SF Photo Collage Instructions

Making a Collage the Easy Way -- Smart Layers -- CS2 and later

There is a simpler version for earlier versions of Photoshop, but this one allows resizing images without losing resolution.

Prepare your Images

First - prepare the set of images you intend to use. The size and resolution will depend on your intended use - smaller and lower resolution for web use and standard page size prints, larger and higher resolution for larger prints. There is no built-in limit to the number of images, but more than 7 or 8 can look pretty cluttered, will require very small versions, and makes a very large file.

Bring your Images into Photoshop

Open Photoshop CS2 or later (PS). Use File>Open to get your images into PS. Note that you can select multiple images by using the 'Ctrl' key as you click. If you use Bridge, Select All>Open Images will open them. You can also drag your images from a folder to the PS window.

  • If the Action Palette is not visible use Window>Actions (Alt-F9) to display it.
  • If the Tools Palette is not visible use Window>Tools to display it.
  • If the Layers Palette is not visible use Windows>Layers to display it.

Create Collage File

Select 'Before You Start' and click the go triangle at the bottom of the palette. Review the suggestions and click 'Continue'. Read the second message and click 'Continue'.

Select the top image, click the Color Picker on the Tool Palette and select a background color. This will be the background color for your palette. Note that you can change it later.

Select one of the 'Start Collage' actions and click the go triangle. The 'auto' version requires no input from you. The 'at specific size' version can be used instead if you want to specify the size and resolution of the collage. Note the Message to 'Load Image' and click 'Stop'.

Add Images to Collage

For each image, select one of the 'Load Image' actions and click the go triangle. Note that each image will be loaded into the main document as a smart object, and the original file will be deleted from PS. The 'auto' version requires no input from you. The 'Load Image and Name Layer' version can be used instead if you want to name the layers as you load the images.

Continue clicking the go triangle until all of the original images are gone and you are left with a single image. It will have a separate smart layer for each image opened, and a blank background layer.

Note: in CS2, you may see an error after the last image is loaded: "The object 'Previous Document' is not available." This is ok: it happens because of a difference in how CS2 and CS3 handle documents. Just click "Continue."

Rearrange and Adjust Images

From the Tools palette, select the 'Move Tool' (v). Ctrl-Click the top image to select it, and then click and drag it to a convenient place on the background. Do the same with each image in turn until you have them spread out and all visible. Note that you can select an image by clicking on its layer in the Layer Palette.

At need you can Enlarge the Background, Rotate the Current Layer, or Flip the Current Layer by selecting the image or layer, selecting the action, and clicking the go triangle.

To resize an individual image, select it, select Resize Current Layer, and click the go triangle. Note the Message and click 'Continue'. Note the handles around the selected image. Be sure to use one of the corner handles so the aspect ratio will be maintained. Double click the image to finalize the resizing.

A note about Smart Objects

This version of the actions uses Photoshop's "Smart Objects" for the collage images. Running the actions that rotate and resize the layer images affects only the way they are displayed, not the actual images. Because of this, you can make a layer image very small, and later make it large again with no loss of quality.

The downside of Smart Objects is that because they retain all the original image information, they make the file size larger. Because of this, if you intend to make one of the images in a collage fairly small, you might not want to load it into the collage in the high-resolution version produced by the camera. If you resize your images to somewhere near the size you want them to be before adding them to the collage, the file will be smaller, and Photoshop will run faster. For instance, if you want to create a collage of approximately 5x7 images, downsize them to a little larger than 5x7 before loading them into the collage. This will leave you leeway to resize them, but will keep the file size smaller.

If you want to edit the image itself after it has been added to the collage, you can select the layer and run the "Edit Current Layer" action, which will open up the smart object for you. Changes you make this way are more permanent: if you make an image really small, it will lose information.

