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In The Way of the Digital Photographer, master photographer and digital artist Harold Davis shows you how to make digital photography an art form. Great digital photographs need both camera and computer to be truly extraordinary. Using detailed examples and case studies from his own work, Davis provides myriad ideas you can use in your own work, and he shows you how to unlock your own creativity to make those special images you have always dreamed of! Readers discover how to effectively use post-processing techniques and gain insight as to how the techniques and steps involved can inform their choices when making a photo and in postproduction workflow.
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The Way of the Digital Photographer

Walking the Photoshop post-production path to more creative photography

Harold Davis

The Way of the Digital Photographer: Walking the Photoshop post-production path to more creative photography

Harold Davis

Peachpit Press

To report errors, please send a note to:

Peachpit Press is a division of Pearson Education.

Copyright © 2014 by Harold Davis and Phyllis Davis

Photographs © by Harold Davis

Acquisitions Editor: Rebecca Gulick

Production Editor: Tracey Croom

Book design, production, and indexing: Phyllis Davis

Copyeditor: Nancy Bell

Proofreader: Patricia Pane

Notice of Rights

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without the prior written permission of the publisher. For information on getting permission for reprints and excerpts, contact

Notice of Liability

The information in this book is distributed on an “As Is” basis, without warranty. While every precaution has been taken in the preparation of the book, neither the author nor Peachpit Press shall have any liability to any person or entity with respect to any loss or damage caused or alleged to be caused directly or indirectly by the instructions contained in this book or by the computer software and hardware products described in it.


Many of the designations used by manufacturers and sellers to distinguish their products are claimed as trademarks. Where those designations appear in this book, and Peachpit was aware of a trademark claim, the designations appear as requested by the owner of the trademark. All other product names and services identified throughout this book are used in editorial fashion only and for the benefit of such companies with no intention of infringement of the trademark. No such use, or the use of any trade name, is intended to convey endorsement or other affiliation w; ith this book.

ISBN-13: 978-0-321-94307-1

ISBN-10: 0-321-94307-4

9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1

Printed and bound in the United States of America


Special thanks to Nancy Aldrich-Ruenzel, Nancy Bell, Mark Brokering, Gary Cornell, Tracey Croom, Martin Davis, Virginia Davis, Rebecca Gulick, Barbara Hopper, Ronna Lichtenberg, Marc Schotland, Jeffery Stein, and Matt Wagner.


For all those who seek to tread a path less traveled.

The beginner’s mind is the mind of compassion.

—Shunryu Suzuki



Digital Photography Is Painting

First things first

The camera to use

JPEG versus RAW

Photoshop prejudices

Seeing is about light

It all starts with a layer

Adjustment layers

Working with layer masks

Creating a layer stack

Combining two exposures with a Hide All layer mask

Using a Reveal All layer mask to combine two exposures

Using the Brush Tool

Selective sharpening

Working with gradients

Using the Gradient Tool to seamlessly blend two layers

Drawing directly on a layer

Introducing blending modes

Screen Blending Mode

Using Screen for selective lightening

Multiply Blending Mode

Blending mode categories

Testing the blending mode categories

Comparative blending


Do it on your iPhone: Slow Shutter Cam

Multi-RAW and Hand-HDR Processing

Multi-RAW processing

Expanding tonal range with multi-RAW processing

Getting the widest gamut with ProPhoto RGB

All roads lead to Photoshop: Smart objects and Lightroom

Adjusting exposure selectively


Shooting a bracketed sequence for hand-HDR

May the force be with your florals

Automated HDR

Automated HDR programs

Do it on your iPhone: PhotoForge

Enhancement to Glory

Workflow redux


Tripping the light fantastic

Why be average?

Multiply and Screen blending modes

Sharpening and blurring

Glamour Glow and Tonal Contrast

A second helping of HDR

Pushing the boundaries: Pixel Bender

Some other painterly filters

Using LAB inversions

Understanding the LAB color model

Black and white

Backgrounds and textures

Blending a background with an image

Using textures to change the scene

Do it on your iPhone: Lo-Mob and Plastic Bullet






Looking at the bright red poppies from my garden, I envisioned an image that best showed off their bright color and translucency. To accomplish the first goal, I knew I needed to combine the red flowers with another color that would complement them. So I purchased some blue irises from a supermarket. To accomplish the second goal, I shot the flowers straight down on a light box, combining the different exposures as layers in Photoshop. The finished image is much along the lines of what I saw in my mind’s eye when I pre-visualized it. In this case, the road from pre-visualization to final image took planning, work, and time—and I feel the results warrant the effort.

50mm macro lens, eight exposures at shutter speeds ranging from 1/30 of a second to 4 seconds; each exposure at f/11 and ISO 100, tripod mounted; exposures combined in Photoshop.

Your digital camera probably resembles a film camera in both appearance and basic functionality. Like a film camera, your digital camera has a lens with aperture and shutter controls that can be used to decide how much light penetrates into the body of the camera for each shot.

But that’s where the similarities between film and digital cameras end. Despite the similarity in appearance of the hardware device used to make the exposures, digital photography is an entirely new medium compared to film photography.

Historically, chemical properties of film and developing were used to record light that entered the camera. Today with a digital camera, the light is captured as a digital signal by a sensor. Digital signal data recorded by the sensor can be processed by the computer in your camera. More powerfully, and here’s where the fun really begins, image data saved by your camera can be processed on a standalone computer after you upload your files.

People don’t fully understand this new digital medium that consists of the camera-computer partnership. They’re still hooked on the fact that their handheld computer with a lens (a.k.a. a digital single-lens-reflex, or DSLR) looks like a good old-fashioned film camera—and if it looks like one, it must work like one. Not so. For those who get over this misunderstanding, the door is wide open for experimentation and new approaches.

Digital is different. Very different.

One of the main goals of The Way of the Digital Photographer is to show you how to take advantage of this difference to enrich your own work.

With digital photography, it is my contention that your computer, and the image-processing software that runs on it, is an integral part of the image-creation process. It may be even more important as a creative tool than the camera itself.

You can easily see this difference when you use your iPhone camera, where more than half the fun is processing camera-phone images through a variety of image-manipulation apps.

To make the most of the creative potential of digital photography, you need to understand what can be done in post-processing and how post-production techniques should inform both your photographic choices and your overall workflow.

On my way to teach a workshop session on the eastern slope of the Sierra Nevada Mountains in California, the world seemed veiled in clouds. At one vista point, I decided to stop and just wait awhile so that I could get a sense of the weather and its movements. In the hopes that the vista might clear, I took out my gear and set it up.

As I watched the scene, the distant basins and peaks of the Panamint Range were invisible, hidden in a dense swirl of fog and cloud.

But then, for a brief instant, the clouds lifted, and I was able to peer through my lens at range after range of valleys filled with low-hanging clouds, lit by the light of the sun. Thankfully, I was ready to go. A few seconds after I clicked the shutter, the view was gone.

In post-production, I worked to enhance the sense that sunlight was streaming through a clouded landscape that a moment before had been completely overcast.

300mm, 1/160 of a second at f/6.3 and ISO 320, handheld.

Driving across the great Central Valley of California on my way to Yosemite, a fierce wind kicked up dust and limited visibility. As I drove farther, I noticed that the hazy light was selectively clearing, and sunshine was starting to shine through. I stopped my car at a long row of trees, pulled out my camera, and snapped this photo. Right after the shutter clicked, the wind started up and the dust closed in again.

62mm, 1/160 of a second at f/11 and ISO 200, handheld.

In The Way of the Digital Photographer, you’ll discover how to effectively use several of the post-processing techniques that I use to create the final versions of my own imagery.

These techniques are presented as case studies in the context of actual examples, so you can understand what each step does. More important, I want you to gain insight into how the techniques and steps involved can inform your choices when you make a photo and in your post-production workflow. (For a discussion of workflow and to understand how best to adapt your workflow to the digital world, turn to page 107.)

With great power comes great responsibility. Today’s digital photographers can control every pixel, every color, every shape, and every form in their processed imagery.

This means that it is no longer enough—if it ever was—to justify a creative photo because the scene in front of the camera was “like that.” This excuse harks back to the idea that a film camera captures “reality”—and, indeed, that capturing reality should be a primary goal of photography.

I composed this photo to show a framed sequence of diminishing doorways, each door smaller than the previous one. Maximum depth-of-field, achieved by stopping down the lens to its smallest possible aperture (f/22), ensured that all the doors were in focus. I wanted the image to show an apparently infinite progression, so I composited larger and smaller versions of the original photo to create an extension of the line of the doors.

95mm, 10 seconds at f/22 and ISO 100, tripod mounted; photo composited two times with itself in Photoshop.

Whether the scene is “like that” or not, the digital photographer is an omniscient ruler of each and every image and pixel—completely responsible for final appearances. By the way, this doesn’t absolve the journalistic or documentary photographer from the responsibilities of honest presentation that journalism should imply.

Don’t be fooled by the apparent resemblance of a digital photo to an old-fashioned photo, or to the verisimilitude of a digital photo to “real life.”

Both resemblances can be used to good effect—for instance, to create a willing suspension of disbelief in the viewer.

The underlying structure of a digital photograph is different from that of an analog photo in many ways—and, as I’ve noted, completely susceptible to manipulation both at the pixel level and using the tools of a digital painter.

Image captions, sensor size, and focal lengths

I want you to know the backstory behind every image in this book. This information is an important part of The Way of the Digital Photographer, and is included in each image caption. Along with the stories about the photos, I’ve also noted the complete exposure data.

Where I used a prime lens—one with a fixed focal length—it is written as, for example, 105mm macro lens. Otherwise, the designation in millimeters (mm) refers to the focal length I used in shooting the image with a zoom lens, for example, 18mm.

Not all sensors are created equal, and in particular they vary in size. The smaller the sensor, the closer a given focal length lens brings you to your subject. For example, if a sensor has half the area of another sensor, then a given focal length lens will bring you twice as close when placed on a camera with the smaller sensor.

Since different cameras have different sized sensors, it is not possible to have a uniform vocabulary of lens focal lengths. So people compare focal lengths to their 35mm film equivalent by adjusting for the sensor size.

