Today I'm going to be delightedly babbling on about one of my very favorite Photoshop techniques. I use it on every single image in one way or another. First though, I'd like to do some babbling about two really fantastic humans. As you may have discovered by now, earlier this month (October 2014 for you future people), I attended a Flickr gathering. At this meet up I met several of my new favorite people, aka everyone there. Two of these artists in particular happened to be Sarah Ann Loreth and Joel Robison. For those of you that don't know of these fine people, first of all I'm sorry, and secondly GET ON IT! Not only are they both incredibly talented creative image makers, but they, along with Shane Black, are wonderful enough to dedicate their time to spreading art, learning, and love to artists all across the nation through their traveling non-profit photography workshops called The Wild Ones. Basically what I'm trying to say is that they are super rad people to be around. I was lucky enough to have had some Flickr-meet-up-bonding-time with these crazy kids and can now officially call them my friends. (Life goal achieved.)
THE IDEA: FROM TRASH TO ARTWORK
While adventuring around the woods with my newly acquired Flickr family, we came across this random pile of really old rusty cans; who knows how they got there and what their story might be. I decided to base an image around this mysterious gathering of garbage. I rummaged through the props we brought and found a couple of old-looking glass bottles and some sort of antique-looking metal carafe and plopped those items into my scene with the cans. I had always wanted to use a smoke bomb in a photo. The obvious thought was to drop a smoke bomb into one of the cans and have smoke pouring out of it. My next obstacle was to come up with a reason why. I couldn't just have smoke coming out of a can purely because it looks awesome (but it totally does look awesome in case you didn't realize). Naturally my brain went to "magic." Joel and Sarah were in between shooting images and modeling for other photos and happened to be standing near me while my gears were turning.
Maybe Joel could be holding the can, I thought, having just successfully cast some sort of spell or completed a potion for some unknown purpose causing smoke to erupt from the can. Then it dawned on me that I'd never shot an image with more that one person in it! So I grabbed both of them (not physically, cuz um, rude) and started to unravel my little tale as I assigned them props and positions. After she kindly donned a black dress I pulled from the prop pile, I gave Sarah a rustic-looking book and instructed her to be reading fantastical magical science-y directions to Joel. I gave them each a pair of glasses, because safety first, but also more importantly because they looked cool and I felt it helped to build their characters.
I was hoping to create an image that told a story and even looked a bit storybook-ish when finished. Here we have two friends meddling with magic for the first time; they found a book of spells and wandered off to the woods to try one out. Knowing this little story really helped me to flesh out the details. For instance, I was able to tell Joel to look rather shocked, because this was their first spell and it actually worked! Then I had the idea that the spell could be starting to interrupt the gravity around them and to have some of the cans beginning to hover off the ground.
THE TECHNIQUE: SHADOW & HIGHLIGHT PAINTING FOR EPIC DETAILS
Now, lets get down to business, and by that I mean put your learning hats on because I'm about to teach the crap out of you....Unless you already know this technique, in which case...well done. Either way, here's what you're going to do. Make a new layer on top of your image and set it to "overlay" in the blending mode drop-down menu at the top of your layers pallet. Now grab a soft-edged brush, set your opacity to about 10% and select black as your color. I usually use a very small brush, even as tiny as one or two pixels depending on how fine the detail is I'm going to be painting.
Start painting more details into areas that you want to focus on. What you're doing is almost like a fancy form of tracing, but with more freedom to make creative decisions. Spots like faces, hands, and props are usually the most important. You don't want to spend hours accentuating parts like the texture of the bark on all the trees in the background. You want the viewer to focus on your subject. (In fact I ended up blurring the heck out of the trees in the background with the crafty use of a lens blur filter!!) In this image, I mostly focused this painting technique on things like tracing around the glasses and the eyes, playing up jawlines and lips, highlighting the edges of their faces and adding lots of texture and depth to the smoke.
Find where there's a bit of shadow and basically paint over it following the flow of the lines. Once you've added in some darker detailing, you can switch to white and start adding in highlights. Obviously though, you're going to end up switching back and forth between dark and light many times, building up more and more detail work. Really what you're doing is increasing the contrast in the tiny details to make them more noticeable. When our eyes see an area that's dark directly next to light, it is perceived as sharper and appears to have more depth.
After you're happy with your meticulously painted "overlay" layer, you can do this same exact technique again on another layer set to "soft light." I always use a combination of both. The "overlay" one is there to paint in the very tiny details, because that blending mode tends to look a bit more contrasty and really makes things pop. Then I use the soft light layer for more broad overall shading. An area like the whole top half of Joel's arm was highlighted in white and the whole bottom half of his arm darkened with black to give it more depth and shape overall, while the little wrinkles and folds in his shirt were highlighted and shadowed with the overlay layer. It's harder to tell the difference on the grey layer; just mess around with the two blending modes and you'll see what I mean. Don't be scared to go a little crazy - you can always back out and then just turn the layer opacity down a bit. This technique came in especially handy for this image, because I wanted it to look a bit more illustrative. Also, unfortunately my capture was a bit dark and not the most absolutely sharp image I've ever taken, so I went a little farther with my painting than I might normally do for other images to pump some detailed quality back into it.
Well I hope you enjoyed this post and that you'll try applying this skill to your work in some way. Good luck and have fun! (Or else)