To make one of the images a background image go to the Layers Palette. Select the layer containing the desired image and click-drag it to just above the background layer. Note that the background layer is locked so you can't put your image layer below it. Select the image, select Resize Current Layer, and click the go triangle. Read the Message and click 'Continue'. Click the corner handles and size the image as necessary. Since the image is the 'next to bottom' layer, all of the other images will appear 'on' it.

To change the way images overlap each other

In the Photoshop "Layers" Window, you can click a layer and drag it higher or lower in the list to change the order. Layers at the top of the list overlap layers at the bottom. The Layers window is usually at the right side of the Photoshop window. If the Layers window isn't visible, you can show it by choosing "Window" from the main Photoshop window, and then clicking "Layers" to put a checkmark in front of it.

Complete Your Collage

To complete your collage, use the Move Tool (v) and Ctrl-Click the other images to move them as your artistic sense dictates. Use the Resize Current Layer as above to get the sized and relationships you desire. Note that once an image is selected, a simple click and drag can be used to move it.

If your background image does not cover the entire background, you may want to change the background color. Use the Color Picker on the Tools Palette to select your desired background color - use the background, lower icon. Select 'Change Background Color' and click the go triangle. Note the Message and click 'Continue'.

If you are so inclined, you can add drop shadows and borders to individual images using the Action Menu items available by selecting the item and clicking the Go triangle.

NOTE: The collage is a normal PS image. Once you have completed the Collage tool actions, the image can be manipulated as you please with your standard workflow - add a frame, convert to BW, ETC. I hope you enjoy it as much as I do.

Have questions?

Check the FAQ

Using Masking on Collage Layers

For certain kinds of images, you may prefer that only the main subject shows in the collage. For example, look at the images below.

Some layers show as rectangles

Edges removed using masking

Collage with some layers showing as rectangles After using masking to remove edges.

If you'd like to see how we did this, we have detailed instructions.

Ron's Big Football Collage

Ron Donson used our collage action to create the collage he's holding here.

Ron holding his printed collage
Here's how he described his procedure:
  1. Setup: all images in the collage were 8 or 12 megapixel images in JPEG. RAW files or TIFFs just ate RAM like it was going out of style.

  2. First I added the background image to the collage. It was a 12 MP 2:3 landscape image so that would be the base. Qimage handles upsizing that to 24x36 without breaking a sweat.

  3. After the background I added one image at a time - resizing it, putting a border and drop shadow on it and then positioning it.

  4. I periodically saved all the layers.

  5. The final PSD with all the layers is 409 MB. It behaved well on my machine.

  6. I created a flattened TIFF for the print and it was only 55 MB.

  7. I'm pleased with how it turned out. Adding one image at a time turned out to be much easier to keep track of. Labeling all the layers was a great boon once you get that many layers and you're fine tuning the positioning.

    Thanks again for the action. Its a huge time and money saver for me.

The final results:

Ron's football collage

Creating a Uni-Mat (Version 2.0 and later)

If you want all of your images to appear as cutouts in a single large mat, the Uni-mat actions will do that.
  1. Follow the instructions above to load, size, and position your images in your collage. Save a copy of your collage file.

  2. When you have your images positioned, you can either select them manually using the Rectangular or Elliptical Marquee Tool, or you can do it automatically by running the "SelectCollage" action.

    If you use one of the Marquee Tools, set "Feather" to 0 and check "anti-alias" if available first.

    Here's what our collage looks like after running "SelectCollage."

    After running the SelectCollage action

  3. You can alter the selection manually, if you want, using the Rectangular or Elliptical Marquee Tool. If you use one of the Marquee Tools, set "Feather" to 0 and check "anti-alias" if available first.

    Here we decided to change the selection around the upper-right image to an oval.

    After changing one selection to an oval

  4. The next step is to run one of the Uni-Mat actions, and then crop the image to your liking. Here is our finished collage, after running the "Uni-Mat Web" action.

    You can optionally frame the matted collage with any frame action you have.

    After running the Uni-Mat Web action