Science Fiction Landscapes – A Tutorial
A number of people have asked me how I do my science fiction and space scenes using my phone, and since we’ve just landed on a comet for the first time in history, it seems appropriate to reveal some secrets. The simple though somewhat strange answer is using PS Touch and junk. I’ve heard some photographers say, throw away everything that is horrible and burn the page, forget the past, etc etc. Me? I keep junk images, because I know that somewhere in them is a piece of science fiction that simply needs bringing out. Most of my space images are made from images with the flash on, aimed at a dirty window at night! Most of my planets are just textures I find around the house or while walking down the street. Put these together, and add in a little knowledge of how light interacts with spheres, and you have all the ingredients necessary for science fiction artistry on your phone.
In this tutorial, I will take a number of “junk” images to produce a science fiction scene on my mobile phone. Here is a screenshot of some of my images categorized as “Science Fiction”. The first two are lava rocks, the third image is melted butter in a frying pan(!), then there is some sky, and some great rock textures. I won’t use all of them in this tutorial, but you get the idea. It is important to set up your images, organize them so that you can access them easily when in PS Touch.
I should mention that I cover numerous tools available in PS Touch, so this is a tutorial to bookmark for use in other kinds of editing.
Shooting Space Images
Sometimes I use my camera with the flash on aimed at a window, sometimes (rarely these days) I just use creative commons images from Nasa, though of course, these might be recognizable as space as it is seen from earth. Grabbing an images from a window is fairly straightforward. I’ve done some experimenting, and know that some things work and some things don’t. For best results, wait until nighttime, so that it is dark. Turn out the lights. Turn on the flash on your camera. Note that you are to stand inside. Aim at a slight angle to position your star to the left or right in the image. Wear dark clothing if you are holding the camera. If you want a second “sun” or star, hold a mirror in your other hand, or turn on a lamp. You can do this process in the mirror in a dark restroom (that’s a water closet) too. Make sure your window isn’t altogether clean. Dirty windows add the dust of space. Voila! The image for this tutorial was shot from my dining room to my backyard, on an overcast day.
Creating Space Images
Oh no! You caught a bit of yourself or your phone in that space image. Or as in my case, your whole backyard is in view. Not to worry. You can use layers to darken the dark portions of the image, while brightening the bright portions, as the collage shows. I simply duplicate the image. Use the multiply layer in this case, as it adds the strong contrasts of space to the image. You may need to adjust the curves of each layer to remove strange kitchen objects from space. I went ahead and selected several regions to darken, as they were too recognizable as trees. Note that I left some of the tree sky in there, as spots in space, clusters of blue stars. Great.
Here we are going to open up an image as a new layer. Any of your texture images will do, depending on what sort of science fiction scene you wish to make. I chose a rock texture. The warp tool can get tricky when there are all these lines and dots and you don’t know which belongs where. I first warp the corners of the image into place, at an angle. Then I push the one side out to make it round, and then I get messy. The screenshot speaks for itself. You’ll have to get used to it. The great thing about PS Touch is that you can back up about 10 steps, both within a tool before applying it, and within the whole image.
A Bug In PS Touch
PS Touch has a warp tool bug, unfortunately. When warping an image, the final result ends up having a cross-hair line across the image. I usually remove this with the retouch tools. Click on the image to enlarge it and see the cross hairs. Because of this flaw, I sometimes use other techniques to create planets.
Warping junk images into planets is fine when your planet is only partially visible in an image, but sometimes you just need to have that moon floating on its own in the middle of space. In that case, you need some sort of sphere generator. Apps like HandyPhoto, Tiny Planet and SuperPhoto can distort images into spheres. Alternatively, you can crop a few layered patterns in the shape of a circle. See “adding shadows to planets” below for more options.
Adding Uniqueness To Science Fiction Planetesimals
The phenomenal world of physics is a world of fractals. Junk images work because nature configures itself into the same patterns on the micro and the macro scale. Have you ever seen butter melting in a frying pan and thought how similar it looks to the grand canyon from space? No? OK, take a close up picture of it and use it in a science fiction scene. In the top two images of the screenshot collage, I’ve added that butter image and angled it so that it covers the whole planet. I have then used the magic wand tool to select the empty portion of the planet layer. That selection remains even when you switch back to the butter layer. Switching back, I simply cut out that portion of the image, so that the butter is only visible on the planet. No butter in space. Then it is simply a matter of using the right layer. In this case I used Overlay.
Adding Shadows To Planets
In the bottom two images of the collage above, I have already merged (merge down) the butter layer into the planet layer, so that they are one layer. I have duplicated the new planet layer. Since I want the planet to fade to black on the bottom right, I don’t want the full duplicate layer. So I add a fade. Note that I add in this case a spherical fade. This fade has full opacity at center, while it becomes completely transparent towards the edge of the circle. I layer this planet with multiply, and because I want a bit more shadow, duplicate that faded layer. (Both are in multiply mode.) Note that PS Touch for phone can only have 4 layers, so maximizing layer real estate is important to think about.
This is another method of creating full spheres. It is also the secret to how I create fading atmospheres on solid rocks. The only drawback is that around the faded edge it can look a bit pixelated. So I usually touch up these fades with the blur or smudge tool.
Lava Rocks Make Great Meteors And Moons!
If you don’t want spheres in your space scenes (because science fiction is full of uneven places), find some good and bumpy lava rocks with their nice air pocket holes and crevices. Find a strong light source and shoot that rock close. Make sure the light source is angled correctly, relative to the camera. You don’t want planets with light coming from the wrong directions. Turn the rock around and take a few different shots of its myriad sides. It remains simply to erase the background of these rocks, export them as PNG files to save for later. PNG files maintain transparent portions, unlike jpg. Place these in your images as you prefer. Adjust lighting accordingly. In this image I have made an initial cutout of my meteor. But I noticed I didn’t cut it out close enough, so that it had a white edge around it. I simply transform the selection (which is around the meteor), and expand it. I cut the selection, which cuts into that white edge, but maintains the meteor shape. When done creating your meteor, simply put it where you wish.
I made some adjustments to color on the meteor, moved it, colorized the sun a bit yellow, and made some other final adjustments to finish the image off.
These are by far the most time consuming portion of any science fiction scene I have done. Some ships are simply the silhouette of a weathervane arrow. Others are more complex composites of various images which, like meteors above, are saved with a transparent background for later use. Below are three examples of ships that were put together from various parts. You’ll notice that even these are made from “junk” images! I will save making ships for some other time perhaps. The shipyards are currently closed. (You can see the majority of my science fiction imagery here.)