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Category Archives: Photoshop Techniques
In Kurt Vonnegut’s novel Cat’s Cradle ice-nine is a crystal with the power to freeze all life on earth, perhaps as I did with these yellow roses. Not really! Nor were they shot through a wet shower door.
For the past several days we’ve had very wet and windy weather—the epitome of winter’s rainy season in the San Francisco Bay area. During an interlude in this weather I saw the Japanese maple leaf shown in the image plastered to the outside of an upstairs window.
To shoot the wet maple leaf, I positioned the camera on a tripod inside looking out—so the image is looking through a wet window to the leaf on the exterior. I used a macro lens, and shot two exposure sequences, one at moderate depth-of-field (f/10) for the window glass, and one stopped down (to f/22) to get the leaf itself maximally in focus.
The image you see combined four of the low-depth-of-field exposures (using Nik HDR Efex Pro) for the window pane. I then painted-in two exposures of the f/25 leaf exposures using layering and the Brush Tool in Photoshop.
Exposure data: 40mm macro, six exposures, all exposures at ISO 200, 4 exposures shot using shutter speeds between 1/15 of a second and 2.5 seconds at f/10, 2 exposures shot at shutter speeds of 2 seconds and 5 seconds with an aperture of f/25, tripod mounted, exposures combined using Nik HDR Efex Pro and Photoshop.
When it comes to image conception and post-processing these days I seem to be thinking in opposites. In my image of the Triumph of the Wave (below) the breaking surf reforms against the adamant of a rock-bound shore. Wild and peaceful. Violent and tranquil.
There’s something like the Hegelian triad in operation: thesis and antithesis yields synthesis. Nowhere is this more apt than in post-production, where effective practice means repetitive application of opposites: sharpening and blurring, increasing contrast and reducing contrast, saturating and desaturating, and so on.
The key is to be selective. Blurring and sharpening the same pixel makes no sense because you get back where you started. But blurring and sharpening adjacent pixels can be very effective.
Technique should always be in the service of vision. The moving anarchy of the surf is in opposition to the static solidity of the rocks. Synthesis in subject and process can yield an image that is meditative—and a call to action, both calm and exciting.
It’s fun to apply textures to an existing image to create a new effect. In this context, a texture is simply a flat shot of paint on wood, or canvas, or something textural. It is applied over the original image in a Photoshop layer stack. This may seem counter-intuitive because people expect textural effects to belong to the background, as would be the case with a physical painting on canvas. In fact, some of my floral tapestries combine a scanned background of paper or canvas with textural overlays, so many variations are possible.
Most often, I’ll experiment with different blending modes and opacity to add interest to my overlay textural effect—and I usually use more than one texture overlay per image. Note that I am using the term “overlay” to simply mean the texture layer is above the image layer on the Photoshop layer stack, and I am not referring to the Photoshop Overlay Blending Mode.
I used exactly the same “recipe” with Venice of Cuba (shown above) and Tower in the Sun (below). The recipe consists of a series of specific textural layers applied at a given opacity and a variety of blending modes.
Good documentation is important—so one can repeat the steps on a new image. It’s possible to keep track of this kind of formula by taking notes, but the best kind of documentation shares a trait in common within software development—it is self-documenting. The most important aspects of self-documenting a layer-based process are to:
- Make sure the layer structure is coherent
- Name each layer so that the contents of the layer are self-evident (this corresponds to good variable naming in software development)
- Try to use each layer for a single purpose only (it’s better to copy a layer and use two layers than to try to get a layer to do “double duty”)
About the images: While Tower in the Sun appears to depict an exotic location, it was in fact shot close to my home. The tower is the Ferry Building in San Francisco. I substantially underexposed the original image at 1/2000 of a second, f/16, and ISO 200 so that the disc of the setting sun would be rendered.
