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Experiments in colour

I’ve been watching and reflecting on colour; how are the subdued, complementary colours obtained in movies or television dramas? Or in the cinematic style of some photographers. There is something more happening in post-processing than fine tuning of colours and exposure adjustments. This post records my online research and an experiment in ‘colour grading’.


RGB is the colour-model mostly used in digital photography and video. It is an additive model (so compound colours are formed by adding primary – red, green, blue) based on light rays, not mixes of ink or paint. In contrast, artists (painters) recognise red, yellow, blue as primary colours – as we learn in school; and the print industry CMYK Color System (Cyan – Magenta – Yellow – Black), which reflects the base colour of inks used in printing. In a nutshell, there is more than one type of colour system and at first this can be confusing. Here is a useful RGB colour wheel from Bluelobsterart.com. Some things to note about this colour wheel and the information it shows.

  • rgb-color-wheel-lgThe primary colours of red, green, blue split the 360 degree spectrum in thirds. The wheel starts and finishes with red; one notices the same with the colour picker in LR and Photoshop.
  • The numbers show the amount of the primary colours contained within each colour on the wheel. They work on a scale of 0-255 (not a percentage). For example, the colour red comprises 255 red, zero green and zero blue. These same numbers are the ones shown in LR and Photoshop when one hovers over an image with the colour picker; the software is telling you how the colour is made up in the RGB system. 255 represent a fully saturated colour, 0 represents a fully desaturated (or no colour).
  • Without delving too much in to the theory of colour combining, colours on the opposite side of the wheel are complementary, meaning that they provide the strongest contrast when placed next to one another. For those with Adobe Creative Cloud membership, the colour.adobe website provides an RGB colour wheel that allows one to experiment with different colour schemes and save the results. The same capability is provided directly within Photoshop (windows/extensions/adobe colour themes).

Photoshop tools

Brief reminders from review of YouTube instructional videos referenced below. Basic methods are using curves adjustments (most control); selective colour adjustment layer; or a colour look-up adjustment layer (PS built-in preset).

  • Starting point should be to remove colour cast before applying colour grading (black / white points /
  • Colour balance – allows for adjustment of colour in each of the tonal ranges: highlights, mids, shadows etc.
  • Curves adjustments with layers – using luminosity blend mode for only lightness values (ie not affecting colour saturation) and using colour blend mode for colour only adjustments (ie not affecting brightness values).
  • Note that when adjusting curves of individual colour channels each channel is used to affect its own colour and it’s opposite (eg Red stripped out gives cyan).
  • Use of channels for selections / mask creation relating to specific colours (eg reds for skins).
  • Colour cast removal through layer filled with 50% opacity of opposite colour (invert colour selection on layer) – principle that opposite colours cancel one another out, making neutral colour. Level of opacity changes degree of adjustment.
  • Channel mixer – includes presets: find one that creates high contrast in the image and then reduce opacity if necessary to bring through adjusted colours.

Lightroom tools

Fewer options and flexibility in LR than PS, but effect can be added by using individual RGB channels, split toning, and selective adjustments.

Worked example

My starting point was this RAW file and my aim was to create image with a sinister gang-land feel to the colours (these young men were actually perfectly friendly!) :

Morocco raw

Below is a LR edit, cropped to 16:9. Key adjustments were adding blues to the shadows (curves channel adjustment); split toning to add more blue to shadows, and green tint (sickly) to the highlights. It was trick to control the application of adjustments precisely within LR but the colder shadows and brighter highlights (skin) successfully add contrast.

Finally the PS attempt (or three).

Click to view as gallery

Of the three approaches, the colour lookup method was the least successful – #2 – (an automated approach, rather than crafted). The curves approach – #3 – created the most colour contrast between the skin-tones and the background tones, reflecting the greater degree of control. All three of the PS attempts create a more cinematic, desaturated look than I achieved in the LR example.