To make the comparison with 35mm film focal lengths, you need to know the ratio of your sensor to a frame of 35mm film, which is called the focal-length equivalency. Unless otherwise noted, the photos in this book were created using Nikon DSLRs with a 1.5 times 35mm focal-length equivalency. To find out how the focal lengths I used compare with 35mm focal lengths, simply multiply my focal lengths by 1.5.

If your sensor has a different size than mine, to compare lens focal lengths with the shots in this book, you need to know the focal-length equivalency factor of your sensor. Check your camera manual for this information.

Digital photography and post-production techniques that are used to inform one another—how you take a photograph with an idea or pre-visualization in mind, knowing what you can do to it later in post-production—are the basis of this new digital medium. If you can see a photograph in your mind’s eye before you take it and know how you can process it later to achieve your vision, then nothing can hold your imagery back. Truly, the sky’s the limit!

Technique without heart is banal and useless. I’ve found in the workshops I give that many people come to digital photography precisely because they enjoy—and are good at—working with technology. Indeed, perhaps these folks work in technology-related industries.

But even if you are a technocrat it is important not to lose the creative aspects of digital photography. Often the people who start with digital photography because they are comfortable with the gear find some resistance to fully engaging their creative powers. They may be more comfortable with measuring pixels and navigating software than with conveying emotion.

If this describes you, be of good cheer. Provided that you approach image making in the spirit that anything is possible, you may be amazed by what you can achieve.

Along with the post-production case studies in The Way of the Digital Photographer, you will find thoughts and exercises, presented as Meditations. These Meditations will help you with the conceptual and emotional side of digital photography and also guide you in pre-visualizing your photographs with the idea of post-production in mind.

As you walk down the path of the digital photographer, you will find that photography is about your creative vision and your notions about art. Digital photography is also a way to show others your very personal view of the world. By combining your pre-visualization with your photography and appropriate post-production techniques, you can fully render anything you can imagine.

Berkeley, California


An important aspect of The Way of the Digital of Photographer is the Meditations. These are sporadic exercises intended to help you understand the concepts I am explaining. The idea is for you to frame the tools and techniques in your own terms so you can draw your own road map for becoming a more powerful and creative digital photographer.

While I enjoy photographing nature a great deal, I also have fun in the studio shooting models. In fact, nothing makes a session of model photography work better than when everyone is having fun—both model and photographer. That’s why Kelly, the model shown in this photograph, is one of my favorites. She’s got a wonderful sense of mischief and always has a great time in front of the camera.

I shot a series of photos of Kelly on the satin covered chaise longue using very controlled studio lighting. I wanted to be very careful about shadows and how her face was lit.

Back in my studio, I looked over the photo shoot and decided I wanted to do something in post-processing that would create a photo reminiscent of 19th-century model painting. Looking through my photo files, I found a sunset that I added to the background. Then, I gently brushed in a subtle canvas-like texture.

The addition of these overlays helps transform the image of Kelly away from a standard studio pose of a glamour model and closer to an image that seems more artistic and painterly.

Model: 36mm, 1/160 of a second at f/5.6 and ISO 200, handheld; Sunset: 200mm, 1/2500 of a second at f/20 and ISO 200, handheld; photos combined in Photoshop; overlay texture applied in Photoshop (to find out more about textures, turn to page 175).

Digital Photography Is Painting

Pages 18–19: In stormy weather I handheld this shot in New York’s upper harbor from the open deck of a rocking boat. The weather was dramatic and the skyline of lower Manhattan made a great backdrop, with the Staten Island Ferry charging toward my vantage point. But when I looked at the image, it seemed flat without the contrasts and sense of the elements that had been present when I made the exposure. So I used Photoshop to add painterly effects—including a texture overlay as explained on pages 174–183—to create my final image, which can be viewed as a cross between digital painting and photography.

65mm, 1/200 of a second at f/7.1 and ISO 400, handheld, texture overlay added in Photoshop.

First things first

I knew when I made this photo of a backlit magnolia blossom that I wanted the flower to look extremely translucent. To achieve this effect, I literally painted in the petal details where the petals overlapped the magnolia branches to create what I sometimes call an “illusion of transparency”—the petals, of course, are not literally transparent, but the contrast between petal and stem created via digital painting creates the illusion that the petals are transparent.

200mm macro lens, 3/10 of a second at f/7.1 and ISO 100, tripod mounted.

A camera is an extension of ourselves. An appendage to bring us closer to the universe.

—Robert Leverant

Before you dive into The Way of the Digital Photographer, I think it is important that you understand some assumptions I am making about your level of knowledge and experience with photography and digital post-processing, and how these assumptions relate to the content of this book. You should also know my approach—and biases—regarding a number of key issues. So let’s get a few preliminaries out of the way.

The camera to use

It’s well said that cameras don’t take pictures, people do—and, as photographer Jay Meisel puts it, the best camera to use is the one you have with you. True learning about photography is learning about how to see, and the best photography has to do with vision and showing us things in a new way. So you won’t find me peddling a fancy new camera as a necessity for making creative images.

In fact, I am so convinced that digital photography has everything to do with ideas, concepts, and clarity of vision—and so little to do with the particular camera model you use to implement your visual ideas—that I’ve come to enjoy working with my iPhone camera. This is indeed the camera that is always with one, and a very good demonstration of “the way of the digital photographer” because an iPhone camera itself is programmatic. You can choose from a number of different camera apps, or just stick with the one that came with your camera.

Creative iPhone images can be processed on the iPhone, and understanding the iPhone’s post-processing options can influence the entire process of taking photos and making iPhone imagery. Sure, the small screen is a drawback—but the creative possibilities are endless and have spawned a whole new art medium, sometimes called “iPhoneography.”

The iPhone “interludes” in The Way of the Digital Photographer show some of these possibilities, and may stimulate you not only to get out there and be more creative with your mobile phone camera, but also to become a more creative photographer generally.

Any creative image can benefit from intelligent and disciplined post-processing techniques—although of course these can be overdone. Regarding the camera you use, the vision should inform the craft, and not the other way around. So it’s important to learn the capabilities of your camera, but not as an end in and of itself, but rather as part of mastering the craft of digital photography. In other words, craft supports vision.

My recommendation is to work with a camera that has manual exposure controls. This should be almost any decent digital camera, although ease of access to manual exposure settings can vary. If you use manual exposure to make your images, you will learn how exposure works, and master creative control at the moment of initial exposure. But using manual exposure is not necessary to follow the ideas in The Way of the Digital Photographer.

JPEG versus RAW

A digital RAW file saves the data captured by your camera’s sensor. The precise encoding of a RAW file varies from camera manufacturer to manufacturer, but the idea is the same for all camera brands: as much data as possible is saved as a potential image rather than as one that can actually be rendered. To do anything with a RAW file, you first have to use software to render it into a format that can be manipulated, printed, or displayed.

JPEGs are a file format often used for display on computer monitors or on the Web. The JPEG file format can easily be derived from a RAW file, but when you convert an image from RAW to JPEG, a great deal of the image information in the RAW file is discarded and lost. A JPEG file that has been derived in this way can be thought of as one interpretation of a RAW file.

Most digital cameras can be set to save photos as RAW files, JPEG files, or both (other file formats for saving photos besides JPEG and RAW are also sometimes available, but JPEG and RAW are the most universally available options).

My suggestion is to save your photos as RAW files. If you save your captures in RAW format, then you have access to most of the data that was created when your exposure was made. This leads to creative opportunities that are simply not available if this information has been discarded. Of course, if you want to save your captures in both the RAW and JPEG formats, this does no harm other than taking up a bit of extra space on your memory card and your computer.

Some photographers—even professionals—prefer to capture in JPEG and not worry about the additional step of RAW file processing. There are many creative techniques that can be used in post-processing that I show you in The Way of the Digital Photographer, even without the full digital information that is available in a RAW file. So don’t worry if you are only accustomed to saving your photos as JPEGs.

But do bear in mind that some of the examples in The Way of the Digital Photographer relate to RAW and multi-RAW processing. Obviously, the techniques shown are only feasible if you start with a RAW capture in the first place.

Photographing beneath the Golden Gate Bridge on a foggy day, I knew that I would need to use a RAW capture to be able to show all the detail in the complex structure under the bridge. Since I had all the image data in RAW format, back at my computer I was able to effectively work to tease the variations in tonal information out of the photo file and use it to render the final version of the image.

12mm, 1/320 of a second at f/8 and ISO 200, handheld.

Photoshop prejudices

Adobe Photoshop is a monster. Okay, from my viewpoint it is a friendly monster that has been very good to me. I don’t want you to be scared of the monster—you can think of Photoshop maybe as a kind of artistic “cookie monster”—and I want you to understand some things about the Photoshop techniques that are shown in this book. So here’s what you need to know about Photoshop and the way I teach before getting started with The Way of the Digital Photographer:

1. I am not interested in the latest and greatest features of Photoshop. There are plenty of other writers out there who can tell you about Photoshop’s bells and whistles—you won’t find that here.

2. Every post-processing example in this book is based upon the single concept that underlies Photoshop. That concept is layers, explained starting on page 33. If you are not going to use layers, then you may not need Photoshop at all. A program such as Adobe Lightroom is probably sufficient for your needs because the underlying capability that Photoshop possesses and Lightroom lacks is the ability to handle layers. On the other hand, if you don’t learn to work with layers, you are missing much of the point of the digital post-processing revolution.

3. Besides layers, The Way of the Digital Photographer will show you how to work with two other Photoshop primitives: layer masks and blending modes—and that’s about it for Photoshop techniques. This book isn’t about giving encyclopedic coverage of the Photoshop working environment, menus, panels, or even the Photoshop adjustments related to photography. There are plenty of books out there that already do that, so why reinvent the wheel? I’d rather show you something that you won’t find anywhere else, and that will revolutionize your image making.

4. I can’t emphasize strongly enough that you don’t need the latest and greatest version of Photoshop to accomplish the techniques shown in this book. It all comes down to the ability to work with layers, and layers have been a feature since Photoshop 3.0. The appearance and location of controls will vary slightly between versions of Photoshop, but the functionality is essentially the same. Note also that most of the ideas shown in this book can be implemented in a number of layer-capable image manipulation programs that are much less expensive than Photoshop (or even free). These options include Photoshop Elements (which is much less costly than Photoshop itself, and will do everything shown in this book except LAB color manipulation), Corel Photo-Paint, and GIMP (Gnu Image Manipulation Program), which is free to download.

