In this article, I'm going to show you some tricks that you can do with most graphics programs. I will be using Paint Shop Pro (PSP...version 7, because 8 is buggy and 9 is too slow). But you can do these same kinds of things with other graphics programs like Macromedia Fireworks, Adobe PhotoShop and probably Corel Draw, just to name a few.
If you've never used the more advanced features in the graphics program(s) you have, use this article as the push you need to get excited about the possibilities and experiment with the program's features. Read the help files, search the web for additional tutorials (which will probably give you more indepth instructions, since it's been awhile since I did this type of work regularly, so I'm a bit rusty<smile>) or join a graphics group and have fun learning.
We'll start with a simple sunset image.
Most graphics programs will provide you with a few masks that you can use to transform your images. But check the web. There are lots of graphics groups where talented artists enjoy sharing their own creations. Over the years, I've collected several. A mask allows parts of an underlying image to show through...in the design the mask displays. Black covers the image and white shows it through. And then there are levels of gray that let levels of the image display through the grays. Check the web, you'll find things you can do with masks that are much more exciting than my little samples here.
In PSP, you can hit Ctrl + B to Browse your images, including masks. Here's the one I'll use.
To make this easier to understand, I'm going to reverse the coloring in the mask so the majority of the area is white. To do this I open the mask and click Color > Negative. Now the black and white areas are reversed.
When you see this mask against a transparent background, you get an idea of how it will look. I need to save this new version as it's own mask. In PSP I click Mask > New > From Image to convert it to a mask file. Then I need to save it by clicking Mask > Save to Disk and I give it a name.
I can now use this new mask to layer over my sunset image. The image will show through the mask, at various levels of intensity, depending on how dark the area in the mask displays. Since the center is white, the majority of the image shows through the center.
Since I'll want to export this image out with a transparent background, I'll add a new layer to serve as my transparent layer. I click Layer > New Raster Layer. A raster (or bitmap) image is made of pixels, a vector is made of lines and curves. If you need more details about these terms, go to Google and enter define: bitmap (or whatever you want a definition for).
As you can see, I now have two layers in my image. One layer is a transparent background, the other is my masked image.
In order to work with this one image as a whole, I need to merge the layers. I choose to Merge Visible to keep the layers somewhat separate.
If I were to choose to Merge All (Flatten), my background will take on the color I currently have selected as the background color. Grahics programs set two colors as defaults.You'll have your background color and your foreground color. My background is currently white. So when I flatten my layers, the background turns white. Now this might be fine if you plan to use this image on a white page. But if your page has color, you'll want the background to remain transparent so you won't have a square blob on your page, but rather an image that seems to rise off the page.
And to further add to the rising illusion, we'll add a shadow. In PSP, I can click Effects > 3D and choose a Drop Shadow. Most all graphics programs have some type of shadow features, since that's a common action used in graphics programs...particularly for text.
Now I've done a somewhat quick and lousy shadow example here. But experiment, I'm sure you can do better.
Also here's a tip. If you don't know what a slider will do to change the image, don't just nudge it a bit. Slide that puppy from one extreme to another. That will give you a much faster idea of what each one will do to change your image. Once you understand the sliders affects on your image a bit better...then you can nudge it to get it just right.
Well, its not too bad for a quickie.
Now you'll want to export the image out as a .gif file to retain the transparency. Most graphics programs provide various ways to save or export out files. Experiment here, too. If you don't understand what all this stuff does, PSP provides a Wizard (at the bottom of this dialog box) that asks you questions related to what you plan to do with the image and then provides the best settings for that use. Play around with the transparency feature and save out several copies until you learn what settings work best for you.
Okay, so it's not my best work, but it provides you with an idea of what can be done. Here I've placed the image on a blue page and you can see that it provides a better look than if I had a big white, square picture planted on the blue page. (Even if I did do a rotten job of shadowing this version.)
But as you can see in the image below, if I'm using a white background, it doesn't look too bad. And by adding a little shadow text, it's not a bad looking image. Much more interesting than the original rectangle images.
Here's another sample of one I did with a little better shading. Again, an image edge mask was used to give this picture a torn look. And the shadow gives it a little depth so it doesn't look flat against the page.
Here's another. A heart mask is dropped on another sunset and a slightly softer gray is used to add a shadow.
Have fun and experiment. It's really pretty easy to drop masks over your favorite pictures and add a little shadow effect to have the image jump off the page. And masked images are more interesting than plain ol' square photos.