Alien Landscape

 30-35 min


Ever wanted to create an alien landscape like they do in the movies? In this tutorial, we’ll start with three images—a desert outcrop; a blue planet and a moon. We’ll combine these images and then add our own vector shapes to create a dramatic, but realistic effect.

By the end of this tutorial you will be able to:

You can, of course, apply these techniques to your own images. However, we suggest you use our sample project for this exercise.

To download the tutorial project file(s), right-click the  link(s) and, depending on your browser, select either Save Target As... or Save Link As... In the subsequent dialog, ensure that you choose a suitable file location, such as a 'downloads' folder or the 'desktop', so that you can easily browse to your file when required.



Let’s begin...

To create a layer mask from a selection:

  1. Ensure that the 'planet1' layer is selected and on the Tools toolbar, on the Selection flyout, click the Ellipse Selection Tool.

  2. Click and drag over the planet to create a selection around the planet.

  3. Optional: If you need to adjust the section for a perfect fit, on the Tools toolbar, on the Deform flyout, click the  Selection Deform Tool. Drag the handles to resize the selection.

  4. On the Layers tab, click Add Layer Mask to apply a reveal selection mask. The planet's background is hidden.

    Next, we'll adjust the mask so that only part of the planet is visible.

To adjust a mask:

  1. On the Layers tab, a white bounding box around the mask thumbnail shows that it’s selected.

  2. On the Tools toolbar, on the Fill flyout, select the  Gradient Fill Tool. On the Context toolbar, ensure the gradient type is set to Linear and the colour sample shows a black to white gradient.

  3. The selection should still be active. Click and drag a gradient from just off-centre of the selection towards the edge of the planet (as illustrated by the arrow). If it's not quite right, simply redraw the gradient.

    The gradient is applied when the mouse button is released. Our next job it to resize and position our planet.

To resize a layer and mask:

  1. On the Layers tab, click the 'planet1' layer thumbnail and press Ctrl + D to clear your selection.

  2. On the Tools toolbar, click the  Deform Tool. Then press and hold the Shift key and use one of the corner handles to resize the planet until is less than half of its original size.

    The linked mask is deformed at the same time.

  3. Drag the planet into position next to the mountain.


Let’s complete the effect by adding a halo to the planet using a vector QuickShape.

To create a halo with a vector QuickShape:

  1. On the Layers tab, select the 'Background' layer.

  2. On the Colour tab, set the foreground colour to white.

  3. On the Tools toolbar, on the QuickShapes flyout, click the  Quick Moon.

  4. Click and drag over the planet to create a moon shape. A new shape layer is automatically added to the Layers tab above the 'Background' layer.

  5. Drag the node handle to the right to change the shape.

  6. On the Tools toolbar, click the  Deform Tool.

  7. Drag the handles to resize the shape if necessary, then drag next  to a corner handle to rotate the shape approximately 45° anti-clockwise. (You may need to reposition the shape after rotating it.)

  8. On the Layers tab, reduce the Opacity of the layer to 70%.

    The intensity of the shape is reduced but the edges are still very hard.

    To correct this, we can use a mask. Before we can do this, we must rasterize (flatten) the shape layer.

  9. On the Layers tab, right-click 'Layer 1' and click Rasterize.

    The shape thumbnail and the “S” marker disappear. We can now add a layer mask

  10. On the Layers tab, press the Alt key and click Add Layer Mask to apply a hide all mask.

  11. On the Colour tab, set the foreground colour to white and on the Tools toolbar, click the  Paintbrush Tool.

  12. Select a soft-edged brush and set the Size to around 25 pix and the Opacity to 20%.

  13. With the mask thumbnail selected, paint over the planet to gradually reveal part of the QuickShape ‘halo’ beneath.

  14. To build up the intensity of the white area, paint over the same area of the mask. (You can always adjust the opacity of the brush or paint over any mistakes or hard edges with black until you get the effect you want.)

Your first planet is complete! The next step is to add a second planet to the sky. Simply follow the steps above to complete the effect with the 'planet2' layer.


We’re almost there. However, before we finish, we’ll show you a neat trick to quickly increase the colour saturation in an image.

To increase the colour saturation using an overlay blend mode:

  1. On the Layers tab, right-click the Background layer and click Duplicate...

  2. In the dialog, click OK to accept the default settings.

  3. Drag the Background copy layer to the top of the layer stack and set the blend mode to Soft Light.

Immediately the colours pop out and you’re left with a fantastic image of another world! (For an even more intense effect, try the Overlay blend mode!)

Hopefully you’ve enjoyed this tutorial. It will have helped you to improve your skills with one of the most useful tools in your image editing armoury—layer masks.

We'll leave you with a couple more examples that we created using two 'real' photos combined with our planet images that you've just used. These alien landscapes have been created using the same techniques outlined here, along with the Dodge and Burn tools and several adjustment layers. You can find out how to use these in many of the other tutorials.

Peel Castle, Isle of Man

Poulnabrone (Portal Tomb), Ireland