Painting over photographs using 3D models

I’ve been working on a series of photo illustrations using my not-so-good photos from Mono Lake tufas. They are the photos that aren’t strong enough for a portfolio, but have something about the composition that I wanted to rescue, and that had a sense of scale and form that reminds me of ancient ruins.

I’m not done with the series yet, but I want to share my process. I use a mix of photo collage (replacing skies with other photos I’ve taken, for example), painting by hand, and 3D renders. Here’s how I do it:

1. I start with a photo that has potential, but is not quite there for me. In this case, I liked the shapes, they reminded me of obelisks, so I went with an Assyrian theme. I also thought that snow for a desert theme would be an interesting contrast. I develop the image in Lightroom as usual, just minimal basic touches.

2. In Maya, I place and scale cubes in a general idea of what the scene looks like, making sure I’m using depth properly too. I make the cubes semi-transparent.

3. I match my camera focal length in Maya to my original photo. Then I tumble the camera around until the angle roughly matches my photo. The vertical tilt is the most important, matching the convergence to the up axis really makes a difference.

4. I add an image plane to the camera with the original photo, set to 50% opacity, so that I can line up all the blocks very clearly. Once The alignment is close enough, I make sure to lock the camera so that I won’t touch it ever again by mistake.

5. I download a lot of free 3D scans from sites such as, and I download a ton, everything I can because I’m not sure what I will want to use or not yet, but I make sure they match the theme and time period I’m looking for.

6. I import these (usually STLs) into Maya and do some cleanup. Normal process is: rotate/scale, merge vertices, mesh cleanup, reduce (they are way too dense usually), delete parts I don’t care about, and apply a 3D noise material that looks like rock.

7. The fun begins! I love finding shapes that remind me of other shapes, and puzzling everything together. I try to think about the space, what it would’ve been, what I want to feature and how I can make it fit in the context of the original photo. Sometimes I need something to balance the composition, such as making the pillar on the right side much larger, so I scale them but try not to overdo it. For this series I want to keep the original compositions, otherwise I’d go nuts and add a lot more elements.

8. I add some lights that roughly match the original photo, mostly directional lights, and some point lights with which I take some liberties to highlight certain areas that otherwise would lack contrast. I do a quick hardware render at full size (6400x4267) with antialias, ambient occlusion, and alpha channel. I found that a fancy render is not needed, as these will not need much detail later, they will pick up the detail from the underlying layer of rocks and snow. Then I bring the renders into Photoshop.

9. I position the renders in Photoshop carefully, and I rough them up a bit (a bit of blur, break some chunks off, etc). Then I make a selection from that render layer (Cmnd+Click on layer thumbnail) and I start using the clone stamp tool over the original photo, within the new selection, to add the chunks of rock that have changed the silhouette. Then I invert selection and do the same when I want to paint sky in the opposite side. I also clean up weird holes and shapes that are distracting here. I removed all the plants from this one since they gave away the real scale of the area, and I wanted it to feel much bigger.

10. I change the blending mode of the renders to Hard Light, and use Levels to control how bright and dark things are. By reducing contrast, I reduce the effect. I prefer using levels to opacity since I can control lights and darks and midtones separately. I also mask parts out, blur some things, use dodge/burn, whatever is needed to integrate the parts better. I tend to do these in parts, only one major structure at a time so I can focus on it, then later merge them all back into one layer when done.

11. Since I have all these layers split already, I can easily make a selection from them and I use that to paint a black and white depth map. I use that as a mask for a layer with the sky color, making the distant object recede a lot more. Haze is one of the main tools I have to cheat the scale, so I abuse it.

12. I add a lot of light effects, glows and highlights (usually layers in Linear Dodge/Add mode), sometimes I add cast shadows (layers in Multiply mode), and all sorts of noisy effects like snow and dust that hide my mistakes. To get the color, I usually create a LUT (Layers > New Adjustment Layer > Color Lookup), try out all the presets, and then try changing its opacity and blending mode from Normal to Overlay or anything else, just to see the effect. Once I find the mood, I add more LUTs, mix them up, find a combination that pushes what I like, and then tone it down by painting a mask for the LUTs with soft brushes. I also add Levels and Curves layers to increase contrast where I want.

And that’s it! It’s a complicated process, but I enjoy mixing 2D painting, 3D, and photography all in one. I’ll keep working on a few more images for this series.

Glowworms in Australia

Last year we did a south-east Australia roadtrip. One of the highlights for me was visiting a few of the glowworm areas deep in the night: at Melba Gully (Great Otway National Park) and at the Glowworm Cave (Wollemi National Park).


I became fascinated by the miniature cosmos these creatures create, a humble echo of the magnificent Milky Way you could see by staring up through the tall jungle canopy.


The glowworms (Arachnocampa richardsae) are fly larvae from a fungus gnat of the Keroplatidae family. This species is tiny, the worm about 1 cm, the gooey web cave they build around 3 cm wide.

The larvae build a structure composed of a horizontal mucous tube suspended by a network of threads attached to rocks, bark or soil. They build snares, much like spiderwebs, decorated by sticky droplets that glow in the blue light emitted by their tails, attracting small insects.


There are multiple locations in Australia and New Zealand to see glowworms. What I liked about Melba Gully, more than anything, was being out in the middle of a forest walk instead of inside a cave. We even spotted a platypus in the wild, hunting in one of the creeks.

I named this series after combinations of biological and cosmological terms, trying to bridge that gap between the micro and macro worlds.

Here is the full series, after clicking on any image, use the arrow keys to navigate through them.