5. Speaking of ideas, I want you to use The Way of the Digital Photographer as primarily an idea book. While I do show you the specific steps I used to accomplish particular results in post-processing, this is not a cookbook, and there are often a number of alternative ways to accomplish the same results. The key thing is to understand the concepts and what you can do after you’ve taken the photo—so that these concepts can influence your photography and how you go about making creative images in the first place.

Photoshop CC

Photoshop’s most recent version incorporates the ideas of cloud computing, hence the new name “Photoshop CC” (Creative Cloud).

Photoshop CC has many new and interesting features that can help the digital photographer on their creative path. However, as I stated in point one above, I’m not interested in the latest and greatest bells and whistles. My goal is to help you create great images no matter what version of Photoshop you are using.

You don’t need Photoshop CC in order to work with the ideas and creative techniques found in The Way of the Digital Photographer.

The default Photoshop CC interface looks very much like Lightroom, with its dark gray and black features as shown below.

When I work in Photoshop, I prefer to work with a lighter color scheme, such as the light gray one shown above.

First off, I think it is easier to see and I find it less distracting. Also, previous versions of Photoshop use essentially these colors. So the lighter scheme shown throughout this book will probably look pretty familiar.

If you would like to change your color scheme to something lighter, choose Photoshop Preferences Interface (Mac) or File Preferences Interface (Windows).

On the Interface panel of the Preferences dialog in the Appearance area, use the drop-down list boxes to change the program’s colors (below). Once you find a color scheme that works for you, click OK to save your preferences.

Make sure to open images as windows, not tabs

Recent releases of Photoshop have a default setting that makes the creative techniques found here—such as multi-RAW processing and hand-HDR—extremely and unnecessarily difficult. This feature opens images in Photoshop as tabs, not as separate floating windows. Make sure you set your images to open as windows not tabs.

Choose Photoshop Preferences Interface (Mac) or File Preferences Interface (Windows) to open the Interface panel of the Preferences dialog. In the Options area, uncheck Open Documents as Tabs. Click OK to save your setting.

Seeing is about light

Mission Dolores is one of the original Spanish missions in California, and the oldest church in San Francisco, although the Basilica was rebuilt following the 1906 earthquake.

As I explored Mission Dolores Basilica in San Francisco, I saw that inside the church light was coming from two sides. Beams of light were shining through the rows of pews to the right and were interacting with the shadows cast by the pews and the stronger light from the windows on the left. The shapes and lines intrigued me, so I got down on the ground to find the best angle to photograph this interesting lighting effect. As I framed the photograph, I decided to leave only enough of the pews in the upper-right corner so that the scene could be identified.

Of course, the photo was taken in color, so I carefully processed it that way at my computer. But the strong contrasts of the lights and darks were what made this composition work, so I converted the image to black and white to emphasize the image of the striking cross-lighting (see pages 167–173 for more about monochromatic processing of color photos).

170mm, five exposures with shutter speeds ranging from 1 second to 60 seconds at f/16 and ISO 200, tripod mounted; converted to monochrome using Photoshop and Nik Silver Efex 2.

One needs light to see, and one needs light to photograph. However obvious the thought, it is one with profound implications for every photographer.

Nothing can be seen—or photographed—in a lightless void. Objects emit light, or reflect light that is emitted elsewhere, and can then be observed and rendered photographically. Light shapes, caresses, and discloses the forms and contours of that which is being observed and photographed.

This can be put very simply: a digital photo captures light that is reflected or emitted by the subject, rather than the subject itself.

So we photograph light rather than the thing being lit.

Once you switch gears away from thinking about “things” and toward thinking about the light that is doing the actual rendering of the “thing” you begin to anticipate the possibilities in digital post-production. Let me explain.

When I observe light I see endless variations, but actually light can be broken down into a number of characteristics. The first and foremost characteristic is how bright a light source is.

Besides brightness, light has a number of other important qualities, including directionality (the direction from which it comes) and whether the light is hard—because it is direct—or soft—because it has been diffused and reflected. Light also has a warmth or coolness (technically, this is expressed as a white balance, or a color temperature on something known as the Kelvin temperature scale).

One of the most important properties of light is that it makes shadows.

So the next time you are looking at something, forget the actual objects you are seeing. Instead, observe the direction, warmth, and quality of light. Pay particular attention to the shadows that the light creates and to the edges between light and dark areas. Are there shapes or interesting lines created by light or shadows? And if you “frame” a photo with your fingers, how does your perception of the shapes change?

Now, shift your position. It could be just a step to the right or left. You don’t have to go far. How does this change your perception of light in the scene?

From the viewpoint of the digital photographer, as light creates subjects that can be photographed by illuminating them, and the shadows of these subjects, pixel-based shapes that can be manipulated are created in your digital files.

If you have observed light closely the way a painter does, you’ll begin to have some ideas about how light can be rendered in post-production to appear natural.

Shooting in low light

There’s no doubt that light is all-important to photography. But there doesn’t have to be much of it. With light, it is quality and not quantity that counts. A digital camera can adjust for almost any level of light. When you are looking at the output of a digital camera, it can be hard to know how bright the light actually was once the exposure has been adjusted. I’ve taken many shots that appear to be shot in daylight but in fact were made at night.

Within the Mission Dolores Basilica in San Francisco, the chiaroscuro illumination with its moody contrasts between light and dark got my full attention. I angled my camera to take the best advantage of the contrast between lights and darks and the contrast between the lines of light and the rest of the church interior.

42mm, six exposures with shutter speeds ranging from 1 second to 60 seconds, each exposure at f/18 and ISO 200, tripod mounted; exposures combined in Photoshop and then converted to monochrome using Photoshop and Nik Silver Efex Pro 2.

Here are some simple examples of effects that are easily possible in post-production:

Fill lighting can be added to brighten the foreground of a composition.

Flower petals can be lightened to emulate translucency.

Lights can be lightened and darks darkened to enhance a chiaroscuro lighting effect.

The goal of this first section of The Way of the Digital Photographer is to show you some simple Photoshop ways to improve the quality of the lighting in your digital photo by combining the vision of a digital painter with the skills of a photographer.


Take time looking at something, and observe how light and shadow interact. Then, make a photo that is mainly about the light you observe, and not primarily about the objects that are reflecting or emitting light in the scene. For example, the photo on page 26 primarily shows the shadows created by cross-lighting within a church, and this abstract play of light and shadow is the subject of the image, with only a small portion of the photo devoted to the literal subject matter, the church pews.

High above New York City’s East River, I had to brace my camera and tripod against a strong wind. The vantage point was fantastic and I almost felt like I was in an eagle’s eyrie. However, the mass of the East River seemed overly dark and visually uninteresting. Processing this photo I enhanced the dark areas of the river by selectively overexposing the reflective lights, creating a festive and painterly effect.

24mm, 25 seconds at f/7.1 and ISO 200, tripod mounted.

It all starts with a layer

This leek, like many things in nature such as plants and geologic formations, is composed of layers. The view you see in this photo is a cross-section, clearly showing the layers. However, if you looked at the leek from the top down, you would see only the topmost layer. Pursuing this analogy a little further, leeks are a member of the onion family and often have some degree of transparency. If the topmost layer of the leek were partly transparent—or removed—you would begin to see the layers farther down the leek’s layer stack. This is pretty much the way layers work in Photoshop.

By the way, my wife was cooking soup when I saw this cross-section of leek on the cutting board. I quickly removed (i.e., stole) it to my studio. When my wife regained possession of the leek in question, it turned out to be quite tasty when added to the soup.

40mm macro lens, 2.5 seconds at f/29 and ISO 100, tripod mounted.

Okay. Let’s recap a bit. I started by observing that photographs cannot be taken in darkness, or of a subject that is unlit because exposures actually capture light that is emitted or reflected by objects (see page 27) rather than the objects themselves.

Once you understand that in a significant sense the subject of any photo is light itself, then you’ll understand the necessity of starting to make sense of the patterns of light—and the absence of light—that make up any photo.

Good observation of these patterns makes for compelling compositions at the time of exposure. Beyond the initial exposure, enhancing a digital photo in post-production means enhancing these patterns, and bringing out the internal coherence of the patterns of light. If you are skillful—or lucky—that coherence was there in the first place; but, it may not be apparent except to an adept in the way of the digital photographer.

Understanding the possibilities of manipulating light in post-processing informs the digital photographer at the point of exposure by making it reasonable to take chances on light patterns that need post-production “teasing” to be made manifest.

This conceptual approach holds true across many kinds of photography, whether you like to shoot landscapes, flowers, or portraits.

But to make the concept a reality, you’ll need a post-processing scaffolding. It turns out that this scaffolding is easily available, and starts with the layer.

A layer can be thought of as a transparency on which images, portions of an image, or imaging effects are applied and placed over or under an image. Layers have been available in Photoshop since 1994, and are an integral feature of most powerful image-editing software programs.

Every time you open a photo in Photoshop it becomes a layer. Photoshop documents are made up of layers that are stacked on top of each other. At the end of the day, what I end up with in Photoshop after processing an image (and before printing it) is a stack of layers that have been precisely aligned. Technically, these layers have to be flattened—reduced to a single, combined layer—before an image can be reproduced or printed.

A Photoshop layer has literally hundreds of properties—meaning, characteristics—that can be set. My plan in The Way of the Digital Photographer is to keep things simple. To understand the way layers work, you really don’t need to know anything about most of these characteristics. But there are a few things you do need to know about Photoshop layers to get started.

When you open an image in Photoshop for the first time, the image automatically becomes a special kind of layer within a Photoshop document. This special kind of layer is called a Background layer, and is denoted as such in the Layers panel (if you don’t see the Layers panel, press F7).

Background layers can easily be converted to normal layers by choosing Layer New Layer From Background.

One important property of Photoshop layers is the layer Opacity setting, which controls the translucency of the layer. For example, with 100% Opacity there is no layer translucency, at 0% Opacity the layer is completely transparent, and at 50% Opacity the layer is 50% translucent.

