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High Key Portrait - Mark Galer Photoshop Tutorial - High Key Effect
In this tutorial Mark Galer shows you how to create the classic High Key look, using a combination of simple lighting and some judicious Photoshop techniques.
High Key is one of the classic looks in photographic portraiture. The look is ‘clean’ and ‘light’ and the images have very few midtones or shadows. The darker tones that remain serve to shape the contours and define important details. If the treatment is clumsily done the image will just look like it has been badly overexposed. To avoid this disaster the final image must display bright highlights that are not clipped (overexposed) and the darker details must have depth and weight.
Before and After. Photography by Ed Purnomo
The camera technique is relatively simple – just photograph your sitter using a large soft light or window light. Choose a light background and ask your sitter to wear light-coloured clothing. The rest of the treatment can be created in Photoshop. Unfortunately there is no single adjustment feature or filter that provides the High Key look. A sequence of adjustments and simple masking techniques can, however, deliver the goods every time. The resulting histogram will look like all the levels are making friends with the right-hand wall. Let the show begin.
Step 1 — A filter that gets close to the desired outcome (close but no cigar) is the Diffuse Glow filter found in the Distort submenu. The result is not bad, but if we take this approach, the brightest highlights will tend to clip to 255 white while the darker tones are softened as the glow bleeds into these surrounding details. If you elect to take this single step approach I would first duplicate the layer and set White as the background colour before applying the filter. This step will ensure the glow colour is appropriate and will give you a layer that you can mask or erase back to restore some of the detail contained on the background layer.
Step 2 — This alternative approach aims to brighten midtones while retaining highlight detail and texture, and also preserve the density of the few remaining dark tones. To start this process go to Select > All and then Edit > Copy. Click on the Create new fill or adjustment layer icon at the base of the Layers panel and choose Levels.
Step 3 — In the Adjustment dialog drag the Gamma (gray) slider that was sitting under the middle of the histogram to the left until the number in the numerical gamma field reads approx 3.00. The aim is to make all of the midtones and highlights very bright without making them 255 white. At this stage the dark tones will look thin and washed out (pretty horrible).
Step 4 — Hold down the Alt key (PC) or Option key (Mac) and click on the Layer mask thumbnail. The preview window will turn completely white. From the Edit menu choose Paste. A grayscale version of the portrait will be added to the layer mask. The dark areas of this layer mask will shield the effects of the Levels adjustment more than the lighter areas of the mask. We can optimise the performance of this layer mask by applying adjustments. From the Select menu choose Deselect.
Step 5 — If you want to see what the effects of this mask before we edit it, just click on the Adjustment icon next to the layer mask thumbnail. Alt + click (PC) or Option + Click (Mac) on the layer mask thumbnail again so that can view the mask as we edit it. When we have finished adjusting or enhancing this layer mask we will return to the normal view so we can see how the modified mask improves the performance of the Levels adjustment. Go to Enhance > Adjust Lighting > Brightness /Contrast.
Step 6 — Move the Brightness slider to the right until the skin tones are extremely bright but not so far that we lose the darker tones of the lips and eyes. Select ‘OK’ in the Brightness/Contrast dialog to apply the Brightness/Contrast adjustment to the layer mask.
Step 7 — This may sound weird but we will now apply a Levels adjustment to a Levels adjustment layer mask. Go to Enhance > Adjust Lighting > Levels. Move the black input slider to a value of 20 to clip some of the darker tones in the mask to black and the white input slider to a value of 235 to further clean up the highlight tones in the mask. Select ‘OK’ to apply this Levels adjustment to the layer mask.
Step 8 — Hold down the Ctrl key (PC) or Command key (Mac) and click on the Layer mask thumbnail to load the mask as a selection. Click on the Create new fill or adjustment layer icon at the base of the Layers panel and choose Brightness/Contrast.
Step 9 — When the Brightness/Contrast adjustment dialog appears (complete with a copy of the layer mask from the Levels adjustment layer) you will now be able to see the effects of the masking work. Move the Brightness slider to the right until the desired High Key effect is achieved.
Step 10 — The effect can be fine-tuned in a number of ways. We can return to the Levels adjustment layer and modify either the gamma slider that was originally set to 3.00 and/or move the white Output Levels slider to the left to restore tone to the brightest highlights.
Step 11 — To manually restore some selected midones (ones that you do not want to render very bright) hold down the Alt key (PC) or Option key (Mac) and click on the Levels adjustment layer mask. Select the Burn Tool in the Tools panel that lives behind the Sponge Tool (or just press the letter ‘o’ repeatedly until the hand icon appears in the Tools panel. Set the Range to ‘Midtones’ and the Exposure to 50% in the Options bar. Paint over any significant midtones that you would like to appear darker, e.g. the hair, eyebrows, lips and jaw line. You may need to repeat this on the Brightness/Contrast adjustment layer mask to fine tune the appearance.
Step 12 — If you want the speed and simplicity of the Diffuse Glow filter, but the detail of this High Key tutorial then go to http://www.markgaler.com and download the High Key action that automates this process. It even comes in four different flavours!
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