Venice of Cuba shows a river in Matanzas, Cuba. Matanzas is sometimes called the “Venice of Cuba”—hence the title of this interpretation. My thought in creating the “recipe” was to try for an effect like a Canaletto painting. You can view the original photo that the texturized version was made from on my blog.
I’ve been asked a number of times about the process behind the making of my images of the Basilica Mission Dolores, shown below and in Looking for Light. This is a monochromatic style that I’ve developed intentionally that is based upon High Dynamic Range (HDR) shooting techniques. For other examples of this presentation style, which is intended to partially evoke an old-fashioned etching look see my Agaves and Choosing the Path. You’ll find some hints about how I do this below.
The most important part of this process is the HDR shooting technique. It also helps to start my photography at the very beginning with a final image pre-visualized in black and white—even though a RAW capture by definition includes all the color information.
As I explain in Creating HDR Photos: The Complete Guide to High Dynamic Range Photography, when I shoot for HDR I am careful to use a sturdy tripod. I find that manually bracketing the shutter speed works best. The sequence of seven RAW captures I made for this image are shown below in Adobe Bridge. All exposures were using a 12mm wide-angle focal length at f/9 and ISO 200. My shutter speeds ranged from 1/8 of a second (the darkest) to 20 seconds (the lightest).
Nik Mono HDR Preset
Because I knew that my ultimate destination was black & white, one of my first steps was to run the seven captures through Nik HDR Efex Pro, choosing the Soft Mono HDR preset. This is preset converts a bracketed HDR set of captures to monochromatic by setting the saturation slider to 0%. Results are shown below.
Having processed the files this way, I put the Nik HDR monochrome version aside for use at a later stage in the process.
I created the initial color version, shown below, by layering dark and light versions together in Photoshop. The basic scheme was to use a fairly light exposure (#2881, at 8 seconds) as the background, then selectively paste a lighter exposure over it for the darker areas (#2882, at 20 seconds). Areas that were too bright—such as the windows—were controlled with a darker exposure (#2878, at 3/5 of a second). Note: you can see the different exposures in the figure showing Adobe Bridge above.
The initial color blend is shown below.
Rarely do I construct one of these images without finding flaws that need to be retouched. In this case, I decided to remove a woman sitting in a pew, a devotional man at a niche, a fire extinguisher, and a cut-off statue. The layers panel with each of these corrections is shown below and to the right.
At any normal viewing size one can hardly see these issues, but on my large monitor when I zoomed in they were clear. It’s a funny thing—even though some issues are hardly noticeable at a conscious level, I do find they make a significant difference in terms of the viewers overall impression of an image once they are cleaned up. Viewers may not be able to identify why they respond to one of my images, but it is partly because I’ve taken the time to really clean the image up.
It’s worth going to the trouble involved, because half measures do not avail us! Let’s face it, this kind of post-production work is fairly arduous. If I am going to take the time to do it in the first place, I’d really like to get everything right that I can.
And, in case you are wondering, yes, I also had to retouch these issues in the reserved monochromatic version to conform to the color version.
With the color version complete and retouched, and a monochromatic HDR version reserved, I am ready to do the overall monochromatic conversion. This involves a layer stack with different monochromatic versions combined at varying intensities using several Blending Modes—Normal, Luminosity, Screen, and Soft Light.
In the case of the Basilica, I started at the bottom of my conversion layer stack with the default monochromatic conversion from Nik Software’s Silver Efex 2. I layered on top of it the reserved HDR mono version selectively applied via a layer mask, and a second mono HDR layer applied overall using the Luminosity Blending Mode at 20% opacity.
To finish the conversion I added a layer to add texture and softness. I created this layer using the Topaz Wood Carving filter applied to the color version. This filter is found in the Topaz Simplify plugin, and my results are shown below.
Flattening the monochromatic conversion layers led to the finished image shown at the beginning of this story.
Effective shooting for HDR is pretty straightforward if you have a good tripod, some patience, and use manual exposure controls to bracket the entire dynamic range of the scene you are shooting. For a full explanation of the technique please see Creating HDR Photos.
