3 simple photo enhancements

Focus, Vignette and Sepia – three simple effects to enhance your photos.

This tutorial will delve a little deeper into working with layers while giving you three really simple but cool effects for getting creative and artistic with your photos. A very popular portrait technique has been to use a filter that creates a blurred edge effect with a focused center. I know some photographers who created this by smearing ring of petroleum jelly around a UV filter on the front of their lens. Well, Photoshop can give us a much less messy way to achieve this look. In addition to the blurred edges (sometimes called a focus vignette) we’re going to darken them as well and then finally give the image an overall sepia-tone treatment.

My cat, Copper, was more than happy to curl up and strike a pose for this project. Now, personally I love this image pretty much as it is, but I also like to create different looks depending on the project I’m working on. So let’s get a little creative with this one.

  1. Load up the original image from the end of this post (or one of your own if you have something you want to play with). Start off by duplicating the background layer (Ctrl/Cmd + J). Go up to the top of your toolbox and select the elliptical selection tool. In the tool settings along the top enter in a value of about 40-60 in the “Feather” box (the bigger the number, the more gradual your effect will fade out of focus). Then draw a nice big circular selection around Copper’s fuzzy face. If you’re not familiar with the “Feather” effect this is simply making your selection have soft faded edges rather than a sharp line. To actually see what this looks like, go over to your toolbox and just under the foreground/background selection boxes there are two buttons. The one on the right is a dark rectangle with a hole in it that lets you “Edit in Quick Mask mode”.
    Quick Mask

    Click this and you will see that your selection turns into a “mask” like the image to the right. The selected area shows normal while the area that is not selected has been highlighted in red – the same as when we use layer masks to hide part of a layer. This functions the same way as the layer mask in that you can edit it with a black or white brush, gradient, etc. Once your selection looks right it will need to be inverted since we want to blur the edges, not Copper’s face! Go to Select > Inverse and you’ll see the selection flip.

  2. Now go up to filters and select Filter > Blur > Gausian Blur. Pick a good amount of blur – it’s ok if you think it might be too much because you can use the opacity settings on the layer to reduce this effect later if you want. I chose 8.5 pixels. Apply the filter and adjust the layer transparency to get the amount of blur you want.
  3. Viola! Can’t get much easier than that…nice blurry edges! Don’t turn off your selection just yet though (if you did, undo it!!) Let’s darken those edges just a bit to enhance the vignette. Create a new layer (click on the folded page button at the bottom of the layers window). Now grab the paint bucket and fill the selected area with black. You should get a solid black edge fading to a transparent center.
  4. To make this effect really work we need it to be more subtle. One of the most powerful features of layers is Blending Modes. These can be accessed at the top of the layers palette where you see the word “Normal” with a drop arrow next to it. Click there and you’ll have a big menu of options. Play with this as much as you want…with simple black layer we have right now many of them won’t look any different, but there are few options that will give a good look here depending on the image you’re working with. Overlay and Soft Light are two really good ones and if you want to reduce the color in the edges Hue, Saturation and Color at the bottom of the list will all have that effect (with a simple black layer like what we have here). For this image I picked Soft Light and then reduced the transparency of the layer to 78% (the shadows were just a bit too dark for my taste J). One little trick here – to quickly scroll through the different layer blending modes without clicking on each of them,  go up and pick the Move tool from the toolbox and then double-click in the blending modes box so that it’s highlighted but not expanded. You can then use the up and down arrow keys to browse the different effects and see how they impact your image. Oh, and if you would rather have the vignette make the edges lighter – you want it to be white instead of black. Go up to Image > Adjustments > Invert. You may need to readjust the blending mode and transparency to get the look you want.
  5. Now to create a nice sepia-tone look we’re going to dive into using special layers known as Adjustment Layers. These nifty little things allow you to enhance the image you’re working on without actually altering anything permanently. If you were to boost the brightness and contrast of a picture by just applying it the image, you’ve changed the pixels in the image and if you decide to change this later you may run into some problems with degrading the image – if you boost brightness to the point where you lose some highlight detail, you won’t be able to get that back!!! With an adjustment layer you can change this at any time without these worries because the main image layer stays just the way it is. So without further ado, look down at the bottom edge of your layers palette and pick the split dark and light circle to create a new adjustment layer. In the menu that pops up select Hue/Saturation. To tone the entire image you want to select the “Colorize” check box and then slide the Hue slider until you get a nice brown color (36). Bring down the Saturation a bit to 31, and the Lightness to -4. These are just the numbers that I liked…feel free to experiment and make your image as crazy as you want it to be. Copper probably won’t mind if you really want to make him a purple kitty.
  6. The image looks pretty neat just like this but I wanted to make it a little more bright and airy looking. Let’s create another adjustment layer, but this time select Levels from the menu. You might wonder why I didn’t go with Brightness/Contrast…well, without getting into too much technical stuff, Levels gives you better control. Just boosting brightness will cause a loss of depth in the shadows and blown-out highlights because it increases the brightness of ever pixel by the same amount. With Levels, you can keep the black and white points the same while boosting or reducing the mid-tones. In the Levels window, pick the grey slider in the middle just below the histogram and slide it to the left. You can also just type in a number in the center “input Levels” window. My choice was 1.94 but feel free to play with this to get the look you want. It might seem a little counter-intuitive to slide the pointer to the left in order to brighten the image. What this is doing is telling Photoshop to change the point where mid-grey is relative to pure black and white. If you move middle grey to a point closer to black, more of the remaining tones in the image will be toward the white side and vice-versa. I’m sure there’s a more technically correct way of saying that, but Copper didn’t know what it was so I’ll have to get back to you on that…
  7. Remember I said that you could go back and change these adjustment layers anytime???  Just double-click on either of the adjustment layers and you’ll see the corresponding dialog window open up again with the settings you selected right there. You can also see the original image anytime just by clicking the little eye icon in the layer to turn it off. Pretty cool stuff!!

