A Horse and His Maiden: Changing Background in Photoshop

How to get an eye-popping Photoshop composite image

by Jim Zuckerman

Gypsy Vanner horse with his maiden
Gypsy Vanner horse with his maiden
© Jim Zuckerman
All Rights Reserved
One of the ways I get exciting pictures is to make arrangements with people to photograph them or their possessions at the optimal time of day and/or best location. The photos of the horse show I took in the indoor arena three weeks ago were really impossible to work with and produce professional quality imagery, so I set up a time to shoot the famous Gypsy Vanner horse, Romeo, and his lovely maiden, Jessica in beautiful lighting.

The background, though, wasn't to my liking, and besides, I was looking for something truly special. I worked on this last night, and after a marathon session in Photoshop, I am happy with how it turned out.

I placed the horse and rider into the background, and it took me three hours to make this look good. I wanted very badly to make this as perfect as I possibly could.

How to Do It: Changing Background in Photoshop

I worked in Photoshop at 600%, virtually pixel by pixel, to cut around the hair of the horse. Cutting around hair in Photoshop such that it looks perfect is virtually impossible - the operative word here is "virtually". I went to bed at 1:30am when I was happy with it ...well, 97% happy. All those blond, backlit hairs were a nightmare!

The technique I used was to make a rough selection of the horse and the model with the lasso tool, and then I used Edit > copy and then Edit > paste to place it into the background.

Note the lighting. The low angled sun above the foggy pond would have illuminated the horse with backlighting which is why I chose this background. Itís crucial to match the lighting in the various elements in your composites.

I sized the horse and rider with Edit > transform > scale, and then made a layer mask: Layer > layer mask > reveal all. Then, I used the brush tool to paint away the original background behind the subject. I worked at 300% until I came to the blond hair, and then I enlarged the image to 600%. Even when I made the brush tool small and removed more of the background, there were still dark pixels around the blond hairs that came from the original background. I couldnít paint away those dark pixels because then most of the hair would be eliminated.

When I studied the composite without magnification, it looked good. However, when I looked at it with 100% magnification, those dark edges looked unnatural and unattractive. The composite would not pass the test - not yet.

I thought about this for a while, and finally decided to try using the dodge tool. Since the horse was on a separate layer from the background, I made the tool very small and tried lightening each individual blond hair. It worked. The hair, where was already very light from the backlighting, didnít get much lighter, but the dark edges virtually disappeared. I was thrilled.

Finally, after working into the early hours of the morning until I could hardly focus my eyes any more, I was convinced that this couldnít be improved.

Learn Photoshop from Jim Zuckerman ...

Jim teaches three online Photoshop courses, including Creative Techniques in Photoshop , Advanced Creative Techniques in Photoshop and Photoshop: Thinking Outside the Box.

In addition, BetterPhoto's digital online photography school offers a number of other online classes on Photoshop.

About Author / Instructor / Photographer, Jim Zuckerman
Photography Instructor: Jim ZuckermanFew people are able to spend most of their time pursuing their passion in life. I'm one of them, and I feel blessed to have had a love affair with photography since I began taking pictures.

In 1970, I decided to abort my intended career as a doctor in favor of photography and have never regretted it. Photography has enriched my life more than I can tell you. My career has taken me to over 60 countries, and I've seen and photographed wondrous things.

I specialize in wildlife and nature, international travel, and digital effects. In addition, I also shoot nudes, photo- and electron microscopy, children, and other subjects that stimulate my visual or emotional sensibilities.

For 25 years, I shot a medium format camera, specifically the Mamiya RZ 67, for its superior quality. When I would lecture, Iíd project the large, glass mounted transparencies, and it was really an incredible experience to see the brilliant color saturation and resolution of these slides. However, I went digital in 2004 because the technology finally equaled or surpassed medium format. I now shoot the Canon 1Ds Mark II digital camera with a variety of lenses.

I am the author of 12 books on photography. My work is sold in 30 countries around the world, and my images have appeared on scores of magazine and book covers, calendars, posters, national ads, trade ads, brochures, and corporate promotions.

For many years I've led photography tours to exotic places. These include Papua New Guinea, Thailand, Burma, Greece, The Czech Republic and Slovakia, Spain, Morocco, and Peru.