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Visually appealing presentations are key to success for designers. Whether your goal is to convince a client or to stand out on a portfolio-like website, the viewer's first impression has great impact. While many design areas are oriented towards creating "flat" image files for web or print use, those can become boring to look at and easily disregarded when shown next to other designs.
This is where mockups come in handy, demonstrating the real-life appearance of a design in its particular application area. In other words, they help the viewer to visualize how the image would look like applied to a real world product. The following examples make use of this concept:
Admittedly, some of the examples might just be photographed with the designs already on them. With the term 'mockup', people often refer to editable templates with easily replaceable design. This article will explain the creation process of such a mockup template, in form of an editable Photoshop document (PSD). The final result is available as a freebie.
Getting a base image to build on
In general, the image underlying a mockup is either photographed or digitally created, usually with 3D software. This part is probably the most challenging but also the most creative one. Of course you could take the shortcut by simply resorting to stock images, however for commercializing, you'd be better off assembling your own image.
I've listed pros and cons showing some of the characteristics of either method:
Digital Image (3D Software)
- No resolution limits
- Any perspective (or isometric view)
- Easier light control
- "Perfect" objects (no dust, scratches, ...)
- File with full scene information
- Export options (shadow and object separately)
- Time consuming (object modelling)
- Less realistic
- Faster results / mass production
- Quickly assemble a scene with your hands
- Not sitting at your desk once in a while
- Equipment needed (camera, lights, tripod, ...)
- Limited to real objects (u might need to buy)
- Limited to laws of physics
- More retouching needed (dust etc)
Choosing an approach also heavily depends on your knowledge and skill in the respective field of course. Despite giving similar results, both techniques still have their own look which might be preferable for certain situations. You've probably seen 3D models in tech presentations, giving a perfect and clean look of the product. If you want photorealism instead - well, the name says it - then taking a photo is certainly the best approach.
Equally to all my mockups, the base image for the mockup of this guide is created from a photo.
Photographing the mockup scene
This chapter isn't meant to be a tutorial on product photography, so instead of going into much technical details, I'll rather explain some lessons I've learned and things to consider.
You probably won't get around acquiring some equipment, unless you want to take the pictures with your smartphone. To be fair, for my very first mockup I've used nothing but a camera and two business cards lying on the garden floor, making use of the sunlight. Although such a setup can lead to very natural results, the following upgrades can give you clear advantages:
- an external flash to control the light direction
- a softbox to spread the light to feather shadows
- white surfaces or surroundings (easier to replace afterwards)
- a tripod to reduce camera shake
- a better camera for higher resolution, less noise, etc.
The setup for the mockup we'll create is still pretty basic:
In product photography, people often use multiple light sources to brighten dark areas and sometimes even cancel out all shadows. In my opinion, a mockup is more about the overall scene than simply showing the actual product, so shadows can be useful for adding plasticity and interestingness to your image. Also keep in mind, that multiple light sources (for example a typical ceiling lamp with many units) might create multiple shadows, which looks distracting and unnatural.
Before arranging your objects to a scene, make sure to clean them from dust using a microfiber cloth or the like. Doing so might seem unnecessary at times, but can really save you a lot of time during retouching, especially since flashlight often reveals impurities you didn't see with your eyes.
Once you're happy with the scene, it's time to experiment with camera and light positions to achieve a variety of results. Common camera setups for mockups are front view, top view or perspective view. Considering the actual intention of the mockup is to show a design in a realistic scenario, having perspective can be helpful especially if your design covers the whole object (think of a business card, canvas, etc).
Here's the out-of-camera image I've come up with for this particular mockup:
Retouching the photo
As you can see at full resolution, the image still has fingerprints, dust particles, scratches and blurry or too dark areas, so let's fix that.
For all of the impurities, you simply brush over them using retouch tools like the spot healing, patch or clone stamp tool. Scratches on metal surfaces can also be reduced using a combination of blur filters and masks to only affect the relevant areas.
Unfortunately, the cactus was slightly out of focus and therefore blurry. Sharpening parts like this in post production can be a tedious or even impossible job. Luckily, I took multiple photos of a similar angle, so I could extract these areas from another image and blend them in. After this, I've added a levels adjustment to brighten up the cactus. Whenever you want an adjustment to affect certain areas only, a layer mask gives you full control over that.