Overall, there is a fair degree of craft in this work and, with practice and experience, one would expect improved results. What I take from this is that the practice of post-processing is as almost as importance to the practice of camera-work to creating a final vision.


Color.Adobe [website]. Available from: https://color.adobe.com/create/color-wheel/ [accessed 21.5.16]

Colormatters [website]. Color Systems. Available from: http://www.colormatters.com/color-and-design/color-systems-rgb-and-cmyk [accessed 21.5.16]

Phlearn [Youtube channel]. How To Apply Cinematic Color Grading To Your Photos. Available from: https://youtu.be/aaMfMZEFetc [accessed 21.5.16]

Photoshop Learning [Youtube channel]. Cinematic Color Grading (Movie Looke Effect) – Photoshop Tutorial. Available from: https://youtu.be/GFuenozbiE0 [accessed 21.5.16]


Stitching together a landscape

During a family weekend in the English Lakes, I decided to take some photos for a later technical exercise in Photoshop and Lightroom – stitching together individual images to create a large format landscape composite. Here are my notes on the process for future reference:

  • Equipment – sturdy tripod and camera, plus good walking boots.
  • Tripod – set level, so it can be rotated through the scene with the camera maintaining a horizontal line across all shots.
  • Set camera in portrait aspect to avoid elongated landscape when stitched.
  • Camera settings – set all to manual to avoid changes between each shot. In this case, I also used a bracket exposure.
  • Camera movement – move around a third of a frame between each shot. Too much and the image will not stitch well in LR/PS. For this image I took four sets of shots.
  • In LR – use photomerge/pano to combine the images of the same exposure. I used 4 at standard exposure for 1 pano and 4 at under exposure for a second pano (darker sky for details).
  • Blend the two panos in PS, using the sky for the under-exposed image.
  • Make post-processing adjustments either in PS or LR (mostly LR used in this case)

The final image is set as the featured image for this post. Thumbnails of individual shots are below.

landscape contacts

Lesson for next time is to set the middle exposure (for the bracket) to provide a more even exposure of the whole scene rather than worrying about blowing out the sky (the under-exposed shot should take care of that). Alternatively, use a grad filter.

Draw with Pen tools in Photoshop

Several Photoshop video tutorials and a book I recently read on self-portrait photography (here) all mentioned the pen tool as the best and most accurate way of making selections for masks and for extracting image elements for composites, even if a little more time-consuming than the wand tools. I decided to investigate, but my ‘suck and see’ approach to trying out the pen tool was unsuccessful, ending with a mess of lines on my image. Therefore, some structured research and experimentation was necessary.

Things that will help on the way to mastery:


  • Use as few connections as possible to outline a selection – makes editing easier and it is all that is required.
  • Make selections on the inner edge of the shape to avoid picking up background areas.
  • The tool needs practice – there is little automatic about it – it is learning to draw in Photoshop.


  • Paths hold the vector (lines/shapes) information created by the pen tool – these are automatically created an appear under a separate tab to the layers information. Like layers paths can be renamed and reused.
  • Drawing dots with the pen tool results in a series of joined (at the dot) straight lines. Dragging when making dots creates a curved point, with wings. The circles on the end of the wings are dragged to alter the curves.
  • To alter lines already drawn, use the selector tool (white arrow) – this can be accessed directly from the pen tool by pressing the cmd key while using the pen.
  • I struggled with the convert point tool (a pen tool option) that allows curve to be changed to a point – useful if a sharp change of direction is needed in an outline. Alt while using the pen activates this. Or after the initial drawing, select the point then use alt while clicking a wing-circle, which breaks the curve and creates a point.
  • To convert a point back to a curve, use the convert point again, but instead of clicking on the wing-circles, click onto the point itself (this technical took some finding!)

