My name is Robert Cornelius (as I’m guessing you’ve already gathered from the title of this blog post), and I’ve been given the honored opportunity to share some of my thoughts with all of you fine people. I’ve been shooting professionally since 2008, but my passion for digital art has been growing since 2003. That’s the year I was first introduced to the majesty of a little program you might have heard of, called … Photoshop. I’ve always been an individual that thrives in any situation that requires tapping into one’s creativity and imagination, but once I discovered the power of Photoshop I really found my stride. I love for my work to balance somewhere along the line between a digital painting and a photograph, while bringing cinematic stories to life through the various characters I dream up.
I’ve decided for my guest blog to break down the process of creating one of my more recent images in hopes that it will inspire you to try something new and crazy, or at least add a few shiny new tricks to your work flow for whatever sort of art you love to create. This image, called “The Fate Sisters,” is my interpretation of the Greek myth about the three witch-like siblings who control our fate through their powers over the thread of life. Basically all of the images I create come together in steps quite similar to the following. I end up doing all of these things to my pictures at one point or another during the editing process. Obviously there is no perfect formula for every image – any edit is going to consist of a lot of trial and error and just trying things to see what looks good. I don’t always go exactly in this order, but for the most part my editing process goes something like this…
Whenever possible I try to plan out as much as I can before the actual shooting begins. This isn’t always the case; I do love to just shoot a person on a whim once in a while and figure out something magical to do with the photos later on in Photoshop. For this image, however, I was plotting things in the back of my head for most of a year; I knew every last detail before I even took the first shot. I envisioned one girl (my friend Laura of RoamAndGoLightly.com) posing for all three characters, and could picture how each “sister” was going to be positioned. I even knew what colored lights were going to be where: I wanted a rich dark blue atmosphere with the thread and scissors glowing golden light. I made sure to light accordingly. It’s way easier to convincingly edit the light spilling onto their faces and hands from their various shining objects when the right quality of light was actually being cast on them from the get-go. I do love digital painting and could have done my best to just add the light in later, but that’s just never going to look as good as it will if you have the light actually there in the first place.
The first thing I do once I get my raw images tweaked and opened up in Photoshop is to combine all of my favorite pieces. I usually end up with a handful of images that each have something in particular about them that I like the best. I’ll edit together all of the more favorable attributes from different captures into one even better version. For “The Fate Sisters” I obviously already had to combine the three pictures of the different “sisters,” but each individual girl is comprised of several images. For the center sister (Atropos for you Greek mythology buffs), there was one frame in which I really liked her expression and the way the light was falling on her face, but wasn’t too fond of the position of her hands – so I Photoshopped those in from another shot.
After I have all the pieces and parts pushed and pulled into place, I’ll cut the subject off of their background. The pen tool is my selecting apparatus of choice for most parts of an image. I find it to be the easiest way to get a very precise and clean edge for the majority of the mask. I definitely don’t skimp on my pen tooling. It’s always worth it to get all up in there and take the extra time to really work my way around the little details of my edges. I know it can be tedious, but I find that the better selection you have on your subject, the more convincing of a composite you’re going to end up with. Plus once you really get the hang of it, I feel like there is something very “zen” about pen-tooling things. Is that just me? (Also… “pen-tooling” is totally a word, just go with it.) The pen tool might be truly fantastic, but cutting out hair can be a real pain – so I use a plugin called Fluid Mask just for selecting out the hair. (The program is made by Vertus and is worth every penny!) However, you can also get some really great selections of areas like hair or very detailed fringes on fabric using the “refine edge” selection tool right in Photoshop.
This is where I do all of the standard Photoshopping. I’ll run through the usual list of suspects like cloning out blemishes, doing some more skin tweaks using frequency separation, smoothing out a few clothing wrinkles here and there if I feel it’s called for, and doing away with any other little details that pop out and make me think “I could deal without that.” This is one of those steps that sort of happens constantly throughout the whole editing process as I see things I want to fix, so it’s kind of hard to place where exactly in my process I do these sorts of things. I do tend to wait until a little bit later into the composite since I don’t want to retouch a face or something that I might replace with a different one later.
For many of my other works of art the background can take quite some time to Photoshop together, and oftentimes I’ll totally change it to a different location once or twice before I’m happy with it. For this picture, on the other hand, I wanted a backdrop that was less important than the overall image. My main goal was to have my audience be drawn into the faces and various luminescent items of the image; I didn’t necessarily need to tell the viewer where the sisters actually were. Perhaps they are just dwelling in some sort of mysterious limbo-type-realm between worlds. It wasn’t entirely relevant to depict an obvious location, so I just went with some nondescript murky foggy blue light.
Painting, Shading, and Detailing
This is probably my very favorite step of the process – it’s were the digital painting technique comes into play. First I’ll make a new layer and set it to a soft light blending mode, grab my handy-dandy Wacom Tablet (which I can’t live without), and start painting in some broader shadows and highlights. Usually I’ll do this using black or white with a completely soft brush, but often I’ll select a color to paint with right from a shadow area or bright highlight in the image. After my first once-over with the soft light layer, I’ll make another new layer and set the blending mode to overlay; I use the overlay layer to add in the smaller detailing. This blending mode is a bit harsher and more contrasty than soft light, so I prefer it for areas of smaller detail like the eyes, lips, hair, and maybe even playing up the edge light on a jawline or something of that nature.