Crafting a unique and subtle look in post-production from an HDR shoot is not always straightforward. It helps to know where you might be going by pre-visualizing the results at the beginning of the process.
Even when I have some idea of the benchmark steps along the way, there is usually no firm recipe for my HDR conversions, and I do quite a bit of experimentation as I go along. So you should regard the steps I’ve explained in this story as waypoints on your conversion journey—subject to your own creative ideas, and not fixed in stone.
Shooting the other day at Blake Garden I notice a glorious stand of red poppies. I asked for permission to cut a bunch and bring them home to my studio, which was very graciously granted.
Using my lightbox, I shot this arrangement with my camera on a tripod using eight exposures. Each exposure was at f/13 and ISO 200. Shutter speeds ranged from 1/100 of a second to 2 seconds. The flowers were lit from the front by controlled natural light.
The idea of this kind of High Dynamic Range (HDR) processing is to throw away the dark side. By processing only high-key exposure for HDR I am able to create an image with an illusion of transparency.
To finish the image, I used Photoshop to place it on a background of scanned paper. I added a texture to the top of image using Saturation Blending mode to help partially give the image the feeling of a botanical illustration—albeit a botanical illustration created with the new tools of digital art and a modern sensibility.
My print of this image on Washi rice paper will be on exhibit at a forthcoming exhibit of botanical photographic art that benefits the San Francisco Botanical Society.
On the fly, while leading a small group of photographers to shoot the Golden Gate during full moonrise, I grabbed this fisheye shot of Fort Point with the Golden Gate Bridge against the sky in the background. A sunburst was coming through the old lighthouse atop the Fort Point ramparts, leading to a scene with fairly extreme dynamic range.
This is an image that renders the full on light of the sun at the same time as it show details in the deep shadow areas in the niches of the fort. You can click on the photo to view it larger so you can really see what I mean.
I exposed for the sky, and in the default rendering the foreground was pretty dark. To recover the situation, I processed a second, lighter version of the file for the foreground. I used a layer mask and a gradient to combine the two versions in Photoshop. This is an example of what I mean by multi-RAW processing.
The Fort Point shadow areas were still pretty dark, so I processed a third even lighter versions, aligned it on top of the two previous versions, set the Blending Mode to Screen, and masked it out. I then “painted” selective areas of this very much lighter layer in.
Theoretically, a single RAW file contains data providing a dynamic range from -4 EV to +4EV of the actual exposure. You can pick and choose which part of this enormous dynamic range you want to use for which parts of your image, but the entire dynamic range is not all usable. In this case, my processing added quite a bit of noise to the dark shadow areas that I had lightened, so I needed to selectively process for noise.
I joke (and mostly it is not a joke) that all my photos are HDR—High Dynamic Range. This image of the world within a seed pod is no exception. The seed pod was in a bud vase, with backlighting from a lightbox and some front lighting from the afternoon sun coming through the window. I used my 85mm tilt-and-shift “Edward Weston” macro lens to shoot seven exposures at f/64 and ISO 100. The exposures ranged in time from 1/60 of a second to ten seconds.
I used two of the exposures to create a Photoshop composite that showed the delicate outer lines (exposed at 1/15 of a second so the lines were dark) and the darker inner core (exposed at ten seconds to fully render detail).
This got me 85% of the way to where I wanted to be. I then blended all seven exposures in Nik Software’s HDR Efex, and used two different Nik HDR Efex layers at low opacity to finish the image.
I noticed some white “Iceberg” roses growing in a corner of my garden. Their lovely white-on-white shapes truly appealed to me, but I knew all the whiteness would cause difficulties in terms of tonal separation when I photographed the roses on white.
Every floral composition needs some structure, and to create a structure for my white roses I laid a stem of Schizanthus grahamii on the background next to my lightbox. Schizanthus is sometimes called a “Butterfly flower” not so much because it attracts butterflies but because it is shaped like a colorful butterfly.
