How to Give Your Macro Photography a Fine Art Touch in Post-Processing

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Editor’s Note: This is part a series on macro photography this week. Look for a new one each day. The next newsletter will have them all if you miss any!

Macro photography is very popular and you will find lots of images, of all sorts of subjects on the internet. People spend a lot of time taking the photos, planning them, setting them up, and getting all the gear they need to get all the shots they want. Then the photos are loaded onto the computer and minimal processing is done to them.

With this tutorial we are going to look at how you can get your macro images from this:

1-fitzroy-gardens-succulent-marco-original

To this:

2-fitzroy-gardens-succulent-marco-fineart

There are many things you can do to your images; what I’m going to show you is only one way. You can try anything really as it’s up to you, it’s your image.

This image was first opened in Adobe Camera Raw and some processing was done to it, just to get the exposure right. From there the macro was opened in Photoshop CC (2014). To explain what some of the instructions are for Photoshop I am including an image below that has the various areas of the interface pointed out, especially the sections that we will be using for this tutorial.

Here is the screenshot of Photoshop with all the various places to find the tools, options, layers and adjustments that were used.

photoshop-setup-2

Step #1 – Curves

At this stage we are going to do several adjustment layers using Curves to change the lighting and bring the centre of the flower out more.

Work in adjustment layers so if you decide further down the track that you should have changed something you did earlier, then you still can go back and fix it, change it or delete the layer. The best way to do this is to use adjustment layers. The adjustment layers are often found above the layers panel on the right of your screen or in the layers menu at the top of the Photoshop window (if you don’t see them go to Window > Adjustments and place it above your layers panel). You will also need the brush tool for this, which is in the tool panel, usually found on the left of the window.

3-adjustment-layer-brush-tool

Once you know where each one of those are, you can start doing your layers for the image.

Click on the adjustment curves layer, as in the photo above. Then in the window that pops up, move the curve down to the dark area just a little, like the image above (just click on the straight line and hold the mouse button down while you drag to move it).

Grab your brush tool from the tool panel. Make it the size that you will need for your image. You can change the size by using the square bracket keys on your keyboard – [ or ] , or right click and in the pop-up window moving the slider for the size. The same changes can be made in the options bar for the tool at the top. Click on the second option from the left, the one that has the size of the brush, and you will get the same panel to change the size and hardness of the brush. For this tutorial a brush towards the soft end was chosen so the edges wouldn’t be too hard (Hardness set to 30% or lower).

You will need to click on the layer mask within the layer, it is the white rectangle in the curve layer. When the mask is white it means the adjustment is being applied to the image below, and when it is black it the change has been hidden. If you paint black onto the mask with the brush you are hiding the adjustment. Black on a mask conceals – white reveals. If you make a mistake and hide a bit you want, you can just paint it back in with the opposite color, white.

Start brushing the image, if nothing changes, then the foreground color (which the brush uses) is likely set to white. You will need to change that colour to black. You can also press X on your keyboard too, it will swap the foreground and background colours around.

For each different curves layer I took less and less of the adjustment from the image. The following image will show you what I did to each layer. The white areas are where the curves layer still applies, and the black shows where it was hidden.

4-macro-curves-layer

This image was done with curves layers. You don’t have to use the same number of layers, it is up to the image. Some of the background leaves were brought back in the last couple of layers as they were getting too dark. It is something you should be aware of, take notice of what is happening in the background as well.

The centre of the flower is now the same as the original but everything else is darker. The changes should be subtle.

Step #2 – Gradient Map Adjustment Layer

Once the curves were done a gradient adjustment layer was added. The gradient adjustment will change the highlights and shadows; you can decide what colours you want to use.

When you click on the gradient adjustment layer often the black and white gradient comes up and you will notice your image turns to monochrome. If you click on that bar in the window that comes up, you will get a lot more options for the gradient. For this tutorial I used the orange and purple gradient.

5-gradient-adjustment-layer-01

You will see all your highlights turn orange and the dark areas will go purple. You don’t want your image to remain like this, so now you need to blend it. In the image above you can see the blending modes that are above the layers, normal is the default. Click on that and go down to select Soft Light. You will notice the gradient layer is now blended and doesn’t look so horrible.

5-gradient-adjustment-layer-02

Just because that gradient has those colours, doesn’t mean you have to stick with them. They are easy to change them to give your highlights and shadows the tones you want.

In the bottom part of the gradient editor you can see the colour slider which is how the change goes from one colour to another, and directly underneath you can see little colours. If you click on one of those, the colour comes up at the bottom.

6-gradient-adjustment-layer-2b

Click on that, you will see the Colour Picker window open up. You can change the colour to whatever you want, and as you do so you should be able to see the effect on your image straight away. If you can’t, then it is likely because you forgot to blend the layer. See the following image.

6-gradient-adjustment-layer-2c

You can see from the images what I changed the colours to; you don’t have to use the same ones. I would recommend trying a few colours to see which ones you like. Purple is my favourite colour, so I use it a lot.

