How to Create a “Stolen Letter” Effect in Photoshop

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It’s hardly uncommon for magazines to feature photographs of Oscar-nominated actors on their covers. But how can you make the stars look as if they’re interacting with your magazine? Here’s one solution, and it isn’t hard to achieve.

01: The starting image

I chose this image of Nicole Kidman (courtesy of Georges Biard on Wikimedia Commons) because she has her hand in the air, which will allow us some interaction.

02: Place her on the cover

It’s easy to use Photoshop’s Select Subject menu option to cut Nicole from her background. Placing her in front of the logo of this fictional magazine brings her forward, rather than being placed behind the title.

03: Move the hand

The problem with the photograph as shot is that if the hand is visible, Nicole is pushed out of the frame. It’s a simple job to select the arm and cut it to a new layer, and then move it a little closer to her head.

04: Add a background

Cutout hair often looks unrealistic, but when you add a background – such as this Hollywood tree-lined avenue – the hair blends in much better.

05: Cut the first letter

Now for the interesting part. Copy the first letter of the title, and hide it on the masthead. Then, using Free Transform, it’s easy to distort it so that it appears to lie in her hand.

06: Add some depth 

A two-dimensional letter looks wrong on a three-dimensional person. Here’s the easy way to add depth: Select All, then hold Option (Mac) Alt (Windows) and use the cursor keys to nudge it up. Each time you nudge, the extrusion gets deeper. Then Inverse the selection and darken the extruded portion to make the letter more legible.

07: Add a mask

Make a Layer Mask for the letter, and load the arm layer as a selection by holding Command (Mac) Ctrl (Windows) and clicking on its thumbnail in the Layers Panel. It’s easy now to paint over the thumb area in black on the mask, which will hide it behind the letter.

08: Don’t forget the shadows

Make a new layer above the arm layer, using it as a Clipping Mask, and paint a soft shadow beneath the letter. Then do the same above the letter layer, so the thumb casts a soft shadow on the letter. And there’s a much more dramatic cover.

Steve Caplin is a freelance photomontage artist based in London, whose satirical illustrations have appeared in newspapers and magazines around the world. He is the author of the best-selling How to Cheat in Photoshop, as well as 100% Photoshop, Art & Design in Photoshop and 3D Photoshop. He writes regularly for CreativePro and is an instructor at LinkedIn Learning. His YouTube channel 2 Minute Photoshop is a library of over 100 Photoshop tutorials, each just two minutes long, hosted at photoshop.london. When he’s not at his computer Steve builds improbable furniture, which can be seen at curieaux.com.
  • Nadia van 't Oosten says:

    The info at point 6 does not make sense to me. “Select all” while there is just one letter to extrude. Then using Alt and the cursor keys… does nothing. I guess something is left out (like using the 3D feature) although that feature will be discontinued and is already not working well in the newest versions of Photoshop. What am I missing?

    • Steve Caplin says:

      By the time the letter has been cut from the masthead, it’s no longer live text but standard pixels. “Select All” selects all the pixels on the layer, and when you switch to the Move tool, then nudging with the Option/Alt key held down will produce multiple copies of the content each time the arrow keys are used.

      This tutorial does not use the 3D feature, it replicates a 3D effect using the standard Photoshop tools.

      • Nadia van 't Oosten says:

        Thank you for your reply Steve! I am no expert with Photoshop, so I guess I am doing something wrong, but when I copy a letter, I cannot paste it (I checked and ‘paste’ is greyed out when my cursor is not in a text frame) unless I create a new text frame to paste it in. And then it is not pixels, but live text again… :-o

      • Steve Caplin says:

        Right, I understand. So you need the letter as pixels, not text. The easiest way to do this is to duplicate the text layer and use Layer > Rasterize > Type to turn it into pixels. Then delete the letters you don’t want. Hope this works for you!

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