Worked example:

Before – 

Screen Shot 2016-03-08 at 09.12.38


After – 

Screen Shot 2016-03-08 at 09.12.25


Adobe [website]. Drawing Pen Tools. Available from: https://helpx.adobe.com/photoshop/using/drawing-pen-tools.html [accessed 7.3.16]

Adobe [website]. Edit paths. Available from: https://helpx.adobe.com/photoshop/using/editing-paths.html [accessed 8.3.16]

YouTube. Phlearn channel. How to use the pen tool in Photoshop. Available from: https://youtu.be/6WJj6iNr6K0 [accessed 8.3.16]

Displacement filters – Photoshop

For my upcoming self-portrait project, I’m toying with the idea creating composites of my image represented on formal forms of ID with self-portraits from my own camera. There is some creative reasoning behind this, but in this post I’m concerned only with Photoshop technique.

Displacement filters are a way of shaping flat images (for example texts of flags) so that they mould to the shape of a contoured image (for example a face). Hoey, explains in detail the technique. Briefly:

  • Create a desaturated, high contrast version of the image you wish to use for contours and save it as a separate file (must be 8-bit).
  • Position (or ‘transform’) the flat image so it is aligned as required with the layer of the contoured image – preparing it to receive the displacement treatment.
  • Use the filter/distort/displace menu to apply the filter to the flat image (at this point you will need to select the saved file as the ‘displacement map’).
  • Change the layer type from normal (eg to linear burn) and tidy up using masks to obtain the required effect.

Here’s a screen shot of my Photoshop work. And the final image is the featured image for this blog post.

Screen Shot 2016-02-21 at 21.20.37


Some further experimentation and a few additional steps to add for improved results:

  • For the displacement map image, make a selection of the front of the face only (output selection to a new file for ease of saving/adjusting)
  • For image to be over-layed, use transform tool to fit to size of face. For a flat image use the filter distort/spherize to roughly shape to the face.

Added steps produced the attached image –

digital-man copy


Hoey G. YouTube. Wrap a texture or pattern around an object – Photoshop Available from: https://youtu.be/iHNO4Sgnw5E [accessed 21.2.16]

Merging exposures in Photoshop

During a recent trip to Singapore I used exposure bracketing to take three shots of the Marina Bay Sands Hotel, with the intention of combining them in Photoshop.

I used two techniques – the first with layers and the second with PS’ HDR tool. The original two images used are:

I wanted the detail in the sky from the under-exposed image and the shadow detail on the buildings from the  second exposure.

Screen Shot 2015-12-13 at 18.09.05

After some experimentation in PS with different blending modes and ‘blend-if’, I settled on using a normal blending mode and a mask on the dark layer to reveal the detail of the buildings and reflections in the water in the underlying layer. I then applied levels and curves adjustments to both layers (with the curves masked from the foreground detail). Finally used high-pass sharpening to bring out the edges within the image and used the healing-brush tool to clean the lights in the bottom-right building, which were distracting my eye. The combined image is here:


Effectively some of the details lost in the exposure that was used to capture the sky details have been recovered using this approach in Photoshop.

The second approach is something new to me, HDR –  as an experiment I created HDR images in 3 tools available to me: Lightroom (recently introduced HDR tool), Photoshop, and the Nik Efex tool. I added my third bracketed exposure into the mix. Results and comments are as follows:



The first image (above) in LR – some quick adjustments were made in the develop module and with further work and local adjustments greater contrast could have easily been created. In short – a very quick why of combining exposures, without the use of layers and masks required in PS.


Next up Photoshop (above) – a very similar, quick and easy process to LR. However, the output seemed somehow sharper than the LR equivalent.


Finally, Nik’s HDR Pro – simply select the images in LR and export/export to Nik Efex HDR Pro. This is the graduated filter preset (one of 28 available for your HDR image) without adjustments. Full manual adjustment is also possible. This was extremely quick – echoing the speed of workflow for Nik’s other tools. The moodiness in the sky is closest to my manually layered PS image.

My preference is for the control obtained through layers that allowed me to create the image in my mind. However, there is some merit in the HDR tools for creating images that can be used as a starting point for further work, especially the Nik tool.


