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The Sabattier Effect

I have a rule when it comes to Photoshop, Lightroom, and post-processing in general. I have always felt that image manipulation should be a tool, not a crutch. Photoshop can make a good photo better, but a bad photo is just a bad photo. I strive to get it right in the camera. When people look at my work I want them to say, “That’s a great photo.” I don’t want them saying, “Hey, you’re really good with Photoshop.” As my friend Zack Arias is fond of saying, “If you ever hear yourself saying ‘I’ll fix it later in Photoshop,’ you need to immediately stop whatever you’re doing and slap yourself as hard as you can.” I’m not saying that I don’t edit– or “finish” as I like to say. I don’t judge photographers who like to dive deeper into their editing, but for me it’s usually a matter of a contrast bump, a white balance tweak,  a little bit of skin smoothing, maybe a little sharpening. Hopefully, that’s it. Get it right in the camera. That’s the rule.

Except for when it’s not.

Every once in a while you need to break out of the day-to-day and try something different. That’s not to say that my portrait style is going to be changing any time soon, but photography is art and sometimes you need to evolve as an artist. This was my thinking when I recently came across something called the Sabattier Effect.

What Is it?

It gets a little technical, but let’s see if we can get into it without getting lost in the science. If you’ve spent any time exploring your way through the Photoshop filters menu, you may already be familiar with the solarization filter. When a partially developed negative or print is briefly exposed to white light, some of the tone values are reversed. Dark areas appear light and light areas appear dark. French scientist and doctor Armand Sabattier (1834-1910) described the process as “pseudo-solarization.” Over time, the “pseudo” has been dropped, but the effect is the same– the reversal of image tones due to extreme overexposure. Run an image through the solarization filter and you’ll see what I mean. In the days of film, the effect manifested itself one of two ways. The first would be an extreme overexposure of the negative in the camera. In the darkroom, it could have been something as simple as turning the lights on and off while processing the negatives.

The Sabattier Effect takes solarization a bit further. In addition to the overall tone reversal, the Sabattier Effect includes a narrow band or rim of low density, which is formed at the edges between adjacent highlight and shadow areas. This white band, or Mackie Line, appears around areas of high contrast. It was a popular darkroom technique for a while, but became increasingly less popular due to the combination of long hours in the darkroom and unpredictable results.

Creating the Effect in Photoshop

The first thing to keep in mind is that the effect can be drastic, so not every image is going to be a prime or even suitable candidate. The best images for the effect will be black and white photos with simple outlines and bold shapes. Color images can work also, particularly when the coloring is only slight. The results will show partially reversed hues and tones.

After you have selected an image and opened it in Photoshop, convert it to black and white. Next, duplicate the background layer (Ctrl/Command-J) and set the blending mode to Exclusion. The initial results will be obvious and immediate. You can then adjust the effect with either the Levels or Curves adjustments. Levels allows you to tweak the black, white, and mid-points in the image. Playing with the sliders will either lighten or darken the effect. Curves allows you to adjust the same values as Levels, but also gives you control over the contrast and specific tones of the image. While both Levels and Curves can achieve the intended results, I prefer the precision of Curves, which allows me to select individual points along the curve and adjust targeted areas of the image.

Creating a valley-shaped curve like the one on the left or a sharp angle curve like the one on the left create some of the best examples of the Sebattier Effect.

Creating a valley-shaped curve like the one on the left or a sharp angle curve like the one on the right create some of the best examples of the Sabattier Effect.

In this first example, a mostly black & white photo of a musician forms the basis for the effect. We clearly see the white Mackie Line around the subject and the saxophone, marking the edges between highlights and darker areas of the image.


This second image, taken in the lobby of the New York Museum of Natural History, would not ordinarily make for a good example of this effect, due to some of the more intricate details.  I think it works, however, due to the simple, leading lines, as well as the fairly even tones. With the exception of opening up the dark shadows, the lower half of the image is tonally similar in both the before and after.


So far, both examples have been fairly “traditional” attempts at the Sabattier Effect. I’ve used mostly black & white images with simple lines. For this last example, I decided to throw out the “rules” and go with color and some of the most complicated lines I’ve ever photographed. I’ve photographed “Lonely Tree” in all four seasons, but seemingly lifeless in the middle of winter is by far the most interesting of the set. A rather large canvas print hangs in my office, so I’m intimately familiar with the details of this photo. While I doubt I would ever display the Sabattier-ized version, I think it makes a great example of what happens when the effect is applied to a color image with a mix of simple and complicated lines.


The beauty of this effect is that there are no right or wrong results– just personal preferences. It’s obviously not natural-looking, so you have much more room with which to experiment. A common mantra in my classroom is, “I don’t care if you break the rules as long as I know that you know them.” For the Sabattier Effect there are no rules to break, just suggestions to either follow or ignore. Either way, you’re bound to get interesting results.

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Jeff Guyer
Jeff Guyer

is a commercial/portrait photographer based in Atlanta, GA. Still an avid street photographer and film shooter, Jeff also launched a kids photography class called: Digital Photo Challenges.

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