Here is a brief tutorial on how to add a contrasty “look” to just about any picture. There are sites out there to purchase many of these types of actions, and some of them are well worth the price, but I’ve found that through my years, many other photographers have offered up free advice as I was learning to scrape the surface of Photoshop, which enabled me to gain a deeper understanding of my post processing. So, in this tradition, I shall try to pay back a bit of that help by offering up this little trick. I know that many photographers would rather spend their free time taking pictures, not in front of a computer processing them. I myself find enjoyment on both sides of this coin, but I sure don’t mind being able to quickly automate some of my more “used” techniques. This is one of them…
The idea behind this post started when a fellow GF-1er had mentioned a photoshop action that they had purchased which appeared to do something similar to an action that I had recorded for myself and used on a fairly regular basis to boost contrast while sharpening. Mine looked a little different, so there began the exploration. I was kind of stumped, I kept hitting dead ends, so I did some searching around on local and global contrast. As luck would have it, another photographer had commented on one of my blog posts and I got around to checking out his blog (as I often like to do with anyone who posts their link when commenting) and while there was one aspect of the effect that I couldn’t quite nail down, I saw this! George, the author of that blog, shows how to punch up your local contrast using the unsharp mask filter. It is quick, and if turned into an action of its own, can help by boosting the contrast on most all photos with one click of your action play button. I’d never thought to use the unsharp mask that way! Thank you to George for your insight and generosity in openly sharing through your site. Stop over at his blog (www.phototouchup.net) and give him a shout. The paid action in question had gone further though and sharpened along with adding contrast both locally and globally, so we are going to build on George’s approach and get really sharp and contrasty up in here. Now, as opposed to having you just download my action, I figure I will just walk you through it so that you can record it, and change it up if you so choose. Teach someone to fish, ya know? Or, if you’re in a rush you can download this action for free HERE. (take the 30 seconds to input an email address and password for presetpond to get all the free downloads you can handle)
Okay, let’s start by recording an action. You will need photoshop (a semi current version CS1 or later I believe), or any version of photoshop elements capable of recording actions for this. If you’ve not recorded an action before, it is really easy, and a great way to help automate tasks that you tend to do repeatedly.
With your image open in Photoshop, make sure your Actions palate is selected, like so:
To record an action, we need to start by pressing the create new action icon (next to the trash can). Once you’ve named your action and told it where to live (actions need to live in “sets” which are just folders, so name your set or assign this action to a set and hit record *see step one below), it will begin recording your every mouse click. Try to think of this action as a general application that can be applied to many photos, and not just the photo you are working on while recording. What may work for one image may need to be adjusted for another, etc. Cloning, selections and the like should be left out of this particular action (and most actions in general) and dealt with on a picture by picture basis. That said, don’t worry if your picture looks crazy after applying these settings. I will explain how to modify these by way of layer opacity after the action has been applied. We will now record our Contrast Pop action… Ready?
1. Press the “Create New Action” icon, name that bad boy, assign it a set and press record.
2. We are going to start by using George’s Unsharp trick. Copy your background layer (easiest way is to click on it and drag it over the “create new layer” icon at the bottom of your layers palate which is the icon next to the trash that looks like a piece of paper with a folded up corner). With the background copy layer selected, go to Filter>Sharpen>Unsharp Mask and input George’s numbers: Amount – 20%, Radius – 50 and Threshold – 0 You should see an instant change. Because we duplicated the background layer, we can easily change the opacity to suit our needs for each different picture. Hold off on doing that for the time being, as you want to keep these settings at your ground zero for the sake of the action.
3. Copy the “Background Copy” layer (you can again just drag the ‘background copy’ layer over the create new layer icon). We are going to apply a combo smart sharpen and high pass filter to the background copy 2 layer. With the background copy 2 layer selected, go to Filter>Sharpen>Smart Sharpen and input these numbers: Amount – 100%, Radius – 1 pixel, Angle – 0 and click OK. Not clicking anything else, go to Filter>Other>High Pass and input: Radius – 50 pixels. I know that this is much more than the traditional high pass sharpening setting, and may look like some HDR haloed nightmare scene, but it will aid us in creating the substantial contrast that helps make up this look, and don’t worry, we’re going to adjust the blend mode. With the background copy 2 layer still selected, click on the drop down box next to the Opacity slider (it should say “Normal”) and select “Overlay” as your blend mode. See, not quite so bad.
4. Now, to be a good PS’er, we should rename our layers so that down the road after we’ve forgotten we even had this action around, we will remember what each of the layers was there for and in turn, easier to adjust the opacity of each one knowing what we’re adjusting. Double click on the layer name “Background copy” and rename it whatever you’d like. I will name mine George (I will hug him, and love him,…). Next, rename the “Background copy 2” layer, I will name this one Smart pAss. (the fun part about having your own blog, is you get to do just about whatever you want…) Now just click Return (Enter on a PC) to finalize your second copied layer’s name.
5. Click the stop button at the bottom of the Actions Palate (the square next to the red record button) and VIOLA! You have finished recording your action.
Now, each image may need a little adjustment, but all you need to do to apply these same base settings to any image is highlight your action and press the play button (the triangular button that looks like it would mean play at the bottom of the actions palate) and it will apply these same layers to whichever image you have open in Photoshop. By keeping each of these adjustments on their own layer, we can simply adjust the opacity of each to get the final image where we want it. Another thing to keep in mind with this combination of local, and global sharpening is, with the gratuitous highpass filter, it can produce unsightly halos, really deepen shadows and when combined with over sharpening, can be unflattering, to skin especially. If you don’t believe me, just run this action over a picture of your significant other or spouse and see how they feel about it. Depending on your partner’s demeanor (I won’t say gender as I know plenty of guys who are self conscious about their portraits too), you may have responses like those I’ve gotten which have been anywhere from “THROW THEM ALL AWAY NOW” and, well I don’t know, she didn’t talk to me for a couple days. Easy answer: add a layer mask and paint the adjustment out of the areas that you want to remove the contrast from (I’ll give you a hint again, the skin for those you would like to remain on good terms with). I masked out the Smart pAss filter by adding a layer mask and painting with a soft brush over Kira’s skin in the image above. Here’s how my layers palate ended up looking, resulting in the “after” image above:
That’s about the size of it. Hopefully this is helpful and brings a little pop to your photography.
Here are some of my before and after images using the newly created action:
You certainly should watch out for the halos that can be created in situations of high contrast if that is a look that bothers you (I’m not a huge fan myself). It’s pretty easy to deal with them though if you want. You can decrease the opacity of the Smart pAss layer, or mask that layer and paint the halos out. I think that this ended up close to what I was trying for based on the discussion at gf-one.com that started this whole adventure, so hopefully this will save a few of us some money… :) This type of treatment isn’t for every picture perhaps, but it can help create a little drama and depth in an otherwise flat shot. At first glance, knowing what heavily applied high pass can do to skin, this doesn’t seem to make a whole lot of sense for traditional portraiture, but I have had great luck using similar tactics when I was able to selectively apply it by masking out the effect on skin and other features that weren’t exactly ‘flattered’ by this type of modification. It’s only a foundation from which to build your masterpiece. Enjoy and if you feel like sharing, I’d love to see your results in our flickr group pool.
Happy shooting everyone.