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Lightroom &
Photoshop CC workflow (Pt. 2): Composite images

October 2014

Adobe now offers a Creative Cloud Photography bundle that includes Lightroom editing software and Photoshop CC for photographers who want to organise, edit, enhance and share their images via desktop or their mobile devices – this package currently comes bundled with Canon’s EOS 5D Mark III and EOS 6D DSLRs, plus the PowerShot G1 X Mark II and G7 X compact cameras. In a four-part CPN series of articles and video tutorials Richard Curtis (a Principal Solutions Consultant in Digital Imaging for Adobe UK) will examine the workflow between Lightroom software and Photoshop CC to give you a good understanding of the benefits of working with both in tandem. In Part 2 of this series Richard Curtis focuses on the advanced use of Smart Objects for creating composite images within the Lightroom and Photoshop CC workflow and, in a special video, he explains how to create such composite images. Please click on the play button in the window above to watch the video...

The Creative Cloud Photography bundle – which includes Lightroom and Photoshop CC – offers photographers even more flexibility when it comes to editing their photographs and opportunities to make their images look even more amazing. Integration between the two products is a key benefit and is re-enforced with this bundle. The integration is not new – it has been in place for some time now – however, with the release of the Photography bundle and the ongoing updates to the Creative Cloud, this integration has become much stronger and offers even more possibilities to make images look more beautiful.

Traditional workflows

The typical workflow between the two solutions is to let Lightroom render its adjustments and then take the results into Photoshop. This is a great and well-defined workflow but it doesn’t offer an option to re-edit the Lightroom adjustments from within Photoshop. The integration between Lightroom and Photoshop in the Photography bundle has become much more flexible, by making use of Photoshop ‘Smart Objects’.

The ability to open a Smart Object from Lightroom into Photoshop is not unique to the Photography bundle but there have been a number of significant improvements to the workflow, including the ability to use more Photoshop Filters in a non-destructive way on Smart Objects as well as traditional adjustment layers.

With traditional Photoshop workflows, any Lightroom/Photoshop adjustment(s) had to be ‘rasterised’ early on in the workflow and this reduced the options for any non-destructive work. There are classic ways of editing images in Photoshop, and ‘work-arounds’ to try and create a non-destructive process, but these can result in workflows with a large number of layers and committing to adjustments early in the workflow with no way to re-edit any previous enhancements.

New, non-destructive workflows

The Creative Cloud Photography bundle offers new workflows for the photographer to embrace a true non-destructive workflow, without having to commit to adjustments early in the process. Images can now be saved with all of their Lightroom or Camera RAW adjustments intact, with supported ways to re-edit the original RAW adjustments from Camera RAW or from Lightroom. This new workflow is a saviour for anybody who wants to tweak, enhance and then re-tweak their pictures in order to get the best result at any time in the process. This new workflow can also be used when compositing images when using Lightroom or Camera RAW as a source.

Smarts Objects, Focus Area tool & workflow

One of the most common tasks in Photoshop CC is to cut something out of a photograph and then replace the background with another image. In the following example we will use Photoshop CC to extract a person in a mask from the original scene, then replace its background with a crowd scene.

The example will demonstrate how Smart Objects can be used in the compositing process, as well a new tool in the 2014 release of Photoshop CC, called the Focus Area. The Focus Area tool is used to make a selection based on the depth-of-field, rather than edge contrast. This enables a fast and accurate way to select in-focus parts of a scene.

The example will also show the workflow and integration of image editing between Lightroom and Photoshop and another way to open and process photographs. It will also show how to keep the Lightroom adjustments active and improve the non-destructive editing process between the two applications, allowing you to tweak, review and re-tweak any enhancements at any time.

Any of these images can have initial adjustments made in the Development module of Lightroom – there is no need to worry if the initial results are not exactly what we are looking for as we can modify them later, once our editing process moves into Photoshop, and we have more information about how the composite will look once we see it. To illustrate the Lightroom and Photoshop CC workflow for creating composite images see the step-by-step guide below…

Step 1: Open images as Smart Objects in Photoshop

© Richard Curtis/Adobe

Screen showing the original Bhutan crowd scene image located in Lightroom catalog.

Below are two pictures that I took in Bhutan. I like the crowd image and, as well as helping to tell a story about the event, it might make a great replacement background on another image. The second image is of a chap in a mask used at the ritual, but the background could be improved.

On the right is the first image, which will be used as a background; this image of the crowd is located in the Lightroom catalog.

© Richard Curtis/Adobe

Screen showing the Bhutan crowd scene being opened as a Smart Object into Photoshop CC.

