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Making Art With Your Photography

An art-filled life is as important to some people as breathing. The question of whether your photography is art or not, is a total non-issue, and can only be viewed through your own eyes.

For me, all I can say is – sometimes it is, sometimes it isn't.

For example, I do a lot of photography in dog sports, and that's more a matter of skill, reflexes, and equipment, than art. It might be a great capture, but that alone doesn't make it art.

A lot of the pet portraits I make for other people would fall into the category of sometimes art, sometimes not, even if the portrait beautifully captures the emotion and appearance of the animal (a very important aspect, but not necessarily art).

Editors Note: This is a guest post by Bev Holoboff. I met Bev in 2012 when she was a participant on my weekend Drumheller Photography Workshop. She is an ex-teacher turned photographer who's now doing some great work, especially with animals and pets. Part of what she taught was Photoshop, so she's very skilled in this area, and I'm happy to have her share some of techniques she's using to create unique images.

How do you find art in your life?

Do you find art through photography, drawing, or painting?

What I found is that I sometimes felt more artistic with a piece of charcoal facing a blank paper, than I did with some (definitely not all) of my photography. Same with just doodling around on the computer – that felt artistic, in that I was creating, something not merely recording it. With photography itself, post–production has always been one of my most favorite workflow steps, and the more I played with an image, the more I enjoyed it. Obviously, that is not always the case for everyone, and isn't always for me either.

However, it was when I started to merge different artistic applications together, that I really felt I was getting what I needed from photography. I could draw and scan those drawings, I could play with Photoshop or a dozen other applications, or I could photograph. I started to view it all as raw material for creative expression, and found it can all be used together. Photography itself can be amazing, but when you want, you can layer on other forms of art, and get to somewhere else creatively, with the same visuals.


Where do the ideas come from?

That's likely the hardest question to answer.

I don't tend to be a focused or organized creative thinker, often ending up with something I like, but not necessarily knowing that was where the piece was headed from the start – it's just play.

It's bringing things together to see how they work. And, when I end up somewhere I like, I feel that the picture was, unknowingly, in my head all along. What speeds up the process is to jot down ideas – lots of them, all the time. I've been doing this for years. Perhaps you'll see a painting that you love. Whether it's the brilliance of the lighting, the subject matter, or the colours – make note of it, then plan to take that element into something you'll create with your photos.

To help you get started in finding a picture within a photograph, here are a few of the works I've recently completed, and the general approach to get the end result:

This dog portrait (above) was one of my favorites when I first shot it, but the dog looked so serious, I also knew I wanted to have some fun with it. Eventually, I was at a steampunk event, and was drawn to some of the interesting things people were wearing. Next, armed with some pictures of spectacles and a hat from that event, using the liquefy filter to fit everything to the dog, that dressed up dog was layered over a few public domain drawings and a grunge background in my files, and I got to the exact look I wanted (above).


I came home with some really lovely photos from a local orchid show but couldn't seem to feel a connection to them. They were just too similar to so many flower photos I'd seen from other people. Later, perusing some public domain drawings, the Gibson Girls caught my eye. The two ideas seemed like a logical fit, with shaped extractions of the flowers added to the drawings. I then added a flowered branch to the corner and an overlay of flowers, I'd taken in my garden, over the entire image for this finished work.


A flower had broken off its stem, and not wanting to waste it, I took a photo. It became the center-point of this piece and a TFP (trade for prints) model photo I'd taken, along with some items on file, were then combined to give the piece more interest.


I kept looking at the photo I'd taken of the Big Miller statue, knowing it was a bit of a hallmark for the city (Edmonton), but not being satisfied with how that message came through.

A few weeks later, I had to take some bridge photos for a client, and presto, the two said what I wanted when they came together. The moon was from another shot last summer, and seemed to complete the piece by giving a bit of balance to the canvas.

I tried it in colour (mostly blue) and then in black and white, eventually settling on recapturing a small bit of blue in the final image.

How to get started

If you're interested in bringing a little art to your photography this way, the first step is to fine-tune your Photoshop skills, particularly your ability to extract and manipulate images. The other important skill you'll need is to understand the various layer blend modes, and the results each mode will have on the layer beneath. You really don't want your creativity to be hampered, by having to learn the skill to make it happen in the middle of a piece.

Next plan to try a lot of ideas, (the more you try, the more you'll be satisfied with) and keep notes. Jot down possible ideas that maybe didn't work this time, but might for the next project. Notes on ideas that worked, and why. Once you have an idea, it could take very little time (an hour or two) to make an interesting composite, or it could take days. Don't be afraid to take Photoshop snapshots as you're working through an idea, and keep changing it. With snapshots, you can always come back to a previous version, after you've tried a different approach.

How to do it step by step

Let's look at this example, a fairly simple composite, requiring an intermediate or lower level of skill, but resulting in a look that took the photograph way past where it started.

During a photo shoot, this dog had been sitting perfectly still, and I captured several serious portrait shots.