Here’s the original image for you to play with:

Original Image

Beginning Layers

This tutorial is written for Photoshop newbies. If you already know what layers are and how most of the tools in Photoshop work but just want to see how to create this effect, scroll down to the end for a quick step-by-step without all the commentary. But you know you really want to read this 🙂

So just what is this layer you speak of? Heh, I can still remember when Version 3.0 of Photoshop was released with the first incarnation of layers…wow, I was stumped. I had never considered the possibility that you could stack images in software.

If you’ve seen the movie Iron Man you have seen layers in use. In the cave, his stack of drawings that reveal a complete design of the body suit when they are all piled up together is exactly what you do in Photoshop when you create layers. Basically, a layer is an extra “sheet” of clear drawing paper slapped over the top of the image you have opened up. Mind you, you can do a whole lot more with Photoshop layers than just draw over the top of your picture. That is easy enough to do, but in Photoshop layers can be used as backup copies of your image, they can blend different elements together and can even be set to alter the appearance of your base image without actually changing anything in that image (Layers that do this are a special type known as Adjustment Layers – more on that in a future tutorial.

So, to get your feet wet (ummm…yeah), I’ve got a little project that is kind of fun and creates a pretty cool image. This sort of layering can be used to create all kinds of neat cards or special pages for photobooks (Think faded names in the background of a high-school senior portrait). Something like this image could be used as an opener in a video about, well…vacation. Always a good theme in my book!Three layers created this image: Background, Shadow, and Main text

This graphic gives you an idea of what went into our final image – you have the main photo on your background layer, another layer with the shadow of the word “Vacation”, and the top layer is the upright solid word “Vacation”.

You can get the original image at the end of this post…yeah it’s yours for free! (You’ve read this far…you might as well get something for it.)

