Erik Johansson, a Swedish photographer and retouch artist, spends countless hours editing his images in Photoshop, adding layer upon layer mask, endlessly blending and adjusting until each of his surreal masterpieces is completed—but there’s a reason why Johansson’s fantastical images seem plausible and only modestly-edited. Johansson uses real photographs as the building blocks for creating each image that he dreams up. To help us better understand his process, Johansson filmed this behind-the-scenes video, which documents the process he followed to create one of his most recent images, “Drifting Away”:
In his keynote lecture at the Adobe MAX creativity conference in May, Johansson revealed that he creates his images through a structured, three-step process: planning, taking photographs, and blending photos together with layer masks and adjustment tools in Photoshop.
Being self-taught in both photography and retouch, Johansson advises those who would use Photoshop to learn the tools through patience and practice, just as he did, and to remember that Photoshop can never replace good photographs.
“Photoshop isn’t magic,” Johansson said, “or at least not yet. It’s all about material you have to work with, and getting good material is all about planning.”
Ultimately, while extensive Photoshop skills and camera knowledge are necessary to produce high-quality work, planning—that is, detailed sketches, problem-solving, location scouting, and even clever inventions to accomplish just the right effect—is the most important stage of Johansson’s process, and the most important part of planning is imagination, of which Johansson is clearly king.
“It always starts with what you can imagine,” he said. “To me, that is about trying to see the world differently—not trying to see the things that are not there, but rather trying to see the things in my daily life and how they can be combined into something new… I think that what you can imagine is what you can create.”
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