How to Do a Photo Underlay

Updated April 17, 2017

You have seen photo underlays many times. Quite simply, a photo underlay is placing a photograph, usually lightened, beneath text or a combination of text and graphics to provide a custom design. You can use this technique for your own stationary, for newsletter pages or virtually any print design project. You also can use it on your website to provide a theme. Although you can create a photo underlay in a desktop publishing or word processing application, the best place to start for good control is in a photo-editing software package.

Select the photograph you want to use as the underlay for your project. Do not choose a "busy" photo, the type of photo that has a lot going on in it. This will distract from the top layer you will place over the photo. If you intend to put text over the photo, especially, choose a simple photo that will not make it difficult to read the text.

Adjust the colours and tone of your photo as you normally would if you were going to print it by itself. Use the "Enhance" menu in Photoshop Elements, specifically the "Levels" subsub menu under "Adjust Lighting." In Photoshop, "Levels" is under "Adjustments" in the "Image" menu.

Move to the "Layer" menu and click "New" and then "Layer From Background." Click the "OK" button after naming the layer. In Photoshop, go to the "Window" menu and click "Layers" to get the layer palette. This automatically is displayed in Elements.

Change the "Opacity" level in the "Layers" palette---in the upper right--- to approximately 30 per cent. You may need a different percentage based upon the photo you will use as an underlay. The 30 per cent is a good starting number.

Move to the "Layer" menu again and click "New" and "New Layer." Add your text or other information in this layer. To test how it will look in the final stage, go to the "Layer" menu and click "Flatten Image." If the photo underlay is not quite what you want, go to the "Edit" menu and click "Undo" or "Step Backward." Then go to the "Layer" palette, select the image layer and adjust the "Opacity" accordingly.


You do not have to do the actual overlay in Photoshop or Elements. You can adjust the "Opacity" of the image, flatten it, then import it into a desktop-publishing program such as Swift Publisher, InDesign or QuarkXPress. Once in your DTP application, you can arrange it behind an already designed newsletter or other page, or design your page over the photo underlay. If you plan to print your photo underlay, set the resolution to at least 300 pixels per inch. If you want to use it on your website, make the resolution 72 ppi.

Things You'll Need

  • Adobe Photoshop or Photoshop Elements
  • Desktop publishing software (optional)
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About the Author

Shawn M. Tomlinson has been a newspaper and magazine writer for more than 28 years. He has written for a variety of publications, from "MacWEEK" and "Macintosh-Aided Design" to "Boys' Life," "Antique Week" and numerous websites. He attended several colleges, majoring in English, writing and theater, and has taught college classes about writing.