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Revive Your Digital Pictures with Light
Here is a brief tutorial on a technique that can help add a punch to your pictures and/or correct digital photos that have various problems like incorrect exposure or insufficient dynamic range. This is a method of post-processing photographs that is widely known to Photoshop professionals and that allows with minimum amount of time to make pictures better. It refers to the use of light (and appearance of light) to enhance visual effect produced by any kind of shot.
I may say that in this respect the technique was originally developed and perfected long before (I mean long, long before) the photography was even invented. To see what I am talking about just look at this Rembrandt's painting Christ in the Storm on the Lake of Galilee (1633) with its almost theatrical manipulation of light and shadow. The origins of using light in painting go back to the early fifteenth-century and the so-called chiaroscuro (translated from Italian as "light-dark") to suggest volume and increase the drama by using highlights and shadows. Caravaggio, an Italian artist lived in 16th and early 17th century was one of several artists known for his successful experimentation with chiaroscuro.
Various lightening effects have been used in photography ever since it was invented: not a surprise - as a form of visual arts its goal has always been using imagery to achieve certain artistic effect. The advent of digital photography has given photographers many new tools to make painting with light as easy as possible from the technical point of view. As the leading photo-processing software, Photoshop gives an opportunity to use an assortment of quick ways to manipulate image files. But be warned - there is no magic filter or button in Photoshop (and for that matter in any other computerized system) that will transform your photo in a masterpiece. Photoshop can give us a new type of electronic media, new types of brushes, but it will never replace human creativity and our ways of appreciation of harmony and beauty.
Painting with light in photography (and using Photoshop to this end) is not just one specific method of application of light (or shadows) to pictures even from a technical perspective. There are many variations on this topic; many methods rely on layers, but it's also possible to achieve similar results with just using the Photoshop "burn" and "dodge" tools and applying them directly to the image. This tutorial uses two layers as a technical means to alter light, but again that's only a technical means, and, if you want to be successful, you have to use your creativity and vision so that your work is appreciated by others.
I would like to invite you to explore the Web site of Andrzej Dragan, a Polish photographer. You will not regret spending some time on doing this; he is one of those who helped popularize the idea of using paint with light in photography, and his work is amazing. On his site he claims that in his photography "people will not find anything interesting" or "truth" about his "models." It will be up to you to decide if this is true or not, but I think his talent and ability to see the human nature gives an almost spiritual encounter with his photographic subjects.
OK, enough of art, show me the action (I mean Photoshop action)! Oh, blissed believers in technology... Here is an image on the left which was used as a source to illustrate the technique. It's severally underexposed, but certainly has a very interesting emotional expression captured. Let's try to save it using paint with light.
Create two layers: (1) Color Dodge layer filled with black, and (2) Color Burn layer filled with white. Basically, that's it. Of course, nothing has happened so far - that's because the specified types of layers do not alter the background layer. But if you switch to the Color Dodge layer (filled with black) and start painting with white on it, your brush strokes will look like lightening the respective pixels of the background. Same way, if you paint with black by switching to the Color Burn layer (filled with white), you will lighten the background. In reality, of course, the background will remain intact, but the overall effect of combining layers will result in lightening/darkening - as if you were painting with light.
There are several important things you should keep in mind:
- It's very important that you paint with low opacity brushes. For lightening, most likely the brush opacity will be between 4% and 12%.
- For adding shadows, the opacity to be used can actually start at one percent, and will usually not go above 5%.
- Low opacity brushes will make you progress slower since you will have to build-up your highlights and shadows in places you want; however, it's much easier to keep you painting under control with this slow approach.
- With enough experience, you will be able to complete a high quality image from the six or eight megapixel camera in 10 - 15 minutes, especially if you do not intend to do something very elaborate.
- One thing that can significantly make your life easier with this type of painting is a pressure sensitive tablet.
- It's very easy to correct mistakes while painting in layers; for example, if you add to much "light" while painting with white in Color Dodge layer, you can delete your "light" by painting with black in the SAME layer (thus returning it back to what it was before).
- Do not forget that while in a layer, you can use any Photoshop tool (not only brushes). For example, to speed up the process, it's possible to make some careless brushstrokes while covering large areas. As a result, your highlighted area may not be uniformed as you would like. Just apply Gaussian blur to make it uniform. If you do not want to blur the whole layer, make a selection, feather it, and apply the blur.
- Experience shows that higher quality results are achieved when adding highlights (and not shades). Because of this, your overall strategy may be to start with exposing for highlights (which will help get rid of digital camera plague - blown up highlights). Later on while post-processing your file in Photoshop, you may add a dimension and punch to the picture by adding more light to areas that need it.
Now you know why I am stressing the importance of creativity as opposed to learning Photoshop. The latter can be done quickly - you need minutes to reproduce the technique described in this article (if you intend to use it frequently, you may record your manipulations as a Photoshop action to automate the creation of layers, and you can also download Photoshop action I use here). But the question remains - where to use the brush and how much paint to load?
The only real answer to this question is to use your imagination; in other words, it's like "Use the Force, Luke!" and "May the Force be with you!" Utter this famous line, and there will be no mistakes. If it does not seem good enough, you may try the following strategy that will facilitate your dealing with the Force: learn from real life - study the picture, its highlights and shadows and just try to emphasize what's already there but what has been washed out by your bad exposure and digital photo technology. Keep in mind geometric forms and try to create a focal point of your composition by emphasizing the light and by darkening areas that you would not care about. And if you want to learn (vs. using the divine inspiration), I cannot stress more the need for watching and analyzing what other fellow artists do - what you like, and what you do not like about what they do. Also, look at the images with layers above - what was actually painted in white and black in layers is quite visible in both of them. This can give you a better idea how it happens.
If you need an image to experiment with, please fill free to use our original image (click on the thumbnail to open it larger version and right-click to save it on your machine). If you have Adobe Photoshop Elements, it will allow you to use the described technique same way as in regular Photoshop.