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Control visual focus in your images using the Gradient tool

Added on Thursday 14th of April 2011 08:22 am EST


Adobe Photoshop CS2/CS3/CS4/CS5

Operating Systems:

Macintosh, Microsoft Windows


As hard as you try, sometimes your images will lack focus. Using the Gradient tool is one way to hone in on what’s important in your photo.


To strengthen the focus of your photo with the Gradient tool, we’ll:

  Identify areas of differing visual interest in our image.

  Isolate each area so we can work on one section at a time.

  Apply a gradient to each segment to produce a finished photo.


A favorite trick of photographers that isolates a subject from a busy background is to take the photograph on a misty day. As the scene progresses from foreground to background, the contrast of the photo becomes increasingly less and less, and greatly increases the visual focus of the subject. It’s a great natural effect that adds much to the overall mood of the final composition. However, what do you do when you can’t wait around until the fog rolls in? By using Photoshop’s Gradient tool, you can not only create awesome aerial effects long after the fog has burned off for the day, as shown in Figure A, but also resurrect otherwise terrific photos from your archives save for their cluttered composition.





Find your focus

A prominent foreground subject set against an ever increasingly softer mid- and background has long been a technique used not only by photographers of the last two centuries, but by master painters through the history of Western Europe to give drama and perspective to their artwork. Let’s begin by launching Photoshop and opening a photo that has an obvious fore-, mid-, and background, but doesn’t have an apparent visual focus, such as the example shown in Figure A.



The deer grass fights for attention with the two mountain ranges. The viewer’s eye bounces around from the grass on Algonquin Mountain, to the slides on Colden Mountain in the middle, to the profile of Mt. Marcy, and back around to the grass again. It never quite seems to settle on exactly what the subject is. Each of the subject areas, if the photo was cropped or composed differently, is powerful enough to stand on its own merits.


Plan your moves

The first thing you must do is determine exactly what your visual focus is and, in turn, which subject areas you want more clearly identified as fore-, mid-, and background. The visual order of areas in the photo is deer grass, Colden, and Marcy, and is therefore the logical choice for fore-, mid- and background, respectively. The deer grass will certainly be the visual focal point of the photo. But there are also two smaller areas—the dwarf spruce on the right, and the outcropping on the left—as shown in Figure B, that could either be grouped with the foreground or background. Are those to be part of the focus as well? Would the overall effectiveness of the photo be better with or without them being included with the grass? At this point, it’s really hard to tell, so we’ll isolate them in such a way that they can be part of either the foreground or mid-ground areas, and determine it then.




Split your areas

Next, we’ll need to split off the various areas of the photo so we can apply a gradient to each using the Gradient tool. There are a couple of ways you can accomplish this. You can make duplicate layers of the Background layer, one for each interest area, and erase the part you don’t want. Or by using the Pen tool, you can create a path that can then be used to select and copy each area onto a separate layer. Since the Pen tool method is more flexible and precise, we’ll use that.


To create paths with the Pen tool:

1.  Click on the Paths panel, or choose Window > Paths from the menu bar if it isn’t already showing, and select New Path from the Paths panel’s pop-up menu.

2.  When the New Path dialog box appears, enter Background in the Name text box, and click OK.

3.  Select the Pen tool from the Tools panel, and place your mouse pointer on your canvas. What area you start with is up to you, but for this example, begin with the background and move forward. The background is to be the sky and the farthest mountain, Mt. Marcy.

4.  Place the Pen tool off the canvas, establish four corners and as you move across the background/mid-ground image demarcation, set anchor points at places where the curves in the demarcation changes direction, as shown in Figure C.

5.  Close the path by clicking on the first anchor point you made.




6.  Repeat the process again for the mid-ground area. Name this path Mid-ground. Your results