Details and Storytelling in Photomanipulations

About the Author

Book designer and digital artist who helps authors and small publishers make their books look exceptional.

Newest Projects

Photomanipulations, like every other art genre, can be good and bad, more and less eye-catching and impressive. All of us want to reach a wide audience and get other people interested in what we do — it’s the constant daily struggle of an aspiring artist. Too often, though, we are frustrated because our artworks don’t measure up to the standards we set for ourselves. In these moments, looking at images created by other people can sometimes get pretty depressing. How many times did you ask yourself “will I ever be as good as them?”

Throughout the years, I focused mostly on things like colours and atmosphere, slowly building a solid technical foundation for my art. The truth is, you won’t get far without it — which is why it’s incredibly important to know the basics of stuff like composition, lighting and colour theory. After a while, though, I started to feel like there’s something missing in my works, and it took a lot of thinking before I figured out why — my art lacked details. Most of my photomanipulations have some sort of story as a point of inspiration, but sometimes, I lacked the technical skills or simply ideas to tell it in a believable way.

I strongly believe that each image is better if tells some sort of tale — it doesn’t have to be a complicated one, but it’s storytelling that breathes life into static figures and makes the viewer feel drawn in. Details are a way of increasing the feeling of immersion — they can help you make your art feel more cohesive. The point of this article is to show you some tips and tricks related to details and storytelling that I’ve learned through the years I’ve been an artist — some of them come from my own experience, and some are a result of learning from others.


Use light to make certain elements “pop”

A very good way to focus the viewer’s eye on a particular element or part of your image is using lighting to direct their attention. I usually do this at the end of my work process, sometimes building the effect on several layers, with each set to a different layer style.

How does it work? Create an empty layer on the very top of your layer stack, and with a big, soft brush set to low flow and low opacity, gently paint in light and shadow with black and white. To get best results, experiment with colours and layer styles.

Look at the difference it made in one of my own works — “Assault”.



 details and storytelling in photomanipulations marta dec


Selective sharpening

Another way to make some element of your image slightly more visible is slightly sharpening it. This is a slightly dangerous method, because it’s very easy to overdo it. Still, it definitely comes in use in some situations.

How does it work? Use the Sharpen Tool in Photoshop, but be gentle — remember that it’s easy to go overboard!


Reinforcing focal points

This is a piece of advice which is really well described in Dan Dos Santos’s article on composition, which you can read here: (the whole article is full of very good advice, by the way!). The trick is to use small details as parts of composition that lead the viewer’s eye towards your focal point  –  the part you want the viewer to focus on. Here’s another example based on my own work, “Death of a Knight”:


 details and storytelling in photomanipulations marta dec


With this work, I wanted the knight to be in the centre of attention. To lead the eye, I used two methods:

  • Details: As you can see when you look at the arrows, there is a number of small elements pointing towards the center — the snakes, the butterflies, even the ladybugs are turned towards the knight.
  • Border: The blurred, flowery border adds depth of field, makes it seems as if you’re looking at it from a distance, and makes it easier and more natural to focus on the centre of the image.


Add Animals

A really good piece of advice is the one I read a while back in Suzanne Helmigh’s tutorial for her work “Taking Aim”. You can see the tutorial here:

Basically, when you want to add some details, consider the symbolism of animals . Iif your scene takes place in a derelict place, consider adding some rats; if you want to add a feeling of unease, a snake or a spider on the wall might be good idea. These are not things that the viewer will see right away, but they do add a lot to the general mood of the artwork.

Some examples form my own work:


 details and storytelling in photomanipulations marta dec
Rats and butterflies.

 details and storytelling in photomanipulations marta dec
A rat and a dog.


Tilt it!

If you want to add some dynamism to your work, consider tilting it . Even the slightest tip to the horizon line can turn a mundane scene into a cool action shot!

 details and storytelling in photomanipulations marta dec
 details and storytelling in photomanipulations marta dec



Don’t overdo it

The most difficult thing with details is to know when enough is enough. Try asking yourself these questions:

  • What is the most important element of this artwork?
  • What do I want to emphasize most?
  • How do I want to emphasize this?
  • Does the image feel “busy” or rather empty?
  • What can I do to make the story more complete?


What else?

Don’t rush. Remember to work on each detail carefully — it’ll pay off.

Bonus: There is a very good video tutorial explaining storytelling over at CtrlPaint – take a look if you want to find out more about the subject:


Read more: