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Create fake 3D in Photoshop

Nik Ainley talks us through creating fashionable 3D artwork without touching any rendering tools whatsoever! Good, eh?

This is one of those tutorials where we will use Photoshop not because it is the ideal tool, but as a demonstration of Photoshop’s power and versatility. This tutorial was inspired by a request to know how to replicate a certain imagery style using only Photoshop. These referenced images were produced using 3D software, such as 3ds Max, which are built for producing such scenes.

Trying to reproduce this effect using just Photoshop (not even with the help of Illustrator and its useful line-drawing and 3D effects tools) is a wonderful way to get to grips with many of Photoshop’s functions. This kind of layered concept looks very cool when combined with natural textures and glossy Web 2.0 stylings, plus Web Designer adopted it for the cover of issue 145. What’s more, faking three-dimensional objects in Photoshop has a lot of uses in design other than being a demonstration of its abilities. Apart from the fact that it negates the need to either purchase or learn 3D software, it can often allow results to be produced far more quickly.

We will have a good look at Photoshop’s Transform function in creating the illusion of perspective, as well as clipping groups and airbrushing to create shading. This image was created at about 3,000 x 3,500 pixels in size, so any measurements in this tutorial should be adjusted to whatever size you work at. Happy faking!

(This tutorial was written by Nik Ainley and first appeared in Web Designer issue 152)

Download all the files for this tutorial here

01 Line ‘em up


The most important aspect of getting a good 3D feel is creating realistic perspective. To achieve this, we are going to create a guide grid. There are two ways to do this. The first involves drawing out a grid such as this using the Line tool or Pen tool, and then transforming it with Distort selected to give it some perspective. This method is preferable, but the next one is almost certainly quicker.

02 A bit of perspective


The second way is to use the Vanishing Point filter, which is rather useful for perspective-based trickery. On a new layer, enter the filter and draw out a plane with a nice perspective. Then click on the little arrow at the top and choose Render Grids to Photoshop, then exit the filter and you have yourself a nice grid to use. The filter can get oddly grumpy about producing differently orientated planes, though, so watch out. The Plane Drawing tool will change colour to let you know this is happening. We explain why we don’t use the filter for the whole process in the boxout on page 60.

03 Background work


Now place and keep this grid at the top of your image. We will be turning it on and off throughout in order to match various objects’ perspectives to it. Add a gradient to the background, trying to match the angle of your grid. This in turn adds a quick bit of depth.

04 Shape time


Now to add our first object. You can use anything you want here really; simple geometric shapes work very well. Using either the Pen tool or the Shape tool, draw out a simple shape. Make it quite big so that distorting it later doesn’t introduce fuzziness.

05 Details


To make our shape a bit more interesting, we are going to add some colour and details. First of all, we made sure the shape was white, and then got a selection based on its outline (Ctrl-click on the layer’s thumbnail). We then contracted the selection by about 20 pixels (Select>Modify>Contract) and filled this with a dark pink on a new layer

06 More details


To make it a bit more interesting, we first added a layer style to this new layer. We used a Gradient Overlay, white to black, with a Soft Light blending mode from top right to bottom left. We also added a fuzzy Inner Glow using a dark grey and blending mode set to Overlay. We then duplicated this a couple of times, shrunk them down and recoloured them.

07 Merge


Now we are going to match this object’s perspective to our grid. At this point, make sure the object’s colours and details are as you want them, as it is much harder to change after this process. First merge all your object’s layers together. If you want to use this object several times, create a copy of your layers before you merge them and hide them so that you can use them again later.

08 First distortions


With your grid enabled and your merged object selected, enter Transform mode. With the Distort mode selected, choose where you want your object to be and start matching the perspective of the grid. Note here that once we have transformed our object, it will be matched to the perspective at that specific point on your canvas and can’t be moved again.

09 Use your eye


The important thing to keep in mind here is to match the angles of the Transform tool’s edges to your grid. If they are directly over a grid line then they should run in exactly the same way. If they are in-between grid lines, make sure their angle is somewhere in-between the grid lines’ angles that they are within. If your grid doesn’t have enough lines, you might have to go back and make another one. Use your judgement to decide what looks right.

10 Flat is boring


Now we want to add some depth to our object. First of all, make sure you are zoomed in at 100 per cent (if you aren’t already) and select your object layer. Now, holding down the Alt key, tap the down arrow about 20/30 times. To repeat having to do this in the future, you might want to write a quick Photoshop action that does this for you

11 Too many layers!

Now select all of these copied layers (do not select your original layer, which should now be at the bottom of the stack) and merge them together (Ctrl+E). Move this new merged layer underneath your original layer and make it all white (Ctrl+U and push the Lightnes
s slider up to 100). You might not notice any change at this last step, but that’s okay.

