Tutorial: Heading Home

Hands down, we have a winner. So here's the latest how-to from Doug based on his composition "Heading Home" from the series Art Out West. 

A small number of 20" signed fine art prints of this image will be available for a limited time. Have fun experimenting with these new techniques!  -David


Creating “Heading Home” by Doug Landreth / Photomorphis

Beginning thoughts. This original image has lots of negative high key space which serves to isolate the foreground image of the cowboy and is ideal for overlaying subtle textures. My first thoughts were to use some texture overlays in addition to some digital manipulations to add an aged and somewhat distressed warm toned mood to the image.

Original image:


Dialing in the image. My first move was give the image of the horse and cowboy a sharp crisp look and make the background grass and hill fall away in focus to further isolate the cowboy and horse. Additionally, I wanted to add some drama to the sky with a bolder cloud formation. Here’s a look at how I accomplished this.

1. A sharpening trick. One trick to create a super sharp image is to make two duplicate background layers (Cmd J twice with the background layer selected). Set the top duplicate layer to the blend mode “Vivid”. Invert that layer (Cmd I) and make it a Smart Object (layer > Smart Objects > Create Smart Object). Next I apply a surface blur to this layer as a “smart filter” (which allows me to change the settings later if necessary). I group the normal copy layer and the Smart Object copy layer into a group I titled Sharpening Overlay and set the blend mode for the group to “Overlay” Now using the controls of the surface blur, I dialed in a nice crisp look. Here’s how the layer stack looks at this point. Tip... It’s good to label your layers for quick ID of what’s going on.  

2. Layer stack:



 Before/after sharpening:


Create a layer Mask for the effect. This created a nice snappy crisp look to the image but I only want the effect on the cowboy and horse so my next step was to create a mask for this sharpening group to subtract the effect from the background. Tip: Make the image do the work for you when possible. I started by looking to see if any of the RGB channels could provide a starting point for the selection. The Green channel showed the most contrast between the cowboy and the background so I dragged the green channel down to the new channel icon to create a copy of the green channel. I then used a levels adjustment and the dodge burn tools to blacken the cowboy and horse and whiten the surrounding background.

The green channel after burning and dodging:


HH4I wanted the mask to be the inverse of this channel (white so the cowboy and horse showed, and black to block the effect from the background), so I made a selection from this channel (Cmd click channel icon) and inverted the selection (Shift +Cmd+I), then with the Group layer selected I clicked the new layer mask icon to apply the selection to the layer as a mask. Voila.. the effect is only on the cowboy and horse. 





3. Blur the lower background. I then wanted to soften the details in the background of the grass and fence. To accomplish this I created another copy of the background and applied a gaussian blur to it which blurred everything nicely. Of course I didn’t want the cowboy or horse blurred so I needed a mask that showed only the background blurred and masked the blur from the cowboy and horse. I copied the Sharpening Overlay mask to the “blurred bkgd layer” by holding down the option key and clicking and dragging the mask to the layer and than inverting it (cmd I). I also needed to mask the blur from the upper part of the image so I needed another mask for the same layer. Here’s a great trick to accomplish this. I selected the “blurred bkgd layer” and created a group for that layer. (a group can be just one layer and can be buried in multiple layers of groups.. with each group having it’s own layer mask). In this way you can create multiple independently controllable masks for a single image layer.. pretty great trick. So I created a gradient layer mask on the Group layer to reveal the blur only an the lower part of the image.

4. Consolidate the image layers and begin working with textures. Now I felt like I had the basic image dialed in of the cowboy and I went in search of appropriate textures. For this image I selected “Painterly Background #8” from the Painterly Background Collection available on the Photomorphis site. I opened the texture image and sized it to fit. I then duplicated the texture image flipped the duplicate layer vertically and set the blend mode to softlight. This has the effect of making the texture details of the image softer with a bit more saturation and contrast overall. Additionally, I added a light saturation with an adjustment layer and consolidated these layers into a group called texture. This would be the foundation I would build on with the cowboy image. 


5. Add clouds. Now I wanted to see how the image and the background work together as well as play with bringing in a cloud image to add some extra drama. I opened a cloud image and brought it into the layer stack as a smart object scaling it to fit. I use a smart object if I know that I’ll be scaling an image to avoid any undo damage to the file. Here again, I needed to mask the clouds from the ground and from the cowboy so I employed the same group masking trick as before with a layer mask and a group layer mask. Then I set the group blend mode to Screen. 


6. Apply the cowboy image to the texture. I next wanted a merged layer of the cowboy and horse that had the blur background and the sharpened effect. I turned off the texture group layer visibility as well as the clouds, and with the top visible layer active (Sharpening Overlay layer) I held down the “Option” key while selecting “ Merge Visible” from the layer palette drop down menu which created a new layer that was a blend of all the work I’d done on the cowboy so far. I labeled this “composite cowboy”. I will use this cowboy image on top of the texture layers and also want to apply some filters to it so I turned it into a smart object and dragged the layer to the top of the stack. I also selecting the lowest texture image in the stack and selected “normal” as it’s blend mode so that it became my bottom image. 


7. Apply effects to the “composite cowboy” layer. I really wanted to create a lighter dustier look for the image yet keep all the crisp detail of the cowboy. I had just recently discovered a plug-in called RadLab that I wanted to experiment with so I decided to use this plug-in to generate the needed effects. (Similar results are possible with many other well known plug ins and photoshop techniques). You can set the preference for RadLab to create a duplicate layer as a smart object so the effects become smart filters. I ended up applying an effect created in RadLab that produced a sharply defined hi key image which I used at 77% opacity in Multiply blending mode. I then applied a second batch of filters in RadLab to the Composite Cowboy image to produce a softer hi key image that I used in “soft light” blend mode at 100%. You can see the effects and the layer stack in the following image. Note that I’ve turned off the visibility of the “composite Cowboy” layer so that the two smart object layers are the only ones effecting the texture and cloud layers below. This is close to where I want the image. 


8. Final touches. I liked the way this was looking so decided to create another merged layer on top of the stack. Holding down the option key I selected the Merge Visible command from the layer pallet drop down menu. This added another layer to the top of the stack that I renamed Composite 2. 



I then paid one more visit to the RadLab plug-in and applied a filter called P.O.S. Lens for a final effect. The filter adds a darkening vignette and a bit of radial motion blur to give the effect of an old plastic lens. I masked out the effect from the central part of the image, added a final curves adjustment layer and created a new merged layer on top........................ and called ‘er done!  


Thanks again for your interest in my work and in Photomorphis.

- Doug Landreth



For more tutorials on Doug Landreth's fine art techniques check out the Photomorphis instructional videos. 

 Doug Landreth.jpgDoug Landreth has been a major force in the Pacific Northwest photography scene for the past 25 years shooting commercial assignments for the regions foremost ad agencies and corporate marketing departments. He is well known for his complex, conceptual photo-illustrations and his large-scale production, lifestyle and transportation campaigns, for which he has received numerous national awards. For the past seven years Doug has been increasingly focusing on his personal fine art developing a large following for his painterly, composited fine art images. His unique personal style combined with his renowned photoshop skills have been recognized with numerous international awards and is now the focus for his “Scratching the Surface” workshops. Doug continues to shoot commercial projects, travels across the west to participate in well know art shows, and collaborates with David on Photomorphis. Oh, and occasionally does a little photography for fun.