The next step is not always necessary, but often nice to do. All the work that has been done can mean losing the highlights, so to help bring them back you can use a Curves Adjustment Layer.

Step #3 – Adjusting the Highlights

Open a new Curves Adjustment Layer. In the Curves window go to the top right corner and move the line across the top. Watch as you do it and notice if you can see the highlights changing. Sometimes it is good to go too far and then bring it back, just to see what it does. Just be careful not to blow the the highlights out, making them solid white with no detail. Check out the image before to see what to change.

7-curves-highlights

Step #4 – Adding Another Gradient Map Adjustment

Next another gradient map adjustment layer was added, time time using a different one.

From the above image you should be able to see what colours I choose and follow along the same steps as previously. This time I chose a gradient that changed three areas.

8-gradient-adjustment-layer-3

Step #5 – Dodging the Highlights

One thing that I like to do on many of my images is to bring out the highlights, in small ways, with the dodging tool. The dodging tool is a touchy one, to be used carefully.

It is always best never to do anything straight onto your original image layer, so like with everything we have done so far it’s going to be on a separate layer. Go to the top menu and click layer, then new layer. When the window appears you can name the layer, if you want to, I called it “Dodging”.

Dodging

There are a couple of things you need to do so you can use this layer with the Dodge tool. First change the layer blend mode to Soft Light, then under the mode drop down menu you will see a box you can check to “Fill with Soft-Light Neutral Colour 50% Grey”, so check that, then press okay (see above)

Over in the layers panel you will see what looks like a grey box, this is what you will do the dodging on. Go over to the tool bar on the left and select the dodge tool.

At the top under the main window you will see Exposure, I have set mine at 26% for this image, but you can set it to anything, it depends on how patient you are. In the options bar there is also a setting for the highlights, midtones and shadows, I tend to use midtones. The more you move over an area the more it will go white. In the days of the darkroom they would using dodging to stop the light from getting to certain parts of the area. In Photoshop you can use it to put a little of the highlights back into the image, or to make the highlight pop. It should not be obvious, again subtle is the way to go.

I have changed the layer back to normal mode so you can see what I worked on. Dodging shows up as white on the layer.

10-dodge-layer-2

You can see that I haven’t done a lot, except bring up some of the highlights a little more.11-dodge-layer-3

Step #6 – Smudging

Finally I did a little smudging. Sometimes when you do a lot of work to images it can start to look pixelated, or you get some colour separation. I’ve found that the smudge tool can help get rid of that. You will find it in the tools panel.

I did this on a new transparent layer, again not working on the original image.

12-smudge-layer

Make sure you check the Sample all Layers in the options bar for the tool at the top, and for this tutorial I left the Strength at 50%. I went over the areas where I thought I had some colour separation to smudge them together. If it were a painting I would get my finger into it and smudge the colours together.

Here is the final image.

2-fitzroy-gardens-succulent-marco-fineart

It is all about personal taste, so you should do it to your own style. I like it like this, but other people might find it too much, and others may think it isn’t enough. I like the way the flower seems to be coming out of the darkness.

If you have any questions, please ask. I will do my best to answer them.


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Leanne Cole is a fine art photographer based in Melbourne, Australia. She loves Melbourne and photographing it, along with other parts of the state. She likes doing architectural and environmental photography. You can find her on her website or on Instagram.

  • Loved the article and found it very useful. Thanks Leanne 🙂

  • Leanne Cole

    That is fantastic Karen, thank you. 🙂

  • Cynthia Voss

    Great tutorial. I love how the colors are exaggerated. Overall the image is darker, but the colors still stand out nicely.

  • Leanne Cole

    Thank you Cynthia, I like that too, I love the way the dark background makes the colour of the flower stand out.

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  • lee

    Great post Leanne, love the depth you got with this flower but had no idea of the amount of processing involved, it really does make a difference.

  • Christine Danger

    Great reference Leanne. Very useful tutorial????.

  • Leanne Cole

    Thank you Lee, yes, a bit of work, but so worth it, I love how it brings the flower out as well.

  • Leanne Cole

    Thanks Chris, that’s great to know.

  • Thanks for posting your findings guys, it’s always good to get this information out there, bad or good.

  • I don’t personally spend that much time with the different brushes, but I do play a lot in the different highlights and shadows as well as in the contrasts. For example, this shot https://farm9.staticflickr.com/8689/17688743562_0ee9461758_c.jpg was on a quite busy background with some leaves and everything but, by deepening the shadows and boosting the highlights, the background became black 🙂

  • Royi

    Hi,
    What about sharpening?
    I’m using Topaz Detail and Wow! Tonal Equalizer.

    What do you use?

  • Leanne Cole

    You’re welcome.

  • Leanne Cole

    That is lovely, though I wasn’t trying to make the background black, it all about building layers of light and dark so there is still something in the background. So we can all do things that suit us. Good luck with what you are doing.

