The Power of Curves adjustments

Just about anything you want to do to edit color and luminosity in your images, can be done with the curves adjustments. It’s a super powerful tool, but like all tools, takes a bit of practice to get the hang of. Within Adobe Photoshop, there are a few extra little features built into curves that let you easily color match elements within a composite.

This is an in-depth video demonstration of working with the Curves tools in Photoshop.

Take a look and let me know what you think – have you used curves in your work before?

Rabari – A New Photography Guide

Hey everyone!

I wanted to let you all know about Rabari – Encounters with the Nomadic Tribe, a fascinating new photography guide written by renowned travel photographer Mitchell Kanashkevich and recently published by our friends at Light Stalking.

I have to say that my first impression on a quick scan-through of this eBook was simply, “Wow!!” Not only has Mitchell given us a wonderful documentary of his project photographing a rural nomadic tribe in India, he has shared the experience in an instructional format providing a wealth of background information on his approach to “getting the shot”. For each of the ten excellent images in the book the reader is given insight into dealing with shooting in a foreign country and working with an interpreter,  reasoning and vision for the image, lighting diagrams and posing considerations, challenges in getting the shot and details on workflow and post-processing  in Lightroom and Photoshop.

When I finally got the chance to sit down and fully digest everything in the book I found it inspiring and easy to read. You really get a feel for what it was like to be on this project and how the author learned and interacted within the lives of these tribal people. Mitchell Describes everything in an easy, conversational text that feels like he’s teaching you one-on-one, detailing each shot and what the situation and his thoughts were before and after clicking the shutter. He gives you a breakdown of the gear he took (which was very minimal), how he dealt with transportation and finding a local guide and then goes through each image providing wonderful detail for photographers hungry to learn.

In short Rabari is a resource unlike any I’ve come across before and it should happily find a home in any photographer’s reference list. This is much more than just a “do this and do that” manual…it’s nearly 60 pages of Awesome. It gives you sense of what it is like to be a photographer on location in a desert shooting portraits of a people that don’t understand most of what you say. Add to that all the how-to details and you have a uniquely rich and satisfying edition. I have to give a heartfelt Thank You to Mitchell and Light Stalking for putting this together and I am certainly looking forward to more!

Click Here

…to head over to Light Stalking and get your own copy of Rabari. You’ll get a $5 discount through Christmas day!

Demystifying Levels, Curves, and the Histogram

Ok, so this tutorial is going to get a little more technical and theoretical, but I promise I’ll try to make it as easy as possible. To start with I’m going to describe what the Histogram is and why you should care about it (No really, it is your friend!!). Then we are going to dive into using Levels and Curves to adjust the tonal range in an image in order to enhance it. These are the very basics of image color and tonal adjustments.

The Histogram in Photoshop is essentially the same thing that is built into the interface of most DSLR cameras. You’ve probably seen it, but may have wondered what in the world this mountain range really meant. In its most simple form, any histogram represents the frequency of occurrence of some set of information. In photography…it shows us how many pixels in our image are black, white or any tone in between. Pure black is on the left and white is on the right. For a very basic example – say you have an image that is just four pixels – a simple square with one black, one white and two gray pixels. A simplified Histogram for this image would look like this: Image

In Photoshop the Histogram represents the tonal value of every pixel in the image, so what you’re actually looking at is millions of little bars stacked on top of each other – each mountain peak is indicating where a relatively larger number of pixels fall in the scale from black to white. If you have a massive mountain jammed all the way to right in your histogram, it is saying that your image is predominantly composed of white or near-white pixels…which may mean it’s over-exposed.

So is that bad? Well…it all depends really. Ultimately the idea of evening out the values across the histogram is just a suggestion and it’s up to you to decide what the image should look like, but understanding what the histogram is telling you can be a huge advantage in getting your images just right. High-key photos will be mostly leaning to the right while low-key images will have a greater proportion of dark pixels. The key is that you should still have a slight amount of information in the full range and the histogram will tell you if you are losing detail in any of the extremes.

