Making "Quabbin"

There are times when you want a sparse, minimalist image, and other times you want a challenge. For me, someone who does not do well shooting outdoors and prefers the controlled setting of an indoor studio with controlled lighting, any time I want to convey an outdoor environment means piecing it together one layer at a time. The downside to this is it can be dificult, hard to blend, and you need to gather the needed pieces from somewhere. The positive side of this is I have total control over the exposure of each element, and can choose what the sky is doing, where the light is falling, etc. For this one, I wanted a rich, fully realized outdoor environment. I gathered the pieces on a day trip to the location this image is named after, and started to assemble them. Here is the layer palette of the composition - 48 layers in all, some obscured by grouping:
As always I started with a blank model shot, which was desaturated partially in Camera Raw because the skin was reading a little too orage:
Next, knowing I wanted to partially immerse him in water, I hastily painted some gray over his legs. It doesn't matter too much that the gray is not an exact match to my background color - selecting the background to make a mask is easy when there are nothing but shades of gray:
for the skin texture, I shot a stone face of a building nearby, and positioned the layer over the model, resizing to approximately fit. I used a transfer mode of Overaly, and created a layer mask for it by selecting the model shot's gray completely and then clicking "add layer mask" on the stone wall layer.
Next I added a sky. I have dozens of skies I've shot over the years, and this one required two different skies blended together. Each sky had a copy as well, so four layers in all. The first layer was added, a layer mask to cut out the model was applied, and then a copy was made. The first layer was added using "Overlay" and the copy was added using "Screen" and the opacity of it brought down to about 50%.
Next came the water. I landscape shot was used that I shot hours before, and I used one that more or less matched the scale of my model:
I copied the layer mask from the sky layers, applied it to the water layer, but also had to paint out additional sections to remove the water layer's sky portion and cut it down to the plane I wanted the water to stop at:
The water layer was applied using a transfer mode called "Hard Light" - a new favorite. A copy was made of this to make the water really vibrant:
Next came a stone wall - something I have been looking for in nature for quite a long time. I needed one that was relatively easy to cut out - and this one proved a good candidate - I was able to shoot it with nothing but blue sky above it, nature's bluescreen, and added it to edge off the water:
Next came a tree line. To say masking off or selecting trees out of a sky is difficult is putting it mildly. There could be a whole blog dedicated to it, but these were shot again with a solid blue sky behind it, and that made it a little more managable. You start by selecting the blue of the sky, click a few times (using the magic wand - I used that for all the masks here) and then modify the selection by using "Select Similar." Once I grabbed as much as I could I modified the selection further by smoothing using 2 pixels, and then inverted the selection, and clicked "Add Layer Mask." It was pretty good, but not perfect. Selecting the layer itself, not the mask, I desaturated the Cyan and the Blue of the layer - this helps kill the fringe left behind. I had to hand paint the area of model to get it behind him on the layer mask. I added the layer using the transfer mode "Multiply:"
Multiply tends to darken things quite a bit, so I made a copy of this layer and used the mode "Screen." this adds a level of brightness to the trees, and that can be reduced down by lowering the opacity:
Next, I wanted to add some foliage to the foreground. The rocks to the left pushed the composition to that direction, I felt, so I wanted something to anchor the right side. The layer was applied using the same process I used to the tree line:

Next came the symbolic layers and objects of the keys and hats. Using these symbols before, I had already cut them out for other compositions, so it was just a matter of importing them, sizing to fit, adding the clones of them, and adjusting each one down or up with opacity until they had a sense of distance and depth. When making this many clones, I find it helps to group them all so the layer palette is not so overwhelming:
Next I added water droplets or "spray." These layers, 6 in all, were shots of cornmeal I shot against a black background as I poured it downward in a column. The layer was desaturated to make the powder white, and they were applied using the transfer mode "Screen." Layer masks were used to sculpt and shape the spray into the patterns and opacity I wanted. Just a suggesting of water motion and activity:
Coloring came next. My favorite part, really. This can dramatically change the look of the piece, and adding color adjustments over all these layers helps to blend and marry all the layers together. I used three colored textures, all using very low opacity, all with soft light transfer modes. I also added two adjustment layers of photo filters, one warm, one cooling, with a tone of orange and blue, respectively. Finally, I also added two color solids layers over all - one blue, one brown, all with an opacity of 13% or less, and blended using the mode "Color."
Next comes an adjustment layer of Levels. I add a lot of contrast to it by darkening the mid tones and pushing up the highlights almost to the overexposed:
One additional color adjustment was used on top, an adjustment layer of Color Balance, to really drive home the blue:
Finally, an adjustment layer of Curves is used to amp up the contrast even more, using the preset "Strong Contrast." This made the blacks really inky black, and made the contrast a little extreme, but this helped match the elements together - since most of them were shot on a bright day at high noon, the strongest contrasted light you can get:
And that's about it. Here are some shots of some of the raw elements before they were blended, masked, and added to the composition. The rock wall:
The water layer:
The stone wall texture for skin:
The tree line:
I hope this helped or was at least interesting to follow. If you have any questions, please send me a message here on my site or contact me on my Facebook page, at
Michael Bilotta
June 20, 2013