Blending Layers and Digital Frosting

Welcome to a little process I like to call Digital Frosting or Digital Spackle. The basic idea is applying layers over the composition to help "marry" the elements together. A cake, with two layers, needs frosting between and over all to keep the layers together, so consider this a 47-layer cake, and in this case, all the frosting is on top.
Here is the finished composite of "Calling All Angels"  with all layers and elements in place, minus the digital frosting. It's not bad, and some may even prefer it, but a closeup inspection of the elements seen at 100% woul show some ragged edges of masks, some color variations that don't make sense, and just a general lack of unity. In other words, it will look very much like what it is: a collage of photographs taken at different times in different light conditions. Now, I do minimize this as mich as possible by shooting as many elements as I can with the same lights and settings. The model, the umbrellas, and the cables all were shot with the same lights and equipment. But the antennae and the foliage were obviously shot outdoors, and the sky was a stormy day, and the trees were all shot on a sunny day. You can see a hazy blue cast over the antennae:
Another thing I did not like was the fact that the strongest light was to the right of the image, and if pulled focus away from the character, to the negative space to the right. To fix this, I evened out the lighting in a way. This might be better explained in a video focusing on this one aspect, but here goes...
The light is strongest to right because I shoot against background paper, and the strongest light was to the left of the model. Since I am overlaying elements over that paper, everything is stronger to the right of the image. I made two copies of the background layer. On the first copy, layer 2 from the bottom, I used a very soft brush with very low opacity, 13% or so, and painted a white column of light over the model, and filling in the left of the image. I changed the transfer mode to Soft Light. Now I had the background looking a little more uniformly lit, butthe model was covered in white paint! So on the next copy of the original, on top of the column of light one, I applied a layer mask and painted out everything but the model - making him a cutout, over the painted layer. So, in effect, I had one layer copy correcting the background paper, and another fixing the model to make him look how he did originally:
The next tweak involved making the lightning come alive and pop a little more. The lightning was real - I shot it one night 5 years ago over my house, so all I had to do was darken up the midtones of it, and the shadows and use a blend mode of Screen, and presto, real lightning. But it's a little dull. So, to make it sing, I made copies of the lightning layers and each copy was blurred (Gaussian) - presto - sizzle:
One of the things I do routinely is desaturation. At this point it makes no sense - because the image above looks a lot better than the one below, but part of the reason for doing this is to reduce the overall color in preparation for a full color overhaul, and also because my last few adjustments will greatly return a lot of color to it, so by reducing it here, it won't be too overly colored later:
There's still a little red and magenta in it, but subtle, and for this image, I went with my favorite palette of warm, earthy green. This was done by three layers. One was a Color Balance Adjustment layer, pushing the greens and reducing the blues, and two layers of solid colors: one dark blue, one yellow. All these are placed above ALL the composite layers - so they will effect everythng below them. The color solids were applied using a transfer mode of Color, and both extremely low opacity of 15% or less. Blue and yellow make green, but by having two elements, instead of just a green one, you can push the warm or cold end of the green spectrum, depending on what you prefer or what is needed:
Given that this is a night scene, I decided to push it a little more blue:
Part of my aesthetic is to push my photographs into a painterly feel. A lot of this is done pre-compositing, sort of a trade secret! But, a big component to it is textures. There are a lot of free textures out there, and I think the two that I used here are free ones found online. One is very scratchy and grungy, like scraped and distressed metal, and the other is more of a splotchy noise. I almost always apply the textures black and white, or grayscale, and lately, I have been easing off them significantly. I still use them everytime though - it gives a feel of patina over the image, like a slightly weathered or aging painting. Here is a closeup section without textures:
Here is the same section now with two layers of textures applied, both using extremely low opacity (less than 15%), and both applied grayscale and with a transfer mode of Soft Light:
Okay, so now we have a re-colored, blended and textured image, but it looks dingy, a little lifeless and flat, and washed out:
And now we get the most crucial ingredients - Levels and Curves Adjustment Layers. These two are almost always the top two layers of my compositions. Remember - adjustment layers effect everything BELOW them, so having these two perched on top means they adjust everything in the composition. There is no hiding from them! Being someone who prefers a strong contrast and dynamic range most of the time, I crushed the mid levels and boosted the highlights. These would be the middle and right sliders in Levels adjustments. You slide the middle to the right, and the right slider towards the middle. Curves really crushes the blacks - I used a preset called "medium contrast." This is the final adjusment and tweak:
So, here is the before and after of 'Calling All Angels" - no frosting/frosting. To some, it may look like all I did was recolored it and darkened it, but there is more to it than that, and where this really counts is in large format, for print or other presentations. Composites make for a lot of ragged edges, even if you are skilled at layer masking, and this global treatment of all the disparate layers goes a long way to cleaning up the rough spots and giving unity throughout the layers.
I hope this helps somewhat, and as always, if you have a question, please feel free to send me a message!
Michael Bilotta
June 23, 2013