Improving on Reality Using Digital Tools

Across River at Dawn, Prague

By Dan Burkholder Back to


Many photographers take pains to make their prints an accurate portrayal of the scene they photographed. For me, taking three-dimensional space and putting it on a flat piece of paper is already a huge departure from reality. That’s why I have zero qualms about taking any and all steps to make the final print emotionally honest as opposed to literally honest. It goes without saying— though you will note that I am saying it anyway—that I can take these liberties because I fall into that least lucrative of all photographic realms: the fine-art photographer. (Photojournalists play by a very different rule book.)

Let’s look at some typical liberties I took with an image from the Czech Republic.

As in building a house, having a good foundation and good plans make all the difference. The RAW capture of Across River at Dawn, Prague had a formal composition and full range of tones that made a good foundation for building an effective final print. That leaves the plans that will shape our image into the final print.

Many Photoshop instructors recommend that you duplicate your Background image (Layer > Duplicate Layer or Command/Control-J) as a first step in your image editing. This sound advice guarantees you’ll always have your original virgin image sitting at the bottom of your Layers palette where it can serve as your digital safety net should your image editing go awry. For this image I followed that advice and created a duplicate layer.

Blur for intrigue

One of the few filter effects I use for stylizing my images is the Gaussian Blur filter (Filter > Blur > Gaussian Blur). I don’t use this filter to soften the image overall but rather to add visual intrigue to the darkest tones in the image.

W. Eugene Smith is rumored to have used various techniques to achieve similar effects, including blowing cigar smoke under the enlarging lens while exposing his silver gelatin prints.

Figure 2 shows my settings in the Gaussian Blur dialog box. I applied this blur to the duplicate layer created above. (Our Layers palette now looks like that shown in figure 3.)

You’ll notice that I blurred the duplicate layer with 15 pixels of Gaussian Blur (Filter > Blur > Gaussian Blur). And if you look closely at figure 3 you see that I even named the layer “Blurred by 15 pixels.” Though this might strike you as terribly nerdy, I find it really helps to know what I did to a layer if I revisit the image days or months down the road.

There is nothing special about this blur radius number. The amount of blur that works depends on things like image resolution, the amount of dark tones in your image, and how much intrigue you want to add with the bleeding dark tones. In case you hadn’t guessed, experimenting is the best way to get a feel for this. After all, unlike the classic darkroom where every test costs us money in materials, with Photoshop we can try a full suite of filter effects and spend no more than $0.02 worth of electricity.

It doesn’t matter whether you blur in Photoshop or blow smoke in the dark- room, the result we’re after is to let the darkest image tones bleed into adjacent areas, giving an aura of soft intrigue to the print. With our blurred duplicate layer we’re ready to proceed with some easy but oh-so-powerful layer magic to get just the desired results.

Layer styles to the rescue

Like everything else in Photoshop, there are myriad ways to achieve this bleed- the-darks effect. My favorite (and the fastest) is to use Layer Styles. Double- clicking on the Blurred layer pops up the vastly overlarge Layer Styles dialog box. (Note to Adobe: please give us a resize corner on this screen-real-estate waster of a dialog box.) Make sure you double- click on the actual layer icon—double- clicking the layer name will only let you edit the text itself. The settings I used are shown in figure 4.

I made three important changes to the settings in the Layer Styles dialog:

1. I changed the Blending Mode to Multiply. This mode makes the dark tones much darker, exactly what we want to punch down these tones in the image.

2. I lowered the Layer Opacity to 85%. This fine-tunes the effect by slightly decreasing the amount of darkening.

3. I moved the Blend If sliders. Moving the White Point slider (the white one on the right of the This Layer scale) to the left removes highlights and midtones from the effect. Note how the single white-point slider (that looks like a tiny house with a vertical line in the middle) has been split. (You split the White-Point slider by holding option/alt while dragging one half of the “house” away. Dragging the split slider to the left cuts out the effect in the lighter tones. The green arrows in figure 4 show where I ended up with the split sliders.

Final fine-tuning

Now that I’ve added intrigue to the dark tones, I need only to perform some basic contrast and saturation control to keep the viewers’ eyes moving within the image instead of drifting out into nonimage oblivion. Adjustment Layers and Masks are my constant companions during this fine-tuning phase. Figure 5 shows how several Curve adjustment layers darken the top and bottom of the image. The layer labeled “midtone contrast”— you name your pets and children, why not name your layers too?—was made by using Color Range (Select > Color Range) to select just the midtones so I could increase the local contrast within those tones independently. A Hue/Saturation adjustment layer dials down the color saturation just a bit. The sharp-eyed reader will notice a smidge of painting on the “Blurred by 15 pixels” layer mask. This mask painting hides some of the blurred layer’s effect so the dark areas don’t get too dark. I’m trying to add intrigue, not make it look evil.

A couple of simple Curve adjustment layers work perfectly to darken the sky and foreground. Figure 5 shows my final Layers palette with all the layers in place. Note that all of my adjustment layers have a color assigned to them. Curve adjustment layers are yellow and Hue/ Saturation adjustment layers are green. This color scheme lets me see at a moment’s glance which layer is doing what to the image. Neat and easy. And heck, as photographers we’re supposed to be visual people, so why not use all the visual clues we paid for?

The final print

Having a pretty picture on your computer monitor is swell, but having a rich archival print on the wall is another joy altogether. An Epson 7800 and Crane Museo paper conspire with ImagePrint software to make the final printing stage a predictable delight rather than an “oh darn, it didn’t look like that on the screen” exercise in frustration.

Figure 6 shows the completed image, presented as a 6×9-inch pigmented ink print that I coat with archival varnish from Breathing Color. Though hardly a literal reflection of the original scene, this final print is a much more emotionally honest version of the beautiful riverside buildings in Prague on that cold winter day.

Taking our real-world three-dimensional reality and translating it onto a piece of paper is filled with challenges, frustrations, and joys. Just as we became accomplished printers by making lots of tests and bad prints in the wet darkroom, our digital lab takes practice and a certain amount of discipline. I attempt to push my skills forward with every new image, trying something new that I learned from a book, friend, or lecture. Now get to work and do the same thing. And don’t stop smiling, because even your failures will leave you wiser and better prepared for the next image.

About the Author

Dan Burkholder
Dan Burkholder has been teaching digital imaging workshops for 15 years at venues including The School of the Art Institute, Chicago; The Royal Photographic Society, Madrid, Spain; The International Center of Photography, New York; Mesilla Digital Imaging Workshops, Mesilla, NM and many others. Dan’s latest book, The Color of Loss (University of Texas Press, 2008), documents the flooded interiors of post-Katrina New Orleans and is the first coffee table book done entirely using HDR methods. His award-winning book, Making Digital Negatives for Contact Printing, has become a standard resource in the fineart photography community. Dan’s iPhone images can be seen at: