Soft-focused daylily © F. M. Kearney
Photography 101: Easy Photoshop Techniques for the Budget-Conscious
By F. M. Kearney
Well, spring is finally in full swing and nature’s little jewels are adorning the land. From daffodils to tulips and a host of other colorful flowers, tremendous photo ops are everywhere you look. In last month’s article, I wrote about using wide-angle lenses to photograph flowers along with their natural or man-made surroundings. But there are many other creative ways to capture these popular subjects. You might prefer a soft-focused, shallow depth of field look… a look that’s typically provided by a professional-level, 70-200mm f/2.8 lens. The problem is that these lenses can cost well northward of $2,000, brand new. Even a used one is going to run you about $1,000. With the cost of everything skyrocketing nowadays, and when even a can of soup can cost $5.00 (on sale), these types of lenses are luxury items that most people simply cannot afford. In the days of film, you would just have to make do with whatever equipment you had. Capturing beautiful, soft-focused images would simply not be a reality for some. Fortunately, digital technology has leveled the playing field. Today, there are many ways to get that soft, dreamy look in your images… ways that can, in my opinion, even surpass that of a high-end lens.
PHOTO A (left): Original photo: 200mm, f/2.8, using 2 extension tubes. PHOTO B (right): Image enlarged and softened in Photoshop. © F. M. Kearney
I shot the daisy in Photo “A” in my home studio using a 70-200mm f/2.8 lens at 200mm wide open. I wasn’t able to get as close as I wanted to the water droplets, so I stacked two extension tubes together for greater magnification. I still wasn’t getting the softness or the magnification I initially envisioned. Luckily, a few simple techniques in Photoshop solved the problem.
PHOTO C: Original photo: 200mm, f/5.6, with extension tube PHOTO D: Image softened in Photoshop. © F. M. Kearney
I was able to get as close as I wanted to the decorative dahlia in Photo “C” using just one extension tube. I set my aperture to f/5.6 because I wanted to get more of the petals in focus. But afterwards, I had a change of heart and decided to highlight just a small area of one of the petals. Once again, Photoshop allowed me to easily change my vision.
Image-editing programs like Photoshop and Lightroom are major game-changers in the photography world. You can easily get that soft f/2.8 look with just a few quick clicks of the mouse. In some cases, you don’t even need an expensive long lens with extension tubes to get the tight composition you want. As seen in Photo “B,” you can easily crop an image to the magnification you need. This was a relatively minor crop. However, depending on your camera, you may be able to go much further.
The opening photo of this article is a daylily I shot using the Photoshop methods I mentioned. I also made a slightly larger crop. Photo “E” is the original image from which the opening photo was extracted. Of course, this is an extreme crop – one that I would never make under normal circumstances. But if this is as close as you can get with your equipment, you will soon see just how far you can push the limits with digital technology. Keep in mind, though, a crop like this will drastically reduce your file size and your ability to make large prints. But like I mentioned earlier… it all depends on your camera. I shoot with a Nikon D800. It’s a 36.3 MP camera that produces 206 MB TIFF files, when converted from RAW. This crop reduced my 206 MB file all the way down to 28 MB – not exactly small, but I certainly wouldn’t be able to make an enlargement anywhere near the size I could from my original file.
PHOTO E: Original image from which opening photo was extracted. © F. M. Kearney
The Photoshop techniques I used to create the images in this article are very basic and easy to learn. You simply need to apply a blur effect, and then remove it from the areas where you don’t want it. If necessary, crop the image to the size you need. You then need to duplicate the image by right-clicking the Background layer in the Layers palette, and selecting “Duplicate Layer” (Fig. 1). This creates a copy of your image – a very important step and the primary key to unlimited creativity. I’ll explain shortly.
You then need to apply a blur effect by going to Filter (on the top toolbar)>Blur>Gaussian Blur (Fig. 2). You can control the intensity of the effect by adjusting the Radius amount (Fig. 3). Generally, the radius should be set to over 20 pixels for high-resolution images, and under that if you’re images are low-resolution. But, it’s really just a matter of personal preference.
Figure 1: Duplicating the layer.
Figure 2 (left): Applying the Gaussian Blur filter. Figure 3 (right): The Gaussian Blur window.
The Gaussian Blur filter effect is global. After you click “OK,” your image will be completely out of focus (Fig. 4).
Figure 4: The Gaussian Blur filter will throw your photo completely out of focus.
If you decide that the amount of blur applied is a little too much, you can always reduce it by lowering its opacity. This control can be found in the Layers palette just above the layers (Fig. 5). In this case, I lowered it to 84%, but it can be readjusted at any time. It’s because of this flexibility that I sometimes like to go a little overboard when applying filter effects. I can always reduce it later if I want, but I will never be able to increase it from the level it was initially set.