Then she suddenly flipped her ears, while tracking a bird that flew by. I really loved the effect in the photo but it didn't sing. I felt the final image needed even more movement and energy, to express what I knew was in the dog's head. Here are the steps I took, after I decided I wanted to add that movement (grab a photo of your own and follow along with the adjustments, to make a new version of your own photo).

Below is the original picture.


Step 1: Duplicate the layer

Duplicate the photo onto a new layer (you'll now have two identical layers) using Cmd/Cntl + J, or by using the pullout menu on the layers panel (see below). This leaves you with a locked background layer that you won't be using but is always handy to have, in case you need to backtrack.

Note: Optional but recommended, convert the layer to a Smart Object, then any edits can be redone at any time.

duplicate layer screenshot

Step 2: Add a Radial Blur

Next, add blur by going to: Filter > Blur > Radial Blur on the duplicate layer.

You may need to try it a few times to get the blur centered where you want, since it doesn't preview the effect for you to adjust until after it's run. That is another advantage of converting the layer to a Smart Object; you can revisit and change it at any time. You can also rename the layer to: “Radial blur” – it will help to keep things straight later as you add more layers.

Screen Shot 1

Screen Shot 2

Your image will look something like this after this step:


Step 3: Mask or erase parts you want sharp

Screen Shot 3Using a layer mask (if you converted to a Smart Object, one is added for you automatically) and a soft brush, vary the opacity and erase the blurred layer to expose the photo below where you want it sharp, like the dog's face in this case.

Note: painting with black on the mask, hides parts of the layer, while white paint reveals. Click D to get the default colors to black and white, and X to make black the foreground color. Then using a black brush, with a soft edge, to paint away parts of the blur. Make sure the mask is highlighted (it will have white brackets around it) – not the layer.


Step 4: Add a white layer

Add a new white layer between the two you have now (below the Radial Blur layer and above the background). Choose: Layer > New > Layer from the menu at the top, or New Layer from the layers panel. To make it white, choose the Paint bucket tool, press X to switch white to your foreground color, then just click on the layer to make it all white (make sure the tool is set to 100% opacity).


Step 5: Add a watercolor effect

Using a watercolor brush, randomly erase the picture layer (make a mask on the layer, and paint with black on it) to expose the white beneath. Take your time doing this. You need to change the size, opacity and angle of the brush frequently while erasing so that the final effect looks totally random.


Step 6: Add another element

I wanted to add some swirling leaves to the image, so I found another photo I had taken that had some leaves.


Your additional elements don't need to be perfect, because you can always change them later. I liked these leaves because the shallow depth of field left some of them in focus, and others not.

Extract the leaves from the photo and move them onto the image you're working on. Depending on what the elements you are using are like, you can use any of Photoshop's selection tools. The leaves were then added to one side of the dog photo. Some of the leaves were duplicated, and others were erased to add to the circular effect.


Step 7: Duplicate element

Next, I duplicated the leaves layer and did both a horizontal and vertical flip, moving that second set of leaves to the corresponding space on the other side of the dog.

Screen Shot 5


Step 8: Add a frame effect and watermark

Almost done, and this step is optional. You can add a bit of a frame effect just using a brush to add some lines to the corners, after picking up one of the colours from the picture. Add a small tasteful watermark, and it's all finished.


The end result, to my eye, better captures the emotion and experience, if not the reality, of the actual moment when the photo was made. And that, for me, provides a more satisfying result. An unexpected side benefit of doing these composites, is that I'm able to include one with most of the shoots I do, and that has become an added ,and appreciated gift for my clients.

Helpful resources

If you are just starting out in photo composites, you will end up needing some resources.

Drawings and other photos

Drawings, images, and old photographs can be part of the composition, or a subtle indication in the background. Drawing your own adds a level of satisfaction, but you can just do a search online for non-copyright (look for Creative Commons with derivatives allowed) images. The New York Library just released their digital collection of old photographs for free download online here, and wiki commons can help your search. Just make sure that you check the original website those images are from, to ensure they really are public domain. Another website is Public Domain Review, which has several links to other good sources.

Textures and backgrounds

These are easy enough to make, or photograph yourself. Photos of any texture, whether it's a cement sidewalk or painted wall, are really useful for that, so take lots and save them. In fact, bad out-of-focus photos are even handy backgrounds.

However, it's nice to have an arsenal of options available. In any composition, I tend to try out many before making a final decision, so having them filed and available is great. You can find them free, or for a small charge, by doing an online search. Places such as Design Cuts and E-scape and Scrap are great, but a quick search on the net will uncover many more.

Photo Editing Software

I use Photoshop and Painter X for most of my work, some Topaz plugins, particularly Topaz ReMask for extracting elements, and Topaz B&W Effects for black and white conversions.

There are a lot of great photo editors on the market now, so there are a lot of options to assist you with your own workflow.

Hopefully, these few small examples will inspire you to see creative ways to take your photographs in new and interesting directions. Have fun!

bev holoboff signature

Bev Holoboff PhotographerBev Holoboff is a freelance pet and family photographer from Edmonton, Alberta. See more of her work on SmugMug, or on her Facebook page.

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