After painting for a while on the overlay layer, I’ll add a third layer with a normal blending mode and use this to add in more little details. I’ll digitally paint on top of all the pixels to accentuate things that are there and even add in things I think should be there. I tend to refer back to these three layers throughout the rest of my editing process as I see things I want to highlight and enhance. I’ve even been known to add one or two or¦seventeen-zillion more layers on top of these three to really build up the details and effects. Above you can see all of my paint layers overtop of a solid grey background to help you get an idea of the actual details I’m enhancing. Note that whenever I’m painting on a person I’ll use “clipping masks” by holding alt/option and clicking between the layers. (You can also right click and choose “create clipping mask”.) This makes my job way easier because it tells Photoshop that this layer should only paint on the one below it; sort of like a fool-proof “coloring inside the lines.”
Textures and Atmosphere
I’m a huge fan of floaty dust particles and creating a dirty hazy atmosphere; it’s sort of become part of my “style,” if you will. This obviously is not for everyone or every picture, but I rather enjoy the quality it gives to my images. Some people are into the very clean and smooth look, which I totally appreciate as well, but I always tend to reach a point in my edit where I want to add some “grit.” I’ll usually layer anywhere from 2 to 5 textures, maybe even more sometimes, trying them set to different blending modes as I go to see what looks good. I usually go with soft light, overlay, or screen, and I’ll always lower the opacity way down; usually it will be somewhere around 20% or less. Also, once my textures are in place, I’ll do a bit of masking to remove some of the grunge from areas like faces and skin. Sometimes textures can leave people looking bruised or blotchy. This is one of those steps where you just have to experiment and see what you like – you usually don’t want this to be too overwhelming of an effect. When adjusted correctly, this technique does a wonderful job of blending all the different pieces of a composite together. It gives all your layers a similar quality and feel, selling the notion that everything in the image is indeed in the same location and not sneakily edited together. I use images of dust particles, smoke, clouds, fog, and tiny bokeh clusters a lot¦.like seriously a lot. I have a huge library of texture images that I’ve been gathering over the years. Whenever I see a nice grungy cracking wall or old tattered fabric, I’ll snap a few pictures and plop them into a folder to dig up later. You’d be surprised by the amount of different interesting textures you can find even around your house – I have a whole folder of images of the various beat up old baking sheets from the kitchen!
Next I start play around with some adjustment layers to affect the overall color and tone of my image. A lot of photographers seem to really enjoy “curves” for this, but I’m a sucker for sliders. To each their own. Thats one of the best things about Photoshop, there’s a zillion ways to do everything! I really love the control I can get using the “selective color” adjustment layer. If you’ve never messed around with it before definitely give it a try. I already had a pretty good idea of what sort of a color palette I wanted this image to have (since it was lit that way), but I always commit some time to playing around with the sliders and trying different color variations to see what I like. As opposed to the the cooler blue tones I had envisioned for the background, I ended up going a bit more in the direction of purple than I had planned. The more I tweaked the colors in that direction the more I really liked the way it looked against the gold tones on their faces. I also usually add a “color adjustment” layer as well – I like the way it can help add some color contrast and make the highlights pop a bit more. I often find myself pushing some warmer yellow tones into the highlights, which worked perfectly for this image seeing as how I already had the yellowy highlights throughout. One of my other favorite tricks is to add a “hue/saturation” adjustment layer, check the “colorize” box at the bottom, and then pick a color tone that works for the image; for this picture it was a purple hue. Now stay with me, I know this will make your image a monochromatic color tone, but then I set that layer to soft light and lower the opacity to somewhere around 15%. This gives the whole image a nice subtle midtone contrast and everything acquires a similar overall color and quality. It’s definitely a technique you should try out; it works wonderfully for basically any type of photograph. I usually end up using a warm orange-ish color to help give a tiny bit more life to skin tones, but it all depends on what looks good for whatever image I’m creating. Since it’s an adjustment layer you can always come back later and try a different hue to see what you like best.
Once I’m happy with the image as a whole, I’ll begin some of my “finishing moves.” I’ll duplicate all my layers and merge them (“stamp visible”) so I have a flat version of my image on top of all my layers. Then I’ll run this layer though some filters. I’m rather fond of HDR Efex Pro (from the Nik collection), and also Topaz Adjust. This is another one of the steps where you just have to mess around with different filters to see what sort of an effect works well with the image and what you’re going for. Also, this is a step that can be MAJORLY overdone and you can start to make your image look way too overworked. I always run the filter and then lower the opacity of that top layer to bring it back to somewhere a bit closer to how it looked previously. I’m also a big fan of the shadow/highlight adjustment (that can be found in the “image” drop down menu, under “adjustments”). Note that you have to check off the “show more options” box at the bottom of that window (if you haven’t already) to really unlock the potential of this adjustment. Again, this can be overdone quite easily and start to make your image way too flat and fake HDR-looking. These are all subtle changes. Lastly I’ll always sleep on an image, maybe even for a day or two, especially after this last step when it’s kind of hard to tell if you’ve taken things too far. I always find it’s best to step away from the project and give it fresh eyes the next day. I’ll basically keep giving the image “fresh eyes” until I open it and don’t immediately want to tweak something. My pictures just sort of tell me when they are finished.
Well everyone I hope you’ve enjoyed this post, and that you learned a thing or two or at least affirmed what you already knew.
Happy shooting and ‘shopping, and stay creative my friends! :)
You can see more of Robert’s work at RobertCorneliusPhotography.com, and follow him on Facebook, Flickr, Twitter, and Instagram.
Awesome article and great work Robert!
Thanks Mike!!!! :)
Great detailed walkthrough of your technique. Much appreciated.
Photography is not longer about taking a photo.. its about getting an image and then manipulating it… in about 5 years – we’ll all just be shooting 16k video and grabbing thousands of still images from them… no need to worry about taking a good photo… just pick the best “image” from 3 minutes of footage.
I love this! Thank you so much for sharing. Your work/artistry both amazes and inspires me. THANK YOU!