To open this image with a non-destructive editing workflow in mind, it will need to be opened as a Smart Object into Photoshop CC from Lightroom. The ‘Open as a Smart Object’ option is available under the menu item ‘Photo / Edit in / Smart Object in Photoshop’ or by right clicking on the image in the filmstrip or in the middle view.

The image that has the person in the mask (with a not very interesting background) is also found in Lightroom. To show the integration, initial adjustments are made inside Lightroom before the image is taken into Photoshop for compositing.

© Richard Curtis/Adobe

Screen showing initial adjustments being made to the image of the person in the mask in Lightroom.

Lightroom adjustments are made at this stage (setting the white and black points in the image) and highlight and shadow recovery mostly. These adjustments will be modified later, once the composite has started to take shape. The white point and black point adjustments are controlled from the Basic panel in Lightroom. In Lightroom, there is a very precise way to choose which elements of the image are clipped. Whilst either the white point or black point or shadow/highlight recovery settings are modified, the ALT key can be pressed. The ALT key will reveal the mask and show the areas that are being clipped to white/black.

© Richard Curtis/Adobe

Screen showing the areas clipped to white in the mask image whilst still in Lightroom.

The mask image file is then opened in the same way as the background (crowd) image; as a Smart Object into Photoshop.

© Richard Curtis/Adobe

Screen showing the mask image being opened as a Smart Object in Photoshop.

Step 2: Open and merge canvases in Photoshop

© Richard Curtis/Adobe

Screen showing the two images as canvases in Photoshop CC.

Once inside Photoshop, the two Smart Object enabled layers, will be opened as two canvases. The two canvases will need to be merged into one to allow the composite to take effect. This can be done by un-docking one canvas, selecting its contents using CMD +A (Mac) or CTRL +A (PC), then using the Move tool (selectable using the V key) and dragging it across to the other canvas. The SHIFT key may also be used to centre the image onto the receiving canvas. If the SHIFT key is not used, the new image will need to be moved into position by dragging the layer into the correct position (by using the Move tool). The crowd scene will need to be placed under the person with the mask, if it’s to be used as a background. To do this, grab the layer and move it to bottom of the layer stack.

© Richard Curtis/Adobe

Screen showing the crowd scene can still be opened and adjusted using Camera RAW inside Photoshop CC.

Even though the canvases have been merged, the contents of them can still be opened – in this case, the original RAW file and the Lightroom edits can be adjusted using Camera RAW inside Photoshop CC. Any adjustments here will then be re-applied to the RAW file and the results will be shown in the Smart Object layer in Photoshop.

Step 3: Using the Focus Area tool

© Richard Curtis/Adobe

Screen showing the Focus Area tool chosen from the Select menu within Photoshop CC.

The person in the mask is mostly in focus (except just behind the head). In order to extract this object quickly and accurately from its background the new ‘Focus Area’ tool can be used. Selecting objects from a scene can be a tricky and time-consuming business; this new (Focus Area) feature is able to save huge amounts of time, and make an initial selection based on the depth-of-field of the image. If parts of the selected area are not in focus, and not picked up by the Focus Area tool, then modifications to the initial selection can be made by using tools within the Focus Area tool. The tool is available from the menu item ‘Select / Focus Area’.

© Richard Curtis/Adobe

Screen showing the View Mode option of the Focus Area tool in Photoshop CC.

Once the tool is selected it will start to work straight away. Focus Area will start to look for parts of the scene that are in focus and reveal appropriate parts of the mask – the mask is shown in red below; the mask options are configured in the View Mode option of the tool.

© Richard Curtis/Adobe

Screen showing Focus Area tool dialog box, brush tool with a line drawn in for the new depth-of-field range.

If other areas of the image need selecting, and are not within the initial depth-of-field range, they can be added or removed from the initial selection by using the +/- brush tools and marking the area to include manually. In this example the + brush tool is used to include parts of the person’s costume and shoulders (parts of the person are slightly out of focus due to the aperture used when the picture was taken). Both of these tools are on the Focus Area dialog box and are shown below. Including a new depth-of-field range is as simple as drawing a line on the red section of the mask.

© Richard Curtis/Adobe

Screen showing the Layer Mask option being selected for the output of the Focus Area in Photoshop CC.

The output of the Focus Area can be modified and different options are available – in the example below the Layer Mask is used. This will return the mask selection as a Layer Mask, which will be added to the Smart Object layer, and essentially will hide the background in this case.

© Richard Curtis/Adobe

Screen showing the Refine Edge option being deployed from the Focus Area tool in Photoshop CC.

If the mask needs to be refined (i.e. fine element selections, such as hair can be made more accurate by using the Refine Edge tool), the Refine Edge option can be opened from the Focus Area tool, by clicking the Refine Edge button. Don’t forget that when you are using masks none of the original layer is destroyed; it is only hidden by the mask.

