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Placing a Flower Photo on a Background

by Harold Davis, June 2013

photography by Harold Davis


About the image above: To make this successful art décor image, I shot a cherry branch on white and added it to a scanned background created from washi rice paper. Cherry Dance © Harold Davis

Have you ever wanted to turn your flower photos into fine art design pieces? With a little bit of Photoshop know-how, a few inexpensive tools, and the techniques explained in this column, it’s easy to create unique art imagery, guided only by your vision and creativity.

The two primary techniques that I use to turn straightforward flower photos into floral art are to add the flower photo to a background, and to add a texture to the flower. These two techniques have a very different impact and effect. Adding a flower photo to a background can create something that looks like a botanical illustration, while adding a texture to a flower photo is best used for an impressionistic painterly effect.

This article will show you how to add a flower photo to a background. The flower photo in this case goes on the background. My next article in this series will continue with a variation on somewhat the same theme, but with the texture overlaying the flower, and explain how to creatively use textures and blending modes to make floral art.

I got started using the techniques of adding backgrounds and textures to my flower photos at the request of art licensors and publishers, who wanted to use the results as décor. While this work began essentially on a commercial basis, I’ve come to love the creative possibilities for image enhancement using a few simple techniques.

Placing a flower on a background

The concept behind putting a flower photo on a background is really straightforward: if you don’t like the background that the flower was shot on—or simply want to embellish what is there in the original photo—use the Photoshop darkroom to put the flower on a different, more creative background. Accomplishing this goal requires three steps:

  1. Creating a background
  2. Preparing the flower photo
  3. Blending the image and the background

In the next few sections you will learn how to accomplish these results. As an example, consider my poppies image shown below, which is marketed as a fine art décor print.


This image was created by placing a flower photographed on a white background on a scanned composite background. Poppy Delight © Harold Davis

Creating a background

A flatbed scanner works very well for creating backgrounds. This doesn’t have to be a fancy piece of equipment. Almost any flatbed scanner that you can lay material on will do, although you’ll have better luck with a standalone scanner than an all-in-one office appliance. If you don’t already have a scanner, try to find one that is capable of achieving 6400 × 9600 dpi resolution. The cost should be about $200 online or from an office supply store.

You should know that flatbed scanners capture at extremely high resolution, but have very low depth-of-field, and therefore almost no ability to capture depth. This means that interesting paper, cloth, or linen make good scanned backgrounds, but (for example) compositions made of three-dimensional rocks do not.

I recommend using the TWAIN drivers that ship with your flatbed scanner to scan your background directly into Photoshop at as high a resolution and bit-depth as your computer can handle. You may have to experiment to find the optimal resolution settings for your equipment—but bear in mind that it is always easier to lower resolution later than it is to up-sample if you don’t have enough data.

It’s often the case that it takes more than one scan of more than one background to get the desired effect. Multiple scans can create a “frame within a frame” effect, as shown in Poppy Delight.

To get this composite background, I first scanned a piece of papyrus, obtained at a local art supply store.


The scanned papyrus.

I knew that the papyrus by itself would overpower almost any floral image, so I decided to tone it down by added a lighter, whiter scan at a low opacity.

To achieve this effect, I started by scanning a piece of rice paper.


The scanned rice paper.

To combine the rice paper and papyrus into a single file, I sized the papyrus scan so that it was big enough to leave a comfortable margin around the papyrus. Then, I positioned the rice paper scan in the center of the papyrus, and reduced the opacity of the rice paper layer to 35%.


The combined papyrus and rice paper background.

With the background ready, let’s take a look at preparing the flower image and placing it on the background.

Preparing the flower image

I recommend shooting your flower images on a bright, white background, as I did with the poppy image shown on white and on composite background (see Poppy Delight above). The best practices and techniques for achieving a good flower on white involve backlighting and using a light box. These techniques are beyond the scope of this column (but I do give an annual hands-on workshop on the topic).

The key point is to somewhat overexpose an image created for use with a background, because adding the background will diminish translucency and exposure.

If you don’t want to shoot your flower photo on white—or it is not possible due to the location of the flower—be of good cheer. It is often quite easy to select the flower in Photoshop and separate it from its original background—which pretty much achieves the same effect as shooting it on a white background.


The poppy image was shot on a white background. Poppies© Harold Davis

Blending the image and the background

The next step is to blend the image on white with the scanned background in Photoshop. This is pretty easy to do, but since you need to align different images together it helps to set Photoshop up so that the scanned background and the flowers images open in separate windows (as opposed to opening as tabs on a dialog).

