I originally posted this image to images.jameshowephotography.com (my photo gallery blog) a few days ago, and at the time, I thought that it would make for a good 'before/after' tutorial for this blog.
I took this shot in an alleyway in Ann Arbor, Michigan. The alley runs between Liberty and Washington streets and is situated between some old buildings and a newer building/parking structure (seen here in Google Maps). The alley originally had a mural painted on it, but some time ago at least part of the mural was painted over with white paint, and new graffiti sprouted. A search on Flickr for 'ann arbor graffiti alley' yields a large collection of images of this area. There are actually two alleys, one is sort of a branch off of the other. The shot above was taken of the 'branch' alley. This alley was meant to service the buildings, whereas the main alley functions more as a path from the parking garage on Washington Street to the Liberty Street area of Ann Arbor.
The picture above shows what I started with. The colors were rather plain and flat. Since this was a RAW image, it isn't surprising that it would need some work to make the image look more like what I saw when I took it, so my original goal with this image was to simply bring out the color a bit more. However, as I worked on the image, I decided I wanted a slightly more intense and grungy look that was more in keeping with the subject matter. As you'll see below, it didn't take a great deal of work to get to the finished image, and I didn't really do anything drastic, but I think the end result produces an image which has a lot more visual impact.
Note: In the images below, if you move the mouse over the image, you will see the 'before' version of that development stage.
The first thing I did was to import my image into Adobe Lightroom. Inside of Lightroom I played around with various adjustments to convert the RAW image into something more in line with what I envisioned. I actually created a couple different versions using the Virtual Copy capability. The other version had more of a brighter HDR look to it, but it wasn't quite what I was going for. What you see above are the operations I did on the original RAW image to initially develop it. If you compare the altered image to the RAW image, you should notice that it is darker, has more contrast and has a bit of a vignette to it.
At this point I liked the result, but I still wanted a bit more 'pop' so I decided to take the image into Photoshop for some additional work. I probably could have done almost everything in Lightroom, but I'm more comfortable with using Photoshop at this point for certain changes.
The first adjustment was to add a Curves layer to give the image a bit more contrast. As you can see from the curve, I shifted the white point to the left and added a bit of an 'S' shape to the curve to increase contrast.
The next adjustment was to simulate the 'clarity' capability of Lightroom or Adobe Camera Raw. For this layer, I converted the layer to a Smart Object so I could make edits later if I wanted, and the applied an Unsharp Mask filter with a small amount percentage and a very large radius. Clarity simply adds a bit more local contrast.
Looking at the image, I noticed that there was a bit of distortion created by the angle at which I took the shot. I didn't like the fact that the window on the right wasn't parallel to the edge of the frame, so I used the Free Transform/Skew tool to straighten things out a little bit.
The image was almost done, but I felt that the bottom left and upper right corners were too bright and distracted from the main subject area. I decided to use the Burn tool to darken these areas. To accomplish this, I first created a new layer which contained all the information from the layers below. The Burn tool is destructive and I wanted to be able to have some flexibility to simply remove this layer if I didn't like it. Normally I would use a curves adjustment layer, which is non-destructive, and then paint on a mask to control the area and amount of the change, but for some reason I decided to go with the Dodge/Burn tool. I used a relatively large brush at a lower opacity and simply painted the areas with the burn tool to darken the two corners. I finished up with another unsharp mask layer using a low radius and moderate amount to get the finished image.
The steps I took to go from start to finish may not be the most optimal. I tend to start with the image, work with it a bit in Lightroom to get something I like and then finish in Photoshop. For this image, most of what I wanted to do could probably have been accomplished in Lightroom alone using some of the newer tools like the adjustment brush and gradient filter. In Photoshop, I simply experiment with curves and other adjustment layers until I get the look I like. As Bert Monroy is fond of saying, you just need to "play". That's the nice thing about the digital darkroom, you can play with your image, and as long as you don't overwrite your source 'negative' file, you can develop and redevelop your image many times to suit your mood. Ansel Adams once referred to the negative as the score to a piece of music and the finished print as the 'performance'. I think the same holds true in the digital world.
All processing done with Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop CS4.
Comments and feedback welcome.
Image and text Copyright © 2009 James W. Howe - All rights reserved.