Here’s a story I wrote about arranging floral compositions for photography that explains what I mean about creating a structure.
Laying the white roses on top of the Schizanthus, with my camera on my tripod, I shot six exposures as is my wont—with shutter speeds ranging from one second to 1/100 of a second. Each exposure was at f/10 and ISO 100.
I combined the exposures starting with the lightest one-second exposure using hand-layering in Photoshop. I also used Nik HDR Efex Pro to create a blend that added some definition to the layered image, and could be added using Luminosity blending mode. The initial results are shown below.
I liked the delicacy of the white-on-white roses on the white background, but I decided to see what they would look like on black. To accomplish this, I converted the image to LAB color and applied an inversion adjustment to the L channel of the image. This swapped black for the white of the background, but as a result the roses were a little too dark.
So a painted the flowers in the original of the white-on-white version back over the inverted version at low opacity. The result is a slightly spooky version of ghostly flowers, probably best viewed large.
Odds and ends: If you are interested in an exciting photography workshop in the northeast, check out powerhouse photographer Hank Gans and his Golden Light photography intensive at Gibson House, a sweet New Hampshire bed & breakfast in mid August.
Before I get down to explaining the images of the “super” full moon rising that accompany this story, let me point you (in case you may be interested) to a few recent stories that feature me:
- Harold Davis becomes a Moab Master (story on the Moab blog)
- Tips from a Pro: Harold Davis on Getting Better Flower Photos (interview on PopPhoto.com)
- Book Review of Photographing Flowers (on PhotoFidelity—I particularly like the way this reviewer shows how my book helped his own photography)
I shot this image during a recent Golden Gate Bridge and Full Moon workshop I gave. The moon was rising behind the Golden Gate Bridge from Battery Spencer in the Marin Headlands.
I used my intervalometer (remote programmable timer) to make 333 exposures while I went around to the people in the workshop to see how they were doing. So the camera shot this image on autopilot—and I didn’t have to do anything!
Each exposure was for 2 seconds at f/22 and ISO 100, using a 400mm focal length on my 1.5X crop Nikon D300 (effective 35mm focal length of 600mm). There was a one second interval between each of the exposures.
I started the sequence of exposures with the moon on the lower left of the frame because I knew the moon would move diagonally up, and I wanted it to stay in the frame as long as possible. The camera was unattended, so I had no way to know during the exposure sequence how well this was working.
When I looked at the captures on my computer, the moon started to leave the frame at the 170th exposure, so I had 169 exposures to work with if I wanted to keep the moon within the frame.
I used the Statistics script in Photoshop Extended to stack the 169 exposures. Stacking all the images together yielded a fat, blurred line: proving once again that sometimes it is possible to have too much information!
I found (by trial and error) that stacking every 25th exposure (for a total of eight exposures) gave interesting results in which you can see some detail in the moon.
The partial transparency in the final images was achieved by combining a stack created in Maximum mode in the Statistics script with a stack created using Mean mode in the Statistics script, each stack containing just the eight images.
The lines on the right are, of course, Golden Gate Bridge cables.
I should add that this makes a very cool print in either the black & white or color version, sized small, on Moab’s Moenkopi Kozo Washi rice paper.
One way that digital photography differs from film photography is that you never are truly finished with an image.
Technologies may change and improve—and frequently do. For example, Adobe Camera Raw (ACR) is often improved in its ability to process RAW files each time there is a new release of Photoshop. Should I go back and reprocess images using the new, improved engine? Maybe.
Another example is our new printer, which can create prints with a far wider color gamut that was possible in the past—but only if the workflow one used to process the image files fortuitously anticipated this increase in gamut through a perspicacious choice of color space.
More widespread than these technologically-based reasons for going back to the digital darkroom is the client who indicates that they mostly like an image—but will buy it, use it, pay for many more like it only if I work some more on the image file. This scenario has kept me pretty busy on a number of different fronts lately.