So let’s make a simple image and start to learn how Levels and Curves affect the image and its Histogram. Start by creating a new image, and make it just 3 pixels by 3 pixels. You’ll get a teensy tiny square. Zoom in on this as far as possible (hit Ctrl/Cmd + 0). Now get your pencil tool and put one black pixel in the lower left corner of your square. Next, pick a dark gray and pencil that into one pixel above and to the right of the black one. Select a medium gray and put that in the upper left pixel, center pixel and lower right pixel. Finally, using a light gray fill in the top-center and right-center pixels, leaving the upper-right pixel white. You should have a rough gradient from black to white and a histogram that has a few bars in the middle and one all the way to the left and one to the right, like this:Image

The bars are telling you where in the range from black to white the pixels in your image fall.

Ok, now open up the Levels dialog and let’s start to do some adjusting. Make sure your histogram window is active (Window > Histogram) and then go to Image > Adjustments > Levels. You’ll get a window that pops up with the Histogram in it and a few sliders along the bottom called Input Levels. You’ll also see a gradient bar with two more sliders that is called Output Levels. There’s also a Channels drop box at the top that we aren’t going to worry about for now (this basically lets you work on one color “channel” at a time). Grab the black slider underneath the histogram and slowly move it to the right while watching your image. You’ll see the gray boxes gradually grow darker. As you cross the first bar in your histogram, the two pixels next to your original black pixel have now become black. Cross the center bar and the diagonal row of gray pixels turns completely black. Keep going and eventually you will be left with just one white upper right pixel and everything else is black. Slide that back all the way to the left and then move it back to white again while watching your histogram update in the other window. You should see the gray bars slowly marching their way toward black. Return that slider to the left side and now grab the white slider. As you move this to the left the opposite happens – your gray boxes start to turn white!! Return that to the right side and pick the gray slider in the middle. As you move this left or right the grays shift darker or lighter and your histogram bars will cluster to the right or left, but you still keep the pure white and black pixels the same.

So what’s that really doing? Well, those sliders tell Photoshop where to “map” black, white and middle gray in your image. If you open an image and it looks just mostly gray, you probably don’t have many black or white values, and pulling the sliders in essentially stretches the tonal range of the image to include more black and white (you’ll see this in the example image soon). Moving the gray slider will brighten or darken the image without destroying your shadows or highlights.

The output sliders at the bottom have a slightly different effect. If you experiment with them you will note that they actually reduce contrast and fade the black or white values. If you slide the black slider left, your image will be all very light grays and white. I honestly very rarely use the output sliders except for a few very particular cases. Finally, you will notice there are three little “eye-dropper” tools in the Levels window. These are useful for quickly picking in your image where the black, middle-gray and white points should be. Pick the white eye-dropper and click on the center middle-gray pixel. You will see that all the middle gray and lighter gray pixels are set to white. If you click back on your original white pixel in the upper-right everything returns to normal. Go ahead and experiment with the eye dropper tools noting the changes that occur when you pick different points.

Ok, cancel out of Levels and let’s try Curves. Go to Image > Adjustments > Curves. You’ll get another window with a diagonal line across it. This line is really just a graphical representation of the Levels you were just playing with. The output levels are your vertical axis and Input is the horizontal axis. White is the upper right point and black is in the lower left. You’ll also notice the same three eye-dropper tools. Make sure the Preview box is checked and then pick your white point and slide it to the left. You’ll see the same effect as when we moved the white slider in the Input section of Levels. Moving it down has the same effect as the Output Levels. Now pick a point in the middle and it creates a little box that you move around. Raise it up just slightly. This is the same as sliding the middle gray slider in Levels to the right – increasing the brightness of the image while retaining your white and black points.