Adobe [website]. How to create HDR images in Photoshop. Available from: https://helpx.adobe.com/photoshop/how-to/photoshop-merge-to-hdr.html [accessed 13.12.15]

Adobe [website]. How to create HDR images in Lightroom. Available from: https://helpx.adobe.com/lightroom/how-to/hdr-merge-for-high-contrast-scenes.html [accessed 13.12.15]



Litho effect in Photoshop

Notes on experimentations in Photoshop this morning. Useful things I found:

Screen Shot 2015-11-22 at 13.15.251) Solid colour layers – different from filling a layer, because the colour can be adjusted at anytime, even sampled from an original layer using the eye-dropper tool.

2) Apply B&W conversion first to experiment with litho effect – colour layers and layer masks to isolate to different elements. Future experiments with gradient masks etc.

Screen Shot 2015-11-22 at 09.55.05

3) Grain effect over litho – create using neutral grey level, add noise, and Gaussian blur.  Use blend-if options in the layer to cut grain from the highlights and restrict to the darker tones.

Needs further experimentation – layer masks and colour layers to build up a litho image is the next area to work on.

Update – example of colour layer and layer masks:


photo walk with Luis in Madrid, Spain  November 2015 photos by Andrew Fitzgibbon


Bennett L [YouTube video]. Lithography Using the Century Plate. Available from:https://youtu.be/tvRWkvl2kO8 [accessed 22.11.15]

MoMa [YouTube video]. Pressure + Ink: Lithography Process. Available from:https://youtu.be/nUXDltQfqSA [accessed 22.11.15]

Photoshop black and white

I usually convert my RAW files to black and white in Lightroom, which is more than adequate for most of my needs. But, as part of developing a Photoshop habit with the aim of greater familiarity, skill and speed, I’ve been experimenting with the conversion in Photoshop.

Here’s the black and white out come …

And the original …


Lessons learned:

  • Basic image tuning adjustments with levels and curves use the same mechanics as LR, but with the significant advantage of using masks to isolate adjustments to specific image areas and to complete adjustments in stages using different layers. For example the trees in the background were darkened using a curves adjustment on the selected area only.
  • Methods of cleaning unwanted element in photos are way beyond anything possible in LR. This is because of the sophisticated tools for selecting elements of images and refining the edges of selections and the ability to patch and heal the image. Even as a relative novice, the removal of the distracting lamp-post on the bridge was successful.
  • Black and white conversion is through a similar process to the sliders in LR. One advantage of PS over LR is the ability use add-ins (such as Silver Efex Pro) as a layer adjustment, without destruction of the base image. If things go wrong, one doesn’t need to start right from the beginning – just redo that layer. Something for next time!

Conclusion – Photoshop is a tool of photography and to master it needs constant practice, it can’t be a once-in-a-while effort.

Image manipulation exercise

For this exercise, I used Photoshop to create a composite image which appears to be a documentary photograph but could never actually be.


The headline for the image is ‘new cinema and shopping complex built onto the sand of Southport’. Perhaps this might be physically possible in the right place with the right amount of investment (eg Dubai), but it is not in rainy Southport on the north west coast of England.

The image comprises two separate images of the beach and the cinema complex that is actually firmly on dry land. Techniques used in Photoshop included:

  • Basic levels and curves adjustments
  • Selection and copying of the cinema building from its original image to a new layer in the background seascape image.
  • The free-transform mode to resize and reposition the cinema building.
  • Soft brush to mask the edges of the superimpose image, to help the blending.
  • A gradient fill over the whole image to act as a binding
  • A duplicate layer with blur effect applied to building/sky only (masked) with reduced opacity – to help the building blend with the sky.