As I’ve noted, Photoshop documents are made up of a layer stack. When you bring a photo into Photoshop, it becomes the Background (bottom) layer of the stack. The screen shots shown to the right give an idea of how a stack of layers works. You’ll also see part of the stack of layers shown in the Photoshop Layers panel that I used to create the image of the Jaguar wheels shown on pages 36–37.


If the top layer of a layer stack is translucent because it has less than 100% opacity, what do you see in the image window?

Below is the Layers panel showing four layers: a “Background” layer at the bottom of the layer stack, an “Add blue” layer, an “Add red” layer, and on the top, a “Blur” layer. A thumbnail image gives a quick look at each layer.

The “Background” layer is highlighted in blue because it is selected. When a layer is selected, it is the active layer—meaning that any editing, such as painting, will happen on that layer.

As a general practice, it is always good to name layers meaningfully. That way, if you come back to work on an image at a later date, you have some idea of what each layer does.

At the top left of the Layers panel is the Blending Mode drop-down list. By default this is set to Normal. (For more about the power of blending modes, turn to pages 71–95.)

To the right of the Blending Mode drop-down list is the Opacity slider. The default setting is 100%. You can use this to adjust how transparent or opaque a layer is. Select a layer and drag the slider to the left to reduce the layer’s opacity.

The small eyes to the left of each layer show that all the layers are visible. If you click on an eye, that layer will become hidden.

It’s easy to confuse hiding a layer using the eye with layer transparency set using the Opacity slider. These two are very different. When you use the eye to hide a layer, it is no longer available for editing and becomes inactive (even though it is still there in the layer stack). You can’t paint on it, or copy or select it, and it isn’t included in the rendered image. When you make a layer transparent using the Opacity slider, the layer is still active. You can paint on it and manipulate it in any way that you like—and, provided it has at least some opacity, it will be included in the image as it is displayed.


Yoda says, “Do or do not. There is no try.” Plunge in. Don’t hesitate to play around with the settings in the Layers panel. One only learns by doing, and experimentation is the best teacher.

I shot this image of the wheel of an antique Jaguar in the driveway of a classic car collector. Looking at the photo on my computer, I decided that the spokes in the complex wheel needed more color as well as a motion blur. I used many different layers to add the color and blur effects; some of the layers are shown in the Layers panel on pages 34–35.

85mm, 4/5 of a second at f/45 and ISO 100, tripod mounted.

We put thirty spokes together and call it a wheel; But it is on the space where there is nothing that the usefulness of the wheel depends.

—Tao Te Ching, Arthur Waley translation

You may think that the purpose of a stack of layers is to control which parts of different layers are used in a final image; for example, I created a composite image including the sun as part of a landscape, where previously there was no sun. Certainly, layers are used in this way as part of compositing technique—but as the single core feature of Photoshop, layers are also used in many other ways. Compositing to create “impossible” imagery is a major subject by itself and will not be covered in The Way of the Digital Photographer, as there are other books on this topic (see the Notes section on page 188 for a suggestion).

The best way to think of a layer stack is from the top down. If the layer on the top of a stack has 100% opacity overall (and is blended normally), then the image is entirely made up of the top layer on the stack. In this situation, you could delete all the layers underneath the top layer on the stack without changing the appearance of the image.

Each layer can be associated with a layer mask. Another term for a layer mask is an alpha channel—if you really want to impress your non-Photoshop-savvy friends, just start dropping “alpha channel” into your casual conversation!

The purpose of a layer mask is to control how much of the associated layer is visible. Layer masks are monochromatic in nature. They only care about whites and blacks, and values on the grayscale.

A white layer mask means the associated layer is entirely visible, and a black layer mask means the associated layer is entirely hidden. I like to use the mnemonic “White reveals, and black conceals” in connection with the layer that is connected to the mask.

A layer mask that is 50% gray is 50% revealed.

The blacks, whites, and grayscale pattern you apply—by digital painting or some other mechanism—to a layer mask controls which areas of the associated layer are visible, which are partially visible, and which are invisible.

I’ll be walking you through the mechanisms of how I work with layers, layer masks, and layer stacks in a few pages. Don’t worry! This part of the journey is really quite straightforward. But in the meantime, I think a simple layer example would be helpful to lock in the crucial concepts that I just explained.

If you’ve ever photographed San Francisco’s magnificent Golden Gate Bridge, you’ll know that some of the best vantage points are from the old fortifications along the Marin Headlands, across the Golden Gate from the city of San Francisco. These old forts are great for exploration, and also provide plenty of foreground contrast to the Golden Gate Bridge in the background.

Photographing as the sun goes down, or even well after sunset, this contrast can be problematic. Usually, the detail in the foreground is lost in deep shadow, while the Golden Gate Bridge in the background picks up the last light of twilight, and is illuminated in any case.

For example, when I was scrambling around Battery Spencer with camera and tripod I saw a composition that I thought would work, with the foreground detail juxtaposed with the bridge in the background. But when I exposed for the fortifications (right) the bridge was overexposed. A second exposure for the bridge made the foreground details completely black and underexposed (far right).

The answer was to combine the two exposures using layers, a simple layer mask, and a gradient (turn to page 59 for information on how to work with gradients). This created the dramatic image shown on pages 40–41 that shows detail in the foreground as well as the Golden Gate Bridge against a dramatic night sky.

Adjustment layers

Adjustment layers are an important and special kind of Photoshop layer that essentially are a gloss on the layer below rather than a layer themselves. Adjustment layers have some very real technical advantages compared to normal layers (for one thing, they take up less space on your computer than a normal layer). Like normal layers, they can be associated with a layer mask. However, to keep the material in The Way of the Digital Photographer conceptually simple—and also applicable to other image-editing programs besides Photoshop—unless otherwise noted I’ll be showing you how to work with normal layers rather than adjustment layers.

First, I put both images in a layer stack in Photoshop with the darker bridge image on the bottom and the fortification image above (right). (Turn to pages 33–38 for a general discussion of layers and layer stacks, and turn to pages 44–45 for instructions about how to combine two different photos in a singe document with two stacked layers.)

Next, I added a black Hide All layer mask to the “Fortification” layer (center right). (For more about working with layer masks, turn to pages 43–47.)

Finally, I used the Gradient Tool to drag a black to white gradient from top to bottom on the layer mask (pages 59–63). This hid the overexposed bridge on the “Fortifications” layer and revealed the correctly exposed bridge from the “Bridge” layer (bottom right). This created the correctly exposed composite image shown on pages 40–41.

On a dark but clear night, I scrambled around Battery Spencer, an old fortification finished in the late 1800s and abandoned after the end of World War II. The fort is located in the Marin Headlands right next to the Golden Gate Bridge and is across the bay from San Francisco.

As I walked around the fort, climbing stairs and exploring, I kept looking at the Golden Gate Bridge. There are millions of photographs of the bridge, but I was on the lookout for a different angle that would show a different point of view.

Settling in below the area where the second gun emplacement used to be, I pulled out my tripod and set up my camera. Looking around, I could see the bright red-orange tower of the bridge above me, but the area of the fort right in front of me was pitch black. This was a bit of an exposure conundrum.

The only way I was going to be able to create an image that showed both the fort in the foreground and the tower in the background was to shoot two photos—one exposed properly for the bridge and one exposed for the fort. Later, when I returned to my studio, I knew I could combine the two images in Photoshop to create a composite image showing both the foreground and background.

Knowing that I could combine two exposures (as explained on page 39) using layers and a layer mask allowed me to conceptualize an image with my “boots on the ground” that would never have occurred to me without immersion in the way of the digital photographer.

31mm, two exposures, one exposure at 15 seconds and one at 60 seconds, both at f/8 and ISO 200, tripod mounted; exposures combined in Photoshop.

Working with layer masks

I was walking around an industrial neighborhood in West Oakland, California, when I came across a fenced-in lot filled with giant pipes and an ancient-looking rusty crane.

I found a large man-sized hole in the fence, so I walked in and started to explore. I liked looking through the pipes to view the graffiti and got to thinking about the image I wanted to create. I realized that I needed to underexpose to capture the vibrant colors of the graffiti, while at the same time I wanted to see the contours of the pipes. How did I solve this exposure challenge?

The point of using aligned layers in a layer stack becomes apparent when one uses layer masks to control which parts of each layer are shown in the final image.

To add a Hide All layer mask to a layer, with the layer selected, choose Layer Layer Mask Hide All. A layer mask that is entirely black appears attached to your layer, as you can see below. This means that the layer will be entirely cloaked or hidden until you begin to reveal it by painting in white or gray on the layer mask.

To add a Reveal All layer mask to a layer, with the layer selected, choose Layer Layer Mask Reveal All. A layer mask that is entirely white will be added to your layer. This means that the layer will be entirely revealed until you partially conceal it by painting in black or gray on the layer mask.

By the way, you can’t attach a layer mask to a Background layer because this layer automatically is locked by Photoshop. In order to attach a layer mask, you need to change the Background layer to a regular layer by selecting Layer New Layer From Background.

White or black? That is the layer mask question. Actually, the two can be thought of as logically equivalent: in any layer stack the same visual effect can be achieved using either a Hide All (black) or Reveal All (white) layer mask if you shift the order of the layers. So the question essentially comes down to asking which path is more natural, and involves less effort. Which type of layer mask will require less work?

Creating a layer stack

Let me show you how layer masks work in the context of a real-life example.

I was shooting in a decayed industrial neighborhood in West Oakland, California, when I came across the large pipes and graffiti shown in the final images on pages 42 and 48‘49.

It was clear to me that I needed to underexpose to fully capture the vibrant colors and saturation of the graffiti art. At the same time, I knew I would want to see some details in the contour and rim of the pipe. Planning for this digital exposure challenge, I shot twice: once for the art (at 1/15 of a second, top right), and once for the pipe rim (at 1/4 of a second, right).

When I got the images home, the fun started in Photoshop.

1. First, open both images in Photoshop. This means that each image will be in a separate image window. (If your images open in a single, tabbed window in Photoshop, reset this default by selecting Photoshop Preferences Interface on Mac or File Preferences Interface in Windows and then unchecking Open Documents as Tabs.)

