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How to Design a Photo-Collage Holiday Card in Photoshop


Go beyond photo editing and step into the world of graphic design. You’ll learn some essential techniques for showcasing your images in collages, and how to format the collage as a file you can send to a pro lab for press printing. Bonus: A short overview of how to use these versatile techniques for presenting collages on the Web and in photo prints as well.

Preview of the Final Holiday Card

christmas card photography collage
christmas card photography collage

You will be creating a press-printed holiday card with the following specifications:

  • 4 inch x 5.5 inch flat postcard
  • Front and back designs
  • Full bleed (color printed to the edge of the paper)

This tutorial is written for people who are familiar with Photoshop tools and photo editing, but who are new to graphic design.

Download the PSD

Before starting, it's worth noting that you can download the original PSD file used in this tutorial if you'd like. This may make it easier to follow along, and understand how some of the process works. That said, it's no substitute for working through the steps yourself!

Step 1: Assemble Your Assets

Download this Christmas illustration from Vectortuts.

christmas card photography collage

Gather four black-and-white photos to drop into your document. Open them in Photoshop.

Step 2: Set Up Your Document

This is probably the most important part of this tutorial, so read the following carefully:

  1. Go to File>New.
  2. Dimensions: 4.25 inches x 5.75 inches. Notice the extra .25 inches on each side. This must be added because the printer will print the document too big and then cut the paper after it’s printed. They do this so that you can have color extending to the very edges of the card, which is called a bleed. Printers can’t print to the edge of the paper, so they overprint then trim so you can have a bleed.
  3. Resolution: Set it at 300 ppi, which is press quality.
  4. Format the file as RGB color. Most print shops print in CMYK, but most pro photo labs that offer press printed products like cards, bookmarks, and books print in RGB. If you have any question about this, ask your printer first because converting between the two can really change the way colors look. Save yourself some headaches and wasted money by getting this right to begin with.
  5. Add guides showing the final print size after trimming (see the image below). First, make sure your rulers are on (view>rulers). Set them to show inches by right-clicking over the ruler and choosing “inches” from the dropdown menu. Then with your mouse over the vertical ruler, left-click and drag to the right and you’ll see a blue line appear. Drag it so that it’s .125 inches inside the right margin. Drag another so it’s .125 inches inside the left margin. Repeat and create two horizontal guides .125 inches from the top and bottom margins.

    Don’t think that because you oversized your document by .25 inches that the guides should be .25 inches from the margins or you’ll have margins that are twice the size they should be. You want .125 inches extra on all sides, which added together equals the .25 inches you added to the horizontal and vertical dimensions.

Note: This card is intended to be printed at a U.S. pro photo lab. There shouldn’t be a great deal of difference for other countries, but you should check the dimensions and make sure you have RGB or CMYK right before you start.

Step 3: Add a Background Gradient

Ok, now that we have all that behind us, let’s get going!

Click on the foreground color and make it #d71e25. Make the background #781214. Click the gradient tool and choose a radial gradient going from foreground to background. Then click in the top left corner of your document and make a diagonal line going 3/4 of the way toward the bottom left corner of your document.

Your document should look like this:

christmas card photography collage

Step 4: Import the Vector Art

The Christmas vector art is a vector EPS file. For my version of this card, I opened it in Illustrator, removed the background, and faded out a bunch of the snowflakes at the bottom. Then I dragged the tree and snowflakes into PS so I could use the PS background I created. For simplification, however, I’m going to use the art unmodified and teach you how to get by with Photoshop only. The best way to work with vectors in Photoshop is by using the smart objects feature, which will give you the benefit of vector properties, such as resizing without losing image quality.

To import the EPS file into Photoshop, go to File>Place. Choose your file and it’ll import into the working document with the usual handles in each corner. Drag the handles to resize the tree a little bigger and off to the left of the card a bit. Click the check mark to save your changes. Notice the tree layer has a different thumbnail, which indicates that it’s a smart object.

christmas card photography collage

Step 5: Draw Some Boxes

First, click and hold the Shape Tool and choose Rectangle Tool. A horizontal toolbar will appear just under the main menu at the top of the window. At the right, there’s a Color box. Click it to bring up the color dialog and enter #911519, which is a deep maroon chosen from the background with the eyedropper. Draw the vertical divider box for the kids’ names by making it about .4 inches wide and the full height of the document.

