How to Create an Apocalyptic Scene in Photoshop

In this Photoshop Tutorial, I will show you how I created apocalyptic scene using various stock photos in Adobe Photoshop CS5, with a little help of Adobe Lightroom 4.

This tutorial is written exclusively for PSD Vault by Olga Dabrowska.

In this Photoshop Tutorial, I will show you how I created apocalyptic scene using various stock photos in Adobe Photoshop CS5, with a little help of Adobe Lightroom 4.

I will not explain basic actions used here so it is meant for intermediate to advanced PS users. Most of steps for this walkthrough use basic skills like cutting out objects from background, changing colors and using gradient fills, scaling, transforming etc. As every artist has their own method for these, I am showing overall workflow to create such scene.

Final Image Preview: (Click to Enlarge)

To complete this tutorial, you will need the following stocks:




Step 1 – MODEL

For this scene I needed modern looking model and while browsing through huge stock gallery at I found this wonderful shot of a girl that perfectly suited my needs.

The pose shows worrying, fear, uncertainty and these we need to create a vision of end of the world. While cutting out model I always copy background of the photo [Ctrl+J] and insert new layer between background and copy, filled with 50% grey. This lets me see mistakes at the edges. As said, I won’t go into details of cutting, I used Pen Tool to select the model, created selection based on the path, inverted selection and hit [Ctrl+X].

I didn’t worry about the hair as I repainted it completely. There are many ready made hair brushes in the internet but I prefer to paint it from scratch, using model hair as base so best for me are any spatter brushes, their opacity and size set to pen pressure.

Of course, I am using tablet. Here is model after level adjustments (to make more contrast), color balance (set to show more saturation) and painted hair. Ready to be pasted in the background that is yet to be created.


Creating background from many photos is exciting and fun work. Let’s make new document 3000x4000px 300dpi and start pasting roughly your chosen photos.

Set your light direction at this moment! I used part of background with stones to make nice base for the model, photo of Shanghai that had just the perfect perspective and several photos of various skies. Sky layers are below all layers and every time I wanted to remove part of the sky to preserve interesting cloud or another area, I used layer mask to be able to restore parts should I change my mind.

Top part of Shanghai photo has been erased, as well as sky. Sky photo has been put in Overlay mode with opacity around 70-80%, this created nice lighting right away.

Always try to play with layer modes when you work with sky – some photos can be used partially and some can be used as a whole in various modes only to create good light, like in this case.

As photos have different coloring and they need to be blended well, I adjusted levels and color balance for each new layer and at the end used gradient fill layer [Layer-New Fill Layer- Gradient Fill] and used warm yellow color with linear gradient put on top of all background layers. During my workflow I use many gradient fills with low opacity and colors picked from the image to unify photographs I use.

The result, after playing with opacity and layer mode of gradient fill that in the end was put in Soft Light mode.

Side note: get friendly with layer masks and adjustment layers. They let you modify just about any aspect of the layer and get back to original state should you change your mind. But warning – they make huge psd files!


Simply copy-paste your model on top of background layers but below last gradient fill (the yellow one). The model instantly gets warmer coloring but still looks bad, we’ll work on that later.

For now we need to make her stand on the ground rather than float so create layer mask and with soft brush, black color, make parts of boots invisible.

If too much, invert colors hitting X and paint with white, revealing boots. When you’re satisfied, create new layer below the model and paint shadows with soft brush, dark warm brown color picked from the ground on which the model is standing. Put the layer in Soft Light mode, copy if too light and lower opacity of this copy. Now the model is standing.


The model has colder colors than background and since we decided on light coming from left, slightly from top, we are going to do two things with one layer: change colors to warm without touching their hue and create instant correct lighting on the model.

To do this, create new layer with clipping mask above the layer and paint with mid-brown color on the right side of the model. Use some texture brush for variety, soft brush would make for a dull effect. Set this layer to Soft Light and play with opacity – we want to make the model lit and warmly colored, not too dark. Below comparison of layer effect – normal mode on the left, soft light on the right.

Step 5 – SKULL

Adding little elements makes for a nice effect of variety so I took the skull, cut out, pasted and scaled down referencing the model’s head to keep realism.

Blending: layer below skull painted with dark brown, used Motion Blur with some low number and angle to make it more real. Then applied my favourite gradient fill (remember to make clipping mask based on skull layer) with cold color from blue-green palette. Direction of linear gradient must follow light direction of whole image so shadows will be obviously on the right (gradient fading to top left). Set it to Soft Light and done.

Why I used blue/green? Because it’s opposite to browns and oranges on color wheel and using complimentary colors creates instant „right” look. Try it! It’s my old rule from painting years – shadows are cold when lights are warm and the other way.


Time to make some interesting foreground. I decided to add dry bushes to increase the vision of apocalypse. 3D rendered bushes are just fine and easy to use. Copied and pasted them in various combinations on top of all layers (below main gradient fill again, just like with the model) and adjusted their colors with Levels, Hue-Saturation and Gradient Fills (each bush has it’s own adjustment layers set for easy control of end effect).