  1. Select the text tool  and click somewhere in the left-center of the water. Photoshop automatically creates a new “text layer” and you should see the little bracket thing blinking and patiently waiting for you to type something. Here’s where you can make lots of fun choices. The Font you use and color and size can all be changed in the dialog boxes near the top edge of the workspace window. You can actually change the color in two places…up there next to the font size and centering selections, or down in your main toolbox where you have the foreground/background options. I seriously doubt any of you have exactly the same font options on your system that I do…I’m a bit of a font fiend, so I’ve downloaded thousands of the little buggers. The font I’ve used in this image is Monotype Engravers. Pick whatever happens to make you smile. Also, if you want a color other than black, go ahead and change that using the foreground color box at the bottom of your toolbox. Now, type in “Vacation”…or really whatever you feel like typing. If it looks fairly minuscule in your image, select the text by dragging across it and then pick a new size in the box at the top. You don’t have to stick with the numbers in the list…you can type in anything you want, but Photoshop just likes to give you a list of suggestions. OK, congratulations! You now have a text layer floating on top of the water. Quite literally actually. Grab the move tool in the upper right corner of your toolbox and move the text around to where you would like it to be.
  2. Here’s a neat trick. In order to get the fun wavy Shadow we’re going to duplicate the text layer and flip it over. Like so many things in Photoshop, there are at least 4 ways to duplicate a layer. First, make sure your “Vacation” text layer is selected. You can then click on the little right-arrow in the top border of the layers palette and select Duplicate Layer. Or…you could go up to the main menu bar and select Layer > Duplicate Layer. You can click on the layer in the layers palette and drag it down to the little icon that looks like a page with its corner being turned up (if you hover over this with the mouse it will tell you this is the “create a new layer” button.) Finally you can just hit Cmd/Ctrl + J. Why J??? No idea really…but I like to think it’s saying “jump” this to a new layer. By the way, I’m a big fan of the keyboard shortcuts like this. It really starts to save time when you get into doing a lot of editing.
  3. You should now have two text layers – “Vacation” and “Vacation copy”. You probably won’t notice any visible change in the image though…because the duplicate copy is sitting exactly on top of the original. Double click the “Vacation” text layer in the layers window and rename it to “Shadow”. Next, go up to Edit in the top menu bar and select Transform > Flip Vertical. Now you suddenly have a jumbled mess of text. Good job!!! Go back to the move tool and then hold shift down and click and drag the text down until it lines up just underneath the upright version of the word. (Holding the shift key limits the movement of objects in either straight vertical, horizontal or 45 degree lines…try moving without holding shift and it will be much more difficult to line the text up).
  4. Okay…starting to look like we might have some shadows going on. Let’s make it spread out a little as it moves away from the main text (this makes the shadow look more believable with the sun as a light source). First we are going to have to rasterize the text. Say Huh? Rasterize is Photoshop-eeze for “convert the text from editable text to a pixel image”. This has to be done in order to apply certain effects and filters to text, such as transformations (If you’re trying to apply a filter or transformation to text and Photoshop just doesn’t seem to want to let you do it, it’s probably because you need to do this rasterize thing). You cannot change the text once you do this so always make sure you have checked your spelling first!! To rasterize your text you can either right click the “Shadow” layer and then select Rasterize, or go up to the main menu bar and select Layer > Rasterize > Layer. Now with the “Shadow” layer still selected go to the main menu to select Edit > Transform > Perspective. A frame with small “control boxes” on the corners and sides will show up around the reflected text. Pick the lower left or right box and drag it sideways away from the center of the text. You will see the bottom edge of the text expand to create a perspective effect. When you have something that looks decent go back up to Edit > Transform  and pick Distort. This time, click on the control box in the center of the bottom edge of the frame and pull it down slightly to lengthen the Shadow a bit. Again, move it around until you find something you like. You may need to go back to the perspective option to get it to look right. Double click inside the frame to apply the changes.
  5. To fade this shadow as it gets further from the base of the main text, we’re going to create a layer mask. What?!?! Ok, for now just trust me and do this step. I’ll explain masks more in another tutorial (HERE). Along the bottom border of the layers window there’s an icon that looks like a grey square with a white hole in the middle. If you hover over this button it tells you it is the “Add layer mask” button. With your upside-down “Shadow” layer selected, click this button. You will notice a little white box shows up in the layer window next to the name of your layer. This is a thumbnail image representing the “mask”. Click on this thumbnail to select it and then go to the gradient tool (it may be hiding behind the paint bucket).  Make sure you have a black foreground and white background color. In the upper information bar there is a preview of the gradient that should start with black on the left and fade to white on the right. Now click below the bottom edge of the reflected “Vacation” text and drag a line straight up to somewhere near the center of the reflected text. This will create a faded look to the Shadow! It may take a few tries to get it to look just right, so if you don’t like the way it looks at first undo the action and try again. (If you draw the gradient line at a slant, one side of the text will be faded more than the other…try holding the shift key as mentioned earlier!). It may take a couple tries to get it to look the way you want. The little white box mask thumbnail should now have a black area in the bottom. Finally, in the Layers window there is a box for “Opacity” in the upper-right. Click the right arrow on the side of this box and slide this down to a number somewhere around 85% (or just type that in)…whatever looks best to you.
  6. Whew!! Awesome…now it’s really starting to look like there’s something going on here! Let’s give it a little ripple. First, click on the “Shadow” layer again (You have to deselect the mask otherwise you will just be rippling that, not the actual text!). Go to the main menu bar and select Filter > Distort > Ripple. A dialog box pops up and will show a preview of the ripple effect. If all you see is little grey and white checkers you need to click in the window and slide it around until the text shows up. There is a slider bar for the “Amount” of ripple and a drop box for the “Size”. The goal is to approximate the ripples that are in the background image, so pick the “small” setting in size and then slide the amount slider until you find something that looks good. I went with 94.
  7. Now we just need a little blur to take the sharp edges off. Go back up to Filter > Blur > Gaussian Blur. This time you are just given a “Radius” selection. A bigger radius will blur your text further…pretty much into oblivion at the higher end!!! Since we want this to be subtle, select something in the range of .8 and 1.2 pixels.
  8. Suh-Weet!!! Ok, last step is to give the main text a little dimension. Select your “Vacation Copy” text layer and go up to Layer > Layer Style > Bevel and Emboss. There are a lot of options in this window, so you can just go with the defaults if you want, but I would at least recommend you play with the shading “Angle” wheel in the center of the window. This changes the direction of the highlight that shows on the text. Move it around until it seems to be coming from the sunshine. You can also change the highlight color from white to a soft yellow light to match the sun’s color more closely.