Photoshop dodging & burning

Dodging and burning refer to traditional darkroom techniques, with which photographers who have never worked with film may not be familiar. When exposing light-sensitive paper to make a print, dodging referred to the practice of limiting the amount of light reaching the areas of the paper and so keeping it lighter (in practice using an appropriately shaped piece of card on a stick and waving it around (dodging) between the light source and the paper. In contrast, burning was the practice of allowing additional light to certain areas to make them darker (allowing the light to ‘burn’ the paper). The purpose of this tricky craft was to allow certain parts of the image to shine through, allowing the eye to be drawn to them, and other areas to be darkened so they did not become the main focal point or distract from the main subject.

Lightroom provides a simple but relatively unsophisticated tool for achieving a similar effect by using the adjustment brush to increase or decrease the exposure in specific highlighted areas of the image. However, the level of adjustment tends to be a little on/off and lacks the subtlety available in the traditional (but time-consuming) film-based technique.

Whalley explains two approaches to dodging and burning in Photoshop. The first (and his least preferred) involves creating two curves adjustment layers; one to darken the image (burning) and one to lighten it (dodging) with inverted masks (see here for masks) attached – so the adjustments start hidden. A white brush with low opacity is then used to apply the adjustments to the areas required, with the brushing technique allowing a gradual build up of the strength of the adjustment. More subtle/craft-like than the LR approach.

The second approach, which I focus on, involves creating two new neutral (50%) grey layers (not adjustment layers) set to an ‘overlay’ blending mode, rather than ‘normal’. One layer used for dodging and the other for burning. Using a similar brush technique to that already mentioned, a white brush is applied to the dodging layer to lightened areas of the image and a black brush to the burn layer to darken areas of the image. A few important practical points:

  • To create the new layer, use the short-cut cmd-shift-N. This then allows the immediate selection of the ‘overlay’ blending effect and an option to fill with neutral grey, per screen-dump.

Screen Shot 2015-10-02 at 07.14.16

  • Remember to switch between the white brush (dodging) and the black brush (burning) when working on the respective layers.
  • Opacity = subtlety. Begin with very low levels of opacity to ensure the effect is not over-down. Also ensure the ‘hardness’ of the brush is reduced to avoid hard contrasts (unfortunately I forgot this important step in my example below!)
  • There seems to be an art to doing this well – a good deal of practice and experiment is needed to master it.

Finally my example, unfortunately the images are on the dark side, but they illustrate the technique:

Before: master in Lightroom, with only basic adjustments

Red Square-1

After: general contrast adjustments applied to sky and foreground. Dodge/burn of select areas to draw out figures and highlights around windows.

Red Square-2


Whalley R (2013) Essential Photoshop: how to use 9 essential tools and techniques. Amazon Kindle edition.


West Carey P (nd). What Are Burning And Dodging And How They Can Help Your Photos. Digital Photography School [website]. Available from: http://digital-photography-school.com/what-are-burning-and-dodging-and-how-they-can-help-your-photos/ [access 1.10.15]

Photoshop masks

Being able to target adjustments precisely to selected parts of an image is extremely useful – that is where masks come in and why they are so important to master. Here I keep a record of useful tips and tricks on the use of photoshop masks:

  1. ‘White reveals, black conceals’ – I heard this a few times before I worked it out. The question is reveals or conceals what? I thought it might be the image, but not necessarily. In the case of an adjustment layer it refers to the adjustment itself being concealed or revealed – so if you desaturate using a saturation adjustment layer, any blacked-out areas in the mask will remain in colour.
  2. Copying a mask to a different layer – alt-cmd-click and drag.
  3.  Mask properties – double-clicking on the mask icon brings up the properties box. This includes some useful functions, including creating the mask by colour selection and inverting the mask. Cmd-I also inverts the mask.
  4. Switch between black and white short-cut – ‘X’
  5. To show the mask in the main screen, alt-click on the mask icon. The mask can then be ‘choked’ using the levels adjustment (cmd+L) image/adjustments/levels. This is used to refine the mask by adjusting the contrast between black and white.
  6. Set the brush opacity between 8 and 20% to allow a gradual build up of the mask / effect.

