How to Make A 3-D Effect in Photoshop

How to Make A 3-D Effect in Photoshop

3dafter3-D is the biggest craze in Hollywood at the moment. Avatar, Toy Story 3, A Christmas Carol and even Nanny McPhee have gone (or are going) 3-D this year. So how can we harness this concept in our photography?

The most basic principal of three-dimensional art is a foreground/subject which stands out from the background in such a way that you can actually feel the space between them. Obviously, a picture is flat. But if you can edit it in a way to create that space, you can make the effect on it’s viewer memorable. The concept translates into the editing process simply: edit the subject and the background entirely independently of each other. The way in which I feel most successfully achieves that is to make a darker, richer background and a lighter subject.

1.} Choose an image carefully. Not just any image will do. Try to find one which already has a sense of space between the foreground and background. Some far off background action would be great. I chose one where the subjects were almost fully shown (not just their upper halves).

Screen shot 2010-01-22 at 20.54.22

2.} I duplicated the image for safe measure. As I usually do for step 1 of my editing process, I separate the foreground from the background by using the quick selection tool  and typing ctrl+j to create a new layer. First, though, I feather the selection out in select > feather > 0.5 px.

Screen shot 2010-01-22 at 21.23.39

3. } Start editing the background. I usually first duplicate the layer, use overlay or soft light blending mode and take it down to at least 50%. When it’s the way I want it, I then merge the background layers back into one and separate the sky from the rest of the photo so I can edit them separately.

Screen shot 2010-01-22 at 21.30.36

4. To the grass, I applied Flypaper’s ‘Muscatel’ texture layer at hard light, 49%. I also used ‘algae’ at overlay 100% (before you run off to buy these wickedly ingenious textures, read to the bottom for a discount code!) Check out this before/after of the grass:

Screen shot 2010-01-22 at 21.46.50

5.} For the sky, I opened an image from my skies folder (I keep a folder with impressive skies to use as replacements) and laid that over the background sky. I then used Flypaper’s ‘Marie Antoinette’ @ multiply 9%, ‘ming’ @ overlay 35%, ‘lavender skies’ @ multiply 35% and ‘algae’ @ overlay 16% and here it is after:

Screen shot 2010-01-22 at 22.07.57

6.} Here’s the wow factor step. I used the ‘Colosseum Sienna’ and placed it over the top layer in the layers palette. I then type ctrl+g to clip it in so that it is glued onto the boys like this:

Screen shot 2010-01-22 at 22.11.05

7.} Then hold onto your seats as you change it to overlay 100% because immediately, the boys pop out of the picture and into my office (ok I’m not that important…I’m writing this in bed). I wish I had a way to show you in mouse-over because they almost literally pop off the image.

Screen shot 2010-01-22 at 22.21.02

8.} ‘Colusseum Sienna’ is a cracked texture and quite orangey on their skin, so I added a maximum gaussian blur and took down the saturation a notch.

9.} For one last little touch, I added a slight filter > correct camera distortion vignette to the background. And here is the before/after. What do you think?


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Elizabeth Halford is a photographer and advertising creative producer in Orlando, FL. She wrote her first article for dPS in 2010. Her most popular one racked up over 100k shares!

Some Older Comments

  • Jack Daniels July 28, 2012 09:01 pm

    Your creativity amazes me. This blog post on How to Make A 3-D Effect in Photoshop is very well written and has quality content. I would appreciate it if you could check out my post and give me some comments too, thanks!

  • Vincent December 8, 2011 07:11 pm

    Interesting and nice guide. Especially the cloud, it's cool and so real.

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  • Roxanne July 21, 2010 07:22 am

    As an amateur photographer, I think this image is really cool. Thanks!

  • Sarah February 25, 2010 06:34 pm

    Sorry you're getting such a beating Elizabeth. I do like the edited version of the shot. Probably wouldn't call it 3D but it does give it some pop. I'm sure we'd see it better if we could see a larger version.

    Thanks for the tutorial.

  • simon bowen February 25, 2010 04:27 am

    It just goes to show the power of suggestion .. I looked at the before and after and couldn't see that the after had anything which gave it a pop. Then I looked at the laborious edit steps and the work that was involved and thought that all my visual taste buds must have withered away. I still couldn't see it.
    Then I read the comments.
    I'm not alone .. I am sane!

  • dblayn February 16, 2010 04:55 am

    Ouch, peeps -- there is definitely an appearance of increased depth in the second image. Definitely a good idea/technique to emphasis something. Just thinking about it through my fingers, I wonder if the same look could be done in camera with a smallish aperture, fill flash (on camera or just off camera) and a faster exposure time. (Maybe a different time of day when it is not so bright out like 4 or 5pm.) The subjects would appear more illuminated and the background may appear darker. Maybe something like f36@125 or 250?

