Story and Photographs by F.M. Kearney
If you’re not a winter person, it’s probably been a few months since you’ve taken a single photo. But, you’re in luck. Spring is just around the corner, and it won’t be long before blooms of daffodils, tulips and cherry blossoms begin dotting the landscape. But, instead of settling for the same old photos this year, why not try something a little different?
I recently began experimenting with a program called Topaz Impression. I briefly touched on this program in my article, “The Final Frames,” in the last installment of eNEWS last year. Topaz (topazlabs.com) makes over a dozen programs that can really add a unique flair to your images, but when it comes to nature photography, Impression is probably the most useful. Taking its name from the impressionistic-style of painting that emerged in France in the mid-19th century, this program can transform an ordinary-looking photo into a stunning work of art.
Impression can work as a standalone editor or as a plugin. This means that you don’t need an external editor like Lightroom or Photoshop to use it. However, for the most creative results, it’s best to use it as a plugin.
The cherry blossom images above show a few of the numerous ways in which Impression can transform a photo. Depending on your own artistic vision, the effects possible with this program can be as simple or as complicated as you desire. Some people hate the idea of spending hours in front of a computer, and would much rather prefer a “one-and-done” type of approach when it comes to image editing. For those folks, the black and white default preset can be achieved in just a few simple key strokes. For others, who are itching to unleash their inner artist, you can spend the time to achieve the look of the finished photo. But, be forewarned, this was the result of about an hour’s worth of TEDIOUS work.
The first thing I do when I open an image in Photoshop is to duplicate the background layer. This can be done by navigating to Layer>Duplicate Layer, or by right-clicking on the background layer in the Layers panel and selecting Duplicate Layer.
As a plugin, I can easily access Impression from the Filter menu in Photoshop: Filter>Topaz Labs>Topaz Impression. Once opened, I have the option of applying dozens of different presets (or templates) to my photo. These presets are categorized into different collections that represent various styles of painting or drawing; i.e., Ancient, Modern, Impressionistic, etc. I applied the Wispy Sketch preset from the Charcoal and Pastel collection – producing a type of rough-looking black and white sketch drawing.
To really get to the meat and potatoes of Impression, you will have to open the Selective Parameters of the preset. This will take you to a dizzying array of tools – giving you total control over such factors as brush type and size, paint volume and opacity and stroke width and length. You can even add textures and determine which direction the light falls onto the subject. Incredibly, this is just the tip of the iceberg of what this program can offer. Although it can all seem a bit daunting and overwhelming at first, you simply need to play around with it until you customize an effect to your liking. You then have the option of saving it in the program as your own personal preset that can be immediately applied to other images – saving lots of time in the future.
After applying the Wispy Sketch preset, I accessed the Selective Parameters to customize the photo to my liking. I didn’t think the scratchy look of the preset conveyed the delicate nature of the blossoms. Using the Smudge tool, I smoothed out the scratches to create a soft, dreamy-like appearance.
The Coverage tool works almost like a vignette. It controls how far the effect is spread across the image, and how much of the white background shows underneath. I adjusted it to construct an elegant type of frame. With a few other minor adjustments to lighting, I’m done editing in Impression. After clicking “OK,” I’m taken back to Photoshop, where the real creative magic begins.
The reason Impression works best as a plugin is because, at present, it does not have any masking capabilities. It’s the use of layer masks in external editors that create the most eye-popping effects. This gives me tremendous control over the final look of the photo. With my background copy layer selected, I go to Layer>Layer Mask. I’m presented with two options: Reveal All and Hide All. Reveal All reveals the effect as it was applied in Impression. Hide All completely hides it – showing only the original photo. Since I duplicated the layer, I can use the brush tool to either gradually “paint” back in portions of the original photo with Reveal All, or strip away parts of the original photo to show the effect underneath with Hide All. Either method will create a unique, mixed-media look. For my purposes, however, it’s much easier to use Reveal All.
After selecting Reveal All, a white mask appears next to my thumbnail image in the Layers panel, and my foreground color swatch (located towards the bottom of the vertical toolbox) becomes black. With only the black and white preset image visible, I can now use the brush tool to bring back bits and pieces of the texture and color of the original photo. I can control how much or how little I reveal by adjusting the brush size and opacity levels. A low opacity will reveal a lesser amount, while a high opacity will reveal more – to the extent of completely replacing the effect. If I make a mistake, I can switch the foreground color swatch to white and paint over it.
By highlighting the sharp or sunlit parts of the image, I can create an almost 3-D type of effect. But, here’s where the real tedious part come in. To really make the image pop, I carefully paint back in many of the dew drops. This requires enlarging the image and using a brush opacity of nearly 100%. If there are an excessive number of drops, it may take me more than a day to finish. As long as I don’t flatten the image, I can keep my layers intact and reopen the photo in Photoshop later to pick up right where I left off. I’ll also save it as a TIFF because a JPEG file will degrade if it’s opened and saved numerous times. Only when I’m satisfied with the effect will I flatten the image.
This technique is also useful in minimizing distractions. Although the branches in the original photo above are out of focus, they’re still a bit distracting. In the finished photo, I was able to mute them even further to the point where they sort of melded into the effect itself.
In the finished image below, I carefully increased the opacity to make it look as though the roses were gradually morphing out of a painting and into a photograph – with the dew drops practically dripping out of the shot.
All of the effects in these photos were started with the Wispy Sketch preset in Topaz Impression, and finished in Photoshop. The settings I applied gave them the appearance of Elizabethan paintings with soft, pastel colors – a popular trend in nature photography today.
This effect does take a bit of time and effort to perfect. But, as I stated earlier, you can spend as much or as little time on it as you want. Not only will you create a different look for the new images you shoot this year, you might be surprised at how effectively it can transform some of your older and forgotten photos into impressive masterpieces.