Layering for Simplicity (Photoshop CC)

As an active photographer in my area, I tend to receive a lot of interest and curiosity as to the gear I might be using, technique or what I’m up to in general.  I thought this might be a good place to address these common questions, and share a few shooting and editing insights that have been useful along the way.

With the advent of cloud-based monthly membership opportunities, Adobe is currently making a ton of firepower available to anyone seeking to take their photography and video projects to the next level.  While the professional market drives and maintains a high demand for these products, Photoshop is not just for pros.  These tools can be harnessed by anyone with a desire to make better photographs, whether as an aspiring professional or simply to print and hang your own memories and artwork around the house.  Please feel free to join along, your comments and feedback are always welcome.  In the spirit of the following quote, let’s get started and see what might be hiding in this otherwise boring shot of a (delicious) cup of coffee..

“You don’t take a photograph, you make it.” — Ansel Adams 

(Video Transcript)

Thanks for joining me today. My name is Mark Morrow, this is Image In Transit and today we’re going to just take a look at a plain old cup of coffee. Let’s jump in to this image and break it down a little bit. The composition needs to be changed, the color needs to be changed and I just personally wanted a smoother look to it. So, that’s what we’ll do in this particular photograph.

Let’s navigate down and open up our color composite for comparison. You can see the color was changed, the composition was changed, we were able to add some smoothness to the background. Let’s dive in to the original file here.

Double-click on it in Bridge, open it up in Photoshop. It will go through the Camera Raw interface, which we will not mess with at this time. Normally this is a place where we would make a lot of our tweaks, but in this case we’re just going to move into our layered workflow. We’ll hold down the Alt key on the keyboard to open this as a copy, so that we can preserve our original. I tend to work with a very destructive workflow. That is, I don’t use Smart Objects or Smart Filters in typically in Photoshop, it’s not something I’m accustomed to doing in my own workflow. We’ll kind of move along in that vein.

The first thing we’ll want to do is add the void space before we start tweaking anything and messing with any pixels. In order to do that, we’ll go to our Crop tool, and usually we crop to make an image smaller but in this case, we’re going to make it bigger. I want to send this up a little and create a little space toward the top of the image. Let’s start with that for now, holding down the Ctrl key — I’m sorry, we need to commit those changes — hold down the Ctrl key and click on our layer.

Now, we see that our image is selected, our pixels are selected. We’ll go up to Select, Inverse; and now we have our transparent pixels selected. At this point we’ll navigate up to Select, Modify and Expand; let’s Expand it by 10 pixels is good. Now, we’ll just simply go to Edit, Fill and – here’s one of the excellent new features in the Creative Cloud – well, actually it was new in CS6 but, very powerful command: Content-Aware.

So we’re going to fill this area based on – it’s analyzing the pixels that it’s adjacent to and it’s going to try to fill that space. If it’s a raw file, it can take a little while to fill a spot like this. Okay, so there we have it, it did a pretty good job – we can correct that, let’s try to do that now. We can Ctrl+D to get rid of that selection, and now we will enter the Quick Select tool and let’s try to come over here and just put a selection around this thing. Okay that looks pretty good. At this point, let’s go back again to Modify, Expand that by 10 pixels so that we get the edges of everything. Edit…Fill…Content-Aware.

And there it goes. So you see the power of the Content-Aware Fill and what it gives you in recomposing your shot.

Let’s move over to the left side of our composition. We’ll bring this out, centering the coffee mug in the thirds position of the frame. Confirm those changes, Ctrl-click on our image, Select…Inverse; Select, Modify, Expand – 10 pixels is fine – Edit, Fill, Content-Aware. Okay, that looks pretty good.

So we will move on to the lower portion of the screen now. Let’s Ctrl or Command+D to deselect those pixels, and repeat that process with the Crop command down low. And so, we’ll center that coffee mug up in the upper-right thirds portion of the screen and confirm those changes. Now let’s Ctrl/Cmd-click on our image, Select, Inverse; Select, Modify, Expand 10 pixels. And once again, Edit, Fill, Content-Aware.

Okay, that looks pretty good. We have a quick fix, let’s Ctrl/Cmd+D and go get our quick healing tool, come over and select that repetitive coffee mug action; we will now Select, Modify, Expand 10 pixels. And Edit, Fill, Content-Aware fill. And there it goes, so Ctrl/Cmd+D and we’ve cleaned up our composition. We’ll save it and move on to the next step.

Okay now that we’ve expanded our composition a little, let’s take a look at the color. The color on this table should be more to the red side of things, right now it’s a little too yellow for me. So let’s Ctrl/Cmd+J and copy that layer up; go up to Filter…and let’s open a Camera Raw filter on it. This will open the Camera Raw dialogue box and give us a few options here. What I’d really like to do to control the warmth of this is use the temperature slider. Let’s slide the (warmth)…let’s slide that up, and that’s starting to look pretty good.

That’s really starting to heat the scene up like the light was to my eye, so… In fact, we could come on over while we’re here and let’s click on the HSL/Grayscale tab and go down to the…let’s start with the oranges. With the Hue tab selected, let’s drag it back towards the red side of things so that those oranges come back toward a deeper red. We don’t necessarily want it too, too red but we want it to come down to the warmer end of things. The reds themselves, we can raise them up a little which kind of drags…kind of takes the deep shadow out of the shadow from the coffee cup. So, that’s looking pretty good to me for a start. Let’s go ahead and click Okay to accept those changes.