Photoshop repair tools

For the past six months or so, I’ve worked almost exclusively in Lightroom for post-processing. It takes care very well of most things I need in straight photography. However, I now feel the need to explore the use of Photoshop as a canvas to manipulate and combine images from the camera. This was triggered by a recent visit to the Pushkin Museum of Fine Art in Moscow; my guide explained how Paul Gauguin used a collection of disconnected reference images, which were combined in his paintings (for example ancient Greek and Egyptian figures) to create his vision. I saw the same referents recurring in different contexts and stories.

I now plan to systematically experiment with Photoshop and write it down (it is not particularly intuitive, so I find if I don’t use it, I loose it within a few months!). I start with the repair tools, with the guidance of Robin Whalley.

Lightroom provides a single repair too – spot removal. This works well for just that purpose, but for major surgery it is unsuitable. In Photoshop, there are several basic tools:

  1. Spot healing brush tool – this is similar to the LR tool. It is suitable for removing dust spots and similar and makes an automatic selection of the healing source. This is it’s limitation in visually crowded images – it can pick an inappropriate source and create a bit of a mess.
  2. Healing brush tool – this difference between this and the spot healing brush is that the user can select the source for healing [cmd-click], making it much more versatile and useable to remove whole objects from photos by copying pixels from other parts of the photo.
  3. Patch tool – this works slight differently in that one first selects the area to be healed and then drags it to the part of the photo to be used as the healing source. It is useful if there is a similar area that can be copied.
  4. In addition, there is the clone tool – this appears in a separate icon group (looks like a stamp). In use it is a little like the healing brush tool but clones pixels from a another part of the image, rather than a lighter touch of healing.

These tools sound a little blunt at face value. However, the settings that underpin them make them surprisingly effective at creating seamless results. Some key practical points to remember:

  • Create an empty layer in PS and when using the tools, check the ‘sample all layers’ option. This allows an edit over the background image, while leaving it intact, and the possibility of re-editing using a fresh layer if things go wrong.
  • For healing activities, the ‘content aware’ setting should be selected, as this heels in a way sympathetic to its surroundings (perhaps like a good plastic-surgeon).
  • There are other settings within each tool – it is good to experiment with these to understand their effect. For example, in the patch tool there are settings to control the level of structural and colour matching in the heal. Clever stuff indeed!

Finally a practical example:

Before – lamp-post spoiling view
After - no lamp-post
After – no lamp-post

The approach was to first use the smart selection tool to select the lamp-post. I then switched to the patch tool to replace the post. This left a few untidy edges (black patches in the sky), which were tidied up using the healing brush tool.


Whalley R (2013) Essential Photoshop: how to use 9 essential tools and techniques. Amazon Kindle edition.

Deep space in Photoshop

[recreated from pdf after blog crash]


As part of my research for OCA assignment 4, I looked at the feasibility of creating a deep space scene in Photoshop for placement of my ‘apple as moon’ in a context rather than a black- out space directly from the shoot.

I found this is possible by creating a new file an first filling the background layer with black. The next step is to add noise (or stars) using the ‘add noise’ filter and apply gaussian blur to the noise so the stars are not too sharp. Then the levels adjustment is used to increase the black eliminate some of the noise (so creating space between the stars).

I then layered this effect with different levels adjustments. And finally added some coloured layers (deep blues and yellows) to give more complexity to the scene.

Screen Shot 2015-09-08 at 22.16.00

Not shown in the screen shot above, but photoshop lens flare does a good impression of a bright star.

For further development of this method, I intend to use brushes to add a white speckled layer of brighter stars.


BluelightningTV [website], YouTube video. Photoshop: How to Quickly Create Stars, Planets and Faraway Galaxies. Available from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=czhJfC1SuU0. [accessed 23.8.15]

Photoshop essentials [website]. Starry night sky effect. Available from: http://www.photoshopessentials.com/photo-e!ects/starry- night-sky-e!ect-photoshop-cs6/ [accessed 23.8.15]