Friday, August 7, 2009

How to create a triptych in Photoshop or Elements

Triptychs date back to the Middle Ages, but that doesn't mean that creating one should be a years-long quest.

I perused a few forums and here are some of the suggestions for making triptychs:
  • use a program that does collages for you (such as Picasa)
  • use an action (from some action site or other)
  • use the Photoshop picture package option
  • print your photos and physically cut and paste
Any of those suggestions will work, but I wouldn't choose them because:
  • I'm a control freak and I really like Photoshop.
  • Most actions aren't very flexible and I don't want to download, install, and try out a dozen just to find one that suits my needs (especially when triptychs are so easy to make).
  • "Picture packages" make me think of school pictures—and that's never good.
  • I don't like getting glue on my hands.
So why not learn a few basic Photoshop tricks that will help you with any type of photo collage? Don't answer that. Just a rhetorical question. Read on...

The tutorial
To make a triptych (or diptych or polyptych or...) you need only do a few things:
  1. Choose your photo(s).
  2. Choose the size of your triptych and of each section.
  3. Put the photos on one digital canvas.
  4. Add a border. Or don't. Whatever works for you.
I will leave step 1 and most of step 2 up to you. Step 3 is almost embarrassingly easy, and I will give you several ways to do step 4. Once you do this, you, too, can be a control freak who lazily shuns actions, mocks picture packages, and never touches a bottle of glue.

Part 1: Choose your photos
Hey! I said I wasn't going to do this part, but since we're on the subject, here are a few things to consider: Do you want one photo broken into three parts? Three separate photos? Do you want your photos to tell a story or to have a different connection? Do you want to use color, black and white, or a combination of the two? You decide.

Part 2: Choose the size of your triptych and the size of each section.
You can either decide in advance what size your finished triptych will be and then make the photos fit, or you can decide the ideal size of each part and then make the canvas fit. In either case, you will:

a. create a blank canvas,
b. probably do some cropping, and
c. drag photos onto the canvas.

a. create a blank canvas
I prefer to make the blank canvas first and then crop the photos to fit it. Why? Because I want my finished product to correspond to a certain print size (such as a panoramic frame).

Let's pretend I just bought this panoramic frame from Target (which I didn't because it's $69):
It fits a 4 x 11 inch photo, which means that I will want to create blank photoshop document that measures 4 x 11.

Whether you're in Elements or Photoshop, all you have to do is create a new document (at 300 dpi) with those measurements:

b. do some cropping (if necessary)

Open the photos you want to use in your triptych:
If I want the three photos distributed evenly across my 4 x 11 inch canvas, they will each need to be 4 inches high and 3.67 (or better yet, 3.6666666) inches wide—definitely NOT a standard size.

So we crop...

Select the crop tool (c) and enter the proper width, height, and resolution in the toolbar at the top. You can now crop each photo (click and drag, then hit return when you like what you see) in preparation for your penultimate step!

c. (the embarrassingly easy step): Put the photos onto the digital canvas.
Your one obstacle to moving the photos to your blank canvas is that annoying little lock on your background layer:
To get rid of it, double click on the thumbnail-sized photo in the layers palette. This will bring up a dialog box:
Don't even worry about renaming it. Just click "OK" and now you are free from the shackles of the insidious lock.

Now you can use the move tool (v) to drag each photo onto the canvas. With the move tool selected, just click on the photo you want to move and drag it onto your triptych canvas.

Repeat with your other photos, dragging each into position with the move tool. Each photo you drag will be on its own layer. To change the order of the photos, make sure the proper layer is active.

Now you have a triptych on your canvas!

You could flatten and save your new triptych right now OR you could keep those layers (i.e. don't flatten yet) and add a nice border.

Part 4: Add a border
This step is optional, but I usually prefer at least a small border. There are several ways to do this, but I will use the "stroke"—a word which here means "border" and should in no way make those of you who are old enough to remember Billy Squire burst into song. Some things are best left to drunken karaoke.