  • Leanne Cole

    I don’t tend to use any sharpening, I will in Adobe Camera Raw, but I think it is too easy to over sharpen, so I often just stay away from it.

  • Hans Heisenberg

    Processed in Lightroom.

  • Hans Heisenberg
  • Leanne Cole

    No, it was processed in Photoshop CC

  • Hans Heisenberg

    It was processed in Lightroom…

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  • Very creative and professional tutorial. Thanks for sharing.

  • Leanne Cole

    You’re welcome, glad you found it helpful, thank you.

  • nice tutorial, thank you 🙂

  • Leanne Cole

    You’re very welcome. 🙂

  • abid007

    many thanks for such kind of post.helped me very much,,,,i have posted some pics here

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  • Leanne Cole

    You can do some of it in Lightroom, but unfortunately you can’t get the whole look. Thanks

  • Hans Heisenberg

    I was talking about my link… 🙂

  • Leanne Cole

    Yes, I got that, but you image doesn’t have the same look as mine. That is what I’m saying.

  • Branson Quenzer

    Very nice article and one that can be followed. I will definitely pull it up and work it side by side one of my images to learn some of you presented techniques.

  • Hans Heisenberg

    You lost me…how did you get to compare the photos? I never stated anything about your photo… LOL

  • Leanne Cole

    Thank you Branson, that’s good to know that it is easy to follow. I hope you enjoy doing the effects to your images.

  • Joel

    I prefer taking good photos to rebuilding them digitally. I guess everyone has their own likes and dislikes, but this process seems way too much to me.

  • Mike Faulkner

    Hi Joel, good luck with that. Getting it right in camera is all well and good but no existing digital camera is capable of getting the very best out of an image. Dynamic range is compressed, contrast and dimensionality are flat, sharpness is not optimal and artistic expression is not built in.

    The example image was not “rebuilt”, it was processed to compensate for the camera’s failings i.e. converted from a record image to an artistic representation. While the flower may not be artistic to some viewers ideas, it was used to demonstrate a technique that may be used on other images.

    If the process “seems way too much” it would seem to me that you are too willing to accept your images as straight-out-of-the-camera records. Nothing wrong with that if that is what floats your boat but good images come from the camera, great images come from intelligent processing. Cheers mate.

  • Mike Faulkner

    Hi Leanne
    I have processed your image using my methods as an exercise. I used Guy Gowan’s Process Action v7.2 to adjust levels, dynamic range, highlight, midtone and shadows, color purity and boost, highlight sharpness and shadow sharpness. For the background I used a curves adjustment through an inverted red channel luminance mask. No gradients or brushes were used, time taken about 3 minutes.

    I think that the result is fairly close to yours although mine might be a little too sharp for some, easily fixed with a little blur or even a “glow” effect. My effort does show some artifacts due to the low file size of a copy from this article that would not be evident in an original RAW file or large JPG.

    I realise that you are demonstrating a technique which I enjoyed learning, I just wanted to compare methods and I had fun doing it, thank you.

  • Leanne Cole

    There are always lots of different ways of doing the same thing, which is great about all of this. Yours is very sharp, but hey it’s your image and you can do what you want, I still prefer mine, but that’s okay too.

  • Leanne Cole

    I really get what you mean by rebuilding them Joel, my image was a good image from the camera and then I enhanced it, played with it. I like doing that. It may seem to much to you, but then you don’t have to do it, simply. Everyone does have their own likes and dislikes and I know I like this and so do lots of others, but I also know when I do photos like this, there are others that don’t like them as when. We live in a subjective world, great isn’t it?

  • Leanne Cole

    Thank you Mike, I appreciate what you’ve said.

  • Brian

    hi Leanne, enjoyed the tutorial but would love the same process explained in Lightroom. thanks again. B. Mc. Perth.

  • Joel

    Leanne, I like your image Please don’t be so defensive, there’s no need.
    Mike, I realize that post processing is a necessary evil on 99% of photos. I just like to make taking the photos my main effort, so I don’t have to spend eternity moving sliders in Lightroom. If that’s what you prefer, keep taking ho-hum photos so you can spend more time at your computer. I just prefer the other way.
    :

  • Leanne Cole

    I didn’t mean to sound defensive Joel, I understand that everyone has different tastes and like different things. It isn’t a problem.

  • William Krul

    An alternative to post processing without the complexities of Photoshop and layers, layer masks, etc is to use the much simpler Topaz adjust plugin. I did this image in about 5 minutes. I did use PS highlights, exposure, brightness, and levels & dry brush filter to tweak the Topaz effort.

  • Leanne Cole

    There are always other ways, though you have lots of colour separation there, and the layer of effects of the curves. I love working on photos, it is like doing a painting, it is nice to work on it step by step and slowly build it up, that is what I’m into, and that is what I teach.

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