Now we’ll draw the four horizontal rectangles that will frame our photos. We want the rectangles to be filled with a lighter pinkish color, so change the color to #e6dbda. Now draw one rectangle about .75 inches tall x 2.4 inches wide. If you want to change the color later, double-click the layer’s thumbnail and it’ll bring up the standard color palette for you to choose from.

Duplicate the rectangle by pressing Ctr-J three times. You now have four identical layers, even though it looks like one because they are all stacked on top of each other. Click the Select Tool or use your up/down arrow keys to move them down or up vertically in a row like in the final card image.

christmas card photography collage

Step 5: Inserting Your Photos

Finally! The following technique is a “must-know” for photographers. If you get nothing else from this tutorial, remember this step. You’ll find that it will be useful in all sorts of applications you might encounter.

First, bring all your images into your card document. I do this by opening all my photos as separate documents, then dragging each photo layer into the working document. Each photo will import as it’s own layer. Position each photo layer directly above the rectangle you want it to appear in. You should have four rectangle layers, each with a photo above it.

Next, right-click on the first photo and choose “Create Clipping Mask”. Your photo should then become constrained into the rectangle, so that the only part of the photo that’s visible is the part inside the rectangle. You can then go to the Select Tool, click on the photo, and drag it around while it’s inside the rectangle. Clipping Masks are a way to non-destructively crop your image. You could use the Crop Tool, but Clipping Masks are much more flexible because you can change the area that’s cropped any time you want. If you use the Crop Tool, what you crop out is gone forever.

Now just create clipping masks for all the photos.

You could stop here, but if you want to take it further, as is pictured in the final result, you can crop out a section of your photo’s background and place it above the photo and create a clipping mask with that as well. Just position it above the first clipping mask so that each rectangle will have the photo above it, and the background piece above that. Then position the background box to the left of the photo and leave a slice of the light pink background showing between it and the photo.

Step 6: Writing Your Text

First, we’ll write the kids’ names. Click and hold the Type Tool, then choose Vertical Type Tool. The font I used is Rage Italic, which isn’t free, but you can choose a nice free font like DearJoe Four. The size is 12pt.

Next, also using Rage Italic, write “Happy Holidays” in 14.5 pts. I added a Drop Shadow and an Outer Glow, which I think looks really nice against the bright red in the gradient background. For the year, I chose a lighter red from the background using the eyedropper. Just make sure to click the color option in the horizontal Font menu that appears at the top of the window when the Font Tool is selected (not the background/foreground color).

Finally, write the salutation at the bottom left and you’re done!

christmas card photography collage

Step 7: Don’t Forget the Back!

The file download also includes the back of the card, which you can see below. Just duplicate the “front” file, and delete everything but the background and the tree. Then with the Shape Tool, draw a white box, but this time set the Layer Mode to Linear Dodge (Add) and decrease the Opacity to taste (I used 87%).

christmas card photography collage

Step 8: Some Thoughts About Printing

The pro labs I’m most familiar with are WHCC (White House Custom Color) and MPixPro. To send this file to a pro lab, choose Save As and choose JPG from the dropdown. Choose 10 for quality. You should have two files, one for the front and one for the back.

These labs offer different paper types, including a thick, glossy cover stock, linen, and pearl. They also include envelopes.

Some suggestions are:

  • Don’t put any borders or logos in the bleed area, which will be trimmed.
  • Place any borders an additional 1/8 inch (.125 inch) or more from the trimmed edge.
  • Increasing contrast a bit can enhance your design.

Bonus: Free Clipping Mask Collage Templates

You can use the clipping mask technique to showcase your images as storyboards or collages - either for photo prints or for web display. Have you ever noticed that, on the web, vertical images often look better grouped by twos or threes? Clipping masks make this quick work.

It's easy to add rounded corners or make a circle/oval shape for displaying your image. I just got a brochure in the mail in which the designer used a blocky font as the clipping mask! Possibilities are endless.

See Jessica Hamlin’s blog for examples of clipping mask templates used to display a photographer’s blog portfolio.

Want to speed things up? Here are some places to find free templates:


Rita at the CoffeeShop blog offers all kinds of storyboard templates for the web. Her latest is the CoffeeShop Rounded Corners Storyboard Set.

christmas card photography collage

Dawn Mikulich

Dawn Mikulich’s Moo Card template, which is intended for printing at Moo.com. Dawn also shares a 30×30 Photoshop storyboard or book template with openings for 13 images.

christmas card photography collage
christmas card photography collage


GingerPixel has a few more.

christmas card photography collage


That’s it! Go put your feet up and feel proud of yourself….And think of all the things you’ll do with your new talent for photography clipping masks!

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