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August 2010 ArticlesAugust 2010 Articles

19 Aug

Photoshop World Guru Awards

Do what you love and good things will happen

I found out tonight that I have been selected as a finalist for the Photoshop World 2010 "Guru Awards" for my "Trippy Self Portrait" in the "Artistic" category. I'm still pinching myself.

Here's the true story behind the image.

I carried this idea around in my head for a long time, years really. It kind of germinated there. I used to work in a corporate office as a project manager where I spent too many hours in meetings. Everyone else took lots of notes. I doodled. I wondered what the doodles said about me. Mostly I doodled patterns like those in my self portrait. I thought about this on and off for a few years.

In January of '09 I finally started drawing. It took a few weeks to get the pattern drawn and then painted in Photoshop. At this point I had the image completely planned out in my head. All I needed to do was take a picture of myself, but for one reason or another I didn't get around to the picture part.

In the Fall of '09 I received a brochure in the mail for a class put on by NAPP. The class was titled "Photoshop CS4 for Photographers", taught by Ben Wilmore. I joined NAPP at the same time I signed up for the class. This changed everything for me. I learned a lot of cool editing tips from Ben, but that wasn't the important part. I finally recognized what Photoshop meant to me. Ben took himself seriously as a Photoshop "artist" and I realized I could too. I went home from that class and edited old pictures until 1 AM.

In January of this year I made it a priority to finish my self portrait picture. With the help of my son I took quite a few pictures of myself. He ran out of patience and I was determined to finish, so I picked a favorite and went to work coloring it with the pattern. The image went together fairly quickly. I knew exactly what the final image would look like.

Now I am headed to the NAPP Photoshop World in Vegas as a guru finalist. This seems almost unreal to me. Just last week I was selected for "Best Group Photo" for the image I took during the Worldwide Photo Walk (organized by Scott Kelby from NAPP).

Pinch me.

One year ago I was attending Ben Wilmore's class. Previous to his class, I shared very little of my creative side outside of commercial graphics work. Thank you NAPP. Thank you Ben. I have learned to pursue my passions and good things have come.







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17 Aug

HDR Architectural Photography with People

Plan for post editing. Know your options when shooting.

These images were taken at the Salk Institute in La Jolla on an overcast day. It wasn’t a typical high contrast HDR kind of day. Everything was gray. Surrounded by concrete walls, marble ground and a gray sky, I found solace in two things, textures and people.

image of final Salk Size It photo

I caught this curious pose while I was setting up for a shot of the buildings in the background. I saw the two guys before I was ready to take the picture. I hadn’t centered and squared up the buildings, but I took the picture anyway.

Here is the first shot I took.

image of original with gesturing guy

When the scene was clear of people I squared up the buildings and fired off three bracketed frames. I didn’t have to worry about moving subjects for the HDR processing and I knew how easy it would be to drop the shot of the two guys back into the HDR image.

The lesson learned from this image is to not hesitate. If you see something interesting take the picture even if you’re not completely ready. Know what your Photoshop skills are and make plans to perfect your shot with subsequent frames.

This image of the hallway came about in the opposite manner.

image of final Salk Hallway

I really liked the light filtering in and the variety of textures. I knew with HDR that I could retain the full range of the detail from the brightest areas, to the darkest area of the chalkboard on the right side of the image. I composed my image and shot off five bracketed frames.

Here's what the scene originally looked like.

image of Salk Hallway original frame without person

I liked the composition, yet I knew something was missing. So I left my camera on the tripod and just waited, and looked around, and thought about the scene. After a couple of minutes this guy just wandered into my picture. He was exactly what it needed. I kept shooting the entire time he walked down the hallway. I knew one of the frames would be perfect.

I processed the HDR image from the original frames and dropped the walking guy in for the final touch.

The lessons learned from this image are patience and planning. Architectural HDR photography is easiest without moving objects. Plan for this. Shoot your bracketed frames without people when you can. Shoot it again when someone enters the scene.

image of original chair without a person

I originally shot this image early in the afternoon. I found the chair and placed it next to the staircase. This set up a strong composition with interesting textures and lines, but I wasn’t really happy with the image. Everything felt gray and lifeless. The gray was getting me down. I fought against the lifeless feeling while I continued to photograph.

About an hour later, after taking the first two pictures above, I came back to the scene with a friend in a red shirt. I asked him to sit in the chair. His presence changed everything.

image of Final Salk Modern Technology Photo

The lesson learned from this image is perseverance. Return to a scene with a fresh perspective and you might discover something completely new.

I struggled all day with the gray and the cold, but fought through it and ended up with some great images. I learned that I like architectural photography best with the presence of someone. I also learned to take my time, work with the environment and to shoot with my post editing skills in mind.


