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Create an immaculate conception with Affinity Photo

Affinity Photo tutorial
(Image credit: James Paterson)

Watch video: Create an immaculate conception

This tutorial is inspired by the surreal, conceptual album covers of artist Storm Thorgerson, who crafted dozens of iconic sleeves for some of the world’s biggest bands. Like Thorgenson’s trademark surreal landscapes, we’ll make an otherworldly scene filled with unexplained objects. Our red orbs here are made using simple compositing tools and tonal tricks in Affinity Photo. 

We’ll begin by creating a sphere, which is simply a matter of making a circular shape, then adding a gradient and dodging and burning different parts to make it look 3D. Once done, we’ll duplicate our mysterious sphere around the scene, resizing and repositioning as we go to make our orbs recede into the distance. We’ve used an eerie desert landscape here (download for free from www.pixabay.com, search for image no. 1170031) for our base image, but you can use whatever scene you think might work for what you have in mind. 

Once done, all we have to do is make our strange shapes look as if they belong within the space. Little visual tricks can help us out here – we can mask bits and pieces to look as if the orbs are behind things in the scene like the trees. We can also add shadows of the orb shapes on the ground, making sure they match up with the direction of the shadows in the scene. 

Along the way we’ll encounter key Affinity features like the Shape tool, Transform controls and layer masking. These are great features that can be put to use in all kinds of weird and wonderful projects…

Read more:

• Affinity Photo 1.8 review

Step 1: Make a circle

You can click on the gadget in the top right corner of these screenshots to zoom in on a full size version. (Image credit: James Paterson)
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Open your image into Affinity (ours is from www.pixabay.com, search for 1170031). Get the Ellipse tool from the toolbar (with the shape tools), then hold Shift and drag out a circle. Next, grab the Gradient tool. Set Type: Elliptical then click the colour box to choose two colours for the gradient.

Step 2: Add a grad

(Image credit: James Paterson)
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Drag the gradient controls to position it to one side of the sphere (matching the angle of the lighting). Next, grab the Burn tool. Set it to Tonal Range: Midtones and paint the bottom and side to add a shadow to one side of the sphere. Switch to the Dodge tool and paint a bright specular highlight too.

Step 3:  Drag quick copies

(Image credit: James Paterson)
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Grab the Move tool, hold Alt and drag the sphere to make a copy. Position it elsewhere and use the bounding box controls to resize it. Make more copies. Once done, highlight the top sphere layer, hold Shift and click the lowest one to select them all, then hit Cmd/Ctrl+G to group them together.

Step 4: Create the shadows

(Image credit: James Paterson)
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Hold Cmd/Ctrl and click the thumbnail of the sphere group to load it as a selection. Click the New Pixel Layer icon to make a new layer then go to Edit>Fill and fill with black. Grab the Move tool and drag the top middle point of the bounding box down to flip the layer, then position the shadows over the ground, giving the spheres some presence.

Step 5: Blur the layer

(Image credit: James Paterson)
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Go to the Layers panel and lower the opacity of the shadow layer to about 25%, or choose a value that closely matches the existing shadows in the scene. Next, go to Filter>Blur>Gaussian Blur and apply a small amount of blur to the shadow layer to soften the edges slightly.

Step 6: Mask the branches

(Image credit: James Paterson)
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Hide all but the bottom layer, then grab the Selection Brush and check ‘Snap to Edges’ in the options. Paint over the branches, or anything you want in front of the orbs. Then copy to a new layer with Cmd/Ctrl+J and drag the new layer to the top.

Quick tip

There are a range of different gradient styles to choose from, ranging from the standard linear gradient, to the elliptical choice. You can choose the colours for your gradient in the tool options. As well as choosing a colour for the brightest and darkest points, you can add more colour ‘stops’ into the blend by double-clicking on the gradient line in the colour picker.

About N-Photo magazine

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N-Photo: The Nikon Magazine is a monthly publication that's entirely dedicated to Nikon users. As a 100% independent magazine, you can be assured of unbiased opinion from a trustworthy team of devoted photography experts including editor Adam Waring (opens in new tab) and Technique Editor Mike Harris (opens in new tab)


Aimed at all users, from camera newcomers to working pros, every issue is packed with practical, Nikon-specific advice for taking better photos, in-depth reviews of Nikon-compatible gear, and inspiring projects and exciting video lessons for mastering camera, lens and Photoshop techniques.


Written by Nikon users for Nikon users, N-Photo is your one-stop shop for everything to do with cameras, lenses, tripods, bags, tips, tricks and techniques to get the most out of your photography.