28 Layers Later: "the Road To Reason"

A few of you have been asking about a tutorial on photoshop techniques. This is harder to do than it would seem. The process is not something that can be explained in an orderly, step by step fashion. It is somewhat organic; try a little of this, discard it, try something else. But, since I am going to try to explain some of it, I have to present it in some fashion, so, this little preview will be from layer one up, all the way to layer 28 - but, and I cannot stress this enough, this was NOT how it was built. At the very least you will see what each layer does, in order, and that might provide some tidbits of use. Actually, the order of layers is crucial; change the relative position of one layer, and you can change the whole image!
So, this image was built using 6 photos:
My model shot against gray seamless
A nice cloudy sky
a bright grassy field in full sunlight
the balloon strings dangling from a balloon
a metal crucifix prop I purchased some time ago
a photo of a skeleton key prop I bought:
In case you haven't noticed, I prefer my images to be square. I am a symmetry junkie, so I like those nice neat squares all uniform and even steven. Makes me happy. I will write more on the square composition some time in the future, when I feel I know more about it - I've only been using it for about a year. Shooting with a non-square format camera means imagining where you will crop. In this case, I expanded my rectangle shot into a large square by creating a new canvas in photoshop using the largest dimension of the original image and squaring it. That means I had to extend the sides of the gray seamless paper to stretch across my now large square to fill in all that additional real estate. And that is a big part of why I use gray seamless. It's very versatile.
anyway. so now I have a large square with a model fairly centered. There are numerous pre-treatments I do to an image to prep it for surgery that would be really LONG and boring to write out, so maybe, if there is interest in the future, I will expand on that. But the short version is: neutralize the color cast of the gray paper, reduce orange and red, "distress: the image to look more like paint strokes, bump up exposure or fill light if needed, sharpen AND reduce clarity. This is all done in Adobe Camera Raw. I only shoot RAW.
Once I open in Photoshop, there are some adjustment layers I always add as I am sure I will need them eventually: Curves, Levels, Color Balance, Hue and Saturation…all these get piled on top of my main image.
here is the finished PSD with all the layers shown and turned on. There are 28, though if you count there will be less; the crosses are all grouped. Oh, and you will also see the working titles on the top bar LOL. "Leper" - oh my.
here is the layer panel…

And here is what the composition looks like with every layer but the main shot turned off…
First step is to always make a copy of the main layer, for safety and for do-over potential. In this case, I neutralized the red warm tone of the gray paper even more…
Here is the key image added to his back. The key was masked/painted out of its background - always use a Layer Mask - don't erase anything EVER! The excess key was masked off where it intersects his body…
Next come the crosses. All eight are the same shot, masked out of its background (I shoot the props with the same lights on the same paper), slightly blurred, and the blur is different to simulate distance and depth of field. Once in the desired positions, the layers are grouped to get them out of the way and cut down on clutter.  As you can see, there are some areas in the crosses that I didn't mask out  - the cutaways in the engraving. I didn't bother because I didn't notice - it was not an issue on the finished image.
Next come the balloon string shot. The strings is placed and blended to match the white bandage of the foot. A duplicate is made and placed alongside. The strings are masked out of their backgrounds.
Next comes the shot of the field. I added additional blur to the hills in the distance, as I thought they were too distracting, and I wanted a lot of DOF in this piece...
A duplicate is made and blurred and overlaid using a different transfer mode, creating a slightly foggy, shimmery effect. This mask work is hard and slow; you need to cut out the shape of the model only from the grass layer, and this is where the gray plain paper really helps, as well as the precision of using a Wacom Tablet to carefully paint out the edges.
Next is an adjustment layer of Hue and Saturation to mute the colors almost entirely  - it's now virtually black and white. You will see why this is done later on…
As you can see, the mask is okay, but he is cleanly walking on the grass, and it looks fake and two dimensional:
To sell the illusion a little, a touch of grass is copied from the original layer of grass, and lumped in over his foot and painted out to give a hind of his foot stepping into grass, to simulate some depth to it. This looks not great now, but it will work in the end well enough - one of the final steps is to go over all these details with a clone tool and address bad patches, dog hairs, lint, pimples, etc…
Next comes an art paper texture that I use often, not for the texture, but for the fact that it has a highlight area in the center, with falloff to shadow on the corners, giving it a nice function of a marquee to highlight the subject:

Finally the sky is added. This mask is a little easier, since the gray of the sky almost matches the tone of the paper. The model shape is cut out on the layer mask, and feathered to clean up the edge. a duplicate layer is added and additional blur is used with a different transfer mode to give it a bit of a foggy look.
Next comes gray blobs, crudely painted in a layer. With the transfer mode used, the image can be brightened in some areas, kept dark in others, depending on the level of the paint in the layer. As you can see, this is now a VERY bright, foggy image…
another layer of solid white is used in similar fashion in Luminosity transfer mode, to punch up the highlights…

The beige scarf I bought was ornate but dull in color, so I painted it red. Looking at it in this way, I see what a bad paint job I did, but it didn't really matter, as I was painting with all the layers turned on and it didn't show up as bad in the end result:
So now all the components of the piece are in place…and it's very bleached of color and overly bright (to me)…
I add a rough paper texture image over it, to give it some detail and some graininess.This texture is also darker around the edges, so it creates a slight iris or spotlight on the subject, depending on how you place it.
This is how it looks originally:
Always keep texture images black and white unless you want them to recolor what you've done!

Ah the magic of Levels and Curves! These pop the brights, and darken the shadows, and add serious drama to the image… see!
When the shadows are amplified and the highlights brought up as well as the midtones, a lot of the color we siphoned off in the beginning comes back, which is why I remove a lot of it down below.
Finally, a color solid is added on top of all, and ramps down to single digit opacity - just a pop of color cast over all:

As you can see, at this point it is done, but the final image was altered further from this spot. At this point, I was satisfied with the composition and saved the PSD file so I can fix things later if I want to, and then made a flattened copy as a TIF. The TiF goes through 5 more alterations - all very long and hard to describe. I am not trying to be enigmatic - just really depends on each image, so I couldn't say "do this at 10%, do this at 40%… it all depends. But in any event, that was the tour through the 28 layers! And now I must go back and clean up the red paint job that is now bothering me, now that I have taken all the layers off and demonstrated how sloppy it is!
I hope it helped a little, or, failing that, was at least interesting if you are into this sort of thing! I welcome feedback on this blog post, especially any questions. I will try to answer if I can. Doing this, it occurs to me that showing this live, with people driving at the wheels themselves, would be the easiest way to demonstrate this stuff. Maybe someday it will be wanted enough for me to do a workshop class.

Thanks for reading and viewing!
Michael, Dec 21st 2012