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05 Aug

Breathless Book Cover Design

Creating Characters From Stock Images

image of Breathless cover design with working images

“…Like so many young girls, Leesa had always underestimated her looks. For her, it was a combination of her innate shyness and her bad leg making her feel less than normal. But her wide blue eyes were striking, her smile broad and white, and her long blond hair swung teasingly when she limped…
…Leesa’s body began to tingle as the Maston guy draw nearer. This was crazy. One smile, and already her knees felt week. He was even better looking than she remembered—his bronze skin flawless, almost like marble in its smoothness, his smile wide and especially bright against his dark complexion. His coppery hair glinted in the moonlight… His clothes—plain brown T-shirt and jeans—fit his athletic body perfectly, especially the jeans…” *


“…It was a pleasure to burn. Rave smiled as he watched the tiny blue flames dance from his fingertips—the outward manifestation of the magical inner fire coursing through his body. The heat shone dimly through the bronze skin of his face and made his long, dark copper-colored hair seem to shimmer in the shadows of the woods.
…What was it about her, he wondered? Sure she was pretty, extremely so, but he had seen lots of pretty humans over the years…” *

*from Breathless, a novel by Scott Prussing

Breathless is a tale about a college freshman away from home, trying to make new friends while secretly searching for her missing brother. Along the way she falls in love with a mysterious non-human Maston guy. The story is both romantic and suspenseful. The book cover design had to illustrate youth, romance, mystery and danger.

I worked from stock images to create the characters Leesa and Rave. The author chose the two lovers in white tanks for the baseline image. He liked the intimacy of the pose and how the two lovers are holding hands. Pretty much every other aspect of the image had to change.

image of Leesa with red Tank

I started with the clothes. Both white tanks had to change. Changing Leesa’s tank was a fairly simple. I cloned the straps to a more feminine thin tank strap and changed the color to a dark red. The red color works to accent the story’s danger theme. Red is also the school color for Leesa’s college.

image of Puppetwarp for tee-shirt

I used Photoshop CS5’s Puppet Warp to fit the gray tee-shirt image to Rave’s body. Puppet Warp made this a snap. Maybe Adobe should have named this tool Outfitter or Dressmaker, because it is the perfect tool for changing clothes.

close up image of Leesa before edits

Next I worked on changing the appearance of Leesa. Her character is beautiful yet reserved. She wouldn’t wear heavy make up like the model in the original image. Leesa is also blond.

close up image of Leesa after edits

I created a new eye for Leesa, working from the other lover's stock image, toned down her lipstick color and lightened her hair.

image closeup of character faces final version

Rave needed his looks altered slightly too. I had to remove the light beard and give him a smooth bronze skin tone.
With the character edits complete I darkened the entire image for a more mysterious feel.

Illustrating Rave's “magical inner fire ” proved the most challenging part of the entire project.

image closeup of hands version 1

I created some custom blue flame brushes and painted his hands with small flickering flames. The result looked more like smoke than heat or flames. The overall result was way too subtle.

image closeup of hands version 2

Next I went completely the other direction and created some radiating light sparks. The effect was compelling but completely wrong for the story.

image closeup of hands final version with title pop-out

I succeeded by toning the whole look down and focusing the effect on just their holding hands. The hands pop out of the logo creating the focal point, illustrating the character's passion and the mystery of it.

The “Breathless” logo was created in Illustrator and brought into Photoshop for some dripping blood. 

image of Breathless complete book jacket

Here is the complete book jacket design.

You will soon be able to purchase Breathless at


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02 Aug

Hear The Music With Photoshop

Photoshop Image Editing Without Limits

image of Johnny Cash at the Desert Inn

Disclaimer: I did not take this photo. Photo credit goes to Brad Moore, @bmoorevisuals. I edited the photo for a contest at by Rafael Concepcion, @aboutRC. The original contest can be viewed here. For the record, I won a print signed by RC & Brad Moore and a signed copy of “A World in HDR” by Trey Ratcliff. The book is fantastic. Go buy it.

image of original photo

I spent many hours editing this picture. I did it for the love of Photoshop not for the prizes. This article is more about editing concepts than a tutorial. I have included some of the general steps and I point to some good online tutorials for more specific direction.

Photoshop Can Be Magical

There are no limits to the editing power of Photoshop… well almost none. I like to consider these four things before I start to edit.

Don’t waste your time with low res jpeg images. If you’re after a wow image your going to need as many pixels as possible. A camera that shoots 10 megapixels or more is best, and always, always, always shoot in Raw. You can fix almost any exposure problem with a Raw image.

I have lots of photos that aren’t worth editing because I can’t fix the focus or eliminate the camera shake. Start with a good sharp image. When you find a good subject take lots of frames to make sure you capture something worth editing.

Photoshop editing can change a picture’s mood, tone, or time and place, but if you don’t like the original content you’re not going to have the passion to spend time editing it. Start with an image you like and make it better.