2. Select the Move Tool from the Tool panel.

3. Click the image window that contains the photo you would like on the top of the layer stack. This will be the source layer. For this example, the lighter pipe rim photo is the source layer.

4. Choose Select All to select the entire pipe rim photo.

5. Next, select Edit Copy to copy the entire image.

6. Click the image window that contains the photo that will be on the bottom of the layer stack to make it active. This will be the target layer. For this example, the graffiti photo is the target layer.

7. Choose Edit Paste to copy the pipe rim photo into the graffiti photo window. You now have two layers in the Layers panel. For this example, the layers are named “Light Rim” and “Graffiti.” At this point, only the “Light Rim” layer is visible in the image window. The “Graffiti” image is hidden underneath.

In the next set of steps, you will use a black Hide All layer mask attached to the “Light Rim” layer to let you decide which portions of the upper “Light Rim” layer will be visible in the final image.

Combining two exposures with a Hide All layer mask

1. Click on the “Light Rim” layer in the Layers panel to make sure it is selected. (When it is selected, it is highlighted in blue, as shown above right in the Layers panel.)

2. Select Layer Layer Mask Hide All. A black Hide All layer mask will appear attached to the “Light Rim” layer. Also, since the Hide All layer mask hides the layer it is attached to, the “Light Rim” layer will no longer be visible in the image window. (It’s still there, though!) You will now be able to see the “Graffiti” layer in the image window.


Is there ever a reason to create a layer stack in which the layers are not precisely aligned?

3. Select the Brush Tool from the Tool panel and set the Brush Tool to the width of the pipe rims. Set the Foreground color in the Tool panel to white and the Brush Tool’s Hardness setting to 0%. Then, use the Options Bar to set the brush Opacity to 50% and the Flow to 50%. (For more about the Brush Tool and its settings, turn to pages 51–57.)

4. With the black Hide All layer mask selected in the Layers panel, use the Brush Tool to paint in the image window along the pipe rims (don’t try to paint on the layer mask thumbnail in the Layers panel).

Zoom in as close as you need to in order to see the pipes. As you paint with white on the black layer mask, the area on the “Pipe Rim” layer will become visible. If you need to, you can also alter the size and opacity of the brush as you paint.

When you are finished painting, the layer mask will probably look something like the one shown to the right.

The finished Oakland Pipes image is shown on pages 48–49.

Pages 48–49: Wandering around a deserted industrial area near the West Oakland docks, I came across some large, apparently abandoned pipes in a field covered with weeds and surrounded by walls that had been painted with graffiti. I used a telephoto focal length to compress a composition showing the saturated graffiti, making several exposures to get the details I wanted. In Photoshop, I processed one of the images for the fully saturated paintings, then painted in the outline of the pipes from a lighter exposure (as explained in the text).

130mm, two exposures, one at 1/4 of a second (lighter) and one at 1/15 of a second (darker), both exposures at f/36 and ISO 200, tripod mounted; exposures combined in Photoshop.


Since you can get equivalent results using a black Hide All layer mask as shown above or using a white Reveal All layer mask as shown on page 47 if you reverse the order of the layer stack, which one is best to use?

Hint: It is always important to have a plan that is coherent and makes sense in relationship to a particular image. How much are you going to have to paint if one layer is on the top of the layer stack instead of the other layer?

Using a Reveal All layer mask to combine two exposures

As I noted back on page 43, if you reverse the order of your layers in the stack—putting the “Graffiti” layer on top and the “Light Rim” layer underneath—you could use a white Reveal All layer mask and come up with the same results as shown on page 46.

To demonstrate this with the Oakland Pipes image:

1. Put the “Graffiti” image on the top of the layer stack by dragging the layer up in the Layers panel. This leaves the “Light Rim” layer on the bottom.

2. With the “Graffiti” layer selected in the Layers panel, select Layer Layer Mask Reveal All. A white Reveal All layer mask will appear attached to the layer. The layer mask makes the “Graffiti” layer visible and hides the “Light Rim” layer underneath.

3. Select the Brush Tool from the Tool panel and set the Brush Tool to the width of the pipe rims. Set the Foreground color in the Tool panel to black and the Brush Tool’s Hardness setting to 0%. Then, use the Options Bar to set the brush Opacity to 50% and the Flow to 50%.

4. With the white Reveal All layer mask selected in the Layers panel, paint in the image window along the pipe rims. As you paint with black the lighter pipe rims from the “Light Rim” layer will become visible.

It is worth taking a moment or two to compare the two scenarios—using a black Hide All layer mask (page 46) and a white Reveal All layer mask—until you are sure you understand why the two approaches lead to an identical result. The finished image is shown on pages 48–49.

Using the Brush Tool

The Brush Preset picker lets you quickly get going with brushes in Photoshop. You can use it to set the width of the brush, how hard the brush is (the higher the percentage, the harder the brush), and the brush tip shape.

An artist is a dreamer consenting to dream of the actual world.

—George Santayana

To recapitulate, layer masks determine how much of a layer shows in a final version of an image. A black layer mask conceals the layer it is associated with—and white or gray applied to that layer mask wholly or partially reveals the layer. Conversely, a white layer reveals the associated layer, with black or gray selectively hiding the layer—and revealing the layers beneath. (For more about layer masks, turn to pages 43–47.)

So how do you create the nuance in an otherwise solid layer mask? What tools do you use to reveal or hide parts of a layer?

Far Left: In this portrait of my painting brushes, I selectively sharpened the brushes. Also, I slightly blurred the background to make the brushes seem even sharper. With what you know so far about layers and layer masks, how do you think I did this?

The first tool I reach for when I create my layer masks is the Brush Tool. It is shown to the left in the Photoshop Tools panel, circled in red.

Left: The Brush Tool is one of the most important tools when using layer masks.

When you select the Brush Tool in the Tool panel, the Options bar at the top of the Photoshop screen changes, showing Brush Tool options. One of these is the Brush Preset picker, which displays the active brush tip (above left).

To open the Brush Preset picker, click the blue arrow. Using the picker, you can select several options. These include:

Brush tip—There is a vast selection of possible brush tips and shapes that determine what is drawn by the brush.

Diameter—The width of the brush tip.

Hardness—The harder the brush, the more abrupt the edge transition is when you paint. I usually paint on layer masks with a very soft brush, from 0% to 10% hardness.

The Options bar (shown above) also sports several important Brush Tool settings:

Blending Modes—Generally, I leave the Brush blending mode at Normal, and change blending modes at the layer level using the Layers panel. (Turn to pages 71–95 for an explanation of this very important feature.)

Opacity—Controls the translucency of the brush (see page 35 for a further discussion about opacity).

Flow—This sets how fast the virtual “paint” flows out of the Brush Tool. With layer masks, I like to leave Flow at 50% unless I am creating a solid, completely opaque effect.

Several different brush sets come with Photoshop. The one loaded by default into the Brush Preset picker is a basic set containing some round and square brushes, some star tips, and a few dry brushes.

You can load a different set of brushes into the picker by clicking the tiny arrow at the upper right of the picker, and selecting a brush set from the drop-down list (below).

Many of the brush tips in these different sets try to mimic real-world brush strokes that you would see in oil, acrylic, or watercolor painting, as well as textures that you would create if you were working with chalk, charcoal, or pastels.

As a small sample of what you can do with the Brush tool, I created some rectangular color shapes. I then picked several brush tips, each using a different color, to create the brush sampler shown below.

Brushes are fun, easy to use, and powerful. Once you start experimenting with them, you’ll find uses that go beyond layer masks—but painting on a layer mask is one of the most powerful possibilities in Photoshop for the digital photographer.

To create this homage to the great painter Vincent van Gogh, which I call Go van Gogh, I combined an image of a sunflower with an image of star trails at night. Starting with this composite image, I duplicated the Background layer. On the duplicate layer, I applied the Adobe Labs Pixel Bender OilPaint filter (see page 149) to create simulated brush strokes à la Vincent. Next, I used a black Hide All layer mask to hide the OilPaint effects, and then selectively painted in the brush strokes I wanted at a moderate opacity. To add that touch of simulated authenticity, I added a digital signature—in this case, “Harold” rather than “Vincent.”

Flower: 65mm, 4/5 of a second at f/32 and ISO 100, tripod mounted; Star trails: 10.5mm fisheye lens, 2 hours at f/2.8 and ISO 400, tripod mounted; images combined in Photoshop.

Selective sharpening

There are many reasons to sharpen an image, although sharpening probably won’t save an image that is unintentionally out of focus. I like to differentiate between output sharpening and aesthetic sharpening.

Output sharpening is performed at the end of a workflow to meet the demands of a specific printing need. In contrast, aesthetic sharpening is intended simply to create a visual effect.

It turns out that folks viewing a photo look at sharp areas sooner and with more concentration than unsharp areas. So provided you don’t overdo it, you can use selective sharpening to emphasize particular areas of your image, often without your viewers consciously realizing you have employed this tactic.

One of the most compelling things about the selective sharpening technique is that it operates subliminally—viewers usually don’t even know they are responding to your technique.

For example, to create the image of paint brushes shown on page 57, I wanted to make the bristles and ferules on the brushes seem sharp while leaving the rest of the image was somewhat soft.

Here’s how you can easily incorporate selective sharpening in your quiver of post-processing tools and techniques.

1. To get started, open the image you want to sharpen in Photoshop. For this example, the paintbrush photo on page 57 will be used.

As you can see in the Layers panel to the right, there is one layer, the Background layer.

2. Select Image Mode LAB Color to convert the image from the RGB color space to the LAB color space. (For a discussion of color spaces, LAB color, and some of LAB’s exciting uses, turn to pages 155–163.)

If you take a look at the Channels panel, you will see that the LAB color space has three channels: Lightness (L), A, and B. (If the Channels panel is not available on your Photoshop desktop, choose Window Channels to open the panel.)

The Lightness channel contains all the black and white color information for the photo from the darkest darks to the lightest lights. This is the channel that you will use to sharpen the image.

3. Duplicate the “Background” layer by selecting Layer Duplicate. A Duplicate Layer dialog box will open. Name the new layer something memorable. For this example, the duplicate layer is named “Selective Sharpening.” You should now have two layers in the Layers panel, “Background” and “Selective Sharpening.”

