*** From the Archives ***

This article is from October 25, 2002, and is no longer current.

Photoshop How-To: Defy the Laws of Nature with Aurora


This story is taken from “The Design Authority” (Element K Journals).

Creativepro.com readers can subscribe to Element K Journals at a discount. Click here to learn more.

Adobe Photoshop is best known for its ability to create and manipulate two-dimensional digital images. Best known for its 3-D landscape creation software called Animatek World Builder, Digital Element has just released a plug-in for Photoshop called Aurora, which allows you to add natural elements such as sky, clouds, and water to a 2-D image — in essence adding a 3-D element to Photoshop itself. Imagine the ability to change the mood of a photograph by altering the sky, time of day, or adding a body of reflective water, making the real surreal or the mundane extraordinary, as we did in figure 1. When compared to the original image displayed in figure 2, the difference is quite dramatic. You can also create a brand new environment for use on a Web site or as a departure point for a creative layout.

Figure 1: The desired result

With Aurora plugged into Photoshop, all this and more is possible, and at a price of $129 it’s extremely affordable. Let’s explore just what Aurora is capable of as we take a photograph of British Columbia’s Parliament building, shown in Figure 2, and make it magical.

Figure 2: The original image

Step 1: Create Layers to Work In
To begin, we need to prepare the image in Photoshop before we can apply the Aurora filter to it. Since Aurora is essentially performing 3-D calculations within a 2-D program, you need to pro-vide it with at least two layers so Aurora can assign a distance for each layer from its virtual camera. Whenever there’s an obvious distance between one element in a scene and another, we’ll need to create a layer. For example, in our scene we’ll need to retain the original image to be used for placing the sky and water, another layer for the building, and a third layer for the foreground objects, including the walkway, fountain, and flowers. With that said, go ahead and create two copies of the original layer.

Step 2: Select and Delete the Sky
Once you’ve made your copies, hide all but the middle layer (the first copy you made) and use the Magic Wand tool to select only the sky. Starting out with a Tolerance of 32, select and delete the sky areas. For best results, zoom in on the image and select the detailed areas to ensure you don’t accidentally select and delete the building’s roof along with the sky, and so on. Once you’re happy with the results, name this layer “Building” and save everything as a PSD file.

Step 3: Create a Mask to Add Water
Next, hide this layer and unhide the layer above it, which we’ll be using as a mask for the water. The mask will make the fountain, flowers, and walkway appear as part of our image, giving the impression that there’s a walkway leading away from the building with a reflecting pool on either side of it. Editing this layer is perhaps the most difficult step, since the grass area is quite dark and shares many colors with the flora in the scene. Starting with the Rectangular Marquee tool, select and delete all of the sky and most of the building on this layer. It’s only necessary to keep the bottom area containing the steps and flowers in front of the building; then you can discard the rest.

Now, use the Lasso tool to select large regions of grass and delete them, and then use the Polygonal Lasso tool to select along the border between the grass and the walkway, deleting the selected areas. Finally, use the Magic Wand tool once again to remove the remainder of the grass. It may be necessary to decrease the Tolerance setting so that the areas of foliage we want to retain aren’t accidentally selected and deleted. The flowers in the foreground are actually part of twin flowerbeds; but since it’s unlikely that you’ll find a flowerbed planted in the middle of a reflecting pond, we’ll make them resemble planters. Once you’ve removed everything, the layer should resemble figure 3. Name this layer Water Mask or something similar. Next, unhide the other layers so that we can run the Aurora filter.

Figure 3: Delete unwanted elements

Step 4: Launch Aurora
Just like other plug-ins, you access Aurora from the Filter menu, in this case under Digital Ele-ment. Initialize Aurora and observe its interface. If you get a message dialog box when initializing Aurora that warns you about the image layer configuration differing from the saved configuration, respond by clicking No. In the upper-left corner of the Aurora interface, you’ll see a preview window of the effect using the current settings. On the right, you can see some tabs that control settings such as Stars, Clouds Layer, Sun, and so on. The image will resemble that shown in figure 4 with the default settings, so let’s start entering settings that make more sense for this scene.