  • Renee Midgett February 8, 2010 06:48 am

    Geese, it sounds like everyon here is just crabby today- ease up- you know more about something even if it is knowing that it is something you don't care to try or practice-

  • Elizabeth Halford February 6, 2010 09:04 am

    Sorry (me again!) funny that I should happen upon this tonight. Food for thought:

  • Elizabeth Halford February 6, 2010 08:25 am

    @parthion: Wow thank you very much for your ultra detailed analysis. Seems you actually took my advice and looked at the image for more than a nanosecond as I advised @B to do :) Btw @B: thank you for your followup message :) However, I don't think a clockwork orange size clock is necessary a little wristband stopwatch should do the trick :)

    I've laid out the objective. Clearly, most don't agree that my example is adequate. I'd love to see your examples (really...this isn't a trap:)

  • FabBrit February 6, 2010 12:59 am

    Well I like the picture! It has the desired effect. It may not be 3-D (in that it doesn't "jump" off the page) but it does have a 3-D esque feel to it.

    I like the shimmer around the kids and the surrealness of the blatantly different sky. It's almost dream like.

    In her article she did say, "Obviously, a picture is flat. But if you can edit it in a way to create that space, you can make the effect on it’s viewer memorable..."
    It's as 3-D as a picture can get. Thanks Elizabeth :)

  • B February 6, 2010 12:04 am

    Hey Elizabeth, sorry you're taking such a drubbing here, sounds like an unfortunate conflagration of factors mainly. Hope you know I was just poking some fun, and you're taking all of this very well which speaks highly of you.

    On further review I think one of the main problems with this tutorial is that there's little context in this photo. The kids seem pasted in because the background looks fairly generic, especially considering the action of the subjects. If they were in, say, a playground or something that makes a little more sense I think there's more of a, how do I explain, "suspension of disbelief" I suppose.

    I wonder if this would have had a better reception if a different photo were used and if we had the option ot view larger versions; it looks like some compression is hurting your final image.

    Anyway, best wishes and keep shooting!

  • ParthiON February 5, 2010 09:53 pm

    Ms. Halford,

    The final outcome is good and it has a POP UP 3D-effect.

    I noticed Difference in SHADOW directions.
    I think there exist two SUNS.
    (Shadow on the Kids PANTS Vs on the CLOUDS are in different Directions).
    Please comment....
    [eimg url='' title='a3415230ba.jpg']

  • Elizabeth Halford February 5, 2010 04:26 pm

    @b: I'm sorry if you found my comment about taking time offensive. Note that I said "our inability", not "your inability". We are all guilty of taking imagery for granted and looking at it flippantly due to the masses of readily available content in cyber space. We are a microwave generation who wants everything in a nanosecond. That is what I was referencing, nothing more. I'm sorry if anyone found that offensive.

    @giovanni: A drop shadow could be interesting, actually. Like that idea.

    @Jennie: I keep my own skies folder from skies I have photographed myself. If there's an interesting one, I just drop it in there.

    Note: Some have complained about the section this tutorial was placed it. I'm sorry if you found that unhelpful, however, it's not my area. I'm not the one who decides where it will go so you'll have to just continue picking on me for my seeming misuse of the term '3-D'. ...and.....continue... :)

  • Giovanni February 5, 2010 01:59 pm

    Okay... quite a battering of the post I see out here. But I had a question, if I added a drop shadow to the two kids in the pic... would that make them 3D or just 'out of bounds'?

  • KB February 5, 2010 12:00 pm

    Remind me never to post anything to this site! Feedback not helpful at all!

  • Dzhonny February 5, 2010 11:34 am

    maybe its just unlucky choice of title-that would be understandable....but the real misleading act is all that talk about Avatar or Christmas Carol-that lead viewers think that it will be something that cant ever be achieved on 2D screen (not talking about anaglyph or other 3D techniques)

  • Paul C February 5, 2010 07:33 am

    Elizabeth - Nice job. It's a good technique and the image is much improved. I don't know that I'd call it 3D either, but I haven't seen any 2d image able to pull of that effect satisfactorily without the aid of glasses, etc.

  • Sarah February 5, 2010 07:23 am

    I think it looks like bad green screen. :(

  • Jennie Slade February 5, 2010 06:13 am

    Where do I get some of those "skies?" to put in a sky folder?

  • B February 5, 2010 04:55 am

    "I expect that viewers’ opinion of my ‘after’ will be widely affected by our inability to sit for more that 2 seconds and actually soak in an image. It might require an extra moment of contemplation to decide."

