Pictures featuring very high levels of contrast and detail have become more and more popular during the last few years. You can find these pictures everywhere from big advertising campaigns to online communities and platforms. But why is this style so popular, and what techniques are used to create those hyperrealistic images? LOVE IT The most important thing of all is to really love this image style. You have to be bold enough to push or even break through the usual boundaries. You have to be aware that you re producing images that don t exist in everyday life. And that s what you have to represent to the rest of the world, as many people don t like this style because of its artificial look. You really have to identify with it. Once you come to terms with this, there s nothing left to hold you back. CAMERA SETTINGS The idea behind your picture, of course, is always quite important, but you ll find that the essential element for this particular style is sharpness throughout the whole picture. That s the reason I always suggest an aperture setting of f/11 or higher on your camera in order to make sure every detail is going to be sharp in the picture. On my camera, i shoot in RAW, but I ve created an image style that s set to maximum sharpness. When you shoot in RAW, your camera screen shows the JPEG version of the image, which contains the applied image style. By using these camera settings, I can achieve maximum sharpness for my preview image on the camera screen, which makes it easier to see whether I nailed the focus or not. But don t worry; if you shoot in RAW format you can adjust everything later in Camera Raw or Lightroom in case you need to. LIGHTING What? It s all Photoshop, right? So what s the point? No way! Everything starts with the lighting of your subject. The lighting should support and bring out contrast and details. One stylistic device is the use of hard sidelights, which add a lot of depth to the subject. When shooting outdoors, I always underexpose the brightest part of the background (which is usually the sky) by one stop. After that, I start adding flashes to light my subject the way I want. I usually start by setting up the main light and then adding strip banks for more depth. As a main light, I personally use soft light sources in order to preserve more details in the shadow areas. In most cases, that s a softbox or, if the light isn t supposed to be that soft, a beauty dish. There are also many photographers who like to use ring lights. DOUBLE RAW CONVERSION If you shoot in RAW, you definitely have more potential to achieve the greatest dynamic range possible for your images in postproduction. For extreme contrast and as much structure as possible, I use a double RAW conversion step one: Start by opening a RAW file and developing it in your normal way —no special effects, no magic. What s very important, though, is that you open the image as a smart object in Photoshop. To do that, just press - and - hold the Shift key and you ll see that the Open Image button becomes Open Object. step two: Once you ve opened the image as a smart object, Right - click on the layer and select New Smart Object Via Copy. This makes sure that this new second layer is completely independent of the original layer, allowing you to develop it again using different settings in Camera Raw without changing your first RAW conversion. step three: Double - clicking on the layer thumbnail in the Layers panel will take you back into Camera Raw where you can focus on brightening the shadows, darkening the image in general, and dragging the Clarity slider close to its maximum of 100. As you can see, we also desaturated the image (-100 Saturation) since we re going to change the blend mode afterwards and don t need the color information anyway. When done, just click OK, which takes you back into Photoshop. step four: At first, there s not a real wow factor, but here it comes. Just set the blend mode of that second layer to Luminosity in the Layers panel, and boom, there s your incredibly contrasty and detailed image. This blend mode keeps the contrast information of your layer but hides all the color information. I d recommend using a mask to just paint in the effect in the areas you want it to appear and to protect skin tones or other parts of the image. HDR TONING There s another way to introduce a higher level of detail to your picture. I m talking about the HDR Toning filter. This filter is used to mimic HDR images from a single photo, and it does a great job creating detail, contrast, and other effects in images. Here s how to do it: step one: Duplicate your current layer by pressing Command - J (PC: Ctrl - J), and go to lmage>Adjustments> HDR Toning. Photoshop wants to flatten the image, which is okay here. step two: In the preview, you ll see a completely exaggerated, almost cheesy look. In 90% of all cases, I like to reduce the Exposure and Highlights a little. Additionally, I increase Detail and Gamma. Don t get worried if the result is way beyond good and evil. step three: When you re finished, just click OK and save your result to the clipboard. You can do that by clicking on Select>All, and then Edit>Copy. step four: And here s the trick: Choose Edit>Step Backward repeatedly until you have your two layers back and then choose Edit>Paste. Now you ve put that HDR Toning effect on its own layer, which allows you to reduce the Opacity. I apply no more than 25% of the effect in most cases. I also recommend using a mask if necessary; for example, to protect the skin tones. FREAKY AMAZING DETAILS There s a certain sequence of filters in Photoshop that might seem quite confusing but do real detail magic. This technique is based on blur. More details by using blur filters? Is that freaky or what? step one: The technique begins with duplicating your layer two times by pressing Command - J (PC: Ctrl - J) twice. Now these two copies have to go into a group. Press - and - hold the Shift key on your keyboard, and click on both layers to select them in the Layers panel. Then, choose Layer>New>Group from Layers and click OK. Now set the blend mode of the group to Overlay. step two: Click on the top layer in the group and press Command - 1 (PC: Ctrl - 1) to invert it. Also, you have to change its blend mode to Vivid Light. You can see the order of the layers at top right. step three: Now the fun part begins. We re going to run a blur filter but the opposite is going to happen. We re going to sharpen the top layer