Anatomy of a Photograph

Lauren at Home

For this morning, an explanation of Photoshop techniques.

Edith in White 15

I thought I’d offer readers a blow-by-blow account of the processing leading from this

to the image shown first above.  Perhaps some among you might find useful techniques in the following.  (The excellence of Edith’s classic pose speaks for itself.)

First, I’ll note that the unprocessed image above is the JPEG from the shot, whereas here is the unprocessed RAW version:

It’s hard to see the differences, but differences are there — most noticeable are the more natural looking skin tones in the RAW image.  Differences derive from the in-camera processing of the image, which applies whatever parameters the photographer set, yielding the JPEG version.  It’s a reason that digital photographers who know what they’re doing always shoot in RAW, not wishing to subject themselves to the none-too-gentle ministrations of the in-camera processor.  In any case, the RAW image is processed and cropped, transferring the following to Photoshop as a Smart Object (I always bring my photos out of Adobe Camera Raw as Smart Objects, for reasons too numerous to mention here):

In addition to the crop, principal changes:

  • Adjusting white balance (an advantage of shooting on gray seamless paper is you have a ready-made gray card for each shot);
  • Selecting the Camera Portrait profile, which adds additional natural skin tones;
  • Slightly increasing blacks;
  • Slightly increasing exposure;
  • Increasing brightness, which pumps up the midtones;
  • Softening the image by decreasing clarity;
  • Considerably increasing contrast by both a curves adjustment and increasing the contrast setting; and
  • Significantly reducing saturation in the red, orange and yellow channels, while also significantly increasing luminosity in those same channels.

I wanted the increased contrast, reduced saturation and increased luminosity as a starting point for changes to be made.  I wanted the image to appear a bit dark because I knew early PS alterations would brighten it.

To achieve the effect I wanted, a mask of Edith’s body was crucial.  Photoshop offers several tools to create selections, from which masks are derived, and I used several of them here, including,

  1. The Magic Wand (to select the gray background);
  2. Quick Mask and Brush to fine-tune the selection;
  3. Refine Edge to smooth and feather the selection; and
  4. Refine Edge again, used separately to select the hair, which is a capability added to PS only recently (I selected the hair fringe and individual hair strands separately, then combined the results with the body selection).

Here is the result — a precision not achievable in earlier versions of PS:

Creating the mask was without question the most time-consuming element of the processing.  With this mask, however, I could do a lot.

First task (which did not involve the painstakingly prepared mask):  smooth the skin.  I wanted the photo’s effect to be not just of lightening the skin pigments, but to look like thick white makeup had been applied.  The easiest way to accomplish this?  Apply a Surface Blur filter.  Since my base layer was a Smart Object, I applied the filter (Radius 3, Threshold 10) as a Smart Filter.  I did not want the filter to smooth out the hair, however, so I masked that out.  Also the key facial features and the exposed nipple:

This then is the post-Surface Blur look:

Changes are subtle on this reduced-size image, but in a print the lack of skin texture shows plainly.

(Not detailed among these steps are the minor healing and cloning corrections, which I do to every photo.)

Next I wanted to lighten the body in the image without affecting the background. This I accomplished using the “lightness” slider in a Hue/Saturation adjustment layer, increasing lightness to +21, with the following mask applied:

Without changes to the mask to regain some of the body shadow, the entire effect was a figure that looked washed out, not to mention hair that became more of a light brunette:

With the mask applied, however, the effect is better:

Now, to make the effect even more that of white body makeup, I whitened the image. This can be accomplished by many techniques, but I prefer to apply a Solid Color Fill Layer, in this case white, in “color” blend mode with a mask and opacity reduced to 50%. The mask:

and the result:

Note that the mask again does not expose the nipple, or the fingernails, or the hair, and only partially exposes the lips.

I might have been satisfied with this, I suppose, but to make the figure jump out even more, I wanted to change the background color.  Selective Color easily permits this, changing the “Neutrals” (cyan +24, magenta -7), which with an inverse of the body mask yields the green background seen in the final image.

Now for some facial makeup, to increase the realism and appearance of a mime-like figure.  The easiest way to do that is to add Solid Color Fill Layers for whatever makeup colors one wants, with each layer in “color” blending mode, applying an inverse mask (i.e., a black layer mask), and then painting in on the mask the area to be “made up.”  The three layers in this case appear:

applying to (from the bottom) cheeks, entire eyelids and lower eyelids.

If you look closely, you will note a faint lighter halo surrounding Edith’s figure.  This is an “outer glow” blending effect, achieved by using the body mask to create a 50% gray image on a new layer in Soft Light blend mode.  (The following image shows gray against white — in PS it is actually gray against transparency.)  An outer glow is applied to this layer.  (Look at the final results, below, to see the glow.)

One effect I instructed Edith to simulate in several photographs was to scrape away part of the white makeup, which in this case meant making it appear she had dragged her fingers across her upper chest to expose the underlying skin. To achieve this I had to create a layer with natural skin colors, which meant duplicating the original Smart Object (“New Smart Object Via Copy”), then reverting back to the version before decreasing saturation and increasing luminosity. It looks like this:

Apply an inverted mask with the finger tracks painted in and you get this overlay (again it is shown here as color-on-white, whereas in PS it is color-on-transparent):

The final step applies a vignette to darken the image’s corners. One can use many different approaches to achieve this. What I prefer is to create a black fill layer in Soft Light blend mode and use a mask to expose the portion to be darkened:

You may see the progress of all the preceding steps in the layer stack:

(The “Levels 1″ layer, seen here with clipping mask, slightly lightens the finger tracks.)  The final result, again (click to see in full size):


At her second of three apartments in which I photographed her.

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2 Responses to Anatomy of a Photograph

  1. Dan Holahan says:

    Thank you. Always great to see step by step explanations by great photographers.

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