Creating Special Photographic Effects In Photoshop

Adobe Photoshop CC Book for
Digital Photographers

By Scott Kelby
(Peachpit Press)
408 pages, $43.99

Desaturated Skin Look

This is just about the hottest Photoshop portrait technique out there right now, and you see it popping up everywhere, from covers of magazines to CD covers, from print ads to Hollywood movie posters, and from editorial images to billboards. It seems right now everybody wants this effect (and you’re about to be able to deliver it in roughly 60 seconds flat using the simplified method shown here!).

Step One
Open the photo you want to apply this trendy desaturated portrait effect to. Duplicate the Background layer by pressing Command-J (PC: Ctrl-J). Then duplicate this layer using the same shortcut (so you have three layers in all, which all look the same, as shown here).


Step Two
In the Layers panel, click on the middle layer (Layer 1) to make it the active layer, then press Command-Shift-U (PC: Ctrl-Shift-U) to Desaturate and remove all the color from that layer. Now, lower the Opacity of this layer to 80%, so just a little color shows through. Of course, there’s still a color photo on the top of the layer stack, so you won’t see anything change onscreen (you’ll still see your color photo), but if you look in the Layers panel, you’ll see the thumbnail for the center layer is in black and white (as seen here).

Step Three
In the Layers panel, click on the top layer in the stack (Layer 1 copy), then switch its layer blend mode from Normal to Soft Light (as shown here), which brings the effect into play. Now, Soft Light brings a very nice, subtle version of the effect, but if you want something a bit edgier with even more contrast, try using Overlay mode instead. If the Overlay version is a bit too intense, try lowering the Opacity of the layer a bit until it looks good to you, but honestly, I usually just go with Soft Light myself.

Step Four
Our last step is to limit the effect to just our subject’s skin (of course, you can leave it over the entire image if it looks good, but normally I just use this as a skin effect. So, if it looks good to you as-is, you can skip this step). To limit it to just the skin, press Command-Option-Shift-E (PC: Ctrl-Alt-Shift-E) to create a merged layer on top of the layer stack (a merged layer is a new layer that looks like you flattened the image). You don’t need the two layers below it any longer, so you can hide them from view by clicking on the Eye icon to the left of each layer’s thumbnail (like I did here), or you can just delete them altogether. Now, press-and-hold the Option (PC: Alt) key and click on the Add Layer Mask icon at the bottom of the Layers panel to hide our desaturated layer behind a black mask. Press D to set your Foreground color to white, get the Brush tool (B), choose a medium-sized, soft-edged brush from the Brush Picker in the Options Bar, and just paint over his face, hair, and neck (or any visible skin) to complete the effect. If you think the effect is too intense, just lower the Opacity of this layer until it looks right to you. That’s it!

High-Contrast Portrait Look

The super-high-contrast, desaturated look is incredibly popular right now, and while there are a number of plug-ins that can give you this look, I also wanted to include this version, which I learned from German retoucher Calvin Hollywood, who shared this technique during a stint as my special guest blogger at my daily blog. The great thing about his version is: (1) you can write an action for it and apply it with one click, and (2) you don’t need to buy a third-party plug-in to get this look. My thanks to Calvin for sharing this technique with me, and now you.

Step One
Open the image you want to apply a high-contrast look to. Let’s start, right off the bat, by creating an action to record our steps, so when you’re done, you can reapply this same look to other photos with just one click. Go to the Actions panel, and click on the Create New Action icon at the bottom of the panel. When the New Action dialog appears, name this “High-Contrast Look” and click the Record button. Now it’s recording every move you make... every step you take, it’ll be watching you (sorry, I just couldn’t resist).

Step Two
Make a copy of your Background layer by pressing Command-J (PC: Ctrl-J). Now, change the blend mode of this duplicate layer to Vivid Light (I know it doesn’t look pretty now, but it’ll get better in a few more moves).