That’s pretty much all there is to it!!

Short-short version:

  1. Load image and create a text layer “Vacation.” Move it to the location you prefer.
  2. Duplicate this text layer and name the original “Shadow”.
  3. Select the Shadow layer and go to Edit > Transform > Flip Vertical to flip the text. Use the move tool and hold shift to drag the text down so the base lines up under the main text layer.
  4. Rasterize the “Shadow” text layer (Layer > Rasterize > Layer) and then do a perspective transform (Edit > Transform > Perspective). Click on one of the lower corner control boxes and drag so that the text widens on the lower edge. Now go to Edit > Transform > Distort and pull the center control box on the bottom down to stretch the text down.
  5. Add a layer mask to the “Shadow” text layer and then use a black to white gradient to fade the lower edge of the shadow. Reduce the opacity of the layer to around 85%.
  6. Create a ripple effect using Filter > Distort > Ripple. Ripple size set at small and amount about 94.
  7. Blur the shadow slightly using Filter > Blur > Gaussian Blur set to a radius of .8 to 1.2
  8. Select the “Vacation Copy” text layer and apply a bevel (Layer > Layer Style > Bevel and Emboss). Change the highlight direction until it appears to come from the sun and change the highlight color to a warm yellow (hint: Use the color picker to select a color from the sun).
Original Image: right click to save

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