Step 4: Refining the Mask

© Richard Curtis/Adobe

Screen showing the mask applied with certain parts of the Smart Object hidden in Photoshop CC.

Once the mask has been applied, it will hide certain parts of the Smart Object and will allow the crowd scene to be seen.

At any time, the mask can be re-worked by selecting it on the appropriate layer, then choosing ‘Mask Edge’ on the properties panel. The Refine Mask dialog will be shown and the existing mask will be loaded into it for more refinement. As mentioned above, selection of fine elements like grass, hair etc can sometimes be improved with the Refine Edge option.

© Richard Curtis/Adobe

Screen showing the Refine Mask box that allows you to select fine elements to alter within Photoshop CC.

Once the selection has been made and the mask is working correctly, there can sometimes be a hard edge that, if not worked on can make the composite look fake. To get around this, and make the blend look more natural, the edge of the mask can have a Gaussian Blur applied to it. This can be achieved by selecting the mask by clicking on it with the mouse, then choosing Gaussian Blur Filter option. The Gaussian Blur Filter can be found from the menu 'Filter / Blur / Gaussian blur'. As it’s used just to smooth the edge a large pixel radius won’t be required but please remember to try other values and experiment with any of the settings in this guide.

© Richard Curtis/Adobe

Screen showing the Gaussian Blur Filter option that, in this case, helps to give a more natural blend of the two images to be achieved.

Once an Adjustment layer has been applied (in this case a simple ‘S’ curve) you may decide that you want to go back to the RAW file to change something. The adjusted image data in the is now contained within a Smart Object and this can be opened up in Camera RAW. Note that there is no direct link between Photoshop and Lightroom but there is a link between Photoshop and Camera RAW...

© Richard Curtis/Adobe

Screen showing the Levels command being applied directly onto the mask in Photoshop CC.

Once the Gaussian Blur has been applied, there might still be a white glow around the edges of the cut out/selection. In this case the mask/Gaussian Blur effect will need shrinking. This can be achieved by using the Levels command directly on the mask. To do this, select the mask by clicking on it from the Smart Object layer, then press the ALT key and click on the mask. The mask should be shown in black and white. The black areas are hiding parts of the Smart Object; the white is revealing areas of it. To apply the Levels command to the mask, it will need to be selected from the menu item Image / Adjustments / Levels and not by using an adjustment layer. The Levels command needs to be used in a destructive way directly on the mask.

Step 5: Using Filter options

© Richard Curtis/Adobe

Screen showing Field Blur selected within the Filter menu / Blur Gallery option on a Smart Object within Photoshop CC.

Taking a closer look at the composite will show that there are now areas all over the image that are either in-focus or out-of-focus. To the eye this won’t look very real, as it expects a gradual depth-of-field effect started by the body of the person with the mask. To make all elements of the image look realistic, the crowd will need to follow on from the out-of-focus areas from the person’s body, especially the far shoulder.

© Richard Curtis/Adobe

Screen showing Motion Blur effects being applied in Photoshop CC.

Smart Objects and the use of filters have been significantly improved in Photoshop for Creative Cloud. Almost all of the filters under the Filters menu can now be used on a Smart Object and be used in a non-destructive workflow. This essentially means that once the Filter has been applied, it can be re-edited at any time (as long as the layer stays as a Smart Object and is not rasterised or flattened).

The Filter options can be found under the menu item ‘Filter’ and the Filter that will be used to apply blur (as if the camera/lens created it), can be found under ‘Filter / Blur Gallery / Field Blur').

Once the Field Blur option has been selected, a dialog with an on-screen widget will be shown. The amount of blur that will be applied to the Smart Object can be controlled by either using the on-screen widget, or by using the sliders or value box on the right hand side of the screen. The blur effect will be applied to the Smart Object, which allows the blur to be added non-destructively. It’s not critical that the blur is exact at this time as it can be adjusted and refined at any time in the future.

Once the blur has been applied, the results will be added to the Smart Object layer and will be shown underneath it. This allows this effect or any Filter effect that is applied in this way to be re-edited; also, the eye icons will turn the effect on or off.

Step 6: Wrap layers as a Smart Object

© Richard Curtis/Adobe

Screen showing the mask as a rectangular white object – this mask can be used to show or hide parts of the effect as required.

The rectangular white object on the effect (as shown on the right) is the mask; this mask will be used to hide/show parts of the effect, as required. Multiple effects can be applied to any one Smart Object and they will be added to the Filters list. The mask will be applied to all Filters that applied to a Smart Object. I suggest, that if multiple Filters are required and each one requires a different mask or even no mask, then the appropriate layers are selected and wrapped up as a Smart Object. To wrap layers as a Smart Object, select the layers to be included (see below). To do this, open the Layers fly-out menu and choose ‘Convert to Smart Object’.