I’m not always happy about going back to work some more on something I thought was finished, but it is usually a process that provides some artistic insight and inspiration—and hopefully pleases a paying client, and gets my work into print. It’s also wonderful to contemplate how one digital image can be multi-purposed in so may different ways with a few quick tricks with layers, blending modes, masks, and the Paintbrush tool in Photoshop.
Case in point: when I originally processed Road Less Travelled I assumed it would be converted to black and white, so I intentionally over saturated the colors. This was helpful, because it provided me with more information in making my monochromatic conversion.
I do like the way the black and white version, called the Choosing the Path, came out (check out the image midway down the story Where Does Inspiration Come From?)
But I also understand the art director’s thinking when he asked to see a more ethereal and foggy version of the color Road Less Travelled. The variation of Road Less Travelled that I prepared in response to this request is shown above.
It’s been a while since I’ve created really abstract images such as The Dictator’s Architect and my Tower of Babel and variations. Usually with these images I start with photographic elements and “play” using Photoshop to create entirely new visual universes. This kind of creation is largely the subject of our second volume in the Photoshop Darkroom series (the subtitle is “Creative Digital Transformations”).
Lately I’ve had a professional reason to be working with shells for a decor project. So it wasn’t much of a stretch to take one of my images of a Nautilus shell, photographed to emphasize transparency, put on my headsets—and play away until I finished these two digital collages.
Cherry Dance is manifestly a digital art creation. This collage combines a photo of blossoms on a cherry branch with two flat-bed scans of paper—using Photoshop to create a whole that resembles Japanese brush painting as much as it does tradional photography.
There’s no doubt that cherry blossoms are among my most popular subjects and widely viewed. I’m amused (and flattered) that in one case an attractive lady has had a facsimile of one of my cherry branch images emblazened on her own epidermis.
By the way, check out Creative Flower Photography Q&A with Harold Davis on the O’Reilly YouTube channel.
This wheel of the thresher shown in Separating the Wheat from the Chaff called out to me because of the tonal contrast between its inner workings and outer structure. I shot for HDR using my 105mm macro lens on a tripod, making seven exposures at shutter speeds from 1/320 of a second to 4/5 of a second. Each exposure was at f/32 and ISO 200.
There was strong and rather harsh frontal lighting on the wheel, so one of the points of shooting for HDR was to subdue this harshness to avoid an overly washed-out look.
I processed the image in Nik HDR Efex Pro, starting with the custom preset that I explained in HDR is Technique, not Style, and also using some hand-HDR layering in Photoshop.
With an image that is essentially monochromatic even though there are some colors—as is the case here—I tend to “go with the flow” and explicitly present the final image in black & white. To do my monochromatic conversion, I used a number of Nik Silver Efex 2 presets along with an explicitly monochromatic HDR version created using Photoshop’s Merge to HDR Pro.
Related image: HDR Wringer.
On a balmy autumn night in early November I treated myself to a good dinner at the Yosemite Lodge restaurant. Then I headed out into the Yosemite Valley night with my camera, tripod, and intervalometer.
This image was made from the Swinging Bridge, facing back towards Yosemite Falls and Yosemite Village. I combined different exposures for the foreground and for the stars. Yosemite Valley was lit by moonlight, which helped make the foreground exposures possible.
The landscape in the foreground was made from an HDR blend of three exposures, shot at roughly one minute, two minutes, and eight minutes. The star trails in the sky were created from 21 exposures shot at one minute, and then stacked. I combined foreground and background in Photoshop using a layer mask and the Gradient Tool.
All exposures were at 15mm, f/4 and ISO 320.
It’s striking to me that the moonlit landscape in the foreground has as great a dynamic range as daylight shots. Looking at the eight minute exposure, bright areas like the cliffs and meadows that the moon lit touches are bright. But the shadows below the trees along the Merced River are still deep and inky in their blackness.