Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Advanced Layering Techniques – Bring Back The Sky

If you shoot birds in flight, you’ve probably been frustrated by trying to get the exposure right. Either the bird is blown out, or, more often, the background sky looks perfect, but the bird is just a dark silhouette. Been there, done that, hit the “delete” button.  If you expose the bird perfectly (yay!) the sky is probably too light (boo!).

There are a number of ways to fix such shots. Making major adjustments usually cause some problems. Noise and artifacts appear whenever you lighten a photo, so starting with a photo where the sky looks good, but the bird is too dark probably won’t win you any awards. Let’s work on how to fix the best of the miserable shots you ended up with – the ones where the bird is exposed the way you want it but the sky is too light. Since the bird is the main subject, that’s the part of the picture that you will want to look best anyway.

The simple way to fix you photo is to make a separate layer, adjust the sky, then mask the bird. That’s fine if you aren’t going to print the shot or try to sell it, but it is VERY difficult and time-consuming to get the mask just right. There are places that you just can’t get right (teeny-tiny feather edges) and such. If you use the “Select” tool, there are often parts of the birds that aren’t selected properly, and if you zoom way in, there will be little jagged edges along the lines where one set of pixels were selected while others weren’t. Nothing is more disappointing that working forever on a single photo and, when you are done, it looks so bad that you just delete it.

While nothing beats getting the perfect shot in the first place, there is a way to fix these kinds of shots fairly quickly without showing a lot of boo-boos if you zoom way in or print the photo at a larger size. Yes, you can take a lot of time to go around and clean these things up, but it is time-consuming, and doesn’t always leave a great end product.

This technique will leave you with nicer edges

Let me also take a second to mention that I have to downsize these shots a lot to use on my blog page – there is WAY more detail in the full-sized shots. I’m also making the assumption here that you have a basic understanding of how to use layers and masks. If you DON’T know how to use these, LEARN!!!!! It will improve your processing a million percent and cut the time it takes by about the same amount. Photoshop and Corel Paint Shop Pro pretty much work the same way in the steps I’m going to explain.

Let’s look at a fairly quick and easy way to fix the shot below that is lacking sky detail:

First step, run a noise-reduction step – we’re going to darken the photo and that always adds a little noise. Second, remove the bird (WHAT???) using a large clone tool and save the file using a different name.

Next, make a duplicate layer and set the layer type to “Multiply.” Duplicate the multiplied layer a couple of times until you like the way the sky looks. In this case, I used three layers. Merge all the layers down. Now the sky looks better, but it seems to be missing a bird.

Next, go back to your ORIGINAL photo, copy the entire thing and post as a new layer. If you want to reposition the bird, you can select an area around the bird (instead of copying the entire photo) making sure to get a little of the background all around it and place it where you want. Make a duplicate copy of the layer you just copied in and click the “Visibility” button to make the top layer invisible. You now have 3 layers. The bottom layer is the adjusted sky without the bird, the second (middle) layer is the original photo, and the top layer is the original photo, but not visible. At this point, your photo will appear to look just like the original photo since it is on top of the adjusted sky photo. Now, set the middle layer type to “Darken.” This will put back most of your bird as shown below:

The problem is that the white/light areas of the bird will appear blue as they are not darker than the background. The nice thing is that the computer did all the hard work of putting in all the really fine details on the darker edges of the bird without leaving any harsh transitions.

Next, make the top layer visible again and select a mask that masks the entire photo. Using a white brush, carefully unmask the white/light areas of the bird. You may want to brush across the entire body of the bird to bring up white/light areas there as well. The only place you really have to be a little careful is where the white on the bird reaches the very edge of the body. Still, it is not very difficult to get nice results without much effort – now you only have to work on a few areas with the mask because the computer did the rest.

Before and after:

To see more detail, you can view a large version of the above photo at:

Here’s the finished product:

Is it cheating? I'll let you make your own decision. Either way, this is the way it looked through my viewfinder when I took the photo and now I have a nice photo. Essentially, this isn't much different than just selecting the sky only and darkening it. The real difference is that this method only impacts the sky behind the bird and leaves the bird exactly as it was - which is the whole point of what you otherwise would have been trying to achieve by just selecting and working on the sky. The difference is that this method doesn't leave a bunch of lines or require a ton of work to make it look good.

I will admit that using photoshop too much can be thought of as turning a photo into art. The same can be said about using polarizers and colored filters - techniques used by photographers for decades. The same can be said about techniques old-timers used in the darkroom such as dodging and burning to give mist around moving water or even (gasp) trying to save a photo like the one I started with.

In this case, I didn't add or delete a single element of the photo. I was simply VERY selective about which components I darkened (which is what a "Multiply" layer does). I didn't even change the contrast, color or saturation. If someone said that they simply darkened a photo, most people would just shrug their shoulders and say, "So what?"

Decide for yourself what you want to do. There may be a gray line (or even a black line) between what you consider art and photography, but you can always fix that with Photoshop ;-)

Steve Byland is a wildlife photographer living in suburban New Jersey. His photos can be seen at www.stevebyland.com . You can email him at sbbyland@aol.com

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