Click Photoshop > Preferences > Interface to open the Interface panel. Make sure that Open Documents as Tabs is not checked. Click OK, and restart Photoshop for this setting to take effect.


Setting the preferences in Photoshop so each image opens in its own window

Next, open both the flower on white (poppies) and the scanned background in their own windows in Photoshop. The underlying images should be sized so that the background is a bit bigger, and will provide a margin in addition to the area of the white around the poppies.


The papyrus background is sized to be a bit larger than the flower on white.

Align the flower image as a layer, precisely centered over the scanned background. There are several ways to achieve this. One is to choose the Move tool from the Tools panel. Next, click within the flowers image. Hold down the Shift key. Drag the Poppies image over the background layer, and let go of the Shift key. Next, let go of the mouse.

An alternative technique that some folks find easier is to click on the flowers image to make the window active. Next, choose Select > All, followed by Edit > Copy. Now, move your mouse over to the papyrus background and click on the window to make it active. Then, choose Edit > Paste.

The poppies image is now centered and appears above the scanned background in the layer stack.


The flowers image is now centered as a layer above the scanned background.

Next, change the opacity of the poppies layer to 15% using the drop-down list box on the upper right of the Layers panel.

With the poppies layer selected, Choose Layer > Duplicate Layer to add a copy of the poppies layer on top of the layer stack.

Using the blending modes drop-down list, change the blending mode for the top poppies layer to Multiply, and set the opacity of the top layer to 85%.


The Blending modes drop-down list gives many options, including Multiply blending mode shown here.

The blended combination of the two poppy layers creates the attractive and artistic effect that I wanted, as seen in the final image.


The layers in the poppies-on-a-background image are ready for merging down.

All that remains is to archive a copy of the blended image with layers intact, and then merge down the layers, and save versions of the file for printing or presentation on the internet.


Poppy Delight © Harold Davis

By the way, there’s no magic about the formula of 15% in Normal blending mode beneath of a duplicate layer in Multiply blending mode set at 85% opacity. I find that this recipe works in many situations in which I want to place a flower on a background to make an attractive, artistic composite image—but I’m not beyond tweaking the percentages and blending modes. For example, with Duet of Daffodils, I used a layer in Normal blending mode at 15% opacity, a duplicate layer in Multiply blending mode at 65% opacity, and a second duplicate layer in Soft Light blending mode at 28% opacity.


I used the techniques explained in this column to place this duet of daffodils on an antique paper background. Duet of Daffodils © Harold Davis.

Conclusion

If you look around at the floral images you can find in the context of art as décor, many of these derive from photography but are not straight photos. Learning how to take your flower photos to the next step beyond straight photography can open new worlds of creativity. This article explains how to position a floral image on a scanned background. My next article will explain show how to use textures to create additional creative effects.

In this column I’ve shown you how to:

  • Create an artistic background using a scanner and paper, or other material
  • Create a composite background from two different scans
  • Prepare a photo of flowers for use with a background
  • Set Photoshop preferences to make combining images easy
  • Align a flower image with a background image
  • Duplicate flower image layers to add visual effects
  • Change blending modes to create interesting floral art

About the Author
Harold Davis is an award-winning professional photographer whose work is widely admired and collected. He is the author of many bestselling photography books including The Photoshop Darkroom and Photographing Flowers (both from Focal Press), and his popular workshops are often sold out. Harold Davis is a Moab printmaking Master.

You can visit Harold’s blog at http://www.digitalfieldguide.com/blog, and learn about his workshops at http://www.digitalfieldguide.com/about/workshops-events. Harold’s most recent book, The Way of the Digital Photographer (Peachpit), includes more information about the techniques discussed in this column.


Text © 2013 Harold Davis. Photos © 2013 Harold Davis.

Article created June 2013

Readers' Comments


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Jim Steane , June 28, 2013; 10:15 P.M.

I found this article very useful and am looking forward to the article on texture. 

I think there are many types of 'fine art' found in photography these days, and Photoshop projects like these certainly qualify.  It is not that easy to make your projects look as good as these.  It relies on both production and post-production.  If either is less than great, the overall project will show it.

Thank you.

Kelly Breed , June 30, 2013; 11:15 P.M.

Very, very nice!  I'd say, also, that your original poppies image was really beautiful.

maryann preisinger , July 03, 2013; 08:56 P.M.

Excellent. Very clear explanation and helpful. Thanks.

Gail Harmer , March 21, 2014; 05:41 P.M.

Excellent Tutorial Harold with easy in-depth steps to follow. I am sure I will come back to this one numerous times. I have your book 'Creative Close-Ups' and continue to reference it from time to time.


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