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Contrast Gone Wild

You may have seen it from other photographers and wondered “just how did they do that?” Although their are plug-in filters and no doubt other ways to do it, here is a nice easy free way to do it with only Photoshop and starting with any file, even it if it is a boring, slightly underexposed JPEG.

Contrast Gone Wild

Contrast Gone Wild

First lets start with the file. Although the technique will “work” with just about any photo, not every picture looks good with this much contrast. I find it goes over well with younger people but an older couple would probably dislike this effect. So I am going to show how it’s done starting with a younger couple that are sitting relaxed on a bench. Very un-posed, relaxed and barely even paying attention to the camera at this point. Also the image is a touch underexposed looking and the dark evergreens behind them blend into the whole image just a bit too much. Far from what I would consider interesting. And even if we convert it straight to a B&W, it is still going to have the distracting lack of contrast between them, the bench and the background.

Starting Image

Starting Image


With the image selected, go ahead and duplicate the background layer so we have something to compare to later. Plus when we are done we can also make a color version using the background image as well. (I also suggest doing any retouching to the image and save it prior to starting this effect.) With the background copy layer selected, go to the Image > Adjustments > Shadow/Highlight filter. Here is where the magic starts and depending on your file, your settings will vary. Plus you can get different effects from it depending on how you have the levels set.

I want to really bring out as much detail in the darker areas and boost the contrast in the midtones significantly. So I pulled the shadows up and I kept the highlights low since those are already pretty much where I want them. I expanded the extra options and boosted the midtone contrast slider as well. Experiment with the sliders until you get something that looks WAY over cooked and it should be just about right.

Go ahead and apply that. This will give us a very strange looking color image. The next steps are optional, but I sent the file through a noise reduction filter (your choice) and also through Portraiture to quickly clean up any oddities and smooth out the skin tones. Next I will run an action that I have set up to quickly give me a bit of extra contrast and sharpness but since I have not explained that action on the blog yet, here it is…

I call it my “High Pass Sharpening” and I have three different actions set up that do the same thing at various levels. To do it, duplicate the layer you are working on. In this case, duplicate the background copy layer we just applied the Shadow/Highlight filter to. Now go to Filter > Other > High Pass and slide it somewhere between 3px and 10px depending on the image and resolution. (I used 7px for this example starting with a 12MP file.) Then apply the filter and when that finishes, change the blending mode of that layer from Normal to Soft Light. (Overlay or Hard Light also work but have a stronger effect.) Yes, it causes some halos. In fact, that is just what I wanted. If you like, you can set actions to do the above steps for you. I recommend at 3px, 7px and 14px.

Modified S-Curve

Modified S-Curve

Now all I am going to do is run my Contrasty Warm B&W Duotone Action to give it a warm B&W look. I prefer this over a neutral black and white because that just seems too cool and gray in my opinion. (This has to be my most used action by far. I highly suggest it.) Except when I run the action, before I flatten the layers I went ahead and edited the Curve Adjustment Layer to have slightly less boost to the highlights and a little more boost to the shadows. Of course you can edit this as necessary for your image.

The final step for me is to run Unsharp Mask with fairly high settings to take the edgy, over the top contrast and sharpness to the maximum. (Who needs Volume 10, Turn the dial to 11 for this!)

Remember how I said to duplicate the background layer in the first step? If you followed along and left that layer untouched, we can do a cool color effect like this using what we just created in B&W. Just hide the background layer (unedited version), then select one of the visible layers and user the Merge Visible command to flatten those layers. Then turn the background layer back on. Lastly we can switch the blending mode on the top layer (which should look like our first example at the top). Using “Overlay” gives us an effect similar to the one below and “Soft Light” gives us a slightly smoother looking but still very contrasty version.

Contrast Gone Wild with Color

Contrast Gone Wild with Color

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EDIT: Now with a HD VIDEO Tutorial! Don’t forget to click the HD button and go Full Screen for the best quality.

  1. October 24, 2009 at 5:09 am

    How about the color conversion you applied to the picture at the top of the post?
    How did you get it?

  1. November 11, 2009 at 12:34 pm

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