To finish the retouching, I've straightened up the edges of the card stacks with the liquify filter and smudge tool. This will make things easier once we try to put a design onto the stack sides.
Cutting out / masking objects
You might think, why should we do that? The main reason is to make the background replaceable at a later point, so you can skip this part if your mockup doesn't need this feature. Cutting out objects can be a boring but also relaxing process, so my best advice is to start up your favorite music streaming service and just get going.
There are several techniques for extracting objects from a background, including:
- Pen tool (most precise and editable way)
- Quick selection / wand tool (quick, but frizzy edges)
- Object / subject selection, selection from color (automatic but possibly bad results)
- Brush + mask (good for refinement, but need to care for visible brush strokes)
Becoming good at using the pen tool takes a while, but once you are, you can really cut out any object with it. At this point, it's just a consideration whether one of the other tools will give acceptable results in less time. For example, if you had to cut out a pile of cocoa powder like I did for my Kitchen Scene Generator, you'll save hours of work extracting it by color and contrast instead of using the pen tool.
If you have white objects on white background, the edges can be barely visible, so a temporary levels adjustment helps seeing them more clearly for the cutout-process:
In addition to that, you should always test against bright and dark backgrounds. Sometimes a black background can reveal parts where the mask needs reworking. Also consider blurring it slightly, since there are no perfectly sharp edges in real life.
Finally, let's retrieve the shadows, wherefore we need a copy of the original photo. Luckily, masks are non-destructive, so if you didn't make a copy beforehand, you can still do so and just remove the mask. By putting the copy below the objects-layer and changing the blend mode to multiply, the shadows become visible on any solid color beneath it. Unless the background of your photo is pure white (#fff), the shadow layer will also darken unwanted areas. Shifting the brightness using a levels adjustment will only let the shadows "come through":
Making it an editable mockup
So far so good, we've successfully split our photo into separate layers. Time to actually put our designs onto the business cards.
You could just go ahead and transform your designs to fit the perspective and call it done. However, repeating this for every new design you want to showcase would be kind of annoying, wouldn't it? Great news, Photoshop offers a perfect feature for that, the so called Smart Objects. These are layers, which store their original image data in a new document and remember all tranformations and filters that get applied to them. This way, you can edit or revert these changes anytime. Moreover, their contents can be updated, and all mentioned effects will be recalculated for the new image.
Before converting your layer to a Smart Object, I recommend scaling it down to roughly the size that it will have later on - this will keep the file size small. Also make sure that your design matches the aspect ratio of the physical object to prevent unnatural distortions. (In this example, the cards are 3.5x2")
Now we can transform the design to fit the underlying photo: Edit > Transform > Distort
I always find it helpful to reduce the layers opacity after converting it to a Smart Object and to put it in a group with a fitting mask. These two things make it easier to align the corner points precisely. Also, the zoom tool is definitely your friend in this step. Repeating this for each card gives the following result:
Depending on the type of mockup you're creating, the transformation will be more or less complicated. Display mockups (using smartphones, tablets etc) are usually the easiest ones, because a display typically has perfectly straight edges. In contrast, things out of paper might be bend, which causes curved edges in your photo. We can adjust the Smart Object to that shape using the warp transform. Similar techniques are used every time your design needs to be wrapped, for example around a bottle.
By setting the blend modes to multiply, the design layers adopt the texture and light of the underlying white cards. Alternatively you can put a copy of each card (from the photo, not the Smart Objects) above your designs and set those to multiply instead. In this fashion, you can individually adjust the overlay for each card without changing the original image.
At this point, we've created a fully functional mockup template in Photoshop. You can replace the designs by right clicking the Smart Object layer and choosing "edit contents", then inserting your new image and saving the document. All subsequent chapters will either be more customizability or eye candy to make the mockup more realistic.
Recreating realistic details
Alright, we've got some replaceable cards, but something still looks odd: For colored cards, the stack sides probably wouldnt be just white. You could simply colorize it, but what if your design has multiple colors along its edge. Essentially we need a way to repeat just the edge, down to the bottom of the stack.