Figure 4: The water with default settings

Step 5: Set the Distance
What we’ll need to do first is adjust the Distance From Camera setting for each layer, as shown in figure 5. If a layer is too far from or too close to the camera in relation to the other layers, the filter effect won’t look correct, with such strange results as the sky and clouds appearing in front of the building and the water appearing on top of the walkway. For this image, we’ll need to bring the Water Mask layer very close to the camera and the Background layer as far from the camera as possible. If you select the Auto-Refresh check box, you can see the changes you make in real-time. Move the Building layer quite close to the camera. You can see the changes as you move the layer closer and farther from the camera. Once you’ve adjusted the layer to your satisfaction, and you can see the flowers near the Parliament building reflecting in the water, you can move on to the next adjustment.

Figure 5: Adjust Distance From Camera Setting

Step 6: Make the Sky
Since this image is set in the evening, as illustrated by the lights, we’ll need to disable the Sun tab. Deselect the Enable check box. Now the sky is much darker, and a mood is starting to develop. Move to the Gradient tab and enter Red 0, Green 0, Blue 0 for the Zenith Color layer and Red 39, Green 2, Blue 84 for the Horizon Color layer. Next, change the Gradient Depth setting to 77 and the Horizon Angle to -31. This will set an interesting mood for the sky.

Next, we’ll activate the Stars, which are turned off by default. Click on the Stars tab and select the Enable check box. Now we’ll alter some of the default settings to better suit the feeling we’re after. Change the Number Of Clusters setting to 14, Max Stars Per Cluster to 32, Max Star Size to 8, and Random Seed to 22. Since the default Clouds settings look strange with this scene, we’ll alter those as well. We also want to be sure that the new clouds we create are as dramatic as the original clouds in the image. Since there are so many settings in the Clouds Layer tab and we need to change most of them, it’s best to refer you to figure 6. Set the Ambient color to Red 129, Green 180, Blue 254, the Diffuse color to Red 255, Green 239, Blue 230, and the Translucency color to Red 255, Green 242, Blue 226.

Figure 6: Adjust settings for the Clouds Layer

Step 7: Add Water
Finally, we’ll adjust the Water tab settings since this is by no means the tropics. Set the Color to Red 219, Green 212, Blue 209 and the Water Deep Color to Red 43, Green 99, Blue 148. The Water settings are even more numerous than the Clouds settings, and since a picture is worth a thousand words, we’ll now refer you to figure 7.

Figure 7: Adjust settings for the Water Layer

Step 8: Apply your Changes
Once everything looks good in the preview, it’s time to execute the Aurora filter. Click OK and wait a few minutes while everything is calculated. There’s a lot happening during the calculation phase, so don’t be surprised if it takes a little time. The results are definitely worth the wait, though, as displayed in figure 8.

Figure 8: Calculate the final result

Step 9: Get your own Copy
Aurora is an amazing tool for architects, Web designers, or anyone who wants to create dramatic imagery right from within Photoshop. The tool isn’t only powerful but also fun to use and experiment with. While it would be nice to have some extra features, such as weather and natural phenomena like rainbows, and a preview window that’s zoomable, Aurora is a solid first edition, and it can only improve with future releases. With the power of this product, it’s priced surprisingly low. Head over to Digital Element’s Web site at www.digi-element.com and download the trial version — you’ll be blown away.

This story is taken from “The Design Authority” (Element K Journals).

Creativepro.com readers can subscribe to Element K Journals at a discount. Click here to learn more.


  • Anonymous says:

    Great info!
    I found your web page on google and it seems to have what I’ve been looking for. Here’s another source that worth a look about this also. Thanks for sharing!

    Breaking News

  • >