4. Make sure the “Selective Sharpening” layer is selected in the Layers panel. Then, click the Lightness channel in the Channels panel to select it (it will be highlighted in blue).

Notice that when you select the Lightness channel, the eyeballs next to the other channels disappear, and the photo in the image window appears gray. This is because the other channels that contain the color information, a and b, are inactive—the color is still there, though, waiting for later!

5. Select Filter Sharpen Unsharp Mask.

The Unsharp Mask filter works by increasing the contrast between pixels that are next to one another. This is a simulation of an old photographic technique that was used in the darkroom.

6. After selecting the Unsharp Mask menu item, an Unsharp Mask dialog box opens. There are three settings in this box: Amount, Radius, and Threshold.

When sharpening with the Unsharp Mask filter, start by setting the Threshold to 9 levels and the Radius to 4.0 pixels. Next, use the Amount slider to adjust the sharpening. Usually the Amount should be set between 50% and 100%. For this example, 80% works well.

Once you have the sharpness of the Lightness channel adjusted to your satisfaction, click OK to close the dialog box and apply the sharpening.

7. In the Channels panel, click the Lab channel to reactivate all the channels. The photo will now be in color in the image window.

8. In the Layers panel with the “Selective Sharpening” layer selected, add a black Hide All layer mask to the layer (step 2 on page 45).

9. Select the Brush Tool from the Tools panel and using the Options Bar, set both Opacity and Flow to 100% (page 52), and then press X to change the Foreground color to white.

10. With the layer mask selected in the Layers panel, paint on the areas you want to selectively sharpen in the image window.

If you like the sharpening, but it seems a bit too strong, you can reduce it by lowering the Opacity setting of the “Selective Sharpening” layer (page 35).

11. When you are pleased with the sharpening effect, flatten the layers by selecting Layer Flatten Image. Then return the photo to the RGB color space by selecting Image Mode RGB Color.

To create this image of my well-used paintbrushes, I wanted to make the bristles and ferules seem sharp while the rest of the image was somewhat soft. To achieve this effect, I duplicated the original image’s Background layer and sharpened the duplicate layer. I then added a black Hide All layer mask to the duplicate layer, and used the Brush Tool to selectively paint in the areas that I wanted to seem extra sharp.

85mm macro lens, 8 seconds at an effective aperture of f/64, ISO 200, tripod mounted.

Working with gradients

When you select the Gradient Tool from the Tool panel, the Gradient picker appears at the upper left of the Options bar. To open the picker, click the blue arrow. Most times, you’ll use a black to white (or white to black) gradient on a layer mask.

Left: The Gradient Tool can be used to create a smooth transition from white to black on a layer mask. This makes for a smooth transition on a layer of the part that is revealed and the part that is hidden.

Far Left: The steam sidewheel paddle ferry Eureka is from the 1890s. Moored in San Francisco’s Maritime National Park, it is open to visitors.

Aboard the Eureka, the only way I could photograph the massive engine room was with a wide-angle lens (12mm), which works to exaggerate the curvilinear shapes of pipes going in every direction.

12mm, 15 seconds at f/18 and ISO 200, tripod mounted.

Photoshop offers many tools that you can use to create layer masks, either by themselves or in combination.

As I said before, my first tool of choice for working on masks is the Brush Tool. But a very close second is the Gradient Tool. For some images, the Gradient Tool even beats the Brush Tool hands down. Landscape photos are particular grist for the Gradient Tool’s mill because there can be great variation in exposure values between the earth and the sky, and you can blend them seamlessly using the Gradient Tool.

Gradient Tool setup works in a similar fashion to Brush Tool setup. To start with, choose the Gradient Tool in the Photoshop Tool panel (it is circled in red on the Tool panel to the left). Sometimes the Gradient Tool will be hidden behind the Bucket Tool since they nest under the same tool button. If you don’t see it, press Shift+G to toggle between the Bucket and Gradient Tools in the Tool panel.

After selecting the Gradient Tool, the Gradient picker appears at the left of the Options bar at the top of the Photoshop window (in the same place as the Brush Tool picker described on page 52). Using the Gradient picker (above left), you can select a gradient that will suit your masking and blending needs.

Most of the time, for photographic applications on a layer mask, you can keep the choice of gradient simple and choose the first black-to-white (or white-to-black) pattern shown in the upper left of the default Gradient picker.

Using the Gradient Tool to seamlessly blend two layers

A typical situation where I would use the Gradient Tool on a layer mask is when I have two exposures that need to be blended together seamlessly. For instance, in the shot of Horseshoe Bend on the Colorado River taken at sunset (right), the upper photo is exposed correctly for the river, and the other photo is exposed for the sky.

By themselves, each photo doesn’t quite work because one appears overexposed and the other underexposed. When combined together, so that the exposures for the sky and water are both correct, the composite image becomes something spectacular (shown on pages 62–63).

1. Open the two photos you would like to combine in Photoshop. For this example, I’ll use the Colorado River photographs.

2. Select the Move Tool from the Tool panel.

3. Click the window containing the photo exposed for the sky (and underexposed for the river) and choose Select All.

4. Next, select Edit Copy to copy the entire image.

5. Click the image window containing the photo exposed for the river, and then choose Edit Paste to copy the sky photo into the river image window. (Turn to pages 44–45 to find detailed directions about this copy and paste procedure.)

You will now have two layers in a stack. For this example, I’ve named the layers “Sky” and “River.” The “Sky” layer is currently visible in the image window and the “River” layer is hidden.

6. Make sure the “Sky” layer in the Layers panel is selected and add a black Hide All layer mask (page 45, step 2).

The Hide All layer mask will hide the “Sky” layer and make the “River” layer visible in the image window.

At the bottom of the Tool panel, the Foreground color will automatically change to white and the Background color will change to black.

7. Click the Gradient Tool in the Tool Panel to select it.

8. Open the Gradient picker (page 59) and select the gradient in the upper-left corner labeled “Foreground to Background.”

9. With the layer mask selected in the “Sky” layer, position the Gradient Tool at the top of the image window, and click and drag the gradient down to the bottom of the image window.

This draws a white-to-black gradient on the layer mask that reveals the correctly exposed sky area of the “Sky” layer and reveals the correctly exposed rocks and river of the “River” layer.

To see the finished image, turn to pages 62–63.

Thunder was booming along the high mesas of the Colorado River plateau, and rain squalls were flitting across the landscape, driven by a biting wind. My hopes for photographing in the light of the “golden hour” at sunset were fairly slight, but, after all, one never knows! So I wrapped my gear in watertight plastic bags, and trudged out to the edge of the Colorado River, a thousand feet below at Horseshoe Bend.

By the time I reached the edge of the canyon, the rain had diminished but the light was dull and overcast, and the chill winter wind made waiting uncomfortable. I was ready to call it a day, but then I said “Never surrender”—and just before darkness fell, the clouds lit up with the glorious colors shown here.

12mm, two exposures (1 second for the Colorado River, 1/20 of a second for the sky), both exposures at f/7.1 and ISO 200, tripod mounted; exposures combined using a layer mask and gradient in Photoshop.

Pages 64–65: Standing on the edge of the cliff that marks the beginning of the volcanic uplands of Owens Valley, California, I looked out along the Owens River toward the magnificent winter crest of the Sierra Nevada Mountains.

It was clear that the exposure value for the river valley in shadow was quite different than the bright mountains still reflecting the afternoon sun. Fortunately, I was easily able to solve this exposure problem using a series of layers, layer masks, and the Gradient Tool.

20mm, six exposures at shutter speeds ranging from 1/13 of a second to 1.6 seconds, each exposure at f/22 and ISO 100, tripod mounted; exposures combined in Photoshop.

Drawing directly on a layer

Walking around my neighborhood one beautiful late spring day, I came across a large clump of calla lilies blooming in a neighbor’s yard. Fascinated by the shapes of the flowers, I rang the doorbell and asked whether I could have a few to photograph. The kind neighbor gave me six!

Back at my studio after shooting a series of close-ups, I looked at the photos on my computer and discovered that the spadix peeking out from the lily petal did not have enough contrast. It just looked like an orange shape with some faint lines.

For this photo to work, the spadix needed to contrast in resolution with the softer parts of the flower. To achieve this result, I hand-painted some of the detailed lines into the spadix on a duplicate layer.

300mm, 68mm combined extension tubes, 1/2 of a second at f/36 and ISO 200, tripod mounted.

Do the best you can, because that’s the best you can do.

—Rolie Polie Olie

There’s a special technique that I frequently use that takes advantage of the ability to reduce the opacity of a layer. I use this technique in photos where selected areas just don’t seem to have enough resolution or detail. In essence, I paint in the missing details on a layer at full opacity—and then reduce the Opacity setting to the point where my painting seems entirely natural. That way, someone looking at the final image won’t be able to detect any alterations.

The idea is to duplicate the layer you want to work on. Next, use a fairly hard brush loaded with black to paint in the enhanced detail. Finally, reduce the opacity of the duplicated layer to the point where the enhanced detail looks natural and attractive.

Variations on the theme

There are a number of variations on the way one approaches hand painting additional details into a photo.

One possibility that works well is to select and sample a color you want to use to “beef up” an area that is not black. Often, it looks more natural to use a color other than black, but you have to be careful that the color you select has enough coverage.

Note that while you can reduce the opacity of the Brush Tool, it’s more flexible to use the opacity property of a layer rather than that of the Brush—because you can more easily adjust layer opacity up or down depending on the results even after you’ve completed the brush work.

One related technique I use is to duplicate the Background layer, and put the duplicate into Multiply blending mode. I then add a layer mask, and paint in what I want on the layer mask. Depending on the results, the opacity of the entire duplicate layer can be adjusted after the layer mask is complete.

Blending modes are explained on pages 71–95, and there’s more detail about the Multiply blending mode on pages 83–85.

As an example of when it might make sense to paint directly on a layer and then take down the opacity, have a look at the image of a Calla Lily shown on page 66. For this image to work, the details in the calyx, the flower cluster within the lily, needed to contrast with the soft and luxurious feeling of the spathe—the large white bracht that encloses the spadix.

But when I opened the photo of the flower in Photoshop and looked at the area of the calyx up close, it was clear it did not provide as much detail as I would have liked (right).

