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Using Photoshop to Cut Out a Tree

If you know anything about Composite Photography, one of the hardest things to do is create clean cutouts of detailed elements, and you also know the difference between a convincing Composite and one that just falls short is in the quality of your cut out.

You put a lot of hard work into your Composites, so why not do things right and create Amazing Composites that are convincing?

As always, I could show you some nice little Photoshop trick you can just get anywhere, but instead, I’m going to show you how I solved the problem of cutting out a detailed tree for a Portrait Composite I’m working on.

As I’m sure you know, there are several ways to skin a cat or cut out a small detailed tree in Photoshop, but this is the best one I know of at this very time. If you know of a better way, and when I say “better”, I mean more efficient way, then please share in the comments below.

Now, pull out your tree trimmer cuz we’re gonna do some tree cut’n.

My Tiny Tree Problem

Upon first meeting with clients to create Creative Portraits of their families, I say to them “The only limitation you have is your own imagination. So, if you can think it, I can create it!”

Trust me here, you want to be careful what you say…

Anyway, a client I’m currently working with on a Family Portrait, really wanted a small little tree growing on the side of their house to be in their portrait. This tree, called “brother’s tree”, is significant to my client because it was planted at the time of my client’s brother’s death.

This tree is an important symbol and couldn’t be left out.

The problem I had was the small tree was a small tree up against a wooden fence with trees in the background.

photo of tree by dallas composite photographer jason ulsrud

Imagine using the pencil tool to cut out every small leaf and limb in this tree. Not only would your medical bills rack up due to your carpal tunnel, but it simply isn’t possible to create a clean cut out efficiently.

In other words, it wouldn’t be a clean-cut and it would take way too long.

Remember how I’m always saying, “The NUMBER 1 trait a Composite Photographer must-have, is their ability to Solve Problems”?

So, faced with this tiny tree problem, I had to get creative with my solution and think outside the box, which in my opinion is what makes Composite Photography so much more fun than anything traditional.

My Tiny Tree Solution

Generally, when photographing trees for Compositing purposes, I go out on a cloudy day and use the white blown out sky as my white background, making it easier to cut out the detailed elements of leaves and limbs. Since, however, I didn’t have my typical blown out clouds providing me with my easy to cut out background, I had to make it myself.

Thank God the tree was tiny enough to do this!

With the white side of my large white reflector and my shutter release remote, I strategically placed the reflector behind the tree and captured 7 different images I would later take into Photoshop and Composite them together.

different photos of tree for composite photography

I’m frequently asked about using assistants, but as you can see in this series of images, I frequently do everything myself. Again, it’s that Creatively Solving Problems thing in me that I love so much about being a Composite Photographer.

Ok, now that I have all the images I’ll need to create an effective cut out of my client’s tiny tree, it’s time to break out the Photoshop box and do some Compositing.

Creating Great Composites

Right now I feel inclined to tell you, every great Composite starts with getting great photos, and there is a lot that goes into capturing great photos for your Composite.

Without great photos, creating Great Composites is much harder and more time-consuming. Trust me, I know!

STEP #1: Now that I have all the images I need, I take them into Lightroom, do a couple of adjustments, then tele-transport them by editing them in Photoshop where the Compositing magic happens.

screen shot of light room for composite photography

STEP #2: In Photoshop, I stack all the images up together in one file and one by one make a selection of the specific areas I’m wanting to use and copying them. When finished, this results in a multi-layered tree with a white background.

Or, white-ish background.

With everything looking great, I select all these layers and copy them so I can then merge copied layers while maintaining my original copies in case I might need them again later.

screen shot to merge layers in photoshop

STEP #3: With my merged copy of my tiny tree with a white-ish background, I now go to “Select” and choose “Color Range” from the drop down menu.

color range in photoshop for composite photography

From the “Color Range” window, using my dropper tool I select an area on my white-ish background.

Keeping my “shit” key pressed down (Oops! I mean “shift” key), I take multiple selects of my white-ish background areas to include the various tones I want to select.

I then use the “Fuzziness” slider to increase or decrease the detail I’d like to retain within my selection.

STEP #4: With my selection made I create a layer mask of my tiny tree selection, paint out any additional unwanted parts, and with my paint brush (black) mode set to “overlay”, I paint out the light halo from my cut out.

using overlay layer to paint out edges in photoshop

Now, my AWESOME tiny tree cut out is ready to place in the Portrait Composite I’m working and I can move onto the next of the many details to be added. Like all the squirrels, cats, and birds throughout the image.

That’s a Wrap!

There are a few more details to executing this clean cut out that I didn’t discuss in the written portion of this tutorial. Yep, you gotta watch the video tutorial if you want those details.

As for the Uniquely Different Portrait, this Composite of a tiny tree will be featured in?

Well, since my client’s don’t get to see their Amazing Portrait until their Big Reveal, I can’t show it to you right now, but make sure to click over to my Creative Family Portraits gallery and look for the portrait with a bunch of squirrels, cats, and birds it. In the background, you’ll see a small tiny tree, which is what we worked on today.

What’s on your mind? Leave it in the comments below and let’s talk.

Comments (2)

I really enjoy your tutorials and love your work! Very inspiring! I didn’t learn Photoshop in a school environment, but rather on the job and much of what I do, in my mind, is probably unconventional from how it is probably typically taught. I was happy to see some of the techniques that I use were part of your tutorial (reassured me that I am not bonkers) and was happy to learn more about some other tools that I don’t often use. I can’t wait to check out more.

That’s Awesome! I’m like you and learned PS from trial and error, and because of that I think we have a unique perspective on how to use it. I’m not a technician, so I care way less about the technical stuff than I do the artistic stuff. Thanks for commenting.

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