Making a photo collage in Adobe Photoshop

This one’s for me for next year (or whenever I need to do this again), or for people like me who find themselves in the same predicament. It also gives a couple of hints to try and get the best effect.

This year, like the past couple of years, we decided to create a collage for a New Year’s card that we send out to friends and family. Yep, we’re just that disorganized about Christmas cards, plus this year Donna was in trial until mid-last week.

The previous couple of years we used the Walgreens photo card services. Simple enough: you upload a few photos from your collection to their online photo site, select one of their card templates and then futz around trying to place the photos in the template to produce a pleasing effect. Then, for about $0.75 a card for 20, they’ll print them and sell you them with the envelopes. And the best part: you can collect them in a couple of hours from your local Walgreens. What’s not to like, eh? Well, this year, the templates, in essence. We could not find anything that really grabbed us. We wanted to futz with the fonts, the colors, the effects, etc, but the templates were too restricting.

So, this time I decided to crack open Photoshop and see what I could do, noob graphics (non-)designer that I am. Just to give you a flavor of what I was trying to produce, here’s the final result:

Photo collage as New Year card

So, in essence, it looks like a bunch of photos tossed onto a surface, shadows and all. The card is printed on 5×7 inch stock, using one of the few templates that Walgreens has that essentially is completely blank.

Step 1. Sort through your photos and select a few that you want to use. The final result here has six, but we selected about a dozen all told. I use Adobe Lightroom for processing and cataloguing my photos and I made sure that the dozen or so photos I exported were properly cropped and processed (the exposure, colors, contrast, clarity, etc). I made the long side of the exported photos at least 2048 pixels. The photos that I exported were ready to be used and didn’t require any more processing in Photoshop (I am more tuned to and expert at processing photos in Lightroom, essentially).

Step 2. Open up Photoshop (I use CS5 at the moment – I haven’t upgraded yet). Do File|New to create a new project, and then use a custom preset to make the project 7 inches wide, 5 inches high, and 300 dpi. I also selected a white background, even though I probably wasn’t going to use it.

New Project dialog for collage

The 300dpi setting is really important. I’d originally left it at the default 72 dpi for screen work, completely forgetting that I was going to be printing this collage, not necessarily viewing it on a screen. If I’d had left it as the default, the printed result would have been very pixelated with jagged edges to the text and to the bordered photos.

Step 3. The new project has one layer, the white background. We shall now create a whole bunch of new layers. one for each of the photos we’ve selected. Show the layer panel (Window | Layers, or F7). Down at the bottom, underneath our background layer (make sure it’s selected), there’s a set of icons. The one to the left of of trash icon will create a new layer above the selected layer.

New Layer icon

Click that, select the new layer (it should be selected by default). Now click File | Place to add one of your photos to the new layer. Roughly resize the photo to something agreeable (make sure you press Shift as you resize the photo from one of the corners to keep the aspect ratio constant – you’ll hate the effect of stretching or compressing the photo more along one of the axes than the other). Rotate it if you want, but don’t spend too much time on placement/sizing at this stage.

Example Photo Placement

Press Enter when you’re done. This finishes the placement of the photo in the layer.

Before adding the next layer and its associated photo, I found it easier to turn off the visibility of the layer I’d just added. That way I wasn’t overwhelmed with “photo noise” at this setting-it-all-up stage. Just click on the ‘eye’ icon to the left of the layer to turn off the visibility of the layer (and click the empty space to turn it on again).

Turn off visibility of the layer

Lather, rinse, repeat for the other photos you’ve created.

Step 4. At this stage you should have a dozen or so layers stacked on top of the background, each with their own photo. It was at this point that I decided that I wanted a background image so that the borders of the photos (note that there are no borders on the photos yet – don’t panic!) have something to stand out against. Back to Lightroom I went to futz around with some background images. I don’t know about you, but I take photos of things every now and then that might produce some interesting backgrounds. I then use them on my iPad or for projects like these. A favorite is bricks or stones in walls, the random pattern of granite boulders, the leaves in a hedge etc. There were a couple I went for here to try out, but the best one was a stone wall. I processed it as black-and-white, washed out, and vignetted:

Stone wall

I made sure that it was at least 2100 pixels on the long side since it has to cover the entire background. It doesn’t really matter though, it can be stretched a bit; after all, it’s going to be covered. I added it in a new layer just above the background layer.

Step 5. Make sure the background image is visible and then select one of the other photo layers (it doesn’t matter which one) and make it visible. What we are now going to do is make some changes to the format of the layer so that the photo on it looks like it has a border and a shadow. Double-click the layer in the layers pane. The Layer Style dialog is shown.

Layer Style dialog

Click the Stroke option on the left-hand side. Set the color to white. Experiment with the size of the stroke to produce a pleasing ‘border’.

Setting Stroke For A Border

If you have the Position as ‘Outside’ as I have here, the stroke is drawn around the photo, but, as you can see, it has rounded corners. A nice effect but square corners would be more normal. For that you have to select ‘Inside’ for the position, but, in this case, the border is drawn around the photo’s edge on the inside. In other words, you lose the edge part of the photo. (At this stage, for one of my photos, I went back to Lightroom, re-cropped the photo to allow for this, and replaced the new version in the layer.)

Now click the Drop Shadow option on the left hand side. Set the angle to 120° to make the light source top left, and then experiment with the Distance value (it’s essentially the z-axis distance of the layer above the previous one) until the shadow looks good.

Setting Drop Shadow

Finally accept your changes to the layer style by clicking OK.

Step 6. All we’ve done so far is to set the style for the one layer. We’ll now copy that style onto all the other photo layers. Right-click the layer in the layers pane, select Copy Layer Style. Now select all the other photo layers (apart from the background image, of course), right-click, and select Paste Layer Style. All your photo layers should now have the same border and drop shadow.

Step 7. And now it’s the fun time – arranging the layers and the photos in them to make a pleasing collage. You’ll be making much use of the visibility icon to turn layers on and off, of the Free Transform tool (it’s Ctrl+T, or Edit | Free Transform) to rotate and resize the photos, and of the drag-drop facility in the layers panel to rearrange the layers (and hence their photos). Don’t be afraid to drag photos slightly off the background so that they appear cut off, that’s fine too.

Step 8. Finally save the project as a PSD file (it’ll save all the layer information and the photos you’ve added, etc.), and as a JPG file (that’s what Walgreens need). My JPG file was about 1MB in size in the end and was 2100×1500 pixels. Remember that, at 300 dpi, that’s 7×5 inches.

Step 9. At this point, you can go to the online Walgreens photo site, and create your card. Select the 7×5 blank card template, upload your finished collage JPG, and print away.

Step 10. It’s the slap-on-the-forehead step, so pay attention. Although the final result on your computer looks pristine and exact, if you want to print your collage off you’re going to have to take into consideration the slop in the printing and cutting process. In essence, there’s a border of a few pixels around the collage which they cannot guarantee will be printed: the border around the Safe Area. You want the photos and text – especially the text – to be in the Safe Area.

Safe Area for Walgreens printing

Yes, the first set I had printed had the text at the bottom cut off. I had to tweak and reprint. You live and learn.

So, there you go: how to create a collage of photos with Photoshop. Have fun!

Album cover for HitsNow playing:
Mike + the Mechanics - A Time and Place
(from Hits)

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1 Response

#1 John J. McAssey said...
07-Jan-13 8:03 AM

Photo Collage PSD templates and Photoshop Scripting is the way to go. Creativity is in template design.

Photo Collage Toolkit

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