Digital Photography Workflow – High Contrast Effect from Start to Finish

Posted on August 25, 2008 by Bo

Your digital photography workflow is important because it’s the process that you employ to create an image. Each step in the workflow is important as it makes each sub-sequent step easier and makes the overall workflow more efficient, allowing you to devote more time and energy to creating great images.

One key to creating great images is starting with a great photo and then enhancing the photo further in Photoshop. In this tutorial, I’ll explain how I setup the lighting and composition for the photo and then used Lightroom and Photoshop to end up with the final image.

Photo Setup
I found a nice indoor location with a rustic window, but you can really do an image like this in front of any window. This session took place about 2 hours before sunset. The sun was behind some clouds at the time, so we were getting some nice soft natural lighting coming in through the window. I positioned a flash about 6′ behind the model and had it firing through a white umbrella.

Because I was balancing soft ambient light with a flash, I first took an exposure reading for the ambient and then worked in the flash. 1/125 sec at f/2.8 gave me good basic exposure, so I played with the flash until I had a good balance and ended up with the flash at about 1/4 power.

The White Balance on my camera was set to daylight, which gave some nice natural tones to the ambient light. I put a CTO (color temperature orange) gel on my flash to give it a warmer tone. Had I left the gel off, the color of light would’ve been the same as the light on the front of the model.

Lightroom Adjustments
After taking several shots, it’s time to import the photos into Lightroom. On a side note, you don’t have to use Lightroom, you can easily use Adobe Bridge that ships with Photoshop. Once in Lightroom, I only made some slight adjustments to the image. The overall image was a little dark, so I increased the exposure from 0 to .40. I had to bring up the Recovery just a bit to 15 because I had an area that was clipping highlights.

To lighten up some of the darker areas, I increased the Fill Light to 16. As a general practice, anytime I increase the Fill Light I’ll bring up the Blacks a little bit. In this case, I increased Blacks to 7, then opened the image inside Photoshop.

Editing in Photoshop
1. The first thing to do inside Photoshop is duplicate the image (Cmd/Crtl + J) and use the Clone Stamp Tool, Healing Brush Tool and Patch Tool to remove blemishes and random artifacts from the model’s skin and clothing. Please see our other Photoshop Tips and Tutorials for more advice on using these tools for basic blemish removal. After all blemishes are removed, merge the layers together by clicking Cmd/Ctrl + E.

Color Adjustment2. Duplicate the image, name the layer “Color”, then change the blending mode of the new layer to Color. With this layer still selected, go to Filter > Other > High Pass… Set the Radius to 2, hit OK, and then change the opacity of the layer to 30%.

Color Adjustment3. Select the original image and duplicate it again. Drag the new layer to the top of the layer stack and name it “Overlay”. Change the blending mode to Overlay, then go back to Filter > Other > High Pass… Set the Radius to 2, then hit OK.

4. Hit Cmd/Ctrl + Shift + E to merge all layers. To add yet another level of contrast, duplicate the image (Cmd/Ctrl + J), change the blending mode to Hard Light and, one last time, go to Filter > Other > High Pass… This time, crank the Radius up to 80 and hit OK. Drop the layer’s opacity to 20-30% and then hit Cmd/Ctrl + E to merge the layers.

5. Duplicate the image again (Cmd/Ctrl + J…but you know that by now, right?) and go to Filter > Blur > Lens Blur. In the Iris section, change the Shape to Hexagon (6) and bump the Radius up to 50. Leave all other settings as default and click OK.

6. Make sure the lens blur layer is still selected and grab the Lasso Tool (L). Draw a loose, sloppy circle around the image. With the selection still active, go to Select > Modify > Feather… Set the Feather Radius to 200px and hit OK. Now hit your Delete key to erase the selected area of your image. Drop the layer’s opacity to 80%.

Multiply Layer7. Select the base layer now and duplicate it one last time. Make sure the new layer is between the base layer and the lens blur layer in the Layers palette. Change the layer’s blend mode to Multiply.

Hold down your Cmd or Ctrl key and click on the thumbnail for the lens blur layer to re-select its pixel transparency. We actually need to inverse this selection, so go to Select > Inverse. Now, with the middle multiply layer still selected, hit your Delete key to delete the selected contents of this layer.

Hit Cmd/Ctrl + D to deselect the selection area and change this layer’s opacity to 20%.

You can now merge all layers and admire your finished image.

This is a sample of a workflow I’ll commonly use on images, from start to finish. Starting with a good image with good lighting and composition makes the time spent inside Photoshop more fun and more productive. While this style won’t work for every image, it’s a very appealing and worth trying on for photos with this style of lighting.

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6 Responses to “Digital Photography Workflow – High Contrast Effect from Start to Finish”

  1. Avangelist on August 28th, 2008 11:17 am

    reasoably sensible approach, I especially like your lighting diagram.

    One of the main things with sharpening images is that a lot of stock agencies will not accept them as they prefer to allow end users do this if required as it is not the same for print as it is for screen.

  2. August’s Tutorial Roundup | Tutorial9 - Tutorial Bliss. on September 1st, 2008 3:31 pm

    […] High Contrast Effect […]

  3. Bo on September 4th, 2008 7:43 am

    Avangelist, you are correct that stock agencies probably wouldn’t accept this technique because of the amount of sharpening involved. This effect is just a stylistic approach.

  4. August’s Tutorial Roundup | The Human Network (HCI IDC Alumni Blog) on September 10th, 2008 7:43 am

    […] High Contrast Effect […]

  5. Fiona on April 12th, 2009 1:11 am

    i think this would be more helpful to explain why you are doing things along the way…one thing to say do this but another to say why you are doing it otherwise great thanks for spending the time to do a tute for all to read.


  6. Conquest » Blog Archive » high contrast photos on May 15th, 2011 7:46 am

    […] Digital Photography Workflow – High Contrast Effect from Start to … Aug 25, 2008 … A guide for a high contrast effect starting with the photography setup and then explaining the … […]

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