Apr 082008

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.

The other thing is this image. I made it shortly before the Image of the Day, not far away, and it is another 16 layer job, but that would be a different story.

Mar 072008

How many layers have your Photoshop files? And what are the things that you routinely do to your images? And why are you doing them? Let’s have a look at one image of mine, shall we?

This particular place is a place that I pass by very often. It’s on my way from home to the Underground. I always wanted to take an image of this old pump, because it looks so … old, so out of time and place. Unfortunately there are only two reasons for me to take the Underground: I am either in a terrible hurry, or it rains. Both are not exactly ideal conditions for taking photographs. Yesterday morning it did neither rain nor was I in a hurry, I was only so packed, that I decided not to walk to work.

I made three shots, kneeling on the sidewalk, and this is the one that I finally used. Let’s have a quick look at what came out of the camera.

The most obvious difference is the sign on the wall. It is red, which would not be a bad complement to the other vivid color green, but it is extremely high contrast, in an awkward place composition-wise, and it is very modern, compared to the pump. Was that enough reason to throw it out and divert from the path of photographic truth?

Well, if you have followed my blog for any longer time, then you already know my stanza, but instead of repeating it, I shall refer you to my friend Ted Byrne’s classic essay “When To Sign A Photograph?“. I pretty much agree with Ted in this regard, and that’s for “photographic truth” 🙂

Now, having exposed myself as an unscrupulous forger, let me explain my reasoning for taking this sign out. I said it is in a compositionally awkward place. Why that, you ask? That’s a power point, being on the cross of two thirds. Conventional wisdom says that’s good, isn’t it?

Right, but this is an image that I wanted to take for a very long time, and the reason for wanting to take it is the old-fashioned green pump. I always saw the pump, never the sign, thus this must become an image about the pump, and the sign, being in such a lucky spot, does not contribute at all. It is modern, it is high-contrast, high-saturation, it pops out, it competes badly, and that’s the reason why it must go.

Cloning out the sign proved harder than I had thought. My first attempt was to create a new, blank layer, and then to clone with a soft brush, always sampling a bit from above, a bit from below, and that with a clone source turned by 180 degrees to avoid repeating patterns. You remember, the clone source palette is one of the innovations in CS3, and it allows you to clone as if from a rotated source. Very handy, and from near, while I worked, the result looked promising indeed, but to my dismay the cloning was clearly visible from a distance. Why that? Well, the problem lies in this particular kind of texture. It is relatively fine and it is uniform, with uniformity being the culprit here.The soft brush had made the cloned texture less crisp, and that difference clearly showed from a distance. Essentially I had replaced the sign with a blotch that obviously stood out.

I could have tried it again with a harder brush and less overlap, and probably I would have succeeded, but in such situations a simpler technique produces superior results. It goes like that:

With the rectangular marquee tool I have selected a patch below the sign, copied it with Ctrl-J on a new layer. With Ctrl-T I went into free transform, rotated the patch by 180 degrees and moved it over the sign. Then I added a mask and by painting into the mask with a small, soft brush, I began taking away from the patch until it only covered roughly the sign.

This revealed another little problem. The sign was in a place where a diffuse shadow from above began. The patch was from below, thus it was too light, at least in its upper part. A curves darkening layer in luminosity blending mode and with a gradient mask applied, the layer clipped into the patch layer, took care of that.

In a similar manner I took out a minor distraction in the upper right corner. The drain cover and some high contrast dirt were taken out by conventional cloning. Neither of them had anything to contribute to the pump. They only brought clutter and unrest to an image that was meant to give a calm feeling of nostalgia.

At this point the image was still looking flat, the colors dull, a bit too blue, and the distribution of tones did not leave much detail in the pump.

I tackled contrasts first. The tones in the dark part on the left side were OK, but I wanted to have more detail in the pump itself and on the walls. In other words: I needed to increase local contrast. I discuss local contrast in detail in another tutorial, suffice to say that I used the PhotoLift plugin again, decreasing global contrast by 20% and adding 80% local contrast.

The result was pleasing across the image, and I did not use a mask as I normally would. I only used a levels adjustment layer to set a black and a white point. This is the result so far. Suddenly we can see the blemishes in the body of the pump, and the wall textures come forward, just as the pump itself. The levels adjustment was in normal blending mode, thus I have increased saturation as well, which is OK here. Had I wanted to avoid influencing colors, I would have used luminosity mode.

What about the BP sign? It is in the same old-fashioned style as the pump, it has the same green, it would perfectly go with the pump, it only has to come forward. It needs more glow, so let’s make some glow.

The first thing I did was to add a curves layer with a steep rise in the lower tones. I used blending mode “color dodge” to boost the colors as well. This did not give me enough boost, thus I duplicated the layer. Then I made a merged copy of the image so far, blurred it with a radius of 7 pixels, applied it in screen mode at opacity 50%, and these three layers finally gave the glow.

Next comes the idea of balance. In this case it is the balance of tones, and especially tones in the corners. The right upper and lower corner needed to go darker, in order to balance the darkness of the opposing corners to the left.

This is no hard rul
e. Images are thinkable where two light corners on the right oppose two dark corners on the left, but, remember, this is neither an image about corners nor an image about opposites. It is an image about a gas pump. This particular gas pump is fairly in the middle, and therefore the corners need to be balanced.

I added another darkening curve in luminosity mode, and used a mask to restrict it to the lower and upper right corner.

At this point, in many cases I boost saturation as far as it does not burn out any channel. Of course there are images that need much more subtlety, but it is always a good idea to try and see what you get.

Well, what I got here was too much yellow, not enough red and no balance in the blues. Dealing with color, I primarily set color temperature in Camera RAW, but when I find later that I was slightly off, I often use Photoshop’s “photo filters”. They are intuitive, easy to use and can be tamed with masks. Here I used a plain red filter on the bricks to the left and behind the base of the pump. It is subtle, but it makes a difference. Then I raised saturation in general by 20%. Of course this was much too much for the pump, thus I painted in the mask with black over the pump, in effect applying the saturation on everything but the pump.

At this point I felt that the upper part needed some cooling. Therefore I used a cooling filter on the upper right corner and, for balance, on the lower left corner as well.

Of the predefined photo filters, “Cooling Filter (82)” is the most effective, but it has s strong cyan component, cyan cancels red, and that is not what I want here. “Cooling Filter (80)” is rather neutral and “Cooling Filter (LBB)” has a violet tinge. That was what I used.

As a last step I sharpened a merged copy in LAB and used an edge mask to restrict sharpness to the edges. VoilĂ , here we are: 15 layers.

Most of the changes that I have made were rather subtle, but in combination they have changed the image completely. Now it is exactly what I wanted it to be.

Does it show what was there? Certainly not. Does it show what I saw? Probably. In any case it shows what was important to me and made me take the image in the first place.

Coming to the Song of the Day at the end, I wouldn’t have thought that I have only one song with “pump” in its title, one “Jumpin’ In The Pump Room” by Charlie Shavers, and that clearly did not fit. Thus Rod Stewart has his second appearance within days, again from the same live album, this time with “Gasoline Alley“, my only song with “gasoline” in the title. With its backward looking, romanticizing attitude it is probably not the worst match.