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Saturday, March 14, 2009

Photography’s Digital Possibilities - Special Effects Using Photoshop

Before you apply any of these special effects, it can be useful to apply a masking on your photo to select which areas you want to change and which you want to keep unchanged. You can easily get a nice soft fade between the effect and no-effect areas. This is called masking and there’s many ways of doing it. The one method I almost always use now (it took years before I discovered it) is the ‘quick mask mode’. It is very easy to use and usually gives acceptable results.

Quick masking

In Adobe Photoshop find the button called ‘edit in quick mask mode’. It’s located near the bottom of the main tool bar and looks like a circle in a rectangle. There’s also a short-cut key: Q. Once in quick mask mode, you can select and deselect areas simply by painting them with white and black respectively, using the standard brush tool. Zoom to 100 or 200 % for best accuracy. You might want to use a soft-edged brush to avoid hard edges. Alternatively, when you’re done, exit the masking mode and go to ‘Select > Feather’ and set the feather radius to 5-10 pixels or so. A nice option is that you can set the opacity to anywhere between 0 and 100%, allowing you to apply the effect stronger or weaker in one part of the image that another.

Layer masking

Slightly more complicated, you can add a layer mask. This allows you to apply any effect gradually from any point in your photo. Follow these steps in Photoshop:

1. Select ’Windows > Layers’.

2. Right click on your layer and select ’Duplicate layer’.

3. Click on the little icon in the bottom of the layer box called ‘Add layer mask’.

4. Select the ‘Gradient tool’ on the main tool box.

5. Choose a gradient style from the top ‘Options’ bar (linear, radial etc.).

6. Now click on your image on the point you don’t want to change, then drag the mouse away to the point where you want the full effect to take place. The effect will be applied gradually more and more along this line you’ve now create.

7. Finally, go back onto your original background layer and apply any effect you want. This will apply the effect in a soft, gradual way. Use opacity to turn the effect down to less than full strength if you want.

Lens-like effects

Using the layer masking described above, you can apply ‘Gaussian blur’ which will make the selected areas appear soft-focused, a bit like if you had used a large-aperture lens. With ‘Curves’ you can make your corners darker than the center, replicating the lens effect called vignetting. Technically, vignetting is considered a lens dysfunction, but subjectively it can add an extra feeling to your photo, a kind of frame that will have a ‘sucking’ effect, bringing more attention into the centre of your photo. You can also just lower the contrast and/or colour-saturation around your main subject, helping to separate it from the background clutter. There’s many other options, be creative!

Soft glow effect

Great for creating a ‘romantic’ look for portraits. Here’s what you have to do:

1. Duplicate layer.

2. Apply ‘Gaussian blur’ to the new (top) layer. Make it blurry, but leave a little detail.

3. Play around with the blend modes and opacity till you get what you want:

‘Darken’ or ‘Multiply’ blends darkens image details while also softening features and adding a halo. Good for soft, expressive shadows.

‘Lighten’ or ‘Screen’ blends lightens the image instead. Nice for adding high key or highlight glows.

‘Soft Light’ and ‘Overlay’ adds contrast and saturation. Especially useful for landscapes and still life photos.


A cool metallic black-and-white’ish look, in my opinion very suitable for documentary work and subdued portraits, is easily obtained by setting the contrast high (curves) and colour saturation low. Do it with Photoshop’s ‘layers’ to be able to tweak your exact settings it in place.

Colour grading

You know how some movies have a ’special look’, golden brown, sick yellow-greenish, cool blue etc.? You can get the same effect in your photos if you want. The simple way is to go to ‘Image > Adjustments > Hue/Saturation’, click ‘Colourize’ and use the slide bars to select your preferred grading. If you are going for a well-defined colour, it’s better to use the ‘Edit > Fill’ function. Simply select the colour you want and set the ‘Blending mode’ to ‘Colour’. Either way, it’s good first to duplicate your layer before you start. This will allow you to preserve some of the original colours by turning the colour grading down. Use the ‘Opacity’ slider in the layer box to do this. If you want a duotone image, simply make 2 duplicate layers and give them different colour gradings. Mix them together, again with the ‘Opacity’ slider and the different ‘Layer blending mode’ options in the layer box.

One example: To give your image a warm golden-brown colour tone, first make two duplicate layers. Use ‘Edit > Fill’ to make the first one brown (#963A12) and the second one yellow (#EDC715). Set opacities to 30 and 60% respectively and select the ‘Multiply’ blending mode for the top (yellow) layer. Tweak it in place to get it exactly like you want. Also try adding a soft glow, as described above.

Micro contrast

This is a really neat trick to enhance your contrast and draw out texture details in your photos. You can even use it when your overall contrast is already maxed out, using all tonal ranges from pure black to pure white. The procedure is similar to the normal ‘Unsharpen Mask’, but with some special settings. Go to ‘Filter > Sharpen > Unsharpen Mask’ and set the ‘Amount’ to around 20-30%, the ‘Radius’ to 50-100 pixels and zero on the ‘Threshold’. You will get a subtle contrast enhancement that, for some pictures at least, works really well.

Using any of the above mentioned effects can improve your photos and make them really eye-catching. However, learning when to use them and when not to use them is just as important as learning how to use them. When to use special effects in your photos is a matter of personal taste and judgement. Use it, but don’t overdo it. Often, less is more.

About the Author:

The author, Morten Svenningsen, is an award-winning Danish photographer and journalist based in Asia. Visit his web site to see examples of his work. It's now even possible to order his photos as fine art prints and posters!

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