A quick and easy High Key look using layer blend modes and luminosity channel masks.
- Software used: Photoshop CS4
- Time taken: 15 minutes
- Try this tutorial for yourself by clicking on the image on the right to download a high resolution image.
There are many ways to create a high key look in Photoshop using Levels, Curves, the dodge and burn tools and the brightness and contrast tools. These are all mighty fine tools, don't get me wrong, but they often leave you with only average results. I'm going to show you how to give your photos some serious wow! using only layer blend modes and channel masks.
Step 1: Duplicate the layer
To set up the layers for the effect: Select the Background layer and duplicate it by dragging the layer to the New Layer icon or by pressing Control + J - change the blend mode of the new layer (Background copy) to Screen.
Step 2: Duplicate the new layer
Duplicate the new layer (Control + J) twice more - change the blend mode of the top layer to Colour Burn with fill opacity at 30% - you should now have four layers.
You can already see a huge improvement but it's not quite there yet. Her eyes are too dark (we'll correct this later) and I want her skin to be brighter, for a more high key look, so we're going to create new layers containing just the light values of her skin.
The next step can be a bit tricky if you've never done it before but once you've mastered it, it's plain sailing! (Note that this step is for Photoshop versions that support luminosity channel masks.)
Step 3: Turn colour burn layer off
Turn the Colour Burn layer off by clicking on the little eye to the left of the layer thumbnail and then select Background copy 2.
Step 4: Select RGB layer
With Background copy 2 selected in the Layers panel go to the Channels panel and select the RGB layer by clicking on the thumbnail image. Control + left mouse click (at the same time) on the thumbnail to make a selection containing only the light values and return to the Layers panel.
Step 5: Duplicate the layer
With the Background copy 2 layer still active (blue) duplicate the layer by keying Control + J. You will now have a new layer above copy 2 containing ONLY the lighter values and nothing else. Note that the blend mode of this layer takes on the one it was copied from - keep the blend mode as Screen.
Step 6: Blur the layer
We're now going to blur this layer to soften the skin - go to Filter > Blur > Gaussian Blur and choose a fairly agressive level - I chose 20. You'll notice an immediate softening of the skin (turn the layer visibility on and off to compare). Duplicate this layer (Control + J) and reduce the opacity of the new layer to 50%. This is to get an even lighter skin tone but it's a personal preference and depends on how much of a high key look you want. Turn on the Colour Burn layer again. Notice how much better the image is looking already - we're not finished yet though...
Step 7: Luminosity selection
We're going to make another luminosity selection, this time from the Colour Burn layer (Background copy 3), using the Green Channel. Go to the Channels Panel again, click on the Green Channel layer thumbnail to select it and Control + left click to load the luminosity selection and then return to the Layers panel. With the layer still selected, click the Create Layer Mask icon to create a mask containing your selection. Now invert the layer mask selection by hitting Control + I (that's I, not L). Your layer mask should now look like the image below.
Step 8: Final steps
The final step is to take care of the details like harsh lines, her eyes which are too dark and so on.
Click on the layer mask thumbnail - you'll know it's selected if you see a white border with black brackets around it - then select the brush tool with softness set to around 50%, the brush size to around 70, opacity to around 70%.
Making sure that the foreground colour is black, start painting out the eyes, the corners of her mouth, and any other harsh colour, like the creases in her eyelids. Try not to paint out details like her eyelashes as these frame her eyes beautifully while creating some nice contrast. Concentrate on colour areas that have become harsh / blocky as a result of the Colour Burn blend mode.
Finally, change to a larger, softer brush, change the opacity to around 30% and paint out harsh shadows like the one on her jaw line.
To change the brush size while working press the left or right bracket keys ( [ or ] ).
To finish the image off merge all the layers into a new layer (while retaining all the original layers below) by pressing Control - Shift - Alt - E (Command - Shift - Option - E for Mac) at the same time and then use the Spot Healing Brush tool to paint out any blemishes.
And that's it! You now have a high key image, with lovely contrast and tone.
Words and images by Judi Kruger
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