Building the Top of the City (layer by layer)

This layer by layer tour is done from the ground up. That means every layer shown is from the bottom layer upwards.

As always, this image was built with no preconceived ideas when it was shot. For the past few model sessions, I have been playing with this bench. It's simple in design, and I thought adding some architecture for the model to interact with could yield some ideas. This is how the raw shot looked:

Once I decided to remove the legs of the bench, it was just a matter of painting out the legs with a color similar to the background gray. It doesn't need to be perfect, because the gray area is going to serve as the layer mask selection:

Since i know that my process will deepen the saturation of colors, I add an adjustment layer of Hue/Saturation and reduce the red and yellow channels, bleaching out the body of the model:

I add the sky over these layers, and use a blending mode of Hard Light. Once I select the gray around the model layer completely using the Magic Wand, I switch to the sky layer and click "Add Layer Mask." The mask is still rough around the edges though, so I paint edit the hair line with a very soft brush, blending the layer mask into the hair. I also paint out the area where my cityscape will go:

I duplicate the sky layer and change the blend mode to "Screen" and reduce the opacity to about 20%. This gives the sky a little more light and airy quality:

I create a second copy and move the position of it around to fill in a few more clouds on the upper part of the frame. You can do this without affecting the mask position by unlinking the mask before moving the sky itself:

Next I add a sun spot. This is a 3-layer white elipse I have created a while ago and use repeatedly because it works well enough:

As you can see above, the sun is pretty much over the model's face, so to tuck it in a bit, I copy the sky layers mask and paste that mask onto the sun layer. I feather the mask significantly so some of the light naturally falls over the hair line:

Next comes the cityscape. This is an older shot from five years ago of San Francisco that I took with an older camera of lesser quality, but since I am going to be blurring it anyway, the resolution variance won't be much of an issue. I switch it to black and white and lay down the layer with a blend mode of Multiply. This is a darkening of the original shot, but since it was very washed out in noontime light, I want it to be a little deeper. I paint out the sky of the city shot so my sky shows through:


Another copy is made of the city layer, and this one is changed to a blend mode of Hard Light. This gives more detail and definition to the city:

Lastly, another copy of the city is made overlaid with a blend mode of Screen with the opacity turned way down. This gives a suggestion of haze:

Speaking of haze, since I wanted my image to be high up in the clouds, I add a layer of haze over the model too. This is done by another cloud layer (a diferent one) which is blurred significantly and overlaid with a blend mode of Screen. The opacity is turned way down, and the lower half is painted out. I also add in a system of zeppelins drifting by. I say a system because It is a combination of a shot of a miniature model, a layer mask, and several little lights painted over it. This is saved as a group, and the group is multiplied as many times as needed:

Next comes color. I wanted this to be a warm, sunset color, so I started with an orange/yellow solid overlaid with a blend mode of Color with an opacity of about 10%:

The color is a little greenish, so to offset it I add another solid, this time purple, with the same blend mode and opacity. This gives it a washed out sepia tone:

Since the last few steps of my workflow deepen the saturations overall, I add an adjustment layer of Vibrance and reduce the saturation and vibrance a bit:

Next, I wanted to close in the composition a bit and give more focus to the model. To do this, I add an elliptical vignette. To do this, I add a black solid layer and punch out a circle centralized circle. The remaning black is blurred greatly, the opacity is reduced, and the blend mode is set to Multiply. It's subtle, but the last two steps will deepen it a bit:

The last two steps are adjustment layers of Levels and Curves. First, Levels are used to punch up the mid tones and the highlights. This really intensifies the sun:

The last step is curves, giving a heavy amount of contrast. I used a preset of Heavy Contrast on this layer. This is the final look:

A note about hairlines: By shooting my models with interior lighting against a gray background, I never have to suffer the agony of cutting out hair lines, or models for that matter. The model is not cut out of his backgound - instead, everything is laid over the model shot, and the blend modes simulate a projected image on a silver screen (the gray background). This means that all I have to clean up is the hair line and I can paint loosely over the hair with the sky layer. It means every strand of hair is accounted for and nothing is jagged:

The neutral gray background makes selections for layer masking much easier. With a few clicks of the magic wand, I get an almost perfect layer mask that stands up even under closeup scrutiny:

I hope you enjoyed the little layer tour. If you have any specific questions, please feel free to write me a message!

Michael Bilotta
November 26, 2013