I came up with two approaches to realize that effect:
- Create dozens of copies and offset them by a bit.
While giving great results, this technique can massively crank up your file size. Depending on the resolution, you might need hundreds of copies which could even make the PSD stutter.
- Make the edge pixel its own Smart Object and transform it to fit the stack.
The results are fine and won't add much file size, however it requires a relatively straight stack.
In this example, we'll continue with the second technique. Using the 'Single Row Marquee Tool', you can copy and paste just the very last pixel line of your design to the mockup document, then convert it to a Smart Object.
Before you do so, I recommend setting any kind of complex design for the card, which has a lot of variety along its edge. This will help properly aligning the stack sides to fit the card edge. To achieve this perfect matching seam, it might be necessary to deviate from the stacks shape in your photo while transforming. Don't worry too much about this, since you can easily clip the stack design with a mask later.
You can add a bit of realism by adding a ripple filter, giving the stack a slight amount of inner offset.
Just as previously, embed parts of the object layer on 'multiply' to blend in the textures and light. Grouping layers together let's you easily adapt the visibility of the stack design via its opacity.
As a side note, keeping the stacks updated would currently require to copy and paste the two edge lines to their corresponding Smart Objects, everytime the card design changes. While automatization deserves its own blog post, let's anticipate that Photoshop Actions can perfectly perform this task for us at the click of a button. They basically let you record certain steps in Photoshop - all you have to consider is giving any targeted layers fixed names so the Action recognizes them.
The last step to more realism is matching the depth of field with the photo. You can achieve this in different ways, the easiest is to add a gaussian blur filter to the Smart Objects. Conveniently, it will become a Smart Filter, including a mask to control the scope of the effect. If you apply a black to white gradient to said mask, the blur effect will blend in smoothly.
Adding more customizability for background & colors
Many people love customizability, since it adds uniqueness to the mockup and makes it correlate better with their particular project or brand.
In the case of the mockup we're building here, the plan is to make the background replaceable and the accessory items colorable.
Technically, you could already put anything at the bottom of the layer stack to have it as background. To simulate a realistic floor however, some transforming and blurring must be done. It's helpful to have a flat object on the ground, giving you a rough idea of the perspective. Don't forget to make the background a Smart Object before transforming, so the contents can be changed later on. Finally, give the background some blur at the top and bottom as described in the last chapter.
Next up is the fun part: Adding some color. First of all, mask each area you want to become colorable and create a group for it. Inside, we'll add a solid color layer and two copies of the relevant areas from the original photo. This step is similar to when we retrieved the texture and light of the cards, but for colorable parts I prefer two copies to control shadows and lights individually. Desaturate both of them to get rid of any color by pressing Ctrl+U and sliding the saturation all the way to the left. Then set the blendmode of one to multiply and the other to screen (or sometimes color dodge).
With a levels adjustment you can control how much of the lights and darks show through onto the color. This technique lets you realistically colorize any material, from plastic to metal.
At this point, you might experiment with different designs to see the full mockup in action.
Cleaning up the PSD file
As a responsible designer, you should organize and tidy up the document - well, at least if the work is for a client. Here's a quick checklist for improving the comprehensibility and reducing file size:
- Properly name and group layers
- Use label colors for classification
- Delete empty or unnecessary layers
- Crop pixels outside the canvas
- Make Smart Objects easily accessible
The last point probably needs some explanation: Replacing designs should work as fast as possible, so having the Smart Objects buried deep inside your layer hierarchy can slow down the workflow (given you have nested groups for example). We can take advantage of the fact that copies of a Smart Object share the same content, so we can gather an invisible copy of each Smart Object at the top of the layer panel to have them all in one place.
Wrapping up & final results
Creating a mockup is a process of turning a static image into a template with editable design contents. Once you have said base image, it might be just a small step to turn it into a functioning mockup, however in my opinion it's worth putting additional time into all the details that make it more realistic. After all, the intention was to give an impression of how the plain design files will look like applied to physical objects.
Download Free Mockup PSDs
I've created 3 more mockups and combined them to a small series, which is available for free. So if you tried to follow along with a similar project and got stuck in the process, maybe inspecting the files will help you out.