Illustrating Outdoor Mockups

A large outdoor graphic can be a big commitment for your client both aesthetically and financially. Displaying a giant picture on a billboard, on a wall or on the side of a building exposes the face of your client in the world for all to see, so the message better be clear and brilliant in every respect.

Outdoor graphics present specific problems. They need to look as good at night in artificial lighting as they do in the noon-day sun. They should be as legible from 100 feet away as they are from 20 feet. The risk-free method of assuring the quality of outdoor images is to create a detailed mockup of the image on the site. These visualizations can be presented as a proposal to your client.

Figure 1: The original layout was altered to look as though it was printed on banner fabric to add to the realism of the proposal.

It’s helpful to choose a site prior to creating the graphic but this is not always possible as the client may have very specific ideas about where it will be displayed. You’ll lay out and design the graphic (as in Figure 1), hopefully in the correct resolution to assure a quality print (anywhere from 72 to 360 ppi depending on printer). Later, you’ll duplicate the graphic and reduce its size so that you can use it in the mock-up.

The next step is to photograph the site where the image will be displayed. Take pictures from several vantage points so that you can choose the best angle for the mock up. Observe how shadows from other buildings or foliage might affect the image. Take a picture either in the early morning just after sunrise or just before sunset when the light is at its best. If your camera supports it, photograph the site in Camera Raw format.

If you are going to show the graphic at night, don’t worry about shooting a night shot. You can easily simulate a night view with specialized lighting filters and adjustment techniques that I’ll demonstrate later in this article.

Figure 2: The site was photographed from several vantage points and the best image was selected.

Figure 3: If possible, photograph the site in Camera Raw format so that you can make non-destructive corrections prior to opening the image.

Load the images from the camera onto your computer. Use Adobe Bridge (File > Browse) to preview your photographs (See Figure 2), then choose the best image to work with. It should be an interesting photo of the site seen from a critical angle. It should emphasize the area where the graphic will be and include details that will enhance the site’s appearance like a rich blue sky for example or trees and foliage. If you shot the image in Camera Raw, make initial adjustments in the Camera Raw interface (See Figure 3). Camera Raw will enable you to make several non-destructive adjustments before you open the image in Photoshop so that you can maintain complete control over the atmospheric qualities of the image like exposure, tint and white point.

Open the site photo and check the size and resolution (Image > Image Size). Then open the graphic and make a duplicate (Image > Duplicate). Reduce the size and resolution of the duplicate graphic with the Image Size dialog box to approximate the width or height of the site photo. The images probably won’t be identical in proportion but don’t worry, you can reduce the size of the graphic to fit in the space it is destined for later when you composite the images.

Now, choose the Move tool. Drag and drop the graphic image onto the site photo. A new layer will be created. Double click on its name in the Layers palette and type the word “Graphic”.

Figure 4: Drag the graphic onto the site image. It will appear as a layer.

Figure 5: Transform the graphic to produce a perspective effect.

Figure 6: A negative Lightness adjustment in the Hue/Saturation dialog box produces the initial nighttime atmosphere.

Figure 7: A layer mask on the Hue/Saturation adjustment layer produces spot lighting.

Figure 8: The finished nighttime image complete with source lighting and a starry sky.

You’ll need to reduce the size of the Graphic layer and transform it to fit in the space where it will appear. There are a couple of methods to perform this task including Photoshop’s Vanishing Point filter which provides an elaborate if not cumbersome system that literally copies and pastes a rectangular image into trapezoidal perspective grid, but I think the most efficient method is to use Photoshop’s transformation features, the advantage being that the graphic will remain on a separate layer so that you can later control its contrast, opacity and lighting.

First, size the image to fit the largest edge of the destination region, as shown in Figure 4. You can do this with the Move tool by clicking the Show Transform Controls check box in the Options bar. Then, click and drag a corner of the bounding box so that it fits the largest edge of the region. As you drag, press the shift key to maintain the proportion of the graphic.

Photoshop’s transformation features will help you fit the graphic into the designated space. First try Edit > Transform > Perspective. Click and drag any corner to produce a perspective effect. Edit > Transform > Distort is even better in that it lets you independently drag bounding box corners and place them where they look best, as in Figure 5. You can add a drop shadow with the Layer Styles dialog box to heighten the reality of the graphic once it’s in place.

You can now experiment with color and contrast adjustments to better integrate the graphic with the site. This example uses Levels, Curves and Selective Color to make initial global contrast adjustments as we saw in Figure 4. The adjustment layer is advantageous because it is non-destructive; it can later be readjusted with the same dialog box simply by double clicking on its thumbnail in the layers palette. It also has a layer mask attached to it that can be used to reveal or conceal various areas of the adjustment.

To create a nighttime version of the on-sight graphic, duplicate the image (Image > Duplicate). You’ll notice that the original light on the right corner of the building was removed and cloned to two new locations. You can take these artistic liberties in Photoshop and propose the new lighting scheme to your client. Click on the Background layer — in this case, the picture of the site. Choose Layer > New Adjustment Layer > Hue/Saturation. Click and drag the Lightness slider to the left to darken the image, as shown in Figure 6. Make elliptical selections feathered to a radius of 50 pixels. With black as a foreground color, click on the Hue/Saturation adjustment layer’s layer mask, Press OptDelete (Mac) or Alt + Backspace (Win) to fill the areas on the layer mask to reveal the lit areas on the image (see Figure 7).

To create spot lighting, make a new layer and then create elliptical, feathered selections. Fill the areas with light yellow and then adjust layer opacity to soften the effect as in Figure 8. The stars were made by painting white on a separate layer with the Brush tool and the star shaped brushes that are available on the default brushes palette.

By the time you’ve completed these pyrotechnics, you should have a couple of very cool-looking and quite believable mockups to show your client. Use them as a sales tool to demonstrate the impact of outdoor signage and as a way to visualize how the graphic will appear on site during the day and at night.