Creating a Mood Using Layer Adjustments

Lately I've been exploring how the photo-manipulators manage to create some of their eye-popping effects. The best way to figure out what they're doing is to look at some of the photoshop actions that are on the web - like the "Draganizer" action - and step through them to see how they're done. I've found that if you just single-step an action and figure out what each group of operations is designed to do, you can learn a hell of a lot. Then experiment with variations!


For this walkthrough, I'll start with an already-cleaned-up image from my collection of stock. "Cleaned-up" means dust spots have been removed, smudges on the background are gone, and basic color correction has been done.

(Our starting point)

My idea, with this image, is to make it darker and maybe a bit sinister and cold-looking. No matter what, let's make it a bit more intense. Shall we?

Stage 1: Fuzzing Layer

I've written about fuzzing layers elsewhere so I won't walk through the individual steps in detail, here. What I'll do, though, is show the effects as they're layered onto the image. The first layer is done with the following steps:

(adding a blur-layer onto the image - click to enlarge)

And this is what the resulting image now looks like!



Stage 2:

(Adding digital gloom with Levels - click to enlarge)

Now we make it dark and gloomy with a levels adjustment layer. We're going to alter the effect of this adjustment layer in just a second. So for starters we make it look a bit "over the top"



That's too extreme. So now we paint on the adjustment layer mask with a soft brush. The technique for doing this is described in more detail elsewhere. Since we mostly want the effect to apply, I leave the layer mask all white and paint on it with a soft black brush to cause the darkening effect to not happen where I want it to!

(Disabling effect by painting on mask with black - click to enlarge)

This is all very subjective, but I think I've just given the image a nice additional depth and, of course, highlighted her boob. Which is what all the guys are going to be looking at, anyway. To make the effect a bit smoother you can use smear or any of the brush manipulation tools. I applied a gaussian blur to the layer mask just to smooth it a bit more.



You can mostly see the difference in the fabric and around her eyes. At this point, subtlety rules!

Stage 3:

For whatever reason, I associate gloom with less bright colors. So I'd like the image to be a bit flatter in terms of color. To get that, I'll add a hue/saturation adjustment layer.

(Selective desaturation - click to enlarge)

Before I learned to work with layer masks I used to do all of my operations in sequence. And, if I screwed one up, I was - well - screwed. With an adjustment layer, you can always click on the adjustment symbol in the Layers menu, to bring back up the value you want to change. In the screenshot above, I have the saturation set to -17. When I looked at the picture I decided that it wasn't desaturated enough so I just adjusted it. Presto!! No need to undo - and what's really cool is that the effect "ripples" through your whole stack of layers to the final version.



The effect here is very subtle. Maybe it's all in my head, even.

Stage 4: Highlights and Glints

I think the rope, and her eyes and a few other things could use a bit of brightening. So let's add a "levels" layer to brighten just a few areas!

(Frighteningly intense light level shift! - click to enlarge)

I explained this technique elsewhere but basically, what you're doing is inverting the layer mask and then just painting on the spots that you want to have reach that level. So the resulting image looks unaltered except for a few spots where I've thrown in some highlights and "shine" - her eyes, lips, knees.



As you're painting around, you may slip with your brush. That's no big deal! If you do, just go back and paint black over the area where you slipped. In fact you can do all kinds of crazy tricks here with paths, selection areas, or whatever.

Wrapping up

At any point, you can go back and tweak one of your adjustments. To me, that's the biggest value in working with adjustment layers and layer masks. I know that I used to let sloppy work out the door by deciding "I am not going to go back and do that all over again!" Now, you don't have to.

(Starting image)

(Final Version Click for full-size)

As I said before: this is a very subjective process. I tried to keep things relatively subtle - but when you stack this image up alongside the original, you can see that my changes were actually pretty major!

Bellwether Farm , Morrisdale, Pennsylvania - where it is snowing like crazy - Jan 26, 2007