Option 1: the stroke
This works differently in Elements and in Photoshop, so I will show you the Elements way first and then note this Photoshop differences at the end:


Select the photo to which you want to add a border. Then, in the top menu, choose Edit-->Stroke:
You will then see a dialog box like this:

You can now choose:
a width for your outline (I used 10 pixels in this case),
a color (click on the box and bring up a color picker. If you drag outside of the box you will see an eyedropper tool that lets you sample a color from your image. I sample his shirt, for example.),
a location (center, which means that half the line is inside and half is outside the photo.), and
opacity (100% for solid; less for a more subtle look)

BUT WAIT! There's a catch. If you apply a stroke to the center of each photo, the lines in the middle are perfect, but everywhere else you are losing half of your stroke off the edge of the canvas (i.e. you are only getting the half on the inside):

Luckily, there's an easy fix. Select your three picture layers (you can leave the background layer alone) and then click the little arrows at the top right of your layers palette to get this menu:
Select merge layers. Now you can add a stroke all around your image (remember to select "inside" from the stroke dialog box), and everything will be perfect (Although my example is admittedly thin and hard to see on screen here).

Same principles as above, except you will be doing the strokes as layer styles.
Double click on the thumbnail photo in a layer to bring up the layer style box:

Make sure that "stroke" is both checked and selected (i.e. highlighted). You can then set the width, position, and color of your stroke. Just so you can see the results better, I chose 25 pixels, center, and red.

Click OK, and then either repeat the process, or copy and paste the layer style by right-clicking in the layer.

When finished, you will merge the three layers and repeat the stroke—but on the inside—for an evenly framed triptych.

You can use the same principles for any photo that needs a border and for any kind of collage. Don't feel like you have to make the photos the same size. Experiment with proportion and with horizontal and vertical layout.

Try it out, and when you do, share your results by linking back in the comments section of the Monthly Special.


Jon and Amy Duvall said...

So... when are you coming out with a book? Because I'm totally ready to buy it. I love how you explain the basics, adding humor, and plain and simple. Thanks!

Eddie said...

This was great. Im definitely going to try this

Anonymous said...

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michelle said...

Cool! I have been wanting to know how to use the stroke feature.

I love these photos, too. So Lucas. The expressions, the unbuttoned cuffs...

michaela said...

doesn't look like anyone is having problems with this triptych project. instead of bugging marc personally, I am posting my question here in case someone else has this question or an answer: what do you do in Elements if the Stroke option under the Edit menu is not highlighted?
I tried the triptych several times, read the Help section; the feature seems to be fickle: it shows up for one photo but not for the others, then not at all. I am too much of an ignoramous to know what to do next. help!

A daydreamer in an overachiever's world. said...

Great information - definitely the clearest and most comprehensive tutorial I've found. Thanks!

Harvnd said...

The vigor of a religious tripticht beez for the valuing of either side justifrightening the viewer to stand as witness of the center (for it is usually a sharper, clearer declaration of subject, and taller for emphasis), thus to liken them (sides) as a witness to the centricity of life as declared by major area for schematic approvals.

HereIn I declare the use of the tripticht not unholy even as a simpler declaring of a /The familial membridge that makes a joke with himself to support a love for another by enticing him to represent a theme for himself... to deBach or deBate or en' to merely LOVE by projecting the imagery aloft and fortifying it at the sides with lesser dignity than the first.

And that's MY piece for peacing a topic concentrically gnarpht.

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Unknown said...

This was by far the best explanation available online, and really fun to read. Thanks so much for taking the time to do it!

Victoryperfect said...

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Canvas Prints From Photos

Gamer Guy said...

FINALLY! I've been wanting to learn how to do this but just could NOT wrap my head around the steps in other tutorials I've tried. Look out world! Triptycks activated LOL

Rebecca said...

Thank you so much for this post! It is very informative and VERY helpful! I am super excited to make triptychs and other variations of them. Now I am going to have to spend some time on your blog to find see what other good things you have to teach! Thanks!

B said...


How you can make the same thing... but with only ONE photo?

Thank you.

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