1. To get started adding contrast to an area in a photo, open the image in Photoshop. (For this example, I’ll be using the calla lily calyx.)

2. Duplicate the layer you want to add contrast to by selecting Layer Duplicate. In the Duplicate dialog box, name the layer “Contrast.”

In the next step, you’ll paint right on the “Contrast” layer. There’s no layer mask this time. Don’t worry if you aren’t great with the Brush Tool, yet. The painting you will do here will be rather thick and look overdone until the Opacity setting for the “Contrast” layer is lowered.

As you continue to work with the Brush Tool on your photos, you’ll find that you do get a feel for it, though some folks prefer using a mouse to paint, while others prefer a tablet and stylus or digital brush.

3. Select the Brush Tool from the Tool panel and set black as the Foreground color by pressing D.

For this type of painting, you’ll want to use a fairly hard, round brush, so open the Brush Tool Picker (page 52) and set the Hardness to 50% and select a small round brush tip. You can use the Master Diameter slider to set the width of the brush tip to be a little wider than the area you want to paint over.

On the Options bar, set both Opacity and Flow to 70% for starters (page 52). You can adjust these settings as you need to while you paint.

4. Use the Zoom Tool to magnify the area of the image you are painting. Always take the time to zoom in and out while you’re working. That way, you can see what effect you are creating.

5. Paint on the layer where it needs more contrast. This can be meticulous work, so take your time and don’t feel rushed.

6. Once you have finished painting, use the Layers panel to adjust the Opacity setting of the “Contrast” layer. Experiment until you get it just right. For the calla lily, I first tried 50% Opacity, but it was too strong. Then, I tried 20% Opacity—still, too much. Finally, I settled on 10% Opacity—it looked natural but was significant enough to make the calyx really stand out when compared to the soft buttery white spathe. The final image is shown on page 66.

Introducing blending modes

My thought with this image was to convey some degree of the complexity of my feelings about New York—the place I grew up, and a city that I love and that drives me crazy simultaneously.

To make the image, I shot a number of bracketed sequences from a high-floor window in midtown. The subject matter of each of these image sequences overlapped but was not identical.

I combined the image sequences using a variety of blending modes and applied textural overlays (as explained on pages 175–183) to finish the image.

Various focal lengths, five bracketed exposure sequences, each exposure sequence consisting of seven exposures ranging from 4 seconds to 1/250 of a second, all exposures at f/8 and ISO 200, tripod mounted; HDR sequences combined using Photoshop and Nik HDR Efex Pro, finished sequences composited using Photoshop.

We paint what is not there, not what is.

—Robert Leverant

There’s one more important Photoshop concept that you need to know about: blending modes. Your choice of blending mode determines how a layer interacts with the layers beneath it in the layer stack.

So far in The Way of the Digital Photographer, I’ve primarily shown you how to use Normal blending mode. As I’ve explained, at 100% opacity in Normal blending mode, only the pixels of the topmost layer in the layer stack are visible. With any blending mode other than Normal, this is not the case.

In fact, each blending mode is described by a pixel-based formula. The formula for the Normal blending mode is that the pixels in the topmost layer are the only ones shown. Some other easy-to-grasp blending mode examples are Lighten—in which each pixel shown is the lighter of the two layers being blended—and Darken—in which each pixel shown is the darker of the two layers being blended.

The truth is that understanding the math behind how blends are determined will not help you much in effective and creative use of blending modes. Photoshop is a visual program, and it is by far best to experiment visually with the blending modes so you can get a feeling for what they do.

That said, I won’t leave you in the lurch with blending modes without providing some guidance. On the pages that follow, you’ll find case studies of two of the most commonly used blending modes (other than Normal):

Screen, which is used to lighten (pages 72–81)

Multiply, which darkens (pages 82–85)

I’ll also show you how blending modes can be categorized (page 87), and how some of the important blending modes interact with lights, midtones, and darks (pages 88–89).

Finally, most of the examples in these pages talk about blending a layer with a duplicate copy of itself. The rubber starts to meet the road when you blend a layer with another layer that presents entirely different content. I’ll show you how to take advantage of this potential synergy for creative artistic effect in the context of some of the less commonly used blending modes (pages 90–95).

Screen blending mode

Finding some beautiful white dahlias blooming in my garden, I brought them into my studio and placed them on a light box. The back lighting heightened the transparent quality of the dahlias’ petals and made the flowers almost glow. I shot several sets of dahlia images, working with the exposures to make sure that I got a full dynamic range of lights and darks.

As I worked in Photoshop, in the post-production phase of my workflow, I kept the translucent aspect of the flower petals in mind. To add a sense of lightness to the petals of the dahlias, I used Screen blending mode and painstakingly painted in each petal on a layer mask, lightening the petals one by one. As I painted, I left the edges of the petals untouched. I liked the way the darker contrast looked, and the contrast at the edges also worked to make the petals appear more translucent.

200mm macro lens, two exposures (one at 3/5 of a second and one at 1/8 of a second), both exposures at f/16 and ISO 200, tripod mounted; exposures combined in Photoshop.

A group of blending modes can be used to lighten an image, either overall or selectively using a layer mask and painting. My favorite of the blending modes is Screen.

Technically speaking, in Screen blending mode Photoshop multiplies the opposite of each pixel of the layer being blended with the pixels beneath it. (Brain twister!) This kind of formula can be hard to comprehend until you see it visually. But all you really need to know is that Screen blending mode lightens everything, most often in a pleasing way.

I often use Screen blending mode in my photos to make large areas lighter and also to bring out selective details. One kind of situation in which this works well is when the foreground is too dark. You’ll often find that this occurs in landscapes just before sunset, or even after dark, when there is light in the sky but the landscape itself is quite dark.

While there is still color in the sky but the foreground landscape is very dark, I like to shoot a lighter exposure of the foreground if I can. Then I take my photos back to my studio with the plan of blending this foreground shot into the dark sky background using Screen blending mode, a layer mask, and the Brush and/or Gradient Tools.

If there is motion in the scene then this combination may not be easily possible, and I may have to settle for combining a layer with itself using Screen blending mode to selectively lighten the foreground area (or any other area in the photo that needs lightening).

How do Lighten and Screen blending modes compare?

Lighten blending mode is really easy to understand: it takes the lightest pixel at every point. This makes it good for certain applications—such as painting in stars against a night sky—but it won’t help you lighten areas that are dark in both layers that are being combined. In comparison, Screen will lighten across the range of tones in an image, although it works best in midtone areas.

Shooting in the Patriarch Grove of ancient bristlecone pines in the White Mountains of eastern California, I came upon a tree standing tall in the landscape.

As I pre-visualized the photograph that I wanted to create, I decided to wait until after sunset to capture star trails whirling in the sky behind the pine tree.

Thinking further, I knew that the star trails would make the foreground—and tree—completely black, so I decided to shoot a lighter foreground image before sunset (top right).

My knowledge of post-processing with layers and masks—and the idea that I could combine these photographs later in Photoshop—informed my photography.

After the sun had set, I created the star circle composition (middle right) by shooting thirty-five 4-minute exposures. Back at my studio a few days later, I combined the thirty-five photos in a layer stack in Photoshop. The stacking program that I used to combine the photos essentially used the Lighten blending mode to find the lightest pixel in each point of the thirty-five photographs.

Once I had the star trail image, it was time to combine it with the photo I had shot for the foreground.

I combined the two images in a layer stack by copying the foreground photo into the image window containing the star trails image (bottom right). I named the newly copied, upper layer “Foreground.” (For details on copying a layer and making a layer stack, turn to page 44–45, steps 1‘7.)

My next step was to select the “Foreground” layer in the Layers panel and add a black Hide All layer mask (page 45, step 2). This hid the “Foreground” layer and made the “Background” layer visible.

With the layer mask selected in the Layers panel, I selected the Gradient Tool, selected the Foreground to Background gradient from the Gradient Picker, and then dragged a white-to-black gradient from the bottom to the top on the layer mask (middle right). (For more about this technique, turn to page 61, steps 6‘9).

This seamlessly blended the two images, leaving the star trails from the “Background” layer visible and the trees and landscape from the “Foreground” layer visible.

My next step was to change the “Foreground” layer’s blending mode to Screen by selecting it from the Blending Mode drop-down list (middle right).

The final step was to select the Brush Tool from the Tool panel, select a fairly hard brush tip (pages 51–52), and set the Foreground color in the Tool panel to white by pressing D, and then X. Making sure the layer mask on the “Foreground” layer was selected, I carefully painted in the upper part of the tall bristlecone pine in the center of the image (below right).

The final image is shown on pages 76–77.

I used Screen blending mode to make the foreground lighter when I blended a shot made before it was completely dark (for the foreground) with the starry night sky.

10.5mm digital fisheye lens; Background: thirty-five images at 4 minutes each, f/2.8, and ISO 400 to capture the stars; Foreground (shot before it was fully dark): 1/250 of a second, f/8, and ISO 200, tripod mounted; exposures combined in Photoshop.

Pages 78–79: To make this image, I put the camera on a timer and used an external power source. I programmed the time to shoot exposures all night, then blended in the foreground from the first light of dawn.

10.5mm digital fisheye lens; Background: 139 images at 4 minutes each, f/2.8, and ISO 400 (total exposure time about 10 hours); Foreground (shot after sunrise): 1/250 of a second, f/8, and ISO 200, tripod mounted; exposures combined in Photoshop.

Using Screen for selective lightening

Sometimes you need to very selectively lighten an image—rather than lightening a large contiguous area of an image (such as the foreground in the bristlecone pine image shown on pages 76–77). For instance, consider the image of white dahlias, shot on a light box, and shown in finished form to the right.

Looking at the petals, my idea was to leave the lines at the edges of the petals hard, but to make the internal parts of the petal soft. This gives a feeling of translucency.

To achieve this result, I opened the dahlia image in Photoshop (upper left), and duplicated the dahlia layer. I named the duplicate layer “Translucent.” In the Layers panel, I set the “Translucent” layer’s blending mode to Screen. This lightened the duplicate layer considerably, making the petals appear quite translucent. At the same time, however, it lowered the contrast at the edges of the dahlia petals, losing definition (middle left).