with Filter>Blur>Surface Blur. Freaky! If you want, you can also convert the layer into a smart object first (Layer>Smart Objects>Convert to Smart Object). If you do that, you ll be able to change the filter s settings afterwards without any loss of quality. step four: I recommend keeping the Threshold setting rather low (under 25) and setting a higher Radius of about 50. This is where your personal taste and the image itself play a big role, as well. Just try out some different settings and compare the results to see what fits best for your image. You should really apply this technique carefully and try it for many different pictures to see how it works and what it does. By the way, you can also create an action for this technique. One - click freaky amazing details! SHARPENING AN IMAGE There are so many different and cool ways to sharpen an image that I almost don t dare suggest the Unsharp Mask filter to you; however. I ve been using it for many years now and I m very satisfied with the results. I d like to introduce to you three different workflows that I use to sharpen my images. Workflow 1: local Contrast Enhancement —This technique focuses on enhancing contrast rather than actually sharpening the image. If you go to the Unsharp Mask dialog (Filter>Sharpen>Unsharp Mask) and keep the Amount quite low but drag the Radius slider far to the right, you ll get a very contrasty image. In many cases, I choose an Amount of around 40% and a Radius setting of roughly 140 pixels. Again, I recommend applying these changes selectively by painting them in on a mask or reducing the Opacity of the layer. You should also keep an eye on the edges of the person. They re very likely to show light or dark halos. Work flow 2: better image qualitv —Image quality is very often measured by the sharpness of the image. I think all of us know that image quality not only means sharpness but also other aspects such as composition, lighting, idea, conception, and much more. What I d like to describe now, though, is a workflow that I use for general sharpening of my images. Normally, I apply a little bit of sharpening in the Camera Raw dialog. I m not a fan of dictating the exact settings to use as this really depends on the picture; however, the combination of a 0.6 Radius and an Amount of 50 to 70 turned out to be right for me. You can find these settings in the Detail tab of Camera Raw. These are not the final sharpening settings I use for my images but rather a basic sharpening to start with in Camera Raw. There are also situations in which I d like to show my images on the Internet. There are enough platforms to do so, right? It doesn t matter whether we re talking about your own website or a community, the image has to be reduced in size, and that s a necessity to sharpen it again for me, as there s quite a loss in sharpness that goes with reducing image size. My recommendation for that is the good old Unsharp Mask filter with a low Radius of about 0.2 and a high Amount of at least 130%. In most cases, I reduce the longer end of my images to 1,200 pixels. Work flow3: selective sharpening —I recommend to always apply sharpening selectively to an image. Not every part of the picture should get the same amount of sharpening. (Sharpening for the Web is an exception here.) You should sharpen hair in a different way than contrasty clothing, eyes in a different way than landscapes, and so on. Begin by making a selection of the part of the image you want to sharpen. Then apply a feather (soft edge) to that selection (Shift - F6), depending on the size of the image. After that, copy the selected area onto a new layer by Right - clicking the selection and choosing Layer Via Copy. I mostly use a high Radius and small Amount (local contrast enhancement) for sharpening clothes, objects, and locations, whereas I use a smaller Radius and higher Amount to sharpen eyes, hands, or hair more accurately. This image shows you that I copied two different areas of the image onto new layers and then sharpened them with different settings. Remember, if you want to be able to readjust your filter settings, convert the layer into a smart object first. CHEATING WITH PHOTOSHOP (WORKING WITH PLUG-INS) There are many people out there who believe that working with plug-ins is cheating. But isn t it irrelevant how you get to your results? I d like to recommend one plug-in that I use. Topaz Detail ( This plug-in is quite a bargain and the results are really good if you do it right. I really like using Topaz Detail because it enables me to gain very fine microcontrasts. It s very easy to use and promises great results in seconds. It comes in handy every time I want to get even more details out of my images. After merging my layers onto a single new layer (Shift - Option - Command - E [PC: Shift - Alt - Ctrl - E]) so all of my original layers will stay intact and unchanged, I open the plug-in. There are many presets to choose from and many settings to experiment with. I ve experimented quite a lot and ended up using the settings shown here. As you can see, I use more of the small detail enhancements: the bigger the details in the image, the smaller the changes that I want the plug-in to apply. Additionally, I tend to exaggerate the plug-in settings and then reduce the Opacity of the layer after I apply the effect. Many people try to find the perfect settings in the plug-in, which I find very difficult. At left is a before - and - after comparison that shows quite impressively what this additional filter is able to achieve. Here I applied the plug-in with a 100% Opacity, though. Plug-ins should be used with great caution. It s very easy to exaggerate and therefore strongly decrease image quality. I often use them at the end of my retouching process when I want to fine-tune my image. COMPOSITING You can also get images that look exaggerated or artificial by creating a photo composite. Let s say you take separate pictures of the sky, a person, and a landscape that are all well exposed and sport a good amount of detail, and then combine them into one single image. The composite will contain so much contrast and detail that it would be impossible to take such a picture in a single frame. And that s exactly the impression or the look that you can often find in advertising. There s no secret Photoshop trickery behind that; this is just conventional masking and a very good sense of color, contrast, and light.

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