This one is not a deal breaker but it’s still a good idea to start with the best possible composition. Post edit cropping can improve an image. Moving, removing and/or scaling an object can improve a composition too. I enlarged the marquee sign in this image to help balance the overall composition, but that is it. The composition was pretty darn good to start with.

Where to Start

Evaluate the original image. What works? What doesn’t? Why? Think of it as painting. I think of the original photo as my pencil sketch. I love that I have not been to the place where this picture was shot. The building is a historical landmark from a period just before I was born. I wonder what it must have been like in the 1950’s. These thoughts are the genesis for my creativity.

Sunsets are a great way to add color and drama so I start with the sky. Changing the time of day adds a warm mood to the image.

I work with multiple Raw Smart Object Layers to create the color. I first learned this from Ben Wilmore, Photoshop artist and NAPP instructor. Read his article here, specifically the section titled “Multiple Interpretations of the Same Raw File.” I use this technique on virtually every picture I edit.

Make the colors look good by playing with layer blend modes. There are 3 great Blend Modes articles on the NAPP user group website, Demystifying Blend Modes, Demystifying Blend Modes, Pt. 2, Demystifying Blend Modes, Pt. 3. These tutorials are for members only, but  if you are passionate about Photoshop you are probably already a NAPP member. If not then sign up today.

image of edited Desert Inn sky

This is the finished group of sky layers. A mask is used on the sky group to mask out the foreground.

image of sky layer 1

Layer 1 is a duplicate of the original raw smart object, color corrected to a deep bronze color. This establishes the base color of the sky. Everything else builds off of this.

image of sky layer 2

Layer 2 is another duplicate of the original raw smart object color corrected to a blood red color. The layer blend mode is Soft Light with a 30% opacity.

image of sky layer 3

Layer 3 is a highly saturated version of the original image with all of the nuetrals moved towards a purple color. The layer mask blocks out everything except the outer borders to give the purple sunset feel (see 1st image). The blend mode is normal with an 80% opacity.

image of sky layer 4

Layer 4 is a tonemapped image.  The blend mode is set to Overlay. This adds the sky detail and shape. I used Photomatix Pro for tonemapping but Photoshop CS5 HDR Pro can do the same thing.

What Next?

The foreground image needs to match the new sky. We also want to breathe some life into the foreground with shape, textures, and details that are not immediately evident in the original image.

Use Photomatx Pro or HDR Pro to tonemap the original raw image with three completely different settings.

image of tonemapped 1

First, tonemap the image with a mostly photo realistic look. There should be no added saturation and just enough tonemapping to add some texture and shape.

image of tonemapped 2

Next, tonemap the image with a grungey, saturated painterly look.

image of tonemapped 3 used in sky and foreground

Finally, tonemap the image for lots of shape and texture but remove most of the color.

Combine the tonemapped images with layer blend modes and selective masking to create an early evening look.

image of edited foreground


Layers from top to bottom have the following blend mode settings:

Top - Tonemapped image 3. Soft Light blend mode with 45% opacity
Middle - Tonemapped image 2. Saturation blend mode at 100% opacity. A layer mask controls the amount of saturation for specific areas of the image.
Bottom - Tonemapped image 1. Normal blend mode at 100% ocpacity.

Turn The Lights On

Spot lights, windows and signs light up at dusk so make it believable by turning the lights on. Think like a painter. What should the light look like? Where is the source? How bright is it?

The Desert Inn sign has a spot light, the building corners have small lights, the windows are illuminated by indoor lights, the marquee sign is bright with light and the “Desert Inn, Motel, Good Food, Bar” neon lights are glowing.

image of lights on

Here's how the Image looks with the colored sky and the lights turned on.

image of neon lights

Use the pen tool to draw the neon sign letters and then stroke the paths with a soft brush. This is a pretty easy techiniqe for creating believable neon lights. See this tutorial for similar ideas about lighting.

Clean up the Trash

I don’t like telephone lines, trash and signs that detract from my subject. I always remove these things. It’s my painting after all so I take out what I don’t like.

Sell It

This is an image about a place and time from 50 years ago. Sell that idea by removing any reference to the present time. Signs, concrete posts, AAA sign, the beer bottle and the historic landmark sign all have to go. Removing the historic sign is the hardest but it’s made easier by placing a potted plant in the space where the sign was, hiding where the fence footer should be.

Finally create a new marquee sign. Most of the existing letters can be used for a new sign. Only a few have to be painted from scratch. They are such a small part of the picture it's impossible to tell the fake letters from the real letters. Think of the sign as a scrabble board. Each letter becomes a scrabble tile. Move the tiles around to spell something new. Skew them to fit where needed.

Wouldn’t it be fun to go back in time and see Johnny Cash play at the Desert Inn? I can hear the music when I look at the finished piece. I hope you can to.


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