Story and photos by F. M. Kearney
Photography in the winter can be tough. Exposures can be tricky; your equipment needs to be handled differently and if you’re not dressed appropriately, your main concern is usually getting inside as quickly as possible. Another common issue is finding color. Many winter photos almost look like they were shot in black and white. I’ve written articles in the past about finding color in the winter, but they were primarily geared towards finding it the natural way. This article is more about thinking “out of the box” and creating whimsical, fantasy-like images, purely for artistic purposes.
The never-ending COVID-19 pandemic has affected all of our lives in one way or another. It’s amazing just how much we can accomplish within the confines of our homes. Six months ago, many people probably didn’t even know what a zoom meeting was. Now, it’s practically an everyday, household term. The pandemic has been especially hard on nature photographers. It’s a little difficult to shoot nature photos via zoom. Personally, I haven’t been able (or willing) to shoot any new outdoor nature photos at all this year. I’ve been spending most of my time adding new effects to old images – sort of like giving them an “extreme makeover” – and that was the genesis of this article.
All of the images here were shot in New York’s Central Park on overcast winter days. The opening photo is the end result after applying a variety of special effects. The unaltered image is below. As you can see, the effects are quite striking. They transformed an almost monochrome image into a colorful winter wonderland.
Gaussian blur filter
The Gaussian Blur filter in Photoshop is what gives the image that ethereal-like glowing quality. I often refer to it a “technique” because it’s a bit more involved than simply clicking on the filter and applying it. I’ve mentioned this technique a number of times in the past, so I won’t go into it here. If you’re interested, please check out an article I wrote for NANPA a couple of years called, The Color of Winter.
After applying the Gaussian Blur technique, I go to File>Place, and browse for an appropriate texture file. Clicking “Place” instead of “Open” places the texture file directly on top of the image – no resizing necessary. However, for reasons which I will explain later, I like to drag the edges of the texture just slightly beyond the edges of the image. The file I choose depends on the type of image I want to create. Sometimes, I’ll choose a file with bold, vivid colors that have no connection to reality. In this case, I chose a file that somewhat reflected the existing colors in the image.
Although this technique will saturate the colors to some degree, the main color is provided by a texture file. I’ve created a number of my own textures by shooting close-ups of tree bark, stone, wood, etc. They work well in many situations, but they don’t add much color to the shot. I’ve purchased a number of beautiful texture files from a company I’ve mentioned before called Photomorphis. (No, I don’t own stock in them, but it’s well worth the purchase price when it comes to creative photography.)
At this point, the only thing visible on the screen is the texture file. I can either choose a blending mode, or add a layer mask and begin painting the image in with the brush tool. The blending modes are more convenient, because they’re a quick, one-click process. However, I find most of their effects to be either too faint or far too harsh. Painting the image in takes a lot more time, but it gives me much more control and produces an image more to my liking.
Having total control is great, but it also means a lot more work. Through a combination of changing opacity levels and brush sizes and switching between the black/white foreground colors, I can control where the texture is visible and to what degree. Basically, with my brush color set to black, I paint out the texture to reveal the image underneath, then switch it back to white to paint it back into areas where I removed too much. This can be very tedious work depending on how detailed the image is and just how ambitious I want to be. For winter scenes like this, the real hair-pulling part is removing the texture from fine details like snow-covered branches. But it all pays off in the end. Snow that was virtually invisible, now becomes a striking, visual element against the colorful sky.
To soften the sky so that it looks more like sky and less like texture, once again, I apply the Gaussian Blur filter. I highlight the texture icon (not the mask) in the Layers palette, then apply the filter: Filter>Blur>Gaussian Blur. I adjust it to a softness level that resembles puffy clouds. Now, here’s why I slightly increased the size of the texture file. Sometimes, when it’s placed atop the image, it doesn’t quite cover it completely at the far edges. This slight misalignment is almost imperceptible, but it becomes much more evident when the texture is blurred. Increasing the size of the texture file eliminates this problem.
The next step involves adding an adjustment layer. Which one you use depends on your image. In some cases, you may not need to use any at all, but I find it interesting to see what affects they have on the image. For me, the most useful ones are Levels (to lighten or darken the texture) and Color Balance (to slightly or dramatically change its color). Whichever adjustment you choose, the most important thing to do is to activate its clipping mask. This will ensure that the adjustment is only applied to the texture and notthe image. To do this, click on the adjustment you would like to add. When it appears in the Layers palette, right-click it and select: Create Clipping Mask. You can also click the icon (circled) at the bottom of its dialog box, as seen in the illustration below.
With the exception of the Gaussian Blur technique initially applied to the image, everything I’ve mentioned is applied as a layer. As such, you can go back and easily readjust any of the settings – nothing is set in stone. You can even change the texture file if you decide that it no longer suits the image. Simply, highlight the texture layer and right-click: Select Replace Contents, and browse for a different texture file. The new texture will be dropped in with all of the previous adjustments applied.
The images above are a few more before and after views of some of the other locations I shot in the park using this technique. The fact that the texture is applied globally can be very beneficial for winter scenes. Below is an example of how the opacity level can be altered to better reflect the scene. I used it at a high level to color the sky, at a lesser degree on the water and at an even lesser degree on the ice. Of course, I removed it completely from the snow and the trees.
This technique may sound a bit labor-intensive, but it really all comes down to your own personal vision. Just how crazy you want to get is up to you. Remember, these photos aren’t meant to reflect reality. It’s just a way to have a little fun and to relieve some of the boredom that this pandemic has induced. So, if you’re like me and find yourself sorely lacking in a huge inventory of new images, take another look at some of the older ones you may have languishing in your files. I’ve transformed some photos of mine that I never really cared for (and a few I had actually grown to dislike) into stunning works of art that are now amongst my favorites.
F.M. Kearney began his career as a photojournalist for a variety of local New York City newspapers. It was an exciting profession, which allowed him to cover everything from famous celebrities to ride-alongs with NYPD and FDNY. He now specializes in nature and urban landscapes. To view more of his work, visit www.starlitecollection.com. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org, or followed on Facebook (@fmkearneyphotos) and/or Twitter (@fmkearneyphoto).