12 Shading

We want to add some shading to this new layer to give the impression of depth. First of all, lock the transparency of your bottom, all-white layer. Now, using the Gradient tool set to black to transparent and Linear, drag from the left inwards and then right inwards. This part is very much down to personal judgement in terms of how you want it to look.

13 A little bit more detail


In order to add a bit more realism, we are going to pay special attention to the corners (or in this case, corner). Zoom right in on the corner of your object, and create a selection that only has one side of the object inside (however, it doesn’t matter which right now).

14 Smarten those edges up


Hide your selection so that you can see what you’re doing better (Ctrl+H), then using a big, soft brush, daub black onto your layer just outside of your selection. The fuzziness should creep over the edge of the selection onto your object.

15 The dark side


side of your object. Make sure to make it either slightly lighter or darker than you just did so you end up with some distinction at the edge. We decided to have the right-hand side of our objects always darker to give the impression of a directional light source.

16 Well, that was easy but…

If we want to use other objects with less rectangular shapes, we have a slightly more difficult job matching perspective. However, there’s a very easy trick we can use to help this. Let’s try a disc. On a new layer, draw a circle.

17 Be square

Do the same sort of tricks and effects you did to your first object to make it look a bit nicer. Once you have merged these layers together, draw a big square that just encompasses the circle on a new layer underneath. Use a contrasting colour so it stands out from the circle.

18 Much easier!

Now match your new object’s perspective to the grid as before, but make sure you have both your circle and square layers selected. Luckily, transforming them both at the same time is no problem for Photoshop. Match the grid lines up to the transform box as before. Once you have done that, you can simply delete the square layer. A circle isn’t too much of a problem, but for more complex shapes, this technique really helps.

19 Pesky shadows


Adding shadows between objects is one of the best ways at creating the illusion of depth, and also one way in which 3D programs produce amazing results much more easily than Photoshop. The easiest way to have the shadows is associated with the object they are falling on, rather than with the object they are casting. Here, create a new layer above the object you want the shadows to fall on, and group it with the object layer (Alt-click on the line between the two layers).

20 Make the icon illustrations selectable as one


In order to make the icons selectable as one object, we converted the vectors to objects. Do this by following Object>Path>Outline Stroke. Next up, we selected the objects we wanted as one, then divided (from the Pathfinder tool), ungrouped and finally merged them. Now the icon is selectable as one single object with the details as knockouts

21 Block party


We now have the basic techniques for creating the entire image. So we just have to keep creating objects, match their perspectives to somewhere on the grid, add depth and make sure the shadows are in place. This is the time-consuming part, and you can add as many objects as you like. Try to keep your layers organised into layer groups to stop yourself from going mad.

22 Float them all


Once you have finished creating and placing all your objects and are happy you aren’t going to add any more, we can add a bit more depth by giving them all a shadow. Select the outline of all your layers (Ctrl-click on your layer thumbnails while holding down Shift), then on a new layer just above your background, fill this selection with black. Apply a Gaussian Blur to this layer by about 40 pixels, move it down and to the right a bit, then drop its Opacity until it looks right.

23 Flatten it

To add a few finishing touches to the image, we first need to flatten the entire thing. Do this and copy the result into a new document. It’s best to do these final bits separately to your layered file so you can go back and change things if necessary. Run a Gaussian Blur over your new flat layer (about 30 pixels or so) then fade (Ctrl+Shift+F) to a Soft Light blending mode of about 30 per cent Opacity.

24 Depth of field


Now to add some fake depth of field. Duplicate your image and run a Lens Blur filter on it (40 pixels or so). Add a Hide All Layer Mask to this layer (hold down Alt while clicking the Add Layer Mask button). Use a white to transparent gradient, or a big, soft brush to start adding white to this Layer Mask to make parts of the image blurry. Try making the top or the bottom of the image blurriest or specific objects that appear to be further below the others.

25 Final touches

Flatten your two layers together and run a light Unsharp Mask on them (settings of 30, 0.6, 0 should do) and make any final tweaks to lightness or colour you think the image needs. That should be it; hopefully, you’ll have something that looks like our image.

In detail

Not quite perfect

There are several different ways that doing 3D in Photoshop makes things a lot harder than using a 3D program. Apart from the fact that all the lighting and shadowing has to be done manually and won’t be as accurate as with a 3D program, we are much more constrained in terms of moving things around.
To demonstrate this, the shiny object has been moved from its intended position in the image below. As you can see, its perspective is now completely wrong and it doesn’t fit in with the rest of the image at all. However, if we wanted the object here, we would have to reproduce it
as a flat object and then distort it to match the grid in its new position.

Quick tip

A clever way of bringing interest to this sort of image is by adding details to the front of your objects. Make sure that you do this before adding perspective to them so you can do the distorting all in one go. Try adding shapes, patterns, textures or text to your objects to make them livelier. Feel free to vary the colours, but try to keep an overall colour scheme in mind.