Step Three
Now press Command-I (PC: Ctrl-I) to Invert the layer (it should look pretty gray at this point). Next, go under the Filter menu, under Blur, and choose Surface Blur. When the dialog appears, enter 40 for the Radius and 40 for the Threshold, and click OK (it takes a while for this particular filter to do its thing, so be patient. If you’re running this on a 16-bit version of your photo, this wouldn’t be a bad time to grab a cup of coffee. Maybe a sandwich, too).

Step Four
We need to change the layer’s blend mode again, but we can’t change this one from Vivid Light or it will mess up the effect, so instead we’re going to create a new layer, on top of the stack, that looks like a flattened version of the image. That way, we can change its blend mode to get a different look. This is called “creating a merged layer,” and you get this layer by pressing Command-Option-Shift-E (PC: Ctrl-Alt-Shift-E).

Step Five
Now that you have this new merged layer, you need to delete the middle layer (the one you ran the Surface Blur upon), so drag it onto the Trash icon at the bottom of the Layers panel. Next, we have to deal with all the funky neon colors on this layer, and we do that by simply removing all the color. Go under the Image menu, under Adjustments, and choose Desaturate, so the layer only looks gray. Then, change the blend mode of your merged layer (Layer 2) to Overlay, and now you can start to see the effect taking shape. Now, head back over to the Actions panel and click on the square Stop Recording icon at the bottom of the panel, because what we’re going to do next is optional.

Step Six
This high-contrast look looks great on a lot of stuff, but one area where it doesn’t look that good (and makes your image look obviously post-processed) is when you apply this to blurry, out-of-focus backgrounds, like the one you see here. So, I would only apply it to our subject and not the background. Here’s how: Option-click (PC: Alt-click) on the Add Layer Mask icon at the bottom of the Layers panel to hide the contrast layer behind a black mask (so the effect is hidden from view). With your Foreground color set to white, get the Brush tool (B), choose a medium-sized, soft-edged brush, and paint over just our subject to add the high-contract effect there.

Step Seven
Finally, go to the Layers panel and lower the Opacity of this layer until it looks more natural, as shown here at 65%. Now, you can flatten the layers and sharpen it using Unsharp Mask. I used Amount: 120, Radius: 1, Threshold: 3 to finish off the effect. Remember: you created an action for this, so now you can apply this effect to other images with just one click.

A before/after is shown below.

Dreamy Focus Effect for People and Landscapes

This is an effect I get asked about a lot, because I use it a lot. The particular thing I get asked is, “How do you get that look where your image looks sharp, but soft at the same time?” Well, it’s actually really simple, but don’t tell anybody it’s this simple, because I’d prefer that people thought I had to pull off some serious Photoshop magic to make this happen. LOL!

Step One
The sharpness of this effect comes from sharpening the image right up front, so I usually save this effect for when I’m about to save the file (in other words, I usually save the sharpening for the end, but in this case, there’s another move that happens after the sharpening, so let’s start with the sharpening first). Go under the Filter menu, under Sharpen, and choose Unsharp Mask. When the dialog appears, enter 120% for the Amount, set the Radius to 1.0, and set the Threshold to 3 for some nice punchy sharpening. Click OK.


Step Two
Duplicate this sharpened layer by pressing Command-J (PC: Ctrl-J).

Step Three
Now, go to the Filter menu, under Blur, and choose Gaussian Blur. When the filter dialog appears, enter 25 pixels for the Radius (you may have to go to 35 pixels or higher if you have a 24-megapixel or higher camera. Don’t worry so much about the number, just make sure your image looks at least as blurry as this one does), and click OK.

Step Four
Finally, go to the Layers panel and change the Opacity amount of this blurred layer to 30% (as shown here), and that completes the effect. Now, I know what you’re thinking, “Scott. Seriously. Is that all there is to it?” Yes, and that’s why it’s best we keep this just between us. ;-)

Excerpted from The Adobe Photoshop CC Book for Digital Photographers (2014 release) by Scott Kelby. Copyright © 2015. Used with permission of Pearson Education, Inc. and New Riders.


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