Tutorial: The Making of Viking Chieftain


This tutorial will deal with lighting problems in a portrait and how I use Topaz Adjust to add drama and impact to my photographs. I’ll also show you some photo manipulation (photo compositing) techniques, and then we’ll bring the composite into Painter to create the painting shown above. The layer mask technique I’ll show you here is similar to the one in this article, where the goal was to darken one side of the face in a straight-on portrait. In this tutorial, the technique is one you can use when a photo was taken outdoors in bright sunlight. It can also be used to help reduce the effect of a bright flash photo. I use this technique all the time to adjust the lighting. In photo manipulation, it’s beneficial when combining images taken in different lighting situations to give them consistent lighting. 

This tutorial shows how to change the lighting in a portrait, using layer masks and the Topaz Adjust filter.

This photo was taken outdoors, and the subject is too brightly lit on one side and too dark on the other side. To make matters worse, the subject is squinting. We’re going to correct all three problems in Photoshop. So let’s open it in Photoshop and make sure the layers palette visible. 

Turn the Sky Black

Let’s add a new layer, filled with solid black. (Layer > New Fill Layer > Solid Color…, and choose a dark black, click OK.) This covers the whole image with black, but we only want to cover the sky. So click on the layer mask icon in the layer palette. Photoshop creates a layer mask on a Solid Color Fill layer.

The icon is a white rectangle. White means we’re not masking anything yet. So click on the icon to activate the layer mask, pick a soft brush, make the foreground color black, and begin painting on the image. That’s right, you paint on the image itself, but what you’re doing is painting on the layer mask. It’s a bit weird at first, but watch what happens: as you paint with black, the Viking reappears. If you reveal some of the sky, change the foreground color to white, and paint with white to cover up the sky again with black. Paint over the entire Viking figure with black on the layer mask until only the sky remains black. Don’t worry too much about the loose strands of hair at this point. We’re going to paint over all of that in Corel Painter later on. Just create a rough mask so that we can concentrate on the subject. 

Darken the Light Side

Now we’re ready to turn down the bright, sunlit side of his face. We’ll use the levels adjustment for this, limiting it to the sunlit areas with a layer mask. First, insert a levels adjustment layer (Layers > Adjustment Layer > Levels…). Do not turn on clipping. This creates a layer with a levels adjustment and a layer mask, as before. Click on the layers icon in the layers palette, and adjust the sliders to darken the whole image. Concentrate on the sunlit area, and darken until that area seems to be correctly lit. This is a subtle change, so don’t overdo it. Everything else is too dark now, but we’re going to fix that next with a layer mask. And we just happen to have one we can copy down on the Blacken Sky layer. Holding down the Alt/Option key, click and drag the layer mask on the Blacken Sky layer up to the layer mask on the Levels adjustment layer. When you release the mouse button, Photoshop asks, “Replace Layer Mask?” Click on Yes. This copies the mask to the new layer for you. This causes all of the level adjustments on the face to go away. We’ll paint with white now, just on the sunlit areas, revealing the adjusted, properly-lit areas. This is what my layer mask looked like when I was done: 

The sunlit side is darkened a bit, using the Levels adjustment. The Layer Mask (left) shows where I painted with white to reveal the adjustment.

If you’re wondering how I got that screenshot of the layer mask, here’s how: hold down the Alt/Option key and click on the layer mask icon. Suddenly the image mask appears on top of your image. To make it go away, just click again on the layer. 

This has been a lesson in using layer masks, which you will find indispensable once you see how they work. They give you ultimate control over each layer’s effects. But that’s as far as we’ll go this week. I don’t want to overwhelm you with too much, and there’s a lot more to come. Let me know if this wasn’t clear or if you got lost at some point. It’s tough to write about layer masks.

So far we have toned down the bright, sunlit side of his face. Now it’s time to brighten the dark side.

We took a badly-exposed photograph of a man in Viking costume and began to adjust the lighting using layers and layer masks. Many Photoshop tutorials do this sort of thing using the Dodge and Burn tools. The problem with that method is that once you’ve dodged or burned too much, the only way to reverse it is to use Undo. But with layer masks, you’re painting with white and black, or values of grey. Fixing a mask is a simple matter of switching from white to black (or black to white, depending) and painting over the offending pixels. You can do this now or a year from now: the method is “nondestructive,” meaning that the changes are made on layers. The original pixels are left untouched. With the Dodge and Burn method, Undo is only available for a short while. After you’ve saved, you’re stuck and can’t quickly go back. Layers also allow you to adjust the opacity so that you can fine-tune your changes. And the layer method doesn’t alter the color of the image the way the Dodge and Burn tools do.

Previously we blackened the background with a layer filled with black and removed it from our Viking using a layer mask. Next, we added a Levels adjustment layer and darkened the whole image until the over-exposed sunlit side was lit correctly. We then used a layer mask to “paint” this adjustment just where we needed it. That’s where we left off, as shown above in the top image. Today we’ll add two more layers to complete the correction before moving on to Topaz Adjust and Painter. The first layer we’ll look at is a 50% neutral gray layer in Overlay mode. Let me try to explain how it works.

The Overlay layer blending mode is sort of like having both the Multiply and Screen mode combined into one. With Multiply, only values darker than 50% grey will add darkness to the underlying image. White and light grey have no effect at all. With Screen, it’s just the opposite: only light values have an impact. We’re going to use Overlay to do both at once. We’ll add a layer filled with 50% neutral gray, with the blend mode set to Overlay. Nothing seems to happen. But as soon as we paint darker areas, the image is darkened. If we paint with light values, we lighten the images. Today we’re going to paint with white to lighten the dark side of the Viking’s face.

First, click on the top layer (our levels adjustment layer) to make it active. Hold down the Alt (PC)/Opt (Mac) key and click on the New Layer icon at the bottom of the layers palette. Holding down the Alt/Opt key causes Photoshop to display a dialog box (see below). This gives us the chance to change the new layer’s blending mode. Change it to Overlay, and a new option appears at the bottom of the dialog. Check the box, and now it will be the new layer with 50% neutral gray. Click OK. Nothing seems to have happened, but just wait!

Now we’re ready to lighten the dark side of his face. Make sure the new layer is active. With a soft-edged white brush, at full opacity and flow, start painting on the dark shadows. The image lightens up nicely wherever you paint. If the effect is too much, paint it over with a light grey. Paint everywhere that needs lightning, including his clothing. Once you’re done, you’ll have a properly exposed image. The dark side is still in shadow, but now you can make out details, especially his eye. Here’s what my Overlay layer looks like at this point.

The layer mask of the topmost layer, showing how color is limited to areas of the Viking’s face and clothes.

 As a finishing step, let’s adjust the color of his skin tone. We’ll add back in some of the reddish-brown that was washed out by the overexposure on the sunlit side and blackened out on the dark side. Go Layer > New Fill Layer > Solid Color, and in the color picker, enter 623310. Change the layer blend mode to Soft Light.

The layer mask of the topmost layer, showing how color is limited to areas of the Viking’s face and clothes.

Click on the layer mask icon in the layers palette, and paint on the image with black all over the figure, except where you want the color to show. Vary this with shades of gray. See the final before/after image below.