Welcome to the second edition of “Fine Art Explained“.
Every once in a while I write a Photoshop tutorial, and that can be for one of three reasons: I could have found an interesting technique that I like to share (“448 – Down In The Hole” is such a case), I could have found an interesting tool or plugin (in “492 – Roughly About Sundown” it’s PhotoLift), or I feel that I have found an interesting solution for an originally unspectacular image, something that I am proud of. In the latter case I simply show how I develop an image from ground up. That’s “Fine Art Explained“, and “511 – Gasoline Alley” was the first example.
Yesterday was a drab, cold day, and I left work early, heading not west, towards home, but east into the city’s center, the first district, the part that was walled from medieval times until the walls were torn down under Napoleon Bonaparte.
Near the northern border, near the channel that comes in from river Danube, is a gothic church, “Maria am Gestade” (Saint Mary by the Waters), and from its western facade there are stairs down to a small place called “Am Gestade“. This is our stage. Here I took an image of a man walking down the stairs, here I made a series of photos, trying to capture the spirit of the place.
I had to wait some time until the place was empty, but I used the time nevertheless, making image after image, looking for something that would work. I finally settled with this image: Nikon 18-200 VR at 18mm, 1/100s and ISO 280. Much of the stairs in the foreground, a door and the yellow lines, in the background the curving row of houses that leads into the unknown. No sky. This image and the image of the man walking down are JPEGs straight from the camera.
Whenever I am at that point, I ask myself: “What’s wrong with this image? What is too much, what is missing?”. Here the answer was clear: the expanse of the place lacked contrast and most of all a focal point, a center of interest. OK, I thought, maybe I can use the man.
I opened up the image of the empty place in Adobe Camera RAW, applied some basic adjustments there, and then loaded the second image, the image of the man, converted with the same parameters, into another layer. There was a gully to the left of the man, and I used that to rotate, resize and skew the top layer. This was easiest when I set the opacity of the top layer to 50%, so that I could see the gully on both layers. Moving, rotating and skewing took its time, and, as you can see, the result is not perfect.
The reason is, that the images were taken with different focal lengths and different perspectives, but after I had applied a black mask and by painting with white on the mask revealed only the man, it did not matter at all. The man had neither hard edges, nor did he have to have a certain alignment to any edges in the image. Organic forms are very forgiving in that regard.
You see, I have combined two images, and one of them has been scaled to less than half its size. The result of this scaling is most certainly an increased relative sharpness of the scaled-down image. In this case it was not so pronounced, but had it been, then I would have had to slightly blur the man now.
The next image shows a small but important step. I have cleaned up the image and removed unimportant but distracting details. The most obvious is the glaring puddle in the background, near the right edge. It’s extremely high contrast, and the eye is naturally attracted to high contrast. Some smaller specks of litter on the stairs and some near white points in the far background also had to go, because they were in positions where I absolutely did not want to lead the eye. Basically the idea was to make the man the single most important focal point, and everything else, even the door included, his arena.
There is not much difference in the next image. I have selected the yellow of the stripes (Select / Select Color Range) with a narrow range (fuzziness set to around 50), and then added a “Hue/Saturation” adjustment layer, automatically taking the mask from the selection. Here I added a healthy dose of saturation to the yellows, making them pop. In another “Hue/Saturation” layer I have desaturated some already very saturated reds in the far background. I did this, knowing that I would add global saturation later, and I wanted a level ground for all colors.
Compared to the JPEG from the camera, I had already increased mid-tone contrasts a bit in the RAW converter, but I really wanted strongly increased local contrasts, making the textures come forward. At the moment my tool of choice is PhotoLift, a plugin that allows a broad range of manipulations of local and global contrast. See more about it in “492 – Roughly About Sundown“. I used +80% local contrast, -20% global contrast, -10% brightness and +20% saturation, and the resulting layer has an opacity of 50%. Basically this is experimentation. Use what looks best.
The tonal foundation was better now, with the bulk of the i
mage shifted more down into the mid-range, and with a healthier distribution. Next I added some standard adjustment layers: a levels layer for setting black and white point, a curves layer for mid-tone contrasts, both in luminosity mode. Then I pushed saturation quite a bit. The result looks punchier, less muddy. You see it best in the wall textures, but I admit that the effect is subtle.
Such forceful contrast manipulations tend to make the image look unnaturally sharp and grainy, and in many cases I add something that I call a “Neutral Blur”. This is an Orton-like effect, but without the glow. You get it by copy-merging the stack onto a new layer, duplicating that layer, setting one to mode “Multiply” and 60% opacity, the other to “Screen” and 100%, and then blurring the multiply layer with radius 5 and the screen layer with radius 30. Group them and set the group’s opacity to 50%.
This “Neutral Blur” is exactly that: neutral. It does not change overall tonality and it does not affect colors, but it gives the image an aura of substance. It’s hard to explain and in these screen shots it’s certainly hard to see as well, but when you try it for yourself, you will immediately recognize it.
Of course the image has again lost punch now, and here I normally apply some high pass sharpening with a radius between 1 and 2, here like most of the time 1.5. This again brings back the punch without looking unnatural or sacrificing the “substance” gained through the blur.
Remember my warning concerning compositing and that one may have to blur a strongly shrunk layer? Well, something similar had happened in the meantime. The increased local contrast of the PhotoLift layer, together with the high pass sharpening, had produced a trace of a halo around the man. Thus I copied the high pass layer, inverted it, masked it with black and painted in the mask with a small white brush along the man’s contours. Perfect. The halo was gone. If this wouldn’t have sufficed, I could have clipped a levels adjustment layer into the inverse sharpening, thereby increasing its effect.
Now we’re almost there. I added a vignette to accentuate the focus and finally sharpened the image in Lab and with an edge mask. A vignette is something that you see in many if not most of my images. It helps to direct the eye and it adds drama to the scene. Depending on the scene and the strength of the vignette, this can be quite some drama 🙂
So far the workflow was very reasonable and now comes the sin: I was not really impressed with the image, and I decided to remove the gully. Eeek! A pixel-bearing cleanup layer on top of all these adjustments! Ugly. But … I did it. I was too lazy to redo sharpening, blurring and high pass sharpening. It was late and it was only meant as an experiment, just to see how it would look like.
Well, it made a world of a difference. Suddenly the man perfectly worked as a focal point. I had not recognized it all the time but, as useful as the gully had been while compositing, as distracting it was now.
For your reference, this is the whole layer stack again, only the group with the neutral blur not expanded.
The title of this image is a line from the Song of the Day, “Take A Bow“, from Madonna’s 1994 album “Bedtime Stories”. Maybe that’s only me, but I can’t remember ever having seen a better music video. A marvelous piece of art. See it on YouTube.
Oh yes, two more things: I have done what I normally don’t ever do, I have changed an Image of the Day. I had been very unsatisfied with “539 – Heading For the Light“. Head over and compare for yourself.