Photoshop tutorial: Create a digital photo illustration

Bring a fashion magazine illustration to life with lighting effects and colour treatments

Here we look at turning a regular photo into an eye-catching fashion illustration using lighting effects and colour correction in Photoshop.

See also: 86 Best Photoshop tutorials

We’ll kick off with a guide to preparing a photo – removing imperfections, enhancing details and making it black-and-white. We’ll then move onto detailing the best way to cut it out from its background and build a composition around it.

Finally we’ll look at how to change to colour of elements brought in from other sources (such as stock or your own photos)

Time to complete

3 hours


Photoshop CS3 or later


Find a strong main image for your focal point. Here I got model Fatima Hague to pose for a few photographs.

See also: 86 Best Photoshop tutorials

If you follow this route try lots of different poses and shapes, but if you prefer, you can simply purchase a photo from one of the many stock libaries online (I use Shutterstock).


Plan your composition with rough sketches. Try a few different shapes, compositions and elements.

See also: 86 Best Photoshop tutorials

To save time print out multiple copies of your main image to sketch over (as seen here). 

Advertisement. Article continues below


Compile a selection of source images as components for the rest of your image: the more the better. I like to keep a folder full of random high-res components and textures.

See also: 86 Best Photoshop tutorials

Once you have your plan sorted, open your main image ready for preparation.


Open your Histogram window (Window > Histogram) to see a quick overview of the tonal range within your photograph.

See also: 86 Best Photoshop tutorials

Set the Channel to RGB. The right of your Histogram represents the highlights, and the left represents the shadows. Here the white space on the right indicates a lack of highlights, as this is a slightly underexposed photo. We can fix this using Levels.


Increase the highlights in your picture. Add a Levels adjustment (Image > Adjustments > Levels) or an adjustment layer from the Adjustments panel in Photoshop CS5 or later.

See also: 86 Best Photoshop tutorials

Move the right slider to the edge of the graph and press OK. This will redistribute the brightness so there is a better distribution of tonal values.  

Advertisement. Article continues below


Let’s turn the photograph black and white. Select Image > Adjustments > Black & White or add a Black & White adjustment layer.

See also: 86 Best Photoshop tutorials

Manually adjust the conversion using the colour sliders. The Auto button chooses a greyscale mix based on your photograph and can produce good results. You can also select Tint to create different sepia effects if you wish. 

If you’re using a adjustment rather than an adjustment layer, you can also move your mouse over the image – the pointer then automatically changing into an eye dropper – to pick certain colours you wish to lighten or darken.


Give your photo a quick makeover. I wanted to emphasise certain features such as eyelashes, lips & hair – and simultaneously soften any inconsistencies in the skin. 

See also: 86 Best Photoshop tutorials

To do this duplicate your photo on a new layer (so you can keep one layer with the original image, just in case). 

On the top layer apply a Smart Blur (Filter > Blur Smart Blur), and use this to soften the skin.


Increase the sharpness of the bottom layer. Apply an Unsharp Mask effect (Filter > Sharpen > Unsharp Mask).

See also: 86 Best Photoshop tutorials

Unsharp Mask finds high contrast neighbouring pixels and increases the contrast further: The larger the radius, the larger the edge effects. For this image I used 73 for the Amount and 1 for the Radius.

Be careful not to oversharpen an image, which creates a halo effect. 

Advertisement. Article continues below


Place the smart blurred layer above the sharpened layer in the Layers panel. Using the Eraser tool (E) with a soft brush preset, erase parts of the blurred layer to reveal sharp definition in areas such as the eyes, lips and hair.

See also: 86 Best Photoshop tutorials

Once you are happy with this go to Layer > Flatten Image, so it is ready to cut out.


You can use a wide selection of different tools for cutouts such as the Magic Wand, or the Quick Selection tool.

See also: 86 Best Photoshop tutorials

In this instance we want an accurate path, so use the Pen tool to draw points around the subject. Take care with the path and eliminate any stray hairs, or creases.


You need to close the path to complete it. When the end point returns to the start point, a small circle will appear next to the pen icon. Once the path is complete, go to Layer > Layer Mask > Hide All.

See also: 86 Best Photoshop tutorials

Your photo will disappear. Don’t worry, we’re going to bring the part you want back in a second.

Advertisement. Article continues below


Open the Paths panel (Window > Paths). With the path selected, click on Load Path as a Selection at the bottom of the panel. Now fill the path with white (Shift F5), and you should have a cut out of your model. Go to the channels window to see how the black represents the mask (Window > Channels).

See also: 86 Best Photoshop tutorials


For this step you’ll need a graphic or abstract background. Here I have a white pattern layer which I created in Illustrator.

See also: 86 Best Photoshop tutorials

Open your background in Photoshop and drag this onto the image, moving it to the bottom of the layer stack. 


Go to Edit > Free Transform (Cmd/Ctrl + T) to skew the background to match the perspective of your photo. Hold down Shift and Cmd/Ctrl while dragging the handle into the desired position.

See also: 86 Best Photoshop tutorials

Advertisement. Article continues below


Bring other elements into the image by importing parts of other images.

See also: 86 Best Photoshop tutorials

Here I pasted a glass floor, and lighting from long exposure photographs. I wanted to changed the colour of the glass floor from red to magenta – a technique you often use when building a composition like this. 


Apply a Hue/Saturation adjustment (Image > Adjustments > Hue/Saturation – or from the Adjustments panel). Tick the Colorise box, and move the hue to 300 and the Saturation to 40. Click OK.

See also: 86 Best Photoshop tutorials

When doing this it’s best to select View > Gamut Warning (Cmd/Ctrl + Shift + Y) to check colours are within range of what your monitor can produce (or printer if you’re limiting your colours to what that can output through a colour-managed workflow). Reduce the saturation if out of range.


Now to change the colour of the long exposure/light effects to the same colour as the floor.

See also: 86 Best Photoshop tutorials

Select the layer you want to change (in this case the long exposure). Go to Image > Match Color. In the dialog that appears, select the source and layer you want to duplicate (in this case the glass floor).

I repeated this step with a couple of other images, mirroring the floor and adding a shadow below the model.

Find your own direction and experiment with adding small bits of details until you’re satisfied with the finished illustration. 

Advertisement. Article continues below