To create a little depth of field and make overall image less flat, I used Gaussian Blur on bushes layers (you can merge them in one if you’re happy with your adjustments), using approx. 6 px radius.


To boost lighting on our model, create new layer with clipping mask above model layer and paint with soft brush and warm yellow color areas hit by light like edges of legs, arm, bridge of nose. Shown below layer effect – normal mode and Soft Light with opacity set to 50%. It gives more reality.


Usually figures in photomanipulations look pasted no matter how you match colors etc. but here’s little trick that makes wonders in a matter of seconds and allows to create convincing look of unified image. Select model layer, copy it with [Ctrl+J] and put copy under original.

Adjust Hue-Saturation to make this copy pure white and set it to Soft Light or Overlay, whichever looks better. What we aim for here is making gentle glow around the model that normally appears on photographs because of the light scattered around. Below – white layer with added Gaussian Blur that I highly recommend for this step. Radius approx. 30-40 depending on the size of your document, make it blurred but not too much.


Carefully place various burst and smoke/fire effects on layer above background layers. Remember that yellow/orange/red elements need balancing with cold blue/grey smoke. Work zoomed out to see how it looks like and position your layers for best balance. It takes time. What helps is flipping image horizontally every once in a while to see it with fresh eye.

As the background is not in focus of this image naturally, I blurred all added elements with Gaussian Blur with small radius. I also added new layer above city layer and with texture brush and warm midbrown color added some texture imitating decay to the buildings. Layer is set to Soft Light with opacity 90%. Below – normal mode to show where I painted texture.

Close-up of destruction elements below. Some of them can be put in Overlay mode to enhance saturation or Multiply to mute effect, all you need is playing with these settings and adjust opacity/mode to your liking.

Step 9 – F16 HORNET

Small element that will add more war feeling to our apocalyptic image. Hornet has been cut using pen tool and placed in main document, scaled down and rotated a bit. Fire has been added to engines, just small but useful element.

It is also advised to add new gradient fill layer to the hornet to match instantly color and lighting, in this case it is dark warm brown linear gradient set to Soft Light and direction set to fade towards light direction in the image. It also blends element into background.


Often I get back to various elements of the photomanipulation during the work, adjusting them until I’m happy with the result and in this case I noticed that model is still looking a bit flat.

To get rid of this effect I added new layer with clipping mask to the model layer and with texture brush and midbrown warm color, painted areas on the right side of the model and in areas hidden in shadow. Set this layer to Overlay and as a result I have now nice contrast and enhanced lighting effect, making the model look more 3D and blended better. Notice how the glow layer below works for the  overall effect.

Also bottom part needed to be reworked a bit, I took advantage of layer mask left on the model layer and revealed a little more of the boots, darkened them with Burn tool and also added new layer below the model to paint on shadows on the ground. Shadow layer has been blurred with Motion Blur as previously and set to Soft Light. Now the model is really standing firmly on the ground.


After checking and finally adjusting all layers here is final result ready to be textured:

Below used textures along with their layer modes and opacity. I always use several textures and lower opacities, erasing some areas too. In this case I chose textures adding more decay effect. They are mostly in blue shades because blue is complimentary to orange that overwhelms the image and it needs to be balanced.

Note: try to choose textures that already have nicely placed lighting, matching lighting in your image.

Below comparison of the image before texturing and after applying 4 textures in various layer modes. One of textures added nice pseudo-lightning effects on the right.


This step is not mandatory, you can do these adjustments in Photoshop itself but I prefer to use Lightroom for its better ability to control subtle differences in colors, shades and overal toning of the image.

First copy all merged layers by hitting [Ctrl+Shift+Alt+E]. It’s best to do it with very top layer selected. Now [Ctrl+A], [CTRL+X], [Ctrl+N], [Ctrl+V] – and flatten resulting document. Save as high quality jpg. Open up Lightroom and import your flattened image.

Hit Develop and adjust Hue/Saturation, Tone and Presence sliders to bring out more blue tones in the image.  Here’s my result:

Note: if you can’t use Lightroom you can do this in Photoshop with your merged layer on top of all, adjusting Color Balance, Levels and Hue/Saturation as well as Exposure. I recommend using adjustment layers for this step, with clipping masks of course.


As you can see, after Lightroom adjustments image looks much more interesting and it’s because we have complimentary colors in just the right areas – warm, vividly orange bursts and navy blue sky in colder palette. But this is a bit too obvious to my liking so after pasting edited image on top of my main document, I lower its opacity a little, just this bit to still see blue/orange contrast, in this case 50% did just fine.

If you feel like doing this, you can adjust Levels or Curves to bring more lights, Exposure adjustment layer also works for this step.

And if you’re happy – flatten document and you’re done!

Thanks for reading my walkthrough. I hope it is useful and inspirational to you. If you have any question, please leave me a comment below!

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