As I mentioned earlier, duplicating the layer is a key step in this technique (as well as in many others). It’s important to understand the concept. By duplicating the layer, you’re essentially laying a copy of the image on top of itself. Any effects you apply are only being applied to the copy. By using the brush tool, you can literally wipe away all or parts of the effects applied to the copy layer to reveal the original, untouched (background) layer underneath. To do this, you will need to add a layer mask to the background copy layer by clicking the icon circled at the bottom of the Layers palette in Fig. 6. The mask is shown as a white box to the right of the image.
Fig. 6: Clicking the circled icon will add a layer mask to the background copy.
You now need to select the brush tool and make sure your foreground color is set to black. These tools are located on the long, vertical toolbar on the left side of your screen (Fig. 7). If you don’t see the brush tool, it might be because other tools are being displayed instead; i.e., pencil, color replacement or mixer brush tools. If that’s the case, simply place your cursor on the tool icon and click and hold for a few seconds until a list of all the tools appear. You can now select the brush tool. If your foreground color is some other color besides black, click the small, intersecting squares to the upper-left. This will return the color of the square to black and white. If, for some reason, white becomes the foreground color, just click the angled-arrow icon to the upper-right.
At this point, you’re now finally able to start having some fun! Here’s where the real creativity comes into play. Reduce the opacity and flow of your brush to around 40 and 30 percent, respectively. This will allow you to gradually remove the blur and slowly reveal the sharp image underneath (Fig. 8). Of course, the size and shape of your brush, as well as its opacity and flow, is entirely dependent on your image and personal preference. Keep in mind that the higher the opacity and flow, the faster and more thoroughly you will remove the effect. If you make a mistake and remove too much, just switch your foreground color to white and “paint” the blur back in.
Figure 7: Brush tool and foreground color icons.
Figure 8: Using the brush tool at a reduced opacity and flow to gradually reduce the Gaussian Blur effect.
For the opening photo, I used this method to remove most of the blur effect from upper-right and lower-left petals. Using a much smaller brush, I then increased my opacity and flow levels to 100% and removed it completely from the anthers on the tips of the pistols and the dew drops. No matter how good your lens may be, you will never be able to create targeted focus points like you can with digital technology.
When you’re finished working on your image you may want to “flatten” it. Flattening the image compresses the separate layers into one. Leaving the layers intact will allow you to return to the image in the future and continue working on it. However, it will also increase the file size of the image, which could be a problem if space is limited on your hard drive. If you do flatten the image, its original file size will be retained, but you will no longer be able to make any changes to the work you’ve done. I only leave my images unflattened if I don’t finish working on them in one session and intend to continue at some point later on. Otherwise, I always flatten them, but the choice is yours. To flatten the image, just right-click on any layer and click, “Flatten Image” (Fig. 9).
Figure 9: Flattening the image.
At this point, you’re pretty much done and can call it a day. But, as you get more familiar with Photoshop, you’ll see that you’re never really “done.” There’s always some little tweaking you can do elevate your image to the next level. In the case of my image, I really wanted to emphasize the dew drops. I used a technique known as Dodging, which lightens an area that you brush over. It’s often used in conjunction with an opposing technique known as Burning, which darkens an area. These tools can be found on the vertical toolbar on the left side of your screen (Fig. 10).
Figure 10 (left): Burning & Dodging tools Figure 11 (right): Range tool
Now, most people have probably heard of the Burning and Dodging tools before and have used them quite frequently. But, there’s a little-known feature that can dramatically improve the way they work. Located on the top toolbar is a feature called Range (Fig. 11). The window to the right will probably have Midtones selected as a default. Depending on whether you’re Burning or Dodging, the Midtones setting will lighten or darken everything equally. Since I wanted to lighten the dew drops, and only the dew drops, I set the Range to “Highlights.” By using a small brush at a low opacity, I was able to lighten them without affecting much of the surrounding area – thus, making them appear to pop off the page.
Today, we’re able to create images that we could only dream of just a few years ago… and the technology is constantly improving. So, don’t worry if your budget is tight. In many situations, just learning a few simple digital techniques will deliver results comparable (or even better) to what you would have gotten using expensive, high-end equipment.
F.M. Kearney began his career as a photojournalist for a variety of local New York City newspapers. It was an exciting profession, which allowed him to cover everything from famous celebrities to ride-alongs with NYPD and FDNY. He now specializes in nature and urban landscapes. To view more of his work, visit www.starlitecollection.com. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org, or followed on Facebook (@fmkearneyphotos) and/or Twitter (@fmkearneyphoto).