The way to fix this was to hide the petal edges on the “Translucent” layer, letting the darker petal edges show through from the original layer at the bottom of the layer stack.

To do this, I added a white Reveal All layer mask to the “Transparent” layer (page 47). Using the Brush Tool set with a fairly hard, round tip with black as the Foreground color, I painted freehand, creating a fairly complex layer mask that added the petal edge contrast back in (page 80, bottom). Finally, using the Layers panel and the Opacity slider, I reduced the opacity setting of the duplicate layer until it looked right, at about 34%.

In my studio, I arranged some white dahlias on a light box and I shot several series of photos, grouping the flowers in different ways.

As I worked at my computer on one of the dahlia photos that pleased me most, I realized that I wanted to add a sense of lightness to the petals of the dahlias. To do this, I duplicated the image layer and applied Screen blending mode to make the petals appear more transparent.

200mm macro lens, 2 exposures (one at 3/5 of a second and one at 1/8 of a second), both exposures at f/16 and ISO 200, tripod mounted.

Multiply blending mode

High in Death Valley’s Eureka Dunes I saw this high-contrast composition in the late afternoon sun. It was bitterly cold with a strong, gusting winter wind. Tiny pellets of blowing sand stung my cheeks and hands with every gust. Even though I was wearing cold-weather gear, it was hard to stay warm.

It’s always windy at the Eureka Dunes and as the wind strikes the dunes, it hits harmonics, sounding musical notes. The pitch of the note depends on how much moisture is in the sand. The drier the sand, the higher the pitch of the resulting harmonic. So the sands sang to me as I pre-visualized this photo.

My idea was to exaggerate the demarcation line between the side of the dune in shadow and the side in sunshine.

I knew I could achieve this effect in post-processing by duplicating the “Background” layer, changing the duplicate layer to Multiply blending mode, and then using a layer mask to “protect” the part of the dune in sunshine from the effects of the darkened, Multiply layer (see pages 43–47 for details about layer masks and how to work with them).

With these thoughts in my head, I carefully pulled out my camera and shielded it as best I could from the sand. I didn’t want sand to get in my camera, so I had to work fast. No tripod setup here (even though I had lugged it up the dune with the rest of my equipment!). I set my camera to a fast shutter speed and quickly shot a series of images. Then I capped my lens.

After trudging back down the dune, it was a relief to get into the quiet of my van, out of the wind. I immediately set to work, cleaning out the sand from my camera, bag, the rest of my gear, and my hiking boots.

52mm, 1/500 of a second at f/25 and ISO 320, handheld.

Just about as common as wanting to lighten an image is the need to darken it. When I want to selectively darken an image, most often I reach for the Multiply blending mode.

This blending mode compares the two layers being blended and multiplies each pixel on the bottom layer with its corresponding pixel on the upper (blending) layer, creating a darker color.

The only color in an image that the Multiply blending mode does not work on, meaning darken, is white. You can multiply white with white all you like, and it will still just be white!

By using a layer mask and controlling the opacity of the Multiply blended layer, I can add drama and tonal range to any photo.

For example, high in Death Valley’s Eureka Dunes, I looked across the top edge of a large dune and pre-visualized this high-contrast composition in the late afternoon sun (left). My idea was to exaggerate the demarcation line between the side of the dune in shadow and the side in sunshine. I knew I could achieve this effect in post-processing using the Multiply blending mode, so I planned my shots with this in mind and took them accordingly.

Back at my studio, I started by duplicating the “Background” layer and naming the duplicate “Contrast.” For information about how to duplicate a Background layer, see page 55, step 3.

Then I changed the “Contrast” layer’s blending mode to Multiply. Changing blending modes is explained on page 75.

Next, I added a white Reveal All layer mask (for information on working with Reveal All layers masks, see page 47) and used the Brush Tool with the Foreground color set to black (to carefully paint the line of the dune and the sun side of the dune on the right. (I show you how to use the Brush Tool on pages 51–52).

These steps allowed the brighter, sun side of the dune on the Background layer to be visible, and the darker, shadowed side of the dune to become really dark where the layer mask allowed the Multiply blending mode version of the layer to come through.

Since this kind of high-contrast image works well in black and white, I converted the image to monochrome using Nik Silver Efex Pro. You’ll find information about converting an image to black and white in post-production on pages 167–173.

The final image of the crest of the Eureka Dunes is shown to the right and on page 82.

Using the Multiply blending mode let me make the shadowed side of the dune very dark, adding to the contrast and shape of the dune line.

52mm, 1/500 of a second at f/25 and ISO 320, handheld.

For another example, in this image of my wife and daughter (left), I wanted to emphasize the glowing expression on the face of my little girl. To achieve this result, I needed to darken the surrounding image so that extraneous details wouldn’t visually clutter the image (original photo below left).

As a first step, I duplicated the background layer that I wanted to darken and named it “Baby Face.” Next, I changed the “Baby Face” layer to Multiply blending mode. This created an effect of overall darkness.

I added a white Reveal All layer mask, and used the Brush Tool to paint out the areas that I wanted to stay bright, primarily the baby’s face (below right).

Finally, I took down the opacity of the “Baby Face” layer to the point where it looked attractive rather than too dark—about 50% opacity.

This image has emotional impact because of the glowing light on my daughter’s face, emphasizing her wonderful expression. To achieve this lighting effect in post-processing, I used the Multiply blending mode on a duplicate of the Background layer and selectively lightened my daughter’s face using a layer mask and the Brush Tool.

32mm, 1/80 of a second at f/5.6 and ISO 800, handheld.

Blending mode categories

The blending mode drop-down list divides the blending modes by category.

To make this image of a model that I titled “Becoming a Dream,” I combined four exposures in post-production. This combination used a variety of blending modes, and more than 100 different layers.

Four exposures, 100mm, exposures at shutter speeds ranging from 1/6 of a second to 1/200 of a second, apertures from f/2 to f/8, ISO 200, tripod mounted; exposures combined in Photoshop.

Blending modes are a key feature that you can use to impact how your images look. If you’ve never taken a blending mode off Normal, you’ve got a great surprise in store.

In the Layers panel on the Blending Mode drop-down list (left), the blending modes are divided into categories for darkening, lightening, and increasing contrast. In addition, there are comparative blending modes, and blending modes that modify color.

In a previous book, I called the comparative blending modes—Difference and Exclusion—“weird,” and the author of another Photoshop book calls them “psychedelic.” The comparative blending modes are the Rodney Dangerfield of blending modes—they don’t get no respect!—but they can pack a real punch in creative image making, as you’ll see starting on page 91.

I’m all for finding out what different blending modes do by trying them out. After all, there’s nothing like seeing something for yourself.


If you want to live your life in a creative way, as an artist, you have to not look back too much. You have to be willing to take whatever you’ve done and whoever you were and throw them away.

—Steve Jobs

Testing the blending mode categories

Here is a quick blending mode test to see how a few blending modes affect lights, midtones, and darks.

The image used here is an iPhone photo of a lunch I had at an Ecuadorian restaurant one day (right). This image is the “Background” layer for the test (below). On the layer above, called “Test Strips,” I’ve put three rectangles, one that is black, one that is 50% gray, and one that is white.

Try creating your own blending mode test to see how they affect your photos.

This lunch of fried plantains and gorditas looked so good, I had to photograph it!

iPhone camera app using HDR, post-processed with Lo-Mob app.

Comparative blending

Across the Bay from San Francisco, Oakland, California—like the comparative blending modes—doesn’t get no respect. But Oakland is a significant city in its own right. It is one of the most important urban areas on the west coast of the United States.

One cold winter day, I was wandering the streets of downtown Oakland when I saw a series of reflections in the plate glass windows of an office high-rise.

These reflections showed architectural details, including clocks and pillars, and cornices and arched windows with divided lights, all from a bygone era.

Moving out to a small traffic island in the middle of a busy boulevard, I realized that my tripod was going to stay in my bag. There wasn’t enough room and the cars and trucks whizzing by would create enough tripod shake to ruin shorter exposures.

Setting a fast shutter speed and bracing my back against a streetlamp, I shot a number of exposures.

Back at my studio I used a series of comparative blending modes to combine the different exposures. My idea was to create a composition that showed a partially fractured society through the shapes in the reflections: architecture literal and present, but also at the same time not coherently possible.

170mm, circular polarizer, two exposures, each exposure at 1/250 of a second at f/7.1 and ISO 100, handheld; exposures combined in Photoshop.

The Tao that can be told

Is not the eternal Tao

The name that can be named

Is not the eternal Name.

—Tao Te Ching (Stephen Mitchell translation)

If you look at how the comparative blending modes—Difference, Exclusion, Subtract, and Divide—work from a technical perspective, you’ll be hard put to intuitively know what they do. For example, the Difference blending mode compares the brightness of the pixels of the source and target layers and subtracts the brightest pixels. A white layer in Difference blending mode inverts the layer beneath it, and a black layer leaves the underlying layer unchanged.

Weird, huh? I should fully disclose right off the bat that comparative blending modes are not much beloved of Photoshop book authors. (“Psychedelic,” “freaky,” and “useful only on Hallowe’en” are the way one author puts it!)

I think that if you’ll bear with me, you’ll find quite a few artistic and creative uses for these comparative blending modes when it comes to your photography. Of course, like any tool they need to be used with discretion and taste—and possibly not at full opacity, with a layer mask to direct specific rather than overall application. (To find out more about applying blending modes to layers, turn to pages 71–89.)

Many of the blending mode examples I’ve shown you so far involved blending a layer with a duplicate of itself. However, when it comes to comparative blending modes, the rubber really meets the road when you blend a layer representing one photo with a layer representing a second photo.

By the way, when you do experiment with blending layers consisting of wildly different subjects, don’t limit yourself to the comparative blending modes. It’s true that the comparative blending modes have the most striking impact when you use them on imagery that is intentionally divergent—but it is also worth playing with blending modes across the board to see what the blending process comes up with.

Looking through my files for divergent photos to use as source material for a comparative blending mode collage, I was struck by an image of an old oak tree (upper right), and distant mountain ranges near Death Valley (middle right). The two images seemed very different, but I had an idea that they might work together.

I started by duplicating the mountain image (page 44) and creating a laye