First and foremost, thank you to Mr. Scott Kelby for letting me steal some of the spotlight this week and also to Douglas Sonders.  If you do not remember or have not seen Doug’s guest blog, check it out here.  With that being said, let’s begin.

For this session, I’m going to break down the steps and go through the methodology of how I created the S.W.A.T. piece below:

As mentioned before, Doug showed the S.W.A.T. shot in his blog and many people asked how I did it.

Before I even got the shot, Doug and I discussed what he envisioned and what was possible.  I created a mock up on a low-res jpeg with quick markings  on the image and rough color moves just to see if it worked out.  Once Doug reviewed it and gave the color approval, I moved onto getting the RAW file.  I develop the file as neutral as possible, this way, if I start the retouching but don’t like the color tone, I don’t have to start over from scratch.


Untouched developed image

Ok, so what you’re looking at is the file developed and renamed to the temperature value I used to keep it neutral.  On top of that is the retouching layer to get rid of blemishes and imperfections.  If you notice the layers window, I renamed the layer “c/u” (clean up) and put it into a folder with the same name.  I do so to keep organized due to the many layers I will need to keep track of.  Since I already know I want to move the helicopter and scale it down, I made a new folder specifically for that and put it into the “c/u” where all the retouching layers are.  Inside is one layer to take away the original helicopter (cloned in sky with the healing tool to blend it in) and then the helicopter copied and pasted onto the second layer, scaled and moved.  You can always keep the retouching on one layer, but I like a back up in case I want to move the helicopter (think of it as a collage right now; I can easily move the helicopter layer anywhere I want).  If you are wondering how the helicopter is moved and perfectly shaped, it’s because I made paths and alpha channels for everything, yes EVERYTHING!!!  Now you do not have to do that on your own all the time, but it helps make an outline more crisp and sharp so make sure you learn how to use the pen tool and the alpha channels.  Once it’s cleaned with selections, I then apply a sharpening effect on a new layer with all the layers merged into one.  I would further go into detail, but I digress. I’m sure someone has gone over that process in a previous session.


I would be a liar if I didn’t show you my paths and channels now.

Here is where it starts getting better…..playing with all the colors.  What Doug and I had planned was to turn this day shot into a moody night scene with fog and spotlights.  When I think of night, I think of cool hues. Looking at this picture, I knew I had to take down the reds and some of the greens (I left this image in RGB because the reds and blues are more vibrant).

Afterward, colorize the whole image so it is uniform.  To do that, I used the Hue/Saturation adjustment, checked the colorize option, and adjusted the sliders to get a cool blue hue.  After pressing ok, I changed the layer mode to a different setting.  As you can see, it turns the image darker as if it’s night time already.  Just be careful because certain parts will get clogged up with too much color information so use the mask to take away from those areas.  If you want to do this on your own image, just go through the layer mode options, see what works the best, and play around with different opacity/flow percentages.

It’s going in the right direction but I still need to add the effects to this.  The first and easy part is the infrared scope.  All I did was create a new layer, made a straight red line, and changed the layer mode again four times.  To keep organized, these were put into their own folder directly above the folder I made specifically for the initial color moves. Remember to stay organized unless you want to scroll down the mountain of layers trying to find the right one.

Here’s the part I’m sure you were waiting for, the fog.  The secret is…….READY? CLOUDS!!!  It’s quite simple really and it makes sense because clouds and fog are one and the same.  All I did was ask Doug for a shot of clouds and separated it from its blue background and desaturated it.  To do this, get a photo of clouds and go to your alpha channels, go through each channel to see which one has more info or contrast depending on your preference, duplicate the channel and get enough contrast from either levels or curves to make a selection from it.  Once the selection is there, then it is easy to mask out and ready to be desaturated.

I now have clouds ready to be imported into the S.W.A.T. file and like I said earlier, think of it as a collage.  Once It’s in there, I made tweaks to the layer mode and opacity.  I then duplicated the layer a few times and still tweaked each new layer, moving them, masking out certain areas, and scaling and stretching.  Some layers were on normal with a lowered opacity, some layers went behind to an overlay, some are even on a saturation mode.  There is no right or wrong to this so just play around and see what you come up with.

I’m almost done with the effects but the next step would be the spotlights.  This is a little bit trickier  because of how light works and interacts with other elements.  We have all seen lights before, brightest at its starting point and fading out into the darkness.  To pull this off, I made three elements for this.  Starting off with the armored truck, I used the brush tool with a cyan color on 100% flow and opacity to make the shape of the widest part of the light with soft edges.  I lowered the opacity of the layer and used a layer mask to fade out the furthest point to make it more realistic and to further soften the edge of the light.  This represents the part where it fades off into the night.

On the next layer, just repeat the process. The only difference is that I used a brush tool with white, made a narrower beam and kept it brighter.  This completes one side of the piece.

Now for the other.  If you take a look at the truck, there is only one headlight shown, the second one is behind the front bumper.  To keep this realistic, I masked off that part of the truck from the brushed light effect because the light would not spill over.

To finally give it that extra pop, one more layer was added to give depth, brightness and extra color as if it were a xenon bulb.

Now all you have to do is take those same principles and add it to the roof lights and helicopter.  Just remember the headlights are now in place so it would affect lighting on surfaces. For this, I would later wash out and brighten the left side of each person of the S.W.A.T. team so the light would reflect off their face and body.

The hardest part is over so all that is left is to enhance everything.  When I first made the general color moves, it affected the entire image, which left certain things flat. Lucky for me, every element has its own selection.  The beauty of this is I can now use an adjustment layer on an element without having to compromise.  In other words, you do not have to worry about clogging up one part and washing out another or not being able to push colors and contrast far enough because it would affect the other elements.  Next, add contrast to everything from skin to clothes, guns to wheels and trees, etc, etc.   I would show you what I did to each one but that would take all day so here’s the image with everything done.

Everything has been worked on but you guys must be thinking, wth!? The colors are all whacked and it doesn’t make sense with weird color saturations everywhere.  To make it all fall into place, I desaturated the entire image and left the opacity to 75%.  Add in some levels around the S.W.A.T. team to make it look like there is a spotlight on them and also some noise. Once that’s complete, the piece is finished.

There you have it folks, the long and somewhat detailed breakdown.  If you want to apply these same techniques to your own image, remember that you won’t always get it right on the first try, I know I didn’t.  All it takes is practice and patience.  Once again, thanks to Scott and Douglas Sonders and to everyone who supported me and helped me through this journey, you know who you are.

If you guys have any other questions or want to see more of my work, hit me up at justinpaguia.com

Best,
Justin