Story & photography by F.M. Kearney
That time is quickly approaching. That time of year when many photographers will pack away their gear and patiently wait for the first colorful blooms next spring. Yet, winter isn’t completely devoid of color, as some might assume. In fact, if you carefully plan what you shoot and when you shoot, you may be surprised at the amount of color you can coax out of this often-overlooked season.
If the sky isn’t completed overcast, shooting during the magic hours surrounding sunrise and sunset is a sure-fire way to add an explosion of color to the scene. I shot the photo above early one morning in New York’s Central Park a few years ago. The sunrise provided the most colorful light of that day. I was satisfied with this image until I started experimenting with some interesting soft-focus effects in Photoshop.
Soft-focus techniques have been around almost as long as photography itself. A common in-camera technique I used to use was a double exposure, whereby I would shoot one photo in focus and the other completely out of focus. This produced a unique-looking, relatively sharp image surrounded by a beautiful halo. The effect works best at long focal lengths – 200 mm or more – perfect for shooting floral portraits with a long lens and an extension tube but not so great if you’re shooting landscapes with a wide-angle lens. There’s just no way to throw an image out of focus enough to create a distinctive glow with a short focal length. The effect will look more like you accidentally bumped the camera during the exposure.
There are many filters available in Photoshop that can creatively blur an image. To produce a soft, almost romantic-like, blur on a landscape, I find the Gaussian Blur filter to be the most effective. Unlike other filters that can be applied “straight out of the box,” the Gaussian Blur requires a bit of prep work in order for the image to look its best. When I first started using this filter, I used to have a problem with high-contrast results (especially with images taken on sunny days). I’ve since solved that problem by converting my photos to “hi-key” images before to applying the Gaussian Blur.
A hi-key image is an image that’s been lightened, almost to the point of overexposure. You will have better control over this if you shoot in RAW. I use Camera RAW and follow these steps:
- Lighten exposure
- Reduce contrast
- Increase highlights
- Lighten shadows
- Increase whites/reduce blacks
I basically lighten the image until the red overexposure indicators begin to appear. Of course, you can skip this step if high-contrast isn’t a problem for you.
Once the image is imported into Photoshop, you need to duplicate it by either right-clicking the thumbnail image in the Layers palette and selecting “Duplicate layer,” or by dragging the thumbnail image to the Create a New Layer icon at the bottom of the palette. Either way, a background copy will be created above your original background thumbnail.
You now need to lighten the image even more by creating a Levels layer. Click the Create New Fill or Adjustment Layer icon at the bottom of the Layers palette and select Levels. A small Properties window will appear. Drag the small, center triangle underneath the histogram to the left to lighten the image. The amount you drag it will depend on your image. You want to lighten it a bit, but not to the point where everything is completely blown out.
Click the background copy, and navigate to Filter>Blur>Gaussian Blur. The image will immediately become blurry, but you can control the strength of the blur by adjusting the radius slider. A single digit setting is fine for small files, but for larger files, a setting between 20-40 works best.
With the background copy still selected, go to the dropdown of the Blending Mode window (located above the layers, displaying the word “Normal”) and select “Multiply.” This will darken the image and enrich the colors and also show the final effect of the Gaussian Blur filter. To correct the exposure, either adjust the slider in the Opacity window, or click the Layer thumbnail (not the Layer mask) on the Levels layer and adjust the center triangle underneath the histogram until the desired exposure is reached. Close out the Properties window when done. To reduce the file size, you can flatten the image, or leave the layers intact if you plan on doing more work on the image in the future. Selective burning and dodging can add the final touch of creativity. The image below is the end result of this technique.
The sunrise provided most of the color for this shot. However, if you’re shooting on an overcast day, you may be hard-pressed to find any color at all. The Multiply blending mode can enhance pre-existing colors a bit, but it won’t do much for a completely white sky.
I shot the image below during a snowstorm. Aside from the slightly greenish hue of the pines, there really wasn’t much color in the scene. After converting it to a hi-key and applying the Gaussian Blur filter, it had a softer look and the color was improved, but the sky just wasn’t that interesting. Of course, a white sky is exactly what you would expect in a snowstorm. But, since I don’t normally shoot for editorial purposes, my goals are often more artistic than realistic.
Topaz Labs provides a variety of downloadable (plug-in or stand-alone) software programs designed to do everything from removing noise to creating unique special effects. I’ve mentioned this company before in the past, and no, I don’t own stock in them, but their effects are truly amazing and can be used for a variety of purposes.
To spice things up in the image above, I used a program called Topaz Texture Effects. As the name implies, it adds a textured appearance to your photos. Here, I applied a preset called Oceanside Glaze to add definition and color to the scene. Although the effect is global, by creating a background copy of the image prior to bringing it into Topaz, I was able to pick and choose exactly where (and to what degree) the effect is seen in the final photo. When I imported it back into Photoshop, I added a layer mask to the background copy and used the brush tool to control where the effect would be seen. I left the full effect in the sky, but slightly removed it from the trees and completely removed it from the snow.
In addition to giving your photos a rich, saturated look, the Gaussian Blur filter can breathe new life into some of your old and forgotten images. It works well with photos taken in any season, but it imparts a certain charm to winter scenes. When combined with a texture effect, your photo may even resemble a Currier and Ives print.
Winter doesn’t have to be drab and boring anymore.
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