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Photoshop Special Effects

Sep 10, 2008
Photographs can be enhanced in many ways with Photoshop. Many times the areas of the photo that are touched up can be differentiated from their surrounding areas. You have the tools to create a nice, soft fade from the effect and effect-free areas through masking and there are many ways to achieve this. Before you add an effect to any area of the photo it is useful to add this masking to the selected areas you want to adjust. One method most commonly used is the 'quick mask mode'. It is quick and easy to use and normally produces acceptable results.

Quick masking:

Find the button called 'edit in quick mask mode' in Adobe Photoshop. It looks like a circle in a rectangle located near the bottom of the main tool bar. There is also a short-cut key: Q. Once in quick mask mode, you can select and deselect areas by painting them with white and black respectively, using the standard brush tool. For best accuracy, zoom to 100 or 200 %. You can use a soft-edged brush to avoid hard edges. After you are done, exit the masking mode and go to 'Select > Feather' and set the feather radius to somewhere around 5-10 pixels. 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 than in another.

Layer masking: Only a bit more complicated, you can add a layer mask. This lets you to apply any effect gradually from any point in your photo. Follow these steps to achieve this:

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. Click on your image on the point you don't want to change, and 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 created.

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 same layer masking explained 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. In principle, vignetting is considered a lens dysfunction, but subjectively it can add an extra feeling to your photo. It will create a kind of frame that will have a 'sucking' effect, drawing more focus to the center of your photo. You can also just lower the contrast and/or color-saturation around your main subject, helping to divide it from the background clutter. Be creative with the many options you have available!

Soft glow effect: Creates 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 reaching desired effect:

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

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

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

Black-and-white-ish: 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.

Color grading: The same color washed effects found in some movies (golden brown, soft blue) can also be applied to your photos if desired. The easiest way is to go to 'Image > Adjustments > Hue/Saturation', click 'Colorize' and use the slide bars to choose your preferred grading. It's better to use the 'Edit > Fill' function if you want a well-defined color. Simply select the color you want and set the 'Blending mode' to 'Color'. Whichever method, it's good first to duplicate your layer before you start. This will permit you to maintain some of the original colors by turning the color 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 color gradings. Mix them together, again with the 'Opacity' slider and the different 'Layer blending mode' options in the layer box.

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.

Micro contrast: To enhance your contrast and draw out texture details in your photos use this effect. You can even use it when your overall contrast is already maxed out, using all tonal ranges from pure black to pure white. The method is likened 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. You can create stunning and unique photos with any of the above mentioned effects. Remember however that just as important as learning how to apply these effects, is learning when to use them. You want to make sure to not lose the original qualities of the photo to the special effects. When to use these effects is ultimately up to you and your personal taste and opinion. Less can be more, so make sure not to overdo it.
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