So, for right now, what we would want to do is go up to our Quick Selection tool and select around this coffee cup. Let’s make a few fine tunings here to make sure that we actually get the edge of the cup. That’s getting it pretty close. You can really dial this as close as you want. Hold down the Alt key to reverse that effect. And get a little bit of the handle as well. And now let’s go down to our Layer Mask tool…and apply that mask. Actually, let’s go up under Masks and Invert that. And now we have a very warm background to work with.

Let’s apply a levels adjustment. And let’s go down and click on that layer mask down there and, holding the Alt key, let’s drag it up to that Levels…now click on that Levels mask and Invert it, so that we’re now applying the changes – white reveals, black hides as far as layer masks in Photoshop – the effect that we apply here will only be applied to the inner portion – to the white portion that we see in our mask, to just the coffee mug. So let’s bring it up a little and start to separate it a little bit from the background. And you can see that this is where the mug really begins…the coffee mug itself really begins to take on a new life, and that’s looking pretty good. You can really get as extreme as you want with this effect, that’s really kind of neat but, but I want to go with something a little more realistic. Something like that.

So, the image is really starting to come together, it’s starting to separate itself a little bit. We’ll hide these and you can see our before and after effect. The temperature effect, and then the effect on the coffee mug itself. And so this really lends itself well to separating the subject from the background and so the next step we’ll go into, is to see if we can smooth out that background a little bit and make that coffee mug pop just a little bit more.

Once we’ve decided that we like the direction that we’re going, and our masks are in place, the work from here is pretty straight-forward. What I would like to do is apply a really soft effect to this background, so let’s go up to our Camera Raw layer that we created earlier and let’s Ctrl/Cmd+J and copy that up. Go up to Filter…and let’s choose another Camera Raw filter for this one. The Camera Raw dialogue will open up and, what I would like to do is

kind of de-focus the background on this one by just dragging the Clarity slider all the way to the left. And, also go the Detail tab, and let’s drag up a little Luminance Noise Reduction into this, and a little Detail as well. Select Okay for that, and we’ll see our background will go nice and soft. Our mask is in place for our mug. And so what we would do at this point is go up to our levels for our mug and, I think we should just drag a little Dark into that to enhance the rim of the mug…can you see that moving? I’ll just do a slight enhancement to bring that mug in just a little bit more, the rim of it. And I’ll also go back and drag the Highlight up a little bit as well. Now, we’ll come down here and select a new Hue/Saturation adjustment. With this layer mask from the Levels adjustment, holding the Alt key down, drag it up to the Hue/Saturation (layer), now we’ve copied that mask condition up to the layer above. Now let’s navigate to the yellow side, and let’s desaturate that by making it just a little whiter, and that’s starting to look good.

Now, one thing I’m not liking is this mask up here around the handle. I want to correct that – I’m going to go back in and undo that work that we did there. Selecting this mask, going over and – tapping my X key to get a white foreground – I’m going to just paint in, back over top of that with white pixels. Select the one above it, do the very same. You can see we’re removing these effects. Now, we’ll go to the ones above which also have it and I’m going to hit X again to change it to black, and I will remove it from this one, and we will remove it from this one… Now we’re getting back into the normal background and table. I’m going to back to white and, using the right-bracket key, get a bigger diameter on my selection circle so that I can get a more accurate selection for the white pixels on my mask. Okay we’ll just go with that for right now.

But if you want to tweak the background a little bit further, what I would suggest is going down, and just copying up this uppermost Camera Raw filter that we have, and I would select a Blur. Go up to Filter…Blur..Motion Blur. I would select a pretty serious motion on it, that looks pretty good, that looks pretty smooth. Say Okay for that. Let’s select that layer mask, let’s Shift+Backspace and change this color to black. We’re going to fill this (mask) with black pixels so that none of that effect shines through. We want a white foreground and we want to grab our Brush tool, let’s make it big using the right-bracket key and let’s just brush in the soft detail where we want it. And that looks a lot better to me.

Let’s take this one step further. This is the step that makes a lot of people nervous. In my case, I just go up to Layer – I save the file first, in this case it would take too long (it’s a 16-bit image) so I’m going to go ahead and Flatten the file, and we’ll end up with one file here. I’m going to Ctrl/Cmd+J and copy it up, and I’m going to open it up one more time in a Camera Raw filter. Being able to incorporate Camera Raw as a filter into your layered workflow in Photoshop is absolutely amazing. At this point, what we would do – if we want to – is come on over to our HSL/Grayscale effects and let’s navigate to

our yellows, play around with it and see if there’s something that begins to develop a more realistic look. Maybe it’s the oranges that we want to work with, in this case yeah, that’s really starting to come in a little bit.

But you get the general gist and the idea. If you like, you can come over to effects and apply a vignette to further increase the effect. The best way to work with this vignette tool is to kind of increase it a lot, and then drop the feather all the way back, play around with the midpoint and the roundness until you get a nice perpendicular intersection with your border. something like that for instance and you can begin to feather this thing in and, maybe put one more quick temperature tweak on it just to see. Yeah, see that looks pretty good.

Not exactly a replica of what it is that I have in the photographs at the beginning of the podcast, but you get the idea. I hope that you really enjoyed this tutorial and that it really showed you a few tips and tricks that you weren’t aware of, and hopefully it’ll empower you in your own workflow. Again, you can keep working this stuff to your own liking.

If you ever have any questions, feel free to contact me any time through this blog, through the comments or at

Thanks again for watching, see you next time.

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