4 Steps to Reimagining Your Reality With Photoshop

4 Steps to Reimagining Your Reality With Photoshop

4 Steps to Reimagining Your Reality With Photoshop with David Byrd

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To make a beautiful composition in Photoshop, a photographer needs time and the necessary skills, to be sure. But perhaps the most important piece of the puzzle is to have vision for the image. What’s the story you want to bring to life? Who are your characters? Where do they come from?

Here are five steps to creating alternate realities in Photoshop. By following these suggestions, you can bring other worlds and characters into focus (and possibly inspire other up-and-coming composite artists).

Studio Lighting and Emotion

The world is defined by light and by the consequence of light: shadows. Our lives are dictated by these two things—when to rise, when to sleep, how long we engage in certain activities. The most powerful aspects of life that are affected by light and shadow are our emotions and mood.

Tell a ghost story without holding a flashlight below your chin—does it have the same impact? Look longingly into your lover’s eyes and then turn on all the lights in the house before you kiss—is it as intimate? The first step in creating an amazing piece of composite art is to set the mood of the final piece with the right lighting. Use highlights and shadows to tell the story.

I’ve asked my model, Lauren, to show me a neutral expression.

Now that we have a base, let’s see how the story changes when the light is moved around her.

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Look into her eyes. Do you see neutrality? Perhaps emotions like defiance, vindication or even amusement break through. Lighting augments the story and in some cases changes it. It is a character just as much as the person in your images.

When you begin shooting for a composite, light the subject in a way that tells the story you wish to see in the final piece. A common misconception is that there are specific ways to light a subject for a composite. You can have the dimmest and darkest images, and still extract and create a world around them—what you need is a story and the lighting to support it. Be cognizant of your vision for the final piece. If your design has a strong light source behind the subject (like fire or the sun), add the lights to your setup that add to the realism of the final piece.

Pure Emotion Is Better Than a Pose

I have a theater background. Guidance is always key when you need to portray an emotion. When you stand in front of hundreds of people and you don’t commit the necessary power to your words and expressions, the audience checks out and you’ll read about it the next day in the reviews. Your success as a performer depends on your realistic portrayal of emotion. I’ve learned to utilize storytelling to guide my subjects into showing me their real expressions and emotions. Showing our true emotions makes us vulnerable, and when we find the courage to commit to it on camera, we will believe it (and so will the audience).

Lauren, let’s show everyone what I’m talking about. I want you to yell for me, like a battle roar. Aaaaand…action!

Lauren, that’s not a roar, that’s more a mild yawn. Your home is being invaded, your family has tried to run but has been cornered on all sides with no hope of escape, and the only thing standing between them and the baddies is you! You’re not someone who crumbles in fear—you are a warrior who doesn’t need a weapon because you are the weapon! Save your family, save the day—roar!

Well done, Lauren. Calm down. Go take five.

When preparing the concept for your next composite, write down at least five emotions that you want to see in your final piece. This is a technique used by actors when they work with a script: They connect with the key emotions hidden within the story. As a photographer, this key will help guide your direction to the subjects you photograph and the design choices of your final piece.

A New Dimension Beyond Just Two

We live in a three-dimensional world, but we compress it into two dimensions for a photograph. There are so many techniques to augment an image to make its three-dimensional nature come alive. One of the best ways is to use highlight and shadow to your advantage through the technique of dodging and burning. You can augment the natural highlights and shadows that appear in the image to give the subject definition and three dimensions.

Let’s bring Lauren back in, transformed into the character of the Consort of Darkness.

As you can see in the “After” image, I’ve enhanced the shadows around each side of her head, which accentuates the highlights on her face. Deepening the shadows under her chin and along her neck and collarbones gives more definition to her body. You can also play with the highlights and shadows of her hair to further accentuate the shape. As with all things in Photoshop, subtle changes can make quite an impact; start light and build upon the look.

Bringing It All Together

A composite consists of multiple elements; inevitably, those layers and pieces have different tones of color and luminosity, which breaks the realism of your piece. If you unify them with one or two colors, the elements appear as if they belonged together from the beginning. Add a solid color adjustment layer to the entire piece that is in the same color group as the dominant colors of your character. For Lauren’s character, I have sampled the color from her lips to serve as my unifying color.

You can leave the adjustment layer’s blending mode at Normal or experiment with modes like Screen, Lighten, Color or even Hue.

Lower the opacity and the fill of this layer to 50% and then slowly bring it up or further down in percentage until it feels right. Add a texture to again unify all the elements. I use my own stock images for texture, whether that is a brick wall, scratches on an old piece of glass or a close-up shot of a rock face. Search a stock site like Adobe Stock for linen, paper or grunge texture.

Where Does Your Story Begin?

I attended my first ShutterFest in 2015, the second year of the conference. During the second evening, I answered a call from two models who were looking for a shoot. Soon we were by the pond near the Hard Rock Café getting ready to take some images. I quickly cast a set of characters for them, a period of time and their stories.

I asked the models to invest in their emotions and expressions, and didn’t let up until I got the right shot each time. I walked the set of each scene and looked at the available light and let the highlights and shadows dictate the story.

Compositing is about the art of storytelling. It enables artists to visit any reality they can imagine. Turn on some of your favorite music and write down 10 emotions you’ve felt today—who was with you, what was the weather like, were there other people around and how did they respond? Is there a story there? Can you cast someone in the role who represents what you have in mind?

I look forward to seeing your stories come to life. 

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