digital art by teresa lunt
digital art by teresa lunt
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Tutorial 9: Orchids

After photographing orchids in the botanical gardens in Hawaii on several recent trips, I decided to see whether there were opportunities to photograph these beautiful and exotic flowers somewhere closer to home. Looking on the web, I found several florists relatively nearby who specialize in orchids. The photograph of moth orchids in Figure 1 was taken at Rod McClellan Botanicals in San Mateo California, a florist specializing in orchids who was kind enough to let me set up my tripod and spend a few hours in his shop. I captured the image using my digital SLR, the Canon D30. While many of my orchid photos are taken with a macro lens, which allows me to get really close to the flower, this image was taken from a distance with a telephoto lens, so I could capture the entire arrangement of blossoms along the branch, as well as some foliage.

Figure 1

What I like about this photograph is the nice composition of the orchid blossoms one in front of another, arranged laterally along a horizontal branch. I also like the interesting color of the flowers, the round unopened buds, and the leaves in the background.

I didn't like the fact that you can see details of the wall behind the orchids in the right half of the picture. Also, while the lines of the vines on the left have a nice curve, which adds to the image, there are too many of them and the left side of the photo feels a bit cluttered. Plus there is a thick dark branch in the middle of the left side that draws too much attention to itself.

What I wanted to do with this image was to put more emphasis on the blossoms, and less on the background and the surrounding details. The bright background draws too much attention, so I wanted to darken it as much as possible. This would also lend an interesting dark mood to the picture. I also wanted to remove some distracting details. I wanted to add some unusual effects to the blossoms to make them really stand out. Finally, I wanted to alter the composition somewhat, to reduce the mass of the big green leaf in the foreground.

The first thing I did was to make a duplicate layer in Photoshop. We will work primarily on the duplicate layer. But we will also use portions of the bottom, original layer to create some interesting effects.

First I wanted to make the background dark. One way to make a bright background dark is to invert the image. So in the top layer, I inverted the image by using Image>Adjust>Invert. Inverting the image also changes all the colors. To return the original colors to the image, I then did Filter>Fade and selected the "luminosity" blending mode at 100 percent. The background was not yet dark enough, so I used Image>Adjust>Levels to darken it almost completely, by sliding the left and middle sliders to the right until the background was mostly black. Figure 2 shows what the picture looked like at this point. As you can see, the flowers are not at all attractive and are way too dark. Our next step will fix this problem and add considerable interest to the flowers.

Figure 2

My next step was to add a layer mask to the top layer (Layer>Add Layer Mask>Reveal All). "Reveal All" means that none of the top layer is yet hidden or masked. In the Layers palette, the layer mask is all white. We will use the paintbrush to paint black areas onto this layer mask. Where we paint with black on the layer mask, the bottom layer is revealed. To do this, click on the white layer mask, then click on the paintbrush tool, make sure black is the foreground color in the toolbar menu, select a large soft-edged brush from the brushes palette, and select a medium (perhaps 75%) opacity for the brush from the paintbrush options palette. I like to use a Wacom tablet with pen input for painting and drawing steps, because it gives you more control, but you can also use the mouse for this step because we are not trying to be very precise.

Now I painted with black on the layer mask just in the center of the flowers. The effect of this is to reveal the center of the flowers from the layer below. Recall that the bottom layer contains the original image. So the center of the flowers shows the uninverted original flower. Because the original image is relatively much brighter than the inverted and darkened top layer, the areas where we have let the bottom layer show through seem to glow. Figure 3 shows the effect.

Figure 3

Next I wanted to remove some distracting detail from the image. Using the clone tool, I removed the bright horizontal branch. Now I did some fine tuning of the color. On the bottom layer I used Image>Adjust>Curves to slightly darken that layer, which made the bright parts of the flower slightly darker in the composite. I used Image>Adjust>Channel Mixer on the bottom layer to reduce the amount of blue (in the channel mixer palette, select the blue channel from the drop down menu, and then reduce its percentage to around 75%). What this does is shift the color of the bottom layer toward yellow, which slightly warms the color of the flowers in the composite. Finally, I used the clone tool to remove a small branch in the lower left corner of the image. Then I flattened the image (Layer>Flatten Image), which combines all the layers.

Now I wanted to work on the composition to reduce the mass of that big leaf in the foreground. I used Edit>Transform>Skew to pull down the lower left corner of the picture and to pull the top left corner slightly to the left. Then I used Edit>Transform>Scale to stretch the image horizontally. You can see the results in Figure 4.

Figure 4

The final result is a vibrantly colored image that draws your eye directly to the center of the flowers. The glowing flowers create an unusual effect that creates a great deal of interest. There are just enough additional elements in the composition to create a natural context for the flowers without overwhelming them or distracting the eye. Comparing this with the original image, you can see that we have completely altered the mood, creating an almost painterly effect.

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