photoshop creative

Create a sci-fi city

Posted in:
Tips & Tutorials, by Mark White
May 18, 2016

Edit and combine ordinary stock photos to create a composite illustration that’s out of this world


1. Set up the scene


Create a new document, with a background colour of #7bc7ee. At full size this illustration is 235mm x 302mm and 300dpi – on some machines you may prefer to work smaller. This will help with processing, and also enable you to use medium resolution comp images.

2. Add the desert background


Find a picture of a desert for the background. Scale (Edit> Transform>Scale) and place the horizon just below the centre of the page, so that the viewer will have a slightly elevated position – above the streets but below the towers. This will also help the viewer read across the action. Go to Layer>Layer Mask> Reveal All. Press D on your keyboard to select the colour black, and use the Gradient tool to fade the top of the photo to the blue of the canvas.

3. Insert the sky


Find a picture of a blue but brooding sky for the top of the image. With the Gradient tool, mask up this time, then give the mask a more curved look by airbrushing out with black, and back in with white. This is best achieved with a Soft Round brush, with Shape Dynamics switched off, and Hardness at 0%. Keep Flow low, at around 1%, and certainly no more than 10.

4. Prepare for the cityscape


For the foreground, something desert-like and craterous should do the trick. Mask the top. To give the illusion of a landscape large enough to accommodate a city, you’ll also need to defocus it slightly. With the layer selected, go to Filter>Blur, and apply a Gaussian Blur with a radius of around 0.5 pixels. You can add a back wall to the crater using a similar photo.

5. Make the city’s base


The city is going to be built inside a dome, so it needs to be sitting on an appropriate base. Observatories provide the right kind of structure. Using the Pen tool create a path around the base, then in the Paths palette make a selection of 0.3 pixels and copy-paste it in. To remove any stray edges, go to Layer>Matting>Defringe, then using the Blur tool, with a soft brush of around 5px, quickly work around the edge of the base. This scene will be lit from the upper left, so consider that when choosing photos. Now add a Levels layer, clipped to the base, to deepen the shadows and raise the highlights.

6. Create the sphere


For the dome you need to start with a sphere. You can render one in Photoshop using 3D tools, or use a stock image. Scale and Place the sphere approximately where you’d like the dome to sit (above the Base layer but below Foreground), then add a Gaussian Blur of about 0.7 pixels. To make it look glassy, reduce its Opacity to 95% and change the mode from Normal to Soft Light. So that the sphere can bulge a little at the bottom, go to Edit>Transform>Scale, then in Warp Mode pull on the points and handles to achieve the desired amount of flex. Finally add a layer mask, and paint away the lower parts of the dome that are not needed.

7. Start to add buildings


You now need a good selection of buildings. It’s important that the photos you choose are shot from angles that are compatible with the spectator’s view – looking down on structures nearer the base, but up towards the higher towers that penetrate the dome.

8. Finesse the edges


Create a clipping path around a building. Make a selection of 0.2 pixels, and, beneath the Dome layer, copy and paste it into the scene. Again, for best results go to Layer>Matting>Defringe, then Blur tool the edges. Remember that the main light source is from the top left, so, if necessary, flip the layer horizontally, by going to Edit> Transform>Flip Horizontally.

9. Preserve data with Smart Objects


The city itself will be quite complex and you may want to go back and re-edit many elements, many times, so to preserve the original data convert the Building layer into a Smart Object (Layer>Smart Objects>Convert to Smart Object) then add a Gaussian Blur of between 0.2 and 0.6 pixels. You can now change the amount of blur at any time by clicking the little arrow at the right of the layer title and double clicking on Gaussian Blur.

10. Reduce Opacity


Reduce the Opacity of the Building layer to around 90%. This will add an additional sense of depth and distance, and lend the layer some of the colour and tone of its environment. With all that metal and glass in the scene, it will also create an illusion of reflections. Now add a layer mask, and pull a gradient up and over the base of the structure. Ghosting this out helps further with depth, and as the city comes together and it allows the buildings to be moved around the composition freely without tearing out their foundations.

11. Increase contrast


If the building is looking a little faint now, you need to up the contrast. Clip on a Levels adjustment layer, with the black set at around 26 and the white at 245. It also needs to look a little bluer, to reflect its environment, so clip on a Color Balance layer and in Midtones set Cyan/Red to -8 and Yellow/Blue to +20.

12. Add more buildings


Repeat this process with more buildings and structures. Play with Levels, Color Balance, and Blur as you go, keeping each element within a certain range but varied enough to appeal in an illustrative sense. If a structure is looking too colourful, add a Hue/ Saturation adjustment layer and pull the Saturation slider to the left as you see fit.

13. Separate the buildings


Sometimes, in an illustration like this, elements can get a bit lost amongst those around them. If that happens to any of the buildings, apply a bit of misting behind its layer, to separate it slightly. Select a brush like the one used earlier and paint a subtle dusting behind the building. With the Brush tool selected, pick a light colour from the background, by holding down Opt/Alt and clicking on a colour you like. Again you can keep the flow at around 1%.

14. Organise layers


If you haven’t already, now would be a good time to start organising your layers into folders – things are about to get busy. Select all five layers associated with Building 2, then click the Folder icon at the bottom of the palette. Name the resultant folder, ‘Building 2 Folder’. The reason you should call a folder, ‘folder’ is so that you can easily distinguish it from its contents when right-clicking the image, as sometimes you will have many layers and folders, and folders within folders. Organise the rest of the layers accordingly, including a Buildings folder for all your individual Buildings folders.

15. Create height


Keep adding buildings and structures until the city looks suitably dense. Once you are happy with the composition you can start working at street level. The same principles apply here but you will probably find Transforming in Warp Mode useful to establish a layout that fits within the curvature of the base. Add a layer mask to your Buildings folder, then very subtly mask away some of the tops of the tallest buildings – just enough to give them a look of misty heights.

16. Make adjustments


Create a new folder above Buildings, and call it Adjustments. Create a Levels adjustment layer, softly masked around the city, and use it to increase the contrast slightly. Create a second Levels layer and use it to increase the light levels, then mask it so that it only applies to, in and around the top right of the dome.

17. Add the waterfall


For the waterfall, find a suitable image with light water against a darker background. Change the opacity mode to Screen, and you’ll notice that the darker areas start to disappear. Clipping on a Levels adjustment and deepening the blacks while nudging up the whites will take this even further. Then it’s just a case of masking away what’s left, while keeping any rocks etc that you might want, for a cleanly isolated flow.

18. Finishing touches


Finally, create another Adjustments folder. This one will sit right at the top. Add a Color Balance layer, select Shadows then pull the slider -15 towards Cyan. The next Color Balance layer will be used for the Midtones. Increase these slightly, particularly the Green as this will help with some of the organic elements without contradicting the desert. Play with Levels, Vibrance, Brightness and Contrast, until you find a look you are happy with.