Windows and Stone

Laurel, Maryland: A window in the old Laurel Volunteer Fire Department building. Here, I cropped the image to focus your attention on the window itself and not on the ugly power lines or pavement.

The original image was not level and had too many distracting elements.

I’m going through some of my older photographs and seeing what raw material I have for doing some creative work in Photoshop. I keep buying issues of Photoshop Creative and other art magazines and then I let them sit on my desk while I’m busy with schoolwork or other stuff. But this is the final week of my humanities class and I only have one more short assignment to work on, and I already feel like a kid of the verge of summer vacation.

I’m taking a month’s break before starting my next history class in June. I’m just about halfway through my master’s degree program in European history (another week!) and plan to use the final weeks of April and all of May to finish my novel and catch up on some other creative projects that I’ve started — one of which is learning Photoshop CS5 a lot better. So, now it’s time to dust off the electronic cobwebs from some of my digital files and get creative!

What I’ve done with these two photographs is extremely basic. With the window image, I had to straighten it so that the lines in the image were horizontal. I had taken the picture with a hand-held camera and the image was crooked in the frame. Plus, there were a lot of distracting elements in the original photo. This is one of those small things that you don’t necessarily see while you’re out taking photos, but as soon as you pull it up onscreen it looks awful. The trick is to start training yourself to look for these things while you’re out taking pictures so that you have less mess to deal with once you’re back at the computer, although sometimes you can’t avoid them altogether. You don’t want to spend all your time editing out power lines from your images!

I used the Image Rotation feature in Photoshop and manipulated the image by rotating it about 1.3 degrees counterclockwise. I had to play with the numbers a bit until it looked straight. I don’t know if there’s a protractor tool or not in Photoshop CS5, so I just winged it. I haven’t been using Photoshop for some time and I’m rusty with masking and some of the finely tuned controls, plus I haven’t learned most of the new tools in CS5 (I upgraded from CS, so it’s a bit of a shock to my system!).

After straightening the image I used Unsharp Mask and applied some sharpening, careful to keep the amount low enough so that I didn’t introduce major artifacts to the image. I cropped the image so the street and electric wires are gone, since they add nothing but clutter to the image. The result is that the window and the stonework become the center of attention. I also used Topaz Adjust’s HDR filter to bring out some detail in the stone. Take a close look at the original image and the edited image. There’s a great deal of texture in the brick and stone, and the glass has a much more reflective quality than it did in the original.

Here, I've given emphasis to the texture of the stonework by converting the image to black and white with the Topaz B&W filter plug-in.

For this smaller image of the building’s dedication plaque, I did very little except convert the image to black and white with Topaz filters. I liked the angles in this image because they lend some movement to the picture and make it a bit less static. And the horizontal lines aren’t so far removed from being level that the image seems unbalanced, either. Also, there’s an interesting contrast between the textures and shapes. The stone and concrete are rough enough that you can almost feel the texture, while the glass is smooth. The stones are irregular in shape but the square glass blocks with their vertical and horizontal dividers make for a strict geometric background.

Playing with Photo Textures

Seagull photo

The seagull photo was combined with a freeware texture to produce this op-art effect.

I haven’t been doing much work with Photoshop lately, and for that matter, I haven’t done much photography since I’ve come back from vacation last fall. It’s too easy to get back into the work grind, you know? Traveling makes me want to take pictures, but it’s hard to be a tourist where you live. You simply stop noticing the kinds of things that make for good pictures because you’re too focused on the daily things in life.

Still, I launched Photoshop — I’m still on version CS — and did some playing. I wasn’t trying to make anything in particular, so there was no “wrong” image. In the above photo, I used a texture image that came on a CD from It’s the radial lines combined with the grunge effect. I layered it over my photo of the seagull and adjusted the opacity. I also had to resize it and move it around so that the seagull would be at the center of the circle. I used the eraser tool to remove some of the texture that was directly over the seagull so he wouldn’t look too messy.

It’s not a work of art — I don’t expect to make an enlargement and hang the photo on my wall. There are some areas around the bird that could use some tweaking and there’s a white line at the top of the image that looks like a huge scratch. But the more I look at it, I realize that not every image needs to be perfect. This one was simply a playful experiment that I did so I could get motivated to do some creative work. An art studio instructor I had long ago told us to take our charcoal and draw a big, dark line across our entire sheet of paper. It dispelled the “blank page” syndrome. Apparently, artists get this block just as much as writers, so I guess it’s possible for photographers to be afflicted with it, too. Take some “junk” photos and just play with manipulating them in your software. Add colors and textures, combine images, and don’t worry too much about what looks right. Just have fun, and if you come up with anything really interesting, post a link to it.

Creating High-Contrast Art in Photoshop

Kayaks wait for the tour group to embark.

The original full-color image of the kayaks was an RGB image.

Years ago, back when I was just learning how to develop black-and-white film and make prints, I became intrigued by high-contrast film photography. There was a Kodak film made for graphic arts applications that essentially reduced images down to a silhouette. The graphic artist in me was busy looking at form, shape, and the interplay of positive and negative space in the image. The photographer in me saw a good way to take a marginally interesting photograph and get something more vivid out of it.

I haven’t done much photo work lately due to time constraints, but I’ve been doing some dabbling and came up with an interesting way to create a high-contrast image using Photoshop’s built-in filters. I am still using an older release of Photoshop CS, but this technique should work with any of the newer versions of the software. It may also work with other photo-manipulation software, including Photoshop Elements, but you will have to look at your software’s manual or menus to see if you have any filters that are similar.

I started with the color photo of the kayaks, which was in an RGB (red-green-blue) mode, and ran the Graphic Pen filter on the image. This particular filter results in an image that looks only black-and-white, but the image is still RGB. Next, I adjusted the curves until I had the water dark and the sky white. The shape of my curve was an “S” shape laying on its side. You’ll just have to pull at the curve until you get a result that you like — this isn’t a one-size-fits-all prescription for all photos.

A high-contrast image of the kayaks.

The high-contrast image of the kayaks owes its detail to the graphic pen filter used.

Finally, I pulled up the Hue/Saturation menu and made adjustments. I clicked on the box labeled “Colorize,” and adjusted the other sliders until I had something that I liked. You’ll need to do some experimenting, but your end result should be a high-contrast version of the image that you started with, although depending on your settings, there will be some amount of detail in the image. What you end up with is basically black-and-white (or whatever color you picked in the Hue/Saturation menu), without intermediate shades of gray.

Tip: work on a copy of your image, so you don’t accidentally save over a photo that you want to keep.