Getting That Cool Gritty Look Right in Camera Raw and Photoshop or Lightroom


Before: The original unretouched image of Issac. (Click on it for a larger view)


After: Issac after applying the effect in Camera Raw and Photoshop (no plug-ins). (Click on it for a larger view)

Direct Gritty Technique
Back on Tuesday a posted a review of the Lucis Art plug-in for Photoshop, which gives you a one-click solution for getting that cool gritty look that’s been made so popular by photographers like Dave Hill (see the Tuesday post for more on this).

Anyway, last year, on Photoshop User TV, my co-host Matt Kloskowski showed how to get that kind of gritty effect from right within Lightroom (he showed the effect applied to an old car), and then I started showing it in both my Lightroom Tour and my Photoshop CS3 Power Tour (where I applied it to a shot of one of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers).

The key to making this technique is the lighting of your subject. If you don’t have a shot with that high contrast, hard-edged light creating serious highlights and shadows, it just doesn’t work (so, in short; if you’ve got the right kind of image—it works wonders. If you don’t—you’re hosed). On Tuesday, I showed a shot I took of Photoshop User magazine editor Issac Stolzenbach, posing with his motorcycle, and I applied the Lucis Art plug-in to it to get “The Look.”

The shots you see of Issac above (click on them for a larger view) are processed entirely in Camera Raw and Photoshop, without the use of any plug-ins. But there was something that occurred to me while looking (once again) at Dave Hill’s photos that finally clicked with me, and helped me take it to the next level (that, in a moment). First, the settings you need to get this look (in Camera Raw) and then in Lightroom (just so you know—they’re the same).


You can click on the graphic above for a larger view, but either way; here is the basic formula:

  • Recovery = 100
  • Fill Light = 100
  • Blacks = Drag this slider to the right until photo looks balanced again, because setting the Fill Light at 100 will wash the photo out big time. In our example, I dragged it to 24
  • Contrast = 100
  • Clarity = 100
  • Vibrance = 100
  • Saturation = -81 (basically what I do here is drag the saturation all the way to the left, to -100 (which removes all color, making it a black and white image), and then I slowly drag back to the right until some of the color starts to return to the image.

If after making these settings, the image looks way too bright, you may have to decrease the Exposure just a little bit, by dragging the Exposure slider to the left. If it’s too dark; increase the Exposure (so basically, those are starting points).


After those settings are in place, go to the Lens Correction tab to add a dark edge vignette around the edges of the photo. Drag the Amount slider to -100, and the Midtone slider to around 20 (as shown below) to darken in all the edges.


The thing I learned, that “aha” moment from looking at Dave Hill’s images is that the skin on everybody (including the men) is silky smooth. In fact, it’s the level of skin smoothing we’d normally apply to a photos of woman, but most of the images on Dave’s site are men. Because this technique adds so much midtone sharpening, it makes every little line, crevasse, and wrinkle stand out like crazy.

Above you see the image of Issac before I applied the skin smoothing technique in Photoshop (which I’ll show you in just a moment). You see how sharp and contrasty his skin is once the effect is applied? We need to greatly soften that. So after I apply those settings (in either Camera Raw or Lightroom’s Develop Module), I then open the image in Photoshop. The technique I used to soften the skin was to apply a 20 pixel Gaussian Blur to the entire image, then lower the Opacity of this layer to 50%. Then I add a Layer Mask to this layer (click the Layer Mask icon at the bottom of the Layers palette); get the Brush tool, choose a soft-edged brush, and then paint over his skin, while avoiding his eyes, eyebrows, lips, teeth, nostrils, hair—-these are details areas you want to keep crisp.


Look at the image above, and how much softer his skin looks after the softening effect is applied in Photoshop.


Later that same day, I took that same effect and applied it to a photo of our buddy Corey Barker (The Photoshop Lad, and co-host of Layers TV), posed by his car, which is shown above with a before/after side-by-side image (that’s Matt Kloskowski sneaking into my shot–click for a much larger view). Matt and Corey were so small in the image that I didn’t do the skin softening technique.


On Wednesday, after my band (Big Electric Cat) wrapped up a rehearsal for our gig at BB King’s Blues Club & Grill during Photoshop World, I grabbed the band members for a quick promo photo shoot in the same location (click on it for a larger view). Here’s the problem; the effect in Camera Raw looked “OK” but it just wasn’t really looking right, so instead I ran the Lucis Art plug-in on it, and BAM—it was there! (click the image above for a larger view: From L to R that’s Scott Stahley on Drums, Tony Llanes on Lead Guitar, Kalebra on lead vocals, me on keyboards, and Felix Nelson on Bass). Note: The band above photo was taken by RC Concepcion.

Note: Last night I was experimenting with doing the skin softening BEFORE you run the Lucis Art plug-in, and after seeing the results, I think it’s probably better to do it beforehand—(but only if you’re using the plug-in). Give it a try and see what you think.


The original photo: Tony, our guitar player, shot with three Elinchrom RX-600 strobes: One behind him on the left and one behind him on the right (both just outside of the frame). They had no softboxes attached—just metal reflectors, and we put two black flags between them and my camera so I didn’t get lens flare from the flash. The main light was a RX-600 with a 53″ Mini-Octa softbox positioned to the left of my camera. This lighting set up gives us the hard edge rim lights on either side of his face, and the center of his face is lit from the Main light.


Tweaked in Camera Raw using the settings you learned earler; this version looks “OK,” but it really doesn’t have that painterly look that’s characteristic of this look.


Lucis Art: Here I applied the Lucis Art plug-in, and to me this looks much better. I also added a dark edge vignette to darken the edges, however I didn’t add the skin softening to this image yet (but I think it could use it).

Above: That’s me shooting Tony (photo by RC Concepcion) just so you can see how bare bones everything was. You can see the 53″ mini-octa over my shoulder.

So, what did I learn from all this?

  1. Although the Camera Raw (and Lightroom) recipe I gave you above will work with the right kind of image, the Lucis Art plug-in gives you that look much more consistently with a much broader range of images. In short: when the Camera Raw recipe won’t work; Lucis Art usually will.
  2. After the effect is applied (either the Camera Raw/Lightroom version or the Lucis Art version), you need to soften everybody’s skin quite a bit
  3. You often can apply the Lucis Art filter two times in a row, if you apply the filter to a copy of the Background layer, then lower the Opacity to around 20 or 30%.
  4. As always; it’s all about the lighting. When the lighting is right, everything else falls into place. By the way; the lighting here isn’t right, but it’s a start—I’ve got a lot more tweaking to do to get it where I want it.

Before we go, I just want to give a special thanks to my buddy RC Concepcion (co-host of Layers TV). RC usually works with me on all our studio and location shoots, and he not only gets everything up and running, he shoots me shooting, too, so he really has his hands full. I couldn’t do all this without him, and I’m so grateful for his help, input and ideas. If you see RC, or visit his blog, or see him at Photoshop World, make sure you give him a high-five for me.

NAPP MEMBERS: I’m taping a video tutorial for the NAPP member website today on this Photoshop and Lightroom technique. Although I’m filming it today, I can’t swear that the video dept. will be able to get it edited, compressed, and online today, so if it’s not on the member Website by this afternoon, check back there tomorrow. Not here—there. :)

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