Silk Purses: A Creative Use for a So-So Photo

Finished montage

Maybe it’s because I just watched a “What Not To Wear” rerun, but I’m in a makeover mood today. As a graphic designer, I have often used less-than-perfect photos in unusual ways. I started in photography before digital cameras came on the scene, so I was already in the habit of trying to find uses for my “rejects” of film photography (of which there were many). I wanted to turn the proverbial sow’s ear into a silk purse, in fact.

Now that we don’t have to feel that we’re wasting money by throwing out film-based photos, we often find it all too easy to just trash those images we don’t think are useable; I’ve done it myself. But when I realized that I take a huge number of photos just for the sake of capturing colors, I started to think of every single shot in a new way. Could I do a digital makeover on so-so pictures? And how could I use the results?

Making backgrounds is one of the easiest ways I’ve found to utilize photos that would otherwise land on the electronic trash heap; these backgrounds can then be used in a variety of ways (I’ll give you some ideas later on). Here’s a simple montage I made with one of my rose photos, combined with a background created from a not-so-hot photo; this is followed by step-by-step instructions to make your own masterpiece!

Finished montage
Finished montage; the following tutorial will show you the simple steps to creating this beautiful image.

Tip: This project was done in Photoshop CS2; the Photoshop features it requires are pretty basic, so you should also be able to create backgrounds and montages in Photoshop Elements, and possibly other simple paint programs. I’d love to hear how you do this in something other than Photoshop! 

I started with these 2 photos; the rose is pretty good, but the lettuce photo is overexposed, a little blurry, and not all that interesting (I took it for the colors), so the lettuce will become the background.

Original photos
Before: The original photos; the lettuce photo will become the background.

Tip: When choosing 2 photos to combine, try to find photos that have at least one color in common, like the pinks and reds in these pictures. This will really help in making a smooth transition between them, particularly if you’re creating a background only; if you want one image to be prominent, some contrasting color (like the yellow in my rose) helps it to pop out from the background.

Step 1: Create the background

My background uses 2 copies of the lettuce photo, each with a different effect applied, as follows:

1. Open image; duplicate the layer, so you have 2 copies of the same photo.

2. Select the layer on bottom; make the top layer invisible so you can see what you’re doing.

3. Go to Filter-Blur-Gaussian Blur; I used a setting of 27 (this is very blurry).

Blurring the lettuce
Blurring the lettuce; notice that I’m only blurring 1 copy of this image. Be sure to copy the original photo, before blurring anything!

4. Make the top layer visible, then select it.

5. Go to Filter-Distort-Glass, and use these settings: Distortion: 12, Smoothness: 2, Texture: Frosted, Scaling: 100%.

Lettuce with Glass filter applied
Lettuce with Glass filter applied; you can play with the settings to get the look you want. (For the Texture setting, I like Canvas as well as Frosting, but went with Frosting because I think it blends better with the raindrops on the rose.)

Now I want to get these 2 layers to interact with each other to create the final effect:

6. With the top layer still selected, go to the Blend Mode drop-down menu (above the layers), and choose Soft Light; change the opacity of this layer to 50%.

7. Change the opacity of the bottom layer to 80%. (You can adjust the opacities of the 2 layers to suit your image.)

The finished background has an Impressionist feel:

Finished background
Finished background; you can play with the Blend Modes and opacities of each layer to create different effects.

Now I’m going to combine this background with my rose photo!

Step 2: Creating the montage

1. Flatten the background image into 1 layer. (I would Save As here, with a new name; this will preserve the original document with separate layers in case you want to change it later.)

2. Open the second image; copy it into your background document; you should now have 3 layers. I’ve moved the new rose layer to the bottom. (Layer 0 in the following is the 2 lettuce layers, flattened into a single layer.)

Rose photo added to background
Rose photo added to background; I’ve moved the rose to the bottom layer position.

Now I’m going to create a mask so that you can see the rose through the background.

3. Select the top layer, then click the Quick Mask icon at the bottom of the Layers window.

Layer with mask
Layer with mask; the mask will help blend the 2 layers together.

4. Choose the Gradient tool; I used a linear black/white gradient, and dragged the cursor all the way across the image, from right to left. Going in this direction makes the right side of the rose appear.

Background with gradient mask
Background with gradient mask; using a gradient makes a very subtle transition between the 2 layers.

5. When you like the masked effect, go up to the top menu, to Layer- Layer Mask-Apply.

I decided at this point that too much of my rose was being obscured, so I moved it a little to the right; notice that you can now see the vertical left-hand edge of the rose photo, showing through the background.

Rose photo moved to right
Rose photo moved to the right; you can now see the left-hand edge of the rose photo showing through the background. We’ll fix that.

6. Make sure the rose layer is selected, then click the Quick Mask icon.

Rose layer with mask
Rose layer with mask; we’ll use the Gradient tool again to soften that vertical edge near the left side.

7. Choose the Gradient tool again; I started to the left of the rose, and dragged the cursor from the 1/2″ mark to the 5″ mark.

After masking the rose
After: The rose is now masked; masked areas on both layers show as white in the Layers window. Be sure to Apply the mask after you get the effect you want (see step 5).

And voila! That’s it!

Tip: I promised you some suggestions for how to use your magnificent montage, and here they are: 

1. Facebook cover image (I do this frequently myself);

2. Background image for your blog or website (I do this too);

3. Header image for your blog (yep, done it!);

4. Add some text (in this case I would put it on the left side, over the blurry part), and have it printed as a greeting card. (I’ve done this many times; is one of my favorite places to have cards printed. And ooh, they have 50% off all cards right now!)

5. Have it printed on gallery-wrapped canvas. I’ve exhibited whole collections of my canvases (click here to see my first exhibit), and have 6 hanging at home right now! My go-to online printer is Canvas on Demand. They frequently run specials and Groupon deals, and they do a wonderful job of printing.

Well, I may not have gotten a silk purse, but then, I never thought I’d do a makeover on lettuce! I’d love to hear about your own photo makeovers!


    1. Exactly— I’m working right now on collections of these for my new Etsy shop! (Each collection will include suggestions for how to use them, since that’s the most frequent question I get, whether it’s about my yarns or my montages.)


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