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Tips and techniques

FIELD TECHNIQUE: Nature to the Rescue

By July 22, 2015No Comments

Story and photographs by F. M. Kearney

I’ve never strayed too far away from the boundaries of straight photography. It’s not that I have anything against digital manipulations; it’s just that I’m not an expert at it. I consider my Photoshop skills to be intermediate at best.

In addition to nature photography, I also shoot urban images of New York City. I submit these photos to an agency that does a terrific job of licensing them to a number of large-mural and high-end wall art manufacturers. However, after each submission, my editor would ask for more—not more images, but something more than traditional photography. He explained that the trend today is for photos with texture, and straight photography doesn’t sell as well as it once did. The texture can be any type of pattern that is combined with the main image.

It didn’t take long for me to turn back to nature for ideas. Natural patterns can be found everywhere, and they make a really nice contrast when juxtaposed against man-made objects. Things like rocks, tree bark, running water and grass all make wonderful subjects. So that they would pair well with any subject, I shot them under different lighting conditions and in horizontal and vertical formats.

My next step was to combine the images. There are many ways to do this, but I found the Scripts method to be the easiest and most straightforward. I performed the following technique using Photoshop CS6 on a Windows computer.

After the initial processing of the individual images, re-import them via: File>Scripts>Load Files into Stack. The images will be stacked on top of each other with their thumbnails appearing in the filter panel to the right. Make sure the main image is on top and highlighted, with the background image underneath. If it is not, click and drag it into place. If the two images aren’t exactly the same size, use the cropping tool to cut off the excess.

In order to edit the photos, you need to make them “smart.” On the top toolbar, click Filter>Convert for Smart Filters. Now, add a layer mask to the main image thumbnail by clicking the icon (white rectangle with a hole in the middle) at the bottom of the filter panel. The top image should still be highlighted with a white layer mask next to the thumbnail. Make sure the mask is selected and not the thumbnail. Finally, select the brush tool and set your foreground color to black. You’re now ready to go.

As you paint in the image, the background texture (whatever image you’re using for the background) will slowly start to come through. You can either use a large brush to cover the entire image with the texture or a smaller brush to affect only portions of the image. If you choose the latter, you may want to select those portions to avoid painting in areas you don’t want.

Whichever method you choose, the key to the most realistic-looking results depends on the opacity of the brush. A low opacity brings the background in very faintly—gradually increasing with every stroke. A high opacity will bring it in stronger, and an opacity of 100 percent will completely replace the main image with the background. If you make a mistake, simply switch the foreground color to white, and paint it out.

Lastly, unless you’re planning on making future changes to the image, you should always flatten it before saving to reduce the file size.

Texture Wood (Shady)

Sycamore Tree Bark, © F.M. Kearney

World Trade Center and Lower Manhattan at sunset New York, NY (HDR compilation of 5 images)

Tree Bark Combined with Skyline © F.M. Kearney

For the images above, I combined the city skyline with the bark of a sycamore tree. The dark patches on the bark blended nicely with the cumulus clouds—making them appear to be unusual storm clouds.

Grass with radial blur effect. © F.M. Kearney

Texture Wood (Shady)

Tree Bark © F.M. Kearney







Texture Grass (Sunny)

Grass and tree bark combined with bridge © F.M. Kearney


Two different backgrounds were used for the shot taken beneath the Queensboro Bridge. I blended the sky with a photo of grass, and using the radial blur filter in Photoshop, I applied a slight streaking effect to the grass in order to mimic the angle of the bridge. I used a tree bark image for the water, rotating it horizontally to give the illusion of underwater rocks. In both photos, I lowered the brush opacity near the horizon for a more natural-looking appearance.

Nature images can be used in many ways. A little out-of-the-box thinking can open up new avenues of creativity.

F.M. Kearney is a fine-art nature photographer specializing in unique floral and landscape images. To see more of his work, visit