Finesse with Photoshop filters

Ed Oswald
2 June, 2011
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Here’s some techniques to create authentic photographic effects with style

1. Establish a control

It’s good to have comparisons so make three identical Layers. Do this by going to the Layers Palette, click and drag the Background layer to the ‘Create A New Layer’ icon at the bottom of the Layers Palette twice. Select the top Layer. Then from the Menu Bar chose Filters > Blur > Gaussian Blur.

2. Mixing up your blur

Make your image very blurry. Move the Layer Opacity Slider to make the top layer semi-transparent – say 30 percent. Experiment with the Blending Mode – Lighten often works well for skin-softening. Use the eye icon on the blurred layer to toggle its visibility. This is the very quick technique.

3. Working smarter

Make your blurred layer invisible. Select the middle layer and convert it into a Smart Object by right-clicking the layer and choosing Convert To Smart Object from the context menu. Adjustments now applied to the Smart Object become non-destructive. So parameters can be readjusted as needed.

4. Now the clever part

Open the Channels palette. Click the thumbnails for Red, Green and Blue Channels. Choose the best channel for overall tone, usually Red. At the bottom left of the channel palette click the Load Channel As Selection button. Click the Save Selection As Channel button, making a new Alpha Channel.

5. Getting all channels

Before moving back to the Layers palette ensure that you click on the RGB Channel Thumbnail. This selects RGB, Red, Green and Blue as shown in the screen grab. If you still have a selection active, choose Selection > Deselect or Cmd-D from the top menu. Now select your Layers palette.

6. Gaussian Blur etcetera

Back in the Layer palette target the Smart Object layer and apply Gaussian Blur. In the dialog box accept the same parameters as used in Step 1. Almost any filter can be substituted for Gaussian Blur but blurs, unsharp mask and adding noise work best for creating analogue photographic effects.

7. Loading the Alpha Channel

With the blur applied across the image, we’ll use the Alpha Channel to partly mask out the effects of the filter. Load the Alpha Channel via the Channels Palette by clicking the Load Channel As Selection button, as described in Step 4. Now go back to the Layers palette.

8. Masking the filter

The Smart Object has a Mask and the Gaussian Blur filter applied in Step 6. If these aren’t visible, click the disclosure triangle on the far right of the Smart Object Layer. Select the Mask. With the Channel Selection still loaded press Option- Delete (or Delete). The Mask now has a thumbnail of your image.

9. Using levels on a Mask

The Gaussian Blur filter is now partly masked out, but try inverting the Mask’s tones – the effect may be improved. Select the Mask and press Cmd-I to toggle Invert. Press Cmd-L to adjust Levels. Tick Levels Preview and then move the Input Levels, including Gamma and Output Levels.

10. Adding more finesse

When adjusting Levels directly on the Mask move the sliders to their limits to assess how much is needed to make a visible difference. Click OK to close Levels. Double- click Gaussian Blur within the Smart Object layer. This reopens the dialog box allowing you the change the amount of blur.

11. And more

Steps 1 to 10 can be applied to almost any of Photoshop’s plug-ins for greater flexibility and control. The same steps can be used to apply UnSharp Mask. Though the Smart Object Mask would need to target hair and clothing but not skin. This guitar player needs bluesy grit. Let’s add a film-grain effect.

12. Using third party plug-ins

Photoshop ships with Add Noise or Film Grain, though software like NIK’s Silver Efex Pro can apply noise/grain based film characteristics for a ‘real’ analogue effect. Make all other layers except Background invisible. If you have Silver Efex, or similar, use it by selecting it from the Filter Menu.

13. Jazzing it up

With the third-party filter applied, use the Alpha Channel, created in Step 4, to make a selection on the new Layer. You can skip making this Layer into a Smart Object. Now hold down the Option key and click Add Layer Mask, found at the bottom of the Layers Palette. This creates a nice, washed-out colour look.

14. Summing up

Toggle the visibility of the various layers you’ve created. The second blur should look more authentic than the first. Whether you used Silver Efex or Photoshop’s Film Grain, it should look more photographic and add finesse to the filter application. Try the Channel method on a Radial Blur set to zoom.

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