Creation of a Magical Christmas Photo

December 07, 2017  •  Leave a Comment

I've been asked how I created a recent image of my daughter, showcasing the "magic" of Christmas, so I thought I'd create a blog post about it for anyone who is curious or would like to attempt it themselves (Photoshop skills required).

The Set-Up:

I set up a spot in our dining room for this shot. My daughter is actually sitting on our buffet surrounded by some fake Christmas presents I used for recent Holiday mini session. I chose the buffet because it was the right height for the window and I didn't want anything between her and the window like the back of a couch. I've seen this type of shot also set in a window seat which would be a great option if you have one... if not, you just need to use a little creativity. I hung a black piece of fabric inside the window. I also affixed a red blanket to one side of the window by clamping it to our blinds that I had raised. I did this to create a "curtain" that would made it look a little more like a window (since our window only has a valance). 

The Lighting: 

I decided to take this photo during the day in order to take advantage of at least a little bit of ambient light and therefore not have to raise the ISO on my camera. This created a bit more post production work but I thought it was worth it to reduce the level of unnecessary "noise" in the image... some might opt to capture an image like this closer to dusk but that's a matter of preference. Despite the ambient light I was working with, after a few test shots I decided to use a soft box to add some light to the scene. I was careful not to make it to bright and to position it just right... making it look like it was more of a nighttime shot and a lamp nearby was partially illuminating my daughter's face. Inside the book she held, I placed my cellphone with the light turned on and positioned it toward her face. While a post production addition of the light coming out of the book was great, it wouldn't actually change the lighting on her face so this was necessary to make it more realistic. We struggled a bit with the cellphone slipping out of position as she moved around but eventually got a shot where it was directly towards her face and worked well.

The First Attempt: 

After taking a few shots I uploaded them to my computer and started tinkering with them in Photoshop. I quickly realized that although the black backdrop was perfect for creating the night sky where I would later add an overlay, it didn't look very much like a window because I was covering the panes of the window with the black fabric (unfortunately I don't have an example of this since I immediately knew it wouldn't work and trashed the image). So outside I went to hang the fabric behind the window. 

The Second Attempt: 

After uploading some shots with the black fabric outside, I realized that it wasn't quite dark enough to have the effect I wanted. It was a bit thin and the sun was shinning through it (see photo at right). I had created a layer in Photoshop in which I had raised the black in the photo, but when the black was dark enough for the sky portion it had become too dark for the rest of the photo. I may have been able to mask off a portion of the photo to get it to work but I decided to make one more attempt to make it work better by changing the setup. So I headed back outside with a big thick semi canvas material to hang behind the black fabric I had already hung. It took some work to get this hung up and I eventually got the help of a nice neighbor after a minor incident with my ladder (please remember to be safe)! 

The Third Attempt:

Back inside I put my daughter back up on the buffet and well, as they say, the third time's a charm! By this time I had settled on the angle I wanted to shoot, how I wanted to frame the photo, how I wanted her to sit, the lighting, and corrected the setup. I brushed my daughter's hair back from her face, positioned my cellphone light correctly, and bribed her to smile (as a photographer's daughter, she is my guinea pig for lots of photos and it is very "trying"

Post Production Work: 

I uploaded my new images, selected one I liked and went back to work in Photoshop. First, I realized that the book had dropped slightly in the image, revealing my cellphone (complete with purple case), so I cloned it out a bit. Then, I used an action that I am fond of from Greater Than Gatsby's Radiance Collection, "Clean Edit Color Base" (actions are series of steps that have been recorded by their creator and can be reapplied at any time without having to go through each individual step every time... they are a real time saver). I also added an action called Bold Vignette, then I created a duplicate layer of the image, placed it on top and increased the blacks. This basically created the solid black "sky" between the window panes and helped to blend my daughter and the surrounding scene into the background a bit. I did end up erasing some of the darker portions off the layer so that it didn't make the buffet and other items too dark. And I erased the layer off of the window panes so they didn't become too dark either. 

Next, I added the book light to image. I had purchased a set of these light overlays on for a few dollars and tested several before settling on the right one. I carefully sized and rotated it, then erased the portion that fell on the binding of the book and beyond so that it looked like it was coming from inside the book, as opposed to laying on top of it. This overlay also helped hide my cellphone cloning. 

I added the starry sky overlay (also purchased on Etsy in a combination with the Santa/Moon overlay). I placed it over the entire image because sizing it like this gave me the desired look I wanted. This however meant I needed to erase the stars from everything in the image that was not the night sky, including the window panes. It took some careful, tedious work and there may be better ways to do this but I went with what I knew. Once satisfied with the look, I added the moon with Santa's sleigh to the image. I needed to put this layer in front of my daughter but behind the starry sky overlay and that required me to erase the stars from on top of the moon too. 

Finally I played around with a paint on vignette action in Photoshop to blend everything together a bit until I was happy with the results and brightened the exposure just a tad. 

There were a couple other small edits in there as you can see.. . for example I used a selective darken on a portion of my daughter's hair that looked really bright, selective sharpen a bit around her face, and a deblotch action to remove a mark on her face as well as bit of a vignette before adding the brush on vignette. Many of these edits are subtle, but contribute to the overall final image. In addition, you can see that there was quite a bit of editing within the layers to ensure stars, increased blacks, etc were masked off for a more realistic affect. 

Here is the succession of edits: 


The entire process took about two hours between setup, shooting, and post production work but I'm thrilled with how it turned out. I'm planning on using it for both our Christmas cards as well as a canvas I will bring out every Holiday season to decorate our home. 

This is my first time creating an image like this and I'd love to hear your thoughts, questions, or tips/tricks/better ways to create this type of composite! So please feel free to leave a comment or a question!


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