This Photoshop tutorial combines two different vacation photos. Using a free Photoshop brush, a few layer effects and a little masking, we end up with a layered file (dowloadable) that demonstrates how to use adjustable effects to turn up the drama and maintain complete control of the amount – either crank it up or pull it back. If you find the file useful (or not), please leave a comment.
Basically I wanted to improve the fairly typical picture (above left) that I took hiking in the Smoky Mountains. The image had potential, but it’s just a snapshot as is. Some graphic lovin’ might give it a voice. Download the layered Photoshop source file to follow along. Breaking it down, layer by layer:
THE FIRST LAYER (01 of source file) – The colors of the original photo were quite dull and there just wasn’t much contrast. So Image>Adjustment>Shadow/Highlight was used on a copy of the original layer to reduce the blown-out highlights and bring out some color (the shadow/highlight settings file is included with the source download). That helped increase contrast of the mid-highs which had the effect of making the white tree trunks stand out a bit more. The trunks are the true subject of the image but they were still getting lost in the midst of all that white sky area.
Much of graphic design is eliminating what doesn’t work, and enhancing what does. That washed-out sky definitely was not working. So that’s the next step to take. I used Select>Color Range, the Magic Wand tool and a few brushes to create the layer mask that covers it up. The mask is still rough but serves its purpose here. TIP: By using a layer mask instead of deleting the sky, you don’t have to worry about perfecting the edge of the trees yet. You have the freedom to keep a creative flow going and return later for detail work… all the while preserving the original image.
THE SECOND LAYER (02 of source file) – A nice blue sky is what we need here. So with our old sky masked out, I dragged over a photo of mine that had a nice sun flare and cloud combo. Right away it added lots of visual goodness. In terms of composition, all the vertical lines now had a point of resolution, the sun. The sun also gave the trees a purpose, brought the feeling of passing time and a perceived story to the setting. Now we’re getting somewhere!
Our new sky was great, but a bit flat. So it is enhanced by using 2 layer effects. The Color Overlay effect improved the overall hue, giving us a bluer sky (notice the “Color” blend mode). Then the Gradient Overlay effect gave the sky some needed depth and added contrast (notice the “Overlay” blend mode). At this point you might be wondering , “Why not simply increase the saturation for a bluer sky?.. What’s with all these effects?” You can see the results if you download the source file and give it a try. Colors will begin to posterize into large blocks before you ever get to a nice blue . The original photo was just too grainy.
THE THIRD LAYER (03 of source file) – The new sky is looking good. We could actually stop here and have a much improved photo from the original. But let’s keep going. I imagined that some light rays coming from the brilliant sun might add even more depth and sense of place. The original picture was taken in very flat, afternoon light. I happened to remember seeing some nice light ray brushes at Obsidian Dawn (a great design resource). I browsed through the downloaded image pack and found a burst that shined down nicely. Lining up the center of the burst with our sun, then setting the layer to Overlay created the desired effect. Adjusting the opacity of this layer radically changes the overall contrast. We can now dial in as much of the rays as desired – turn down the opacity for a more natural look, or crank it up for a dramatic, somewhat artificial appearance.
One last touch for the light. When creating light effects, I like to experiment with Gradient Overlays to see what happens when the light is given some color. Turn the effect off and on in the source file to see the subtle color variation it brings. A final sharpening of the trees layer (01) finishes the work. View large before and after pic
BUILT FOR THE FUTURE – The completed PSD file has just 4 design layers (including the original photo), but by using non-destructive layer effects, blending modes and layer masks we still have tons of flexibility to tweak and change the final result without affecting the original photo. Keeping effects independent of source material is one key to staying productive in modern digital design. When clients make last minute photo changes (and they will), you’re ready.
Now if I could just take a picture like that in the first place.