© Richard Curtis/Adobe

Screen showing the two layers being converted/wrapped into a new Smart Object from the Layers fly-out menu.

The two layers have been wrapped into a new Smart Object – its contents can be edited at any time by double clicking on the Smart Object layer.

Step 7: Adding Blur Average effect & Colour blending

© Richard Curtis/Adobe

Screen showing selection of the Blur / Average option from the Filter menu in Photoshop CC.

Composite images can sometimes have different lighting, colours etc, which can result in an image that is not colour consistent. A quick way to achieve an aggregated colour effect, is to add a Blur Average effect – this is available from the menu item Filter / Blur / Average. This filter will essentially average out of the colours in the composite image and create a single colour. The result will be added to this Smart Object and can be edited at any point in time.

© Richard Curtis/Adobe

Screen showing the colour information option within the Properties dialog box.

Once the effect has been applied, the strength of the Filter and blending mode can be adjusted. There is an icon on the Filter – this is shown to the right hand side of the Average Filter text (represented as two arrows separated by two lines). When this icon is double clicked, then the Properties dialog will be displayed. To use the colour information only for the blend, choose Colour Blending Mode.

© Richard Curtis/Adobe

Screen showing altering the opacity of the colour – in this case at 12% – within the Blending Options box.

The colour is too strong for the result and is overriding the natural colours, so the opacity of the effect can be modified using the opacity controller. In the example 12% has been used, but is open to the effect that is required and suits the final image.

Step 8: Using Camera RAW Filter on the Smart Object

© Richard Curtis/Adobe

Screen showing selection of the Camera RAW Filter from the Filter menu in Photoshop CC.

It may be required to adjust final values of the image (as would have been achieved in Lightroom or Camera RAW when working on a single image). This can be achieved on the composite by using the Camera RAW Filter on the Smart Object. The Camera RAW Filter is available on the menu item ‘Filter / Camera RAW Filter’. The Camera RAW Filter is added to the Average filter in this case, because the mask is not used on any of the filters. If it had been, then I would have wrapped these adjustments into another Smart Object.

© Richard Curtis/Adobe

Screen showing the Shadows value being altered in the Camera RAW Filter of Photoshop CC.

All of the usual controls that are expected in Camera RAW or in Lightroom are available for adjustment in this Filter. These include controls such as the radial filter, spot healing brush, white point, black point, lens corrections etc. All of these adjustments can be added to this final composite using this non-destructive approach and can be re-edited at any point in time.

© Richard Curtis/Adobe

Screen showing the Upright tool being deployed in the Camera RAW Filter of Photoshop CC in order to apply balanced perspective corrections to verticals or horizontal lines in the image.

In the following example a few tools in Camera RAW have been used to enhance the image, including the use of the Upright tool to straighten out any vertical and horizontal lines that occur in the photograph, as well as the radial filter to darken the top part of the mask to give the person in the mask more impact.

© Richard Curtis/Adobe

Screen showing the Camera RAW adjustments applied and added to the Smart Object in Photoshop CC.

Once the Camera RAW adjustment has been applied, it will be added to the Smart Object, as shown below.

Step 9: Access original Lightroom adjustments

© Richard Curtis/Adobe

Photoshop CC screen showing the original Lightroom adjustments can be accessed by double clicking into the Smart Object, then double clicking on the original Smart Object that is storing the Original RAW file and the Lightroom adjustments.

The original Lightroom adjustments are still available by double clicking into the Smart Object, then double clicking on the original Smart Object that is storing the Original RAW file and the Lightroom adjustments.

© Richard Curtis/Adobe

Screen showing the original Lightroom adjustments and the original RAW file.

The original Lightroom adjustments and the original RAW file are shown here on the right and below.


I hope that this article and video tutorial have given you a better insight into the key steps that are involved in creating composite images within the Lightroom and Photoshop CC workflow whilst keeping a non-destructive editing process alive.

Biografia: Richard Curtis

Richard Curtis

Richard Curtis is a Principal Solutions Consultant at Adobe UK with a focus on Digital Imaging. Richard is the UK contact for Photoshop, Lightroom, Elements and Imaging workflows around the Creative Cloud. He is a keen technologist and has been a keen photographer for over 20 years, with a focus on street, travel and portrait photography. His favourite photographers include Irving Penn, Mary Ellen Mark and Henri Cartier-Bresson.


Screen showing the original Bhutan crowd scene image located in Lightroom catalog.