Nature to the Rescue

by F.M. Kearney | August 24, 2016

Copyright F.M. KearneyI’ve always viewed myself as a “traditionalist.” I’ve never really 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 murals and high-end wall art manufacturers. However, after each submission, my editor would always ask for more—not more images, but something more than just traditional photography. He explained that the trend today is for photos with “texture,” and that straight photography doesn’t sell as well as it once did. The texture could be any type of pattern that would be 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. I had absolutely no idea how to do that, so I looked at some YouTube tutorials for help. This only succeeded in confusing me even further, because most of the videos I watched tended to over-complicate the matter. Eventually, I found a method that seemed fairly simple and straightforward.

After the initial processing of the individual images in Photoshop CS6, re-import them via the Scripts method: 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, if 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 will 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, set your foreground color to black and you’re ready to go!

As you paint in the image, the background texture (or whatever image you’re using for the background) will slowly start to come through. You can either use a large brush so that the background is seen across the entire image, or a smaller brush if you only want it to affect certain portions of the image. If that’s the case, 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% 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.

Unaltered skyline © F.M. Kearney

Unaltered skyline

© F.M. Kearney

Sycamore tree bark

Tree bark combined with skyline © F.M. Kearney

Tree bark combined with skyline

For this image, I combined the skyline with the bark of a sycamore tree. The dark patches on the bark blended nicely with the cumulus clouds—almost appearing as strange storm clouds.

Two different backgrounds were used for this shot underneath the Queensboro Bridge. I blended the sky with a photo of grass, and I used another image of tree bark for the water. I used the radial blur filter in Photoshop to apply a slight streaking effect to the grass in order to mimic the angle of the bridge. Also, I rotated the tree bark 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.

Unaltered bridge © F.M. Kearney

Unaltered bridge

Grass with radial blur effect © F.M. Kearney

Grass with radial blur effect

Tree bark © F.M. Kearney

Tree bark

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

Grass and tree bark combined with bridge

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

This article was originally published on NANPA. Published here with permission.

About the Author

F.M. Kearney is a award-winning fine art nature photographer specializing in unique floral and landscape images. His work has been exhibited in galleries, and featured in numerous magazines, calendars and gift cards. He is a frequent contributor to NANPA's newsmagazine, Currents, and the weekly photography blogger for Contemporary Art Gallery Online.

Kearney began his career as a photojournalist for local New York City newspapers. Using the subway as his primary means of transportation to and from his assignments, he became quite familiar with the system. It eventually became the inspiration for his newly-released horror novel, They Only Come Out at Night. A slight departure from photography, it's a supernatural thriller set in the New York City subway.

To see more of Kearney's photography and to learn more about his book, please visit

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