Appealing Image Backgrounds

Appealing image backgrounds illustrated by a Grey crowned crane and speech bubble with text 'Congratulations - Go Strut Your Stuff'

Appealing image backgrounds in greeting cards means simple and clean backgrounds. If the backgrounds are complex, the small format swallows up the detail. And that makes the cards look fussy and unappealing.

There are exceptions, and some artists create detailed drawings. They are ones that the viewer can pore over and seek out tiny surprising details.

But generally speaking, images need to be simple and striking because cards are designed to sit on a table or a counter top or a mantelpiece. And they are most effective when they catch the eye from across the room.

Photographs In Greeting Cards

Where there is a subject and a background in a photograph, the backgrounds need to be simple and clean-looking – preferably plain.

One way to do this is to shoot against a plain background. But of course that is not possible ‘in the wild’. Having said that, I try to think of the background when I am photographing. That is true whether or not I am designing for a greeting card image. In fact, I try to keep in mind that any image might make a good one for a greeting card.

But if I can’t get a plain background, then the way I work to make appealing image backgrounds is as follows. I try to isolate the image in Photoshop and then colour the background.

It works better for images that have a sharp edge. It’s difficult with anything that has lots of longish hair or fur that sticks up wildly. It is hard to get a really good natural-looking edge to the image. It’s easier if the background is dark, but that is limiting in its own way.

Adobe Camera Raw

Let’s start with Adobe Camera Raw. Normally, I move the sliders gently to bring out the best detail and lighting in the image. But here the image is going to be printed at a much smaller size – not much bigger than the palm of my hand. So what looks good at that size can be quite different from what would look good in a large image.

I work on the image by zapping the sliders across in a way that I would never normally do. Then I might move the Contrast or the Clarity sliders or the Shadow slider or the Blacks slider or the Sharpen tool way across the scale.

And I might also use the Luminance and Colour Noise Reduction sliders.

The Noise Reduction sliders blur detail, but there is a way to deal with this. I process two versions of the image. One version emphasises the detail and I use the Noise Reduction sliders on the other version to favour the way the edges meet the background.

I combine the two images as layers in a Photoshop document. Then it’s easy to use a layer mask to cut through the de-noised layer to reveal the detail in the sharper layer beneath while preserving the softer outline of the de-noised image.

Any of those might help separate the main part of the image from its background. I don’t look at the numbers on the sliders – I look at the image and work it until the background looks most distinct from the subject.

Sometimes it just doesn’t work and I give up. It’s just not worth beating myself up about an image that is not going to separate itself. At least one that is not going to separate enough from the background to give a clean image.

Clean, Appealing Images With Fur, Fleece, Or Hair

Let’s say, though, that I want to work with an image that has lots of highly-detailed edges. That could be something such as the fur on a lemur or the stray strands on a sheep’s fleece. How do I do it?

The first thing I accept is that I am going to have to compromise on the background colour. It almost certainly has to be a dark colour – perhaps even black. The reason is simple. The contrast between the edges of the fur or fleece is much less noticeable when the background is dark rather than light-coloured.

Believe me, I have tried it many times and the problem is made much worse with a light-coloured background.

So given that, this is how I darken down the background in Photoshop to make clean images without ‘rubbing out’ parts of the fleece or fur or hair.

Appealing image backgrounds illustrated by a greeting card with a ram with magnificent horns and shaggy coat seen in profile and text 'I'll ramble anywhere with you'

Take this image of a Herdwick ram, for example.

I could have stitched carefully around the fleece with the Marquee tool. But it is painstaking work and still doesn’t always work because it can leave a sharp edge that looks unnatural.

Chances are I get tired and start chopping my way around a delicate fleece with the marquee tool. That is not the way to make appealing images.

More to the point, I prefer quick methods, and what follows here is one I have found that works. It is a two-stage technique.

Start With The Magic Wand

First I use the Magic Wand tool to pick out the area around the fleece. I change the tolerance up or down to isolate the edges of the fleece. I don’t worry about those parts of the image that are further away from the fleece because I can paint those out later. The important thing is to pick out the area at the edge of the fleece.

Once I have done that, I hide the marching-ants outline because I don’t want the dotted line obstructing my view for the next step.

Now that I have a clear view of the edge of the fleece, I use the Levels tool or the Curves tool to darken the image isolated by the Magic Wand tool. I do this by moving the slider to the right, which darkens the part I have isolated.

When I see that the darkening is in danger of erasing the edges of the fleece, I stop.

Now I have an image that is a bit darker near the fleece, so I am part of the way to what I want to achieve.

Time For The Brush Tool

The next step is to use the Brush tool with the colour I want for the background.

I use the Brush tool and start with a large radius of several hundred pixels diameter. I also set the hardness of the brush very low, to somewhere around five per cent.

Now I move the brush tool in sweeping arcs, moving it towards the edge that borders the fleece. I change the diameter of the brush all the time to suit the area I am working on. As I progress, I reduce the brush size to work in the tighter areas.

Finally, I clear the Marquee tool so that I can brush over any part of the image, and gently fade out the parts that are still left undone.

It’s easy to go back and experiment until the technique flows quickly and the image has been darkened down.

I look at it, and voila! That’s how I make unfussy, appealing images with simple, clean backgrounds. And the whole process taking just a minute or two.

Try it and let me know how you get on.

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