    Oh, I see, it's our fault for not looking hard enough. We're just too impatient, that must be it.

    Well, I stared at the final image for thirteen minutes and seventeen seconds, with a Clockwork Orange-esque device strapped to my head so I wouldn't blink and miss it. I saw a young woman and an old lady, I saw green dots disappear, I saw a smiling man's face turn into an angry man's face, and I saw a schooner. But no 3D effect.

    I just wish I was a better viewer. Dang.

  • vi54 February 5, 2010 03:13 am

    This technique would be beneficial if you use the picture in a real 3D environment
    like tilting or zooming the image in after effects or C4D, u get the idea. The Z space would make them stand out, not giving more or less brightness/contrast to your subject.

    The need of good copy written titles is a must, especially in a tutorial form.
    A more better title would be "how to make your subject stand out with selective contrast" or so.

    Even with the more saturated image, i don't think the image looks "good" in both senses of the word.
    it looks pasted in.
    it looks fake.

    I am not trying to disrespect the time spend on writing this article. I never gave a comment on articles here before but I just honestly found that result, technique & title aren't up to par to use in any way (for me).

  • kelvin February 5, 2010 02:20 am

    i agree with the majority of the comments here:

    1. misleading article
    2. poor attempt at 3D (THERE IS NOTHING 3D HERE!!!)
    3. Even the Image is not improved....if the kids blended back into the photo, it might do it more justice!

  • Victor Augusteo February 5, 2010 12:20 am

    i agree with the rest of the commenter.

    there is absolutely NO 3d in this photo. at all. misleading title imo.

    however, it is a very good try to improve the image.

  • Student aid February 4, 2010 10:56 pm

    Very Very Nice Photography.

  • TeaKing February 4, 2010 06:21 pm

    It does say 3D effect in the title and it does emphasise the subject I think its possibly your expectations are too high to get a true 3D effect in cinemas they use two projectors and special glasses plus all the time synchronising the shots we just dont have those facilities. I think the after picture definitely stands out more and the seperation from the background adds a little pop so in that respect its a slights 3D effect. And another PP skill to add to your arsenal.

  • DaveW February 4, 2010 05:50 pm

    Have to agree with the two sides to this; firstly there IS an improvement which is brought about by more contrast and colour saturation. However - 3D is far from the truth :(((

  • Peter February 4, 2010 04:02 pm


    Try fill in flash and put the background out of focus. This will not be 3D either, but will make the subject the main interest, so you will not need 3D.

    This task can be performed in camera so there is no need for expensive programs and add ons.

  • Mei Teng February 4, 2010 10:46 am

    I do see a difference in the before/after photo...but only with more saturated colours and white puffy clouds in the latter. Can't see any 3D effect.

  • Elizabeth Halford February 4, 2010 09:33 am

    Wow yes Dave Hill is brilliant. i think that's more along the lines of HDR, though, not necessarily 3-D. Obviously, when looking at my image here, we have to understand that no matter what we do, images on our screen will never really jump out of the screen so, like I've outlaid here, do your best to separate your foreground from your background by adding space, darkening the background, lightening the foreground. I expect that viewers' opinion of my 'after' will be widely affected by our inability to sit for more that 2 seconds and actually soak in an image. It might require an extra moment of contemplation to decide.

  • cm photography February 4, 2010 09:25 am

    This article is kind of misleading, These pictures don't look very 3D. If you really want a 3D look you should look at Dave Hills work. Now that looks 3D

  • Dzhonny February 4, 2010 09:20 am

    The result does not correspond to the effort that has been given to the adjustment (using all these textures and so) but the biggest disappointement is that there certainly hasn't been given any 3D effect to the photo (I was expecting sort of anaglyph like effect). It looks to me like that children were pasted to the background. Sorry

  • Stormie February 4, 2010 09:02 am

    I don't see "it" either. Which is disappointing.

    By the way, shouldn't this be in the post production section of the site? It's certainly not a tutorial on how to take a 3D photo or how to improve your photography.

  • JAL February 4, 2010 09:00 am

    There is absolutely no doubt the edited pic is much more interesting than the original.

  • Louise February 4, 2010 08:50 am

    I am guessing this is an optical illusion as I can see the picture has a 3D effect where the previous 2 posts can not - Just got to try to look at it from a different angle. Many thanks for the effort.

  • B February 4, 2010 07:07 am

    I'm sorry, I appreciate the effort that went into this, but to me the end result just looks like the kids were pasted into a landscape photo.

  • Brandon February 4, 2010 07:01 am

    agreed. It just looks like a bad blue screen picture

  • rabin February 4, 2010 06:45 am

    They look the same to me, except the saturation. I don't know what's 3D about that picture.