Let me remind you before we begin that I’m working on a 540×540 pixel file that’s at 72ppi, so if you’re applying this process to a higher resolution image you’ll want to increase the strength of the filters accordingly to get the desired effect. Let me also state the obvious and say that photo effects work better on some photos than others. As any good photographer will tell you, this sort of effect is very much determined by personal taste, and you should experiment with each of the settings to decide what looks best to you. Some of my coolest photos and photo effects have been created while experimenting with different filter and layer combinations.
(*note: You should have at least Photoshop CS2 for this tutorial as some of the filters used were not present in earlier versions.)
Here’s a lovely photo of a striking young man that I think will be perfect for this effect (although this particular photo effect can also work well on still life and landscape photos as well). A few factors that make this photo ideal are the nice lighting conditions and the lack of distraction in the background.
The first few steps will serve to soften the details and smooth out the tones, but lets first duplicate the background layer by pressing Command-J (PC: Ctrl-J) so if we screw up we can just delete the copy and start over without effecting or original image. This also creates an easy way for us to compare the original to the final product.
We’re going to use the Reduce Noise filter to do a preliminary smoothing of the working surface. Select Filter>Noise>Reduce Noise. All we’re asking this filter to do is to take out tiny variations in tone so use the settings below.
(*note: The Reduce Noise filter is relatively new to Photoshop, so if you’re using an older version and don’t have this in your Filters menu, don’t worry, you can skip this step and still end up with a nice effect.)
Now that we’ve reduced the small variations it’s time to do some real smoothing. Choose Filter>Blur>Surface Blur from the main menu and set both the radius and threshold to 5. This will add an almost painted look to the photo because the large areas of similar tone have been blended so well.
Now lets bring back a little bit of crispness by using a powerful addition to the Sharpen menu called Smart Sharpen. Choose Filter>Sharpen>Smart Sharpen and adjust the sliders until the areas of your photograph with the largest amount of contrast have crisp edges again (like the eyes and hair in my photograph).
If you want to see the difference these filters has made, simply turn the working layer on and off in the Layers palette by clicking on the little eye icon to the left of the layer’s thumbnail.
Here’s what my photo looks like so far. Notice that the skin has been smoothed extensively but there is still a significant level of sharpness in the image overall.
Here comes the fun part where we create the color-shift that defines the look of this effect. First press the D key to reset the foreground and background colors to black and white respectively.
We’ll be using an Adjustment Layer, so click on the Create New Fill or Adjustment Layer icon at the bottom of the Layers palette (it’s the one that looks like a circle with one half black and the other white) and choose Gradient Map from the menu. When the dialog appears, click ON the gradient to open the Gradient Editor where we’ll create a custom gradient in the next step.
(*note: The Gradient Map adjustment layer does exactly what it says, it maps a gradient to the tonal range of the image.)
We’ll begin by selecting one of the Photoshop default gradients, in this case the one that goes from black to white (this is the first of the default gradients in the gradient picker).
Now that we’ve got the basics in place it’s time to look down to the bottom of the Gradient Editor. The black and white endpoints of the gradient have already been set so now we need to add a few custom markers in the middle to give us the desired effect.
Click anywhere just beneath the gradient to add a new point at that location (the color will be set by default to the exact color at that point in the existing gradient). With the new point added, click directly on the point to access it’s color and location options. Set the first point to #412C08 and change it’s location to 20% then add a second point to the right of the first and set the color to #ACA79A and it’s location to 60%. When you’re done click OK to set the gradient and then click OK on the original Gradient Map dialog to commit the adjustment layer to the document.
Things should now look like my example below. Notice that a new layer has been created above our working photo layer called Gradient Map 1. If at any time you wish to adjust the Gradient Map adjustment layer, simply double click on the layer’s icon to re-open the dialog exactly as you left it.
Next we’re going to add some punch to the tones with another Adjustment Layer, so just like in Step 6, click on the Create New Fill or Adjustment Layer icon at the bottom of the layers palette and this time choose Channel Mixer.
Normally the Channel Mixer is used to adjust color mixture on a per-channel basis (ie Red,Green & Blue). It’s quite useful, but we won’t be using it that way today. What I want you to do is go into EACH of the respective colors in the Output Channel drop down and give that color 100% and the other two channels in that color 0%… So in the Red output channel red would be set to 100% and Green and Blue both at 0%… do the same for the Green and Blue output channels and then click OK. If you do this correctly absolutely nothing in your image will have changed when you’re done.
Lastly lets add one final Adjustment Layer to add a touch more contrast to the image. From the Adjustment Layer menu we’ve been using at the bottom of the Layers palette choose Curves this time. When the Curves dialog box appears choose Linear Contrast (RGB) from the Preset drop down menu at the top and click OK.
(*note: You should feel free to play with different presets as well as custom curves to create different effects.)
Remember, each photo is different and what works perfectly with one set of instructions can look like crap on another, so don’t let yourself get tied to exact formulas and prescribed steps. Experiment with each setting and learn what each filter and adjustment layer does, that way you’re only limit is your own creativity. Something as small as rearranging the order of the adjustment layers in this exercise can make a substantial difference in your end result.
Oh, and if you really want to have some fun, play with the colors in the Gradient Map! The sky is the limit!
In my final image I lowered the opacity of the Gradient Map adjustment layer to around 80% to let a little of the original skin tone show through which added a bit of warmth to the composition.
Lesson Files + Additional Resources
Download the free .PSD file and other lesson files Right Here.