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Add drama to your images with shadow scrims

Added on Tuesday 11th of January 2011 07:38 am EST


Photoshop CS4

Operating System(s):

Macintosh, Microsoft Windows


The 1930s ... the golden age of high style and high fashion! You saw it everywhere—in ads, in magazines, and at the movies. Who can forget those wonderful black-and-white glossies of the rich and famous as they glanced wistfully off camera while dappled sunlight broke pensively across their languished brows? Okay, reality check; these photos were set up studio shots, but they still had quite a nice dramatic quality to them, and what's even better is that in the 2000s you can re-create this effect using just Photoshop, as shown in Figure A.

Figure A: A few well-placed shadows breaking across the subject add drama and visual impact to a photo.




Into the shadows

In this article, we'll show you how to add shadow scrims to a photo by first pasting scrim shapes onto our portrait photo. Then, we'll manipulate the shapes using the Free Transform command. Next, we'll modify them using the Gaussian Blur and Liquify filters. Finally, we'll adjust the scrim's intensity to achieve a dramatic but believable appearance.


Composition is a criterion

To begin, open an image on which to add our shadow scrim effect, such as the one we've chosen in Figure B. You'll want to choose a portrait that, to start with, is more than the standard head and shoulders shot. In the photo we chose, the subject is looking away from the camera, causing us to wonder what she's looking at. The shallow depth of field and the composition of empty space in the upper right and lower left sections of the photo create further interest by setting up a visual tension in which areas of the image play against others. We'll add to this interaction the dramatic effect of a few well-placed shadows.

Figure B: Because the composition of the photo is more than the standard head-and-shoulders shot, a few well-placed shadows will add a bit of dramatic atmosphere to the shot.




Scrounging for a scrim

Next, we need to look for a scrim. So, by now you might be asking, “What is a scrim?” A scrim is a device, usually a frame and filter material, which you would hold in front of a light to alter the way the light falls on a subject. The material might be a gel, a diffusing screen, or a barn door. It also might be a cutout pattern of such things as blinds, grates, or leaves. People have used scrims for decades in the theater and in movie and photo studios to control lighting and add special effects.

While we can’t, of course, hold up a scrim in front of the key light illuminating our subject, we can create an effect using the same principle. For our example, let’s use a leaf pattern such as the one shown in Figure C. Since we only want to suggest the idea of a few shadows falling on our subject, our scrim image need only be comparatively simple. In fact, if there were too many leaves that were bunched together, the end result would look more like dark blobs than anything else. In this instance, less is more.

Figure C: The image you use for your scrim pattern should be simple and clean to avoid a result that looks indiscernible.



Laying down the layers

Once you've found an image for the scrim, copy and paste it into your portrait photo. On the Layers palette, name the layer Scrim 1 because we're going to make a few layer duplicates a few steps from now.

You may wish to continue working in color, but from this point on we're going to change the image to black and white to stay with the 1930s look. We'll do this, not by changing the Image Mode but by desaturating our layers. This way we can also see our result in color. Choose Image > Adjustments (Adjust) > Hue/Saturation. In the resulting Hue/Saturation dialog box, move the Saturation slider all the way to the left, and the Scrim 1 layer then appears black and white.

Let's do the same to our portrait, but not to the original, or Background, layer. Choose the Background layer and then choose Duplicate Layer from the Layers palette's pop-up menu. In the Duplicate Layer dialog box, enter Portrait B&W in the As text box, and click OK. Now, desaturate the Portrait B&W layer just as you did the Scrim 1 layer.


Cutting out leaves

The background of the Scrim 1 layer isn’t transparent, so we must cut it out. Choose the Magic Wand tool from the Toolbox. Since the leaves...


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