When you’re through experimenting, try creating a simple “S” curve by slightly raising the highlights and decreasing the darker tones like this:


You’ll see that the contrast in the mid-tones has increased while your black and white points remain the same. If you flip the curve by raising your dark tones and lowering the highlights the contrast will be decreased. Cool stuff…

So enough messing around with little gray pixels…let’s try it on a real image! Load up the pole-vaulter picture at the bottom of this tutorial and convert it to grayscale (Hint: use an adjustment layer! Pick the split circle icon at the bottom of your layers window, select Hue/Saturation and then slide the Hue slider all the way to the left). You’ll notice that the histogram has a large amount of darker tones, but there is no black or white…everything is some value of gray (it was a hazy, overcast day when I took this shot).

Let’s start with a Levels adjustment to expand the tonal range of the image (giving it full black and white values). Create another adjustment layer and select Levels. In the window pull your black slider to the right. As you go further to the right you’ll notice more and more of your image turning black until there’s nothing but the number card left. We really just want a hint of some black so leave it at a point where there are just a few pixels that have turned black (if you look at the number boxes I set mine at a value of 22). Now pick the white slider and bring it down until you just start to get some white pixels (I stopped at 233). Finally, you can use the middle gray slider to brighten or darken the image over-all. I tend to like darker images so I left it as-is. Click OK to accept the changes – Nice!! If you want to compare this to the original black-and-white image just click the little eyeball icon in the left column of your Levels adjustment layer. If you toggle this on and off you can see how the image has a fuller range of tone and the histogram also expands to fill the whole range.

Ok, now say you want to make this a little more contrasty…really simple. Create a third adjustment layer and pick Curves. Now just boost the highlights and pull down the dark tones creating the same “S” curve that we did in the earlier exercise. Presto! Feel free to experiment with the curves settings. You can add up to 15 points on the curve to adjust (I really can’t remember ever creating more than three or four…). When you’re used to how this works you can really do all the adjustments just within the Curves settings, but I wanted to show you how each tool could be used.

When you’re happy with the way it looks, just for grins turn off the Hue/Saturation layer to see what this did to the color image. Whoa!!! You will probably see some pretty extreme color changes like bright red-orange legs. Curves adjustments do have one little tricky point – they will cause some color shifting and the more extreme your changes the more noticeable this is. The nice thing about adjustment layers is that if you want to change your settings, just double click on the layer thumbnail (the “graph box” part, not the title) and you can make new adjustments. What may have looked good in black-and-white will probably be too extreme for a full-color photo.

Now that you have all these corrections done in adjustment layers, what if you wanted to do something like add a filter? You can’t really do this effectively to all these layers, so you need to “apply” this image to a new layer. Create a blank layer and then go up to Image > Apply Image (the keyboard shortcut for this is a little involved – Ctrl + Alt + Shift + E, or Cmd + Opt + Shift + E). This creates a new top layer with all your adjustments applied to it. You can then edit this the same way you would any regular image layer.

Alright! Hopefully you’ve got a good grasp of what the histogram is telling you about your images. One easy way to keep learning how this works is to load up some of your favorite pictures and see what their histograms look like. It doesn’t need to be a super high-quality image either…find some online that just have a good high or low-key look and see what their histograms reveal.

Original Pole-vault Image:


6 Fast Photo Fixes Pros Use

If you spend much time at all reading photography how-to sites or taking classes or even just talking to photographers, you’ll probably hear the mantra “get it right in-camera”. I totally agree, but what do you do if it isn’t just right? I seriously doubt that any photographer out there gets card after card full off 100% perfectly exposed and balanced photos. We’re human after all, and personally I’m kind of glad I’m not perfect all the time (although it would cut down a lot of post-processing time!!!). So here are a handful of tricks that will help clear up some of the more common little imperfections in your pictures

  1. Measure – I don’t know what it is, but I seem to have a built-in left hook when I’m taking had-held shots. Surprisingly consistent too. A lot of my pictures look perfectly straight in my brain when I’m shooting only to find that they are tilted about 1.4 degrees when I get them loaded on the computer. If you’re like me, here’s the fast and easy way to fix ‘em. Use the Measure tool…it’s buried at the bottom of the pop-out menu under the eye-dropper. Draw a line that matches a good horizontal or vertical line in your image then go up to Image > Rotate Canvas > Arbitrary. The correct amount and direction of rotation will be automatically filled in so all you have to do is hit OK and then crop the edges of the image. To keep the same aspect ratio of your original image, select the entire canvas with your crop tool and then drag from the corner control boxes while holding down the shift key.
  2. Curves – Instead of using brightness and contrast adjustments, use curves to make image tone enhancements. Create an adjustment layer (the diagonally split circle at the bottom of the layers window) and select curves from the list.

    Curves adjustment to boost contrast

    Then create a slight “S” curve by dropping the shadow portion (the lower left side of the curve) and raising the highlights. Curves adjustments can work wonders on black and white photography too. Note: this S-curve adjustment generally works well in a number of “normally” exposed images. Different exposures will obviously require different adjustments. You can also get a funky cross-processed style effect by selecting the Blue channel and pulling the white point of the curve down and bringing the black point up…essentially “flattening” out the line just a little. Depending on the version of Photoshop you’re using you may have a range of presets available to quickly make some of these adjustments. I will have a fill tutorial on curves in the near future to dig deeper into using this tool.

  3. Raccoon Eyes – people with deep-set eyes often get dark shading in the eye-sockets…raccoon eyes. This tip will help brighten them up. Duplicate your original image layer (Ctrl/Cmd + J) and change its blending mode to Screen to brighten everything up. Add a layer mask and then mask off the whole layer by filling the mask with black. Using a soft edged brush, paint white in around the eye sockets, letting the lighter layer show through. Work with the layer mask and your opacity settings until the effect looks good with your image.
  4. Red Eye – This may not be a concern for pro photographers, but I’m often asked how to deal with it when I’m teaching a Photoshop class. I’ll admit that every now and again I’ll just take a snapshot for Facebook and my cat will have a set of freakishly glowing eyes, so for an easy fix select the pupil of the eye and then use refine edges or feather to ease soften the edges of the selection just a bit. Create a new layer and fill the selection with black. Create a new layer on top and using a small soft edged brush add the catchlight back in to make it look real. You can adjust the opacity of the layers to improve the effect. or use a layer mask on the black pupil layer to fade out any jagged edges
  5. Smooth skin – There’s a hidden filter that you may have played with and wondered what in the world anyone would ever use that for. In the filter menu under Other, you’ll find High-Pass. If you just run this filter you will get a funky grey image with some colored edges that just doesn’t look like it’s worth a knuckle hair, but the secret to getting something wonderful from this is to combine it with layer blending modes. Make sure you’re working on a copy of your original layer and then run the high-pass filter. Smaller settings create subtler effects…I usually use something around 3 to 6 pixels. Now go over to the layer blending mode and pick Overlay. Suddenly you will see the image is given a good sharpening effect. This is pretty cool and can be quite useful, but to get a smoothing effect you need to click on the layer icon and then go to Image > Adjustments > Invert. This will give you a nice soft-focus look, again just as-is this is pretty cool, but if you want the photo to still be sharp add a layer mask and fill it with black, then paint white back in over the skin areas with a soft-edged brush while avoiding the edges around eyes and other features. Use the opacity slider to reduce the effect to a good level where there is still some detail in the skin.
  6. Reducing the “RED” in skin tones. – Sometimes, even if the color balance seems to be good people just come out looking a little flushed. If your photos seem to be giving uncle Roger a bashful blush, there are some pretty easy ways to tone it down. My favorite is to use a selective color adjustment layer. If you’re not familiar with adjustment layers there’s a quick tutorial (here). Open your image and add an adjustment layer, picking the Selective Color option. You’ll see an adjustments window with a drop box for selecting the color you’re working with and then sliders for adjusting the relative hues. Pick Red in the drop box and then drag the Cyan slider to the right until you think you’ve got a good cut in the red tones. you may also want to adjust the Black slider a bit too (usually to the left). Then, if you don’t want the change to affect the rest of your photo use the mask to paint out the areas other than your skin tones. You can also fade the effect by adjusting your layer opacity.

Happy Photoshopping!!!

Custom Brushes – The Secret of Background Effects


Final Image


One very powerful feature in Photoshop is the countless ways you can create and modify brushes. Just about any design can be turned into a brush and then “painted” into your image to create all kinds of effects. This tutorial will serve as a simple introduction to working with custom brushes.

I was recently asked how to create a “bokeh lighting” effect in some images. Blurred little sparks of light in the background of some images can really be a neat effect. There are actually some plug-ins designed to create these lighting effects, but using a custom brush Photoshop will let you get a good effect without any extra plug-ins.

My basic picture is just a little wildflower with a nice blurry background. Load it up and I’ll show you an easy way to give it a little sparkle. (Original image is at the bottom of this post.)

  1. Start by selecting the flower and some of the stems and grass – I used the magic wand set with a tolerance of 50. This setting controls how picky the selection is. If you set this to zero only pixels that match the tone of what you click on will be selected. Also click the Contiguous check box – this makes it so that only pixels adjoining the one you choose are selected. Hold the shift key down while clicking on different spots in the flower until you have the whole thing selected. Zoom in close to double check and when you are happy with the selection, go up to Select > Modify > Feather and enter a value of .5 to soften the edges just a touch. Then hit Ctrl/Cmd + J to copy the selection to a new layer. If you turn off the background layer you should see something like this:
  2. To create a new brush shape, create a new layer and then pick the polygon tool (this is hiding in the pop-out set with the line tool). In the settings at the top enter 6 for the number of sides – you can play with this number…if you think about what creates “bokeh” it’s the shape of the aperture in your lens. The highlights we are creating will take on that shape. Now draw a little black hexagon somewhere in your picture. The size doesn’t really matter a whole lot – you can adjust this later in your brush settings. Depending on the version of Photoshop you’re using you may need to rasterize this shape to create a brush from it. Go to Layer > Rasterize > Shape and you’ll be set.
  3. Select this shape and then go to Edit > Define Brush Preset and name your brush. I called it Bokeh Light. Now select your brush tool (or just hit B on the keyboard). At the bottom of the brushes menu you’ll find a new brush with your hexagon shape. Pick that and let’s add some extra effects to it.
  4. In the Brusheswindow you will find a range of options for controlling how the brush acts when you use it. If you don’t see the Brushes window it may be one of the tabs hiding in the upper right, or just go up to the menu under Window and you’ll find it. Since we want a random scattering of hexagons with different brightness and opacity, there are a few options that need to be activated. Click on Brush Tip and slide the Spacing slider up to around 200%. Under Shape Dynamics set Size Jitter to 60% and Minimum Diameter to 20%. Under Scattering I ran the Scatter slider all the way to the right and checked the Both Axes box. Under Color Dynamics set Saturation Jitter and Brightness Jitter to 25%. Finally in Other Dynamics set Opacity Jitter and Flow Jitter to 30%. Whew!! That’s a lot of settings…and we barely even touched the possibilities in there!
  5. Ok, now pick a faint pale yellow color and on a new layer (you can really just erase the black hexagon you used to make the brush) paint a quick spattering of hexagons across the image. You can add to this as much as you want or undo it if you think there’s too much – feel free to play around with all the settings in the Brushes window too. Eventually you will have something like this:
  6. Ok, so now click and drag that layer behind (underneath) the layer with your flower cutout. To give it a nice blurry look go up to Filter > Blur > Gaussian Blur. Use a radius that makes it look good – mine was 5.4. The final adjustment is to take the layer’s opacity down a bit until you’re happy with the results. If you want to create more depth you can make a second layer and add another swipe of highlights and then use a different blur and opacity setting. It can be easy to over do this, but everyone has tehir own vision…

Really simple stuff, huh? There are countless ways you can use custom brushes in your images. My favorites are in creating textural backgrounds by creating a random shape, blurring the begeezus out of it and then mixing it in with layer blending modes. I’ve seen people use this same effect to create anything from heart-shaped lights for engagement photos to surreal atmospheric effects in composite fantasy images.

Original image:

Original Image

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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