unicycle image this time. I didn’t need a photo of someone on a unicycle (too much of the cycle would be obscured)… I just needed a unicycle! Finally, I found something that might work, though it did cost me more to license the image.
After that it was a matter of picking the quokka to put together with it. The angle and pose had to be right… was the body lined up properly? An underrated consideration in this case was whether the legs were right. I don’t have any shots of running quokkas, in which one leg was extended longer than the other (I imagine nobody does, since they hop rather than lope)… you know, as if they were pedaling. So I needed a photo in which the legs could be cut and rearranged, then blended to approximate a riding/pedaling pose on a unicycle.
(This is a good time to ask yourself if you’ve ever thought about digitally slicing off, extending, and reattaching the legs of the World’s Happiest Animal for the sake of art.)
Okay, I found a quokka that would probably work. So I had my two primary elements.
Step 2: Get Them on the Same Page
Really, the first step is about getting your two items on the same canvas. This meant separating the unicycle from its white background 2, and then separating the quokka from its surroundings 3 I could then put both cut-outs on a single canvas, where I could work on combining them. It was important to put them on a blank slate so that I could detect some of the more nuanced details required to make a good image blend.
Even after I got them on the same canvas and sized the unicycle so that the pedals could be reached by quokka feet, there was a problem. Can you spot it?
Step 3: Fitting the Pieces Together
That seat reaches all the way up to elbows, when it should be firmly nestled in a quokka crotch! Fortunately, it was an adjustable seat. Well, digitally adjustable. I was able to chop it down a bit both above and below the locking bolt to bring the seat to a more appropriate level 4.
The unicycle was still too big, even after chopping down the seat, so I shrunk it some more and angled it a bit. This way the seat could at least stick out of that squishy, furry belly, even if it didn’t fit all the way down between the legs. Some mask work was required at this point to bring the left leg into the foreground over the pedal 5. Later I’d have to go back and touch up some of the masked bits as well (to ensure the overlapping/blended images look more natural together) as the edges of the quokka’s fur. Though I didn’t bother using textured erasers to add a more natural “furry” outline to the quokka, I at least wanted to smooth things out to make it look less “cut out.” Another effect applied later in the process would also help with that issue.
Okay, so what about that second foot, currently sticking out into the air? I had to get that down on the backside pedal somehow. Oh, right: Amputation!
Actually, multiple cuts would be required. I had to reposition the leg so that the foot pointed straight down toward the pedal, which mean cutting it off at the bent ankle joint, but this alone wouldn’t get the foot down to the pedal. So I actually had to cut the whole leg off at the hip and move it farther down on the body.
And as you can see, I also had to stretch the foot a bit, and then blend everything together so the limb looked whole and somewhat natural 6. Remember, this was ultimately going to be a low resolution web image, so details didn’t need to be exact or too refined.
Step 4: Prepping the Background
So at this point my quokka-on-a-unicycle was more or less done, aside from the smoothing and cleaning of the rougher cut-out edges. But I didn’t just want it floating on a blank background. Why not put it in a “natural” environment? So I went back to my original quokka photo, which was still open in PhotoShop. Most importantly, my selection outlining the quokka (which I used to copy and paste my cut-out onto a blank canvas) was still active, so I could use this to “erase” the quokka from the canvas. I used PhotoShop’s Content-Aware tool, which is rarely perfect, but may be getting better.
You can see how it looked after applying Content-Aware. There’s still a bit of a quokka ghost there, so it was just a matter of cleaning this up. Clean-up didn’t have to be perfect… after all, I’d be laying a quokka on a unicycle over this scene, so many of the background imperfections would be covered back up. But it’s not too difficult to do a decent cleaning job. The important thing to keep in mind while using the Clone tool is to pull your cloned source from different areas and not to repeat obvious patterns or objects (like rocks) that are close to each other. Photographers who try to doctor their photos for photo contests and get caught often fall victim to poor cloning jobs (and bad judgement to begin with, of course).
Anyway, the background was relatively clean, so I could move my quokka and cycle over on top of it. Some clean-up was still required (including the background, if any of the poorly-cloned bits still showed through), but there were only two more major steps.
Step 5: Finishing Touches
There were a couple of final elements I needed to add to get the scene I was looking for. First, I didn’t want the quokka just balancing on the unicycle. It was supposed to be riding it. That meant there had to be movement, so I added some blurred flourishes. I selected the unicycle wheel and applied a Radial Blur to make it look like it was spinning (it was important to just select the wheel and not the support struts in order to pull off this effect). And then I added a comic-style blur trailing the quokka to the right to emphasize fast movement. Overlaying a semi-opaque blurred quokka and unicycle to one side actually helped cover some of the imperfections in the cut-out edges too!
Finally, there should be a shadow of some sort, right? So I took a copy of the quokka + unicycle, made it all black (Color Overlay), and then ran a Perspective adjustment to lay it down on the ground. A slight bit of blur—shadows don’t have really refined edges after all—and reduced opacity, and I was good to go.
The party hat was optional. I could have used the hat image I previously licensed and used in some of the past Birthday images… but I actually forgot I had it. So I drew up a less effective party hat 7.
The final version was far from perfect, but adequate for less than an hour of work… and certainly a fun way to celebrate Jenn’s birthday (and win this year’s challenge!).
Photo illustration—even for a casual project like this—involves many different elements, and technical knowledge is only a small part of it. Yes, it helps to be familiar with PhotoShop or another editing program that can perform a lot of these functions, but you need to think about the various ingredients that make up your finished scene. Matching the lighting of objects, considering blurs and movement, adding shadows or natural backgrounds are all important considerations that can help make for a more effective presentation. Hopefully this gives you some ideas on how to create your own fun photo illustrations in the future!
- Please note that I am recreating the editing process for this article after the fact, so the images below may not reflect or quite match the finished product above ↩
- Grabbing the unicycle involved first the Magic Wand tool on the white background in PhotoShop, then Select > Similar, followed by some selective lassoing to make sure I wasn’t excluding the metal “highlights/shine” while grabbing the rest of the unicycle. ↩
- Separating the quokka from its background first involved the Magnetic Lasso, followed by finer clean-up of the selection with the standard Lasso tool. ↩
- To chop the seat down: Marquee tool, Cut, Paste, Move… then blend any cut lines in the post with the Stamp tool. ↩
- Layer Mask, Paint Brush…refining detailed while switching back and forth painting black and white. ↩
- Piecing the leg back together involved the Stamp tool, with some Eraser to smooth out the rough edges left over from the cuts. ↩
- For the party hat: Pen tool for the shape, Color Fill, Gradient and Pattern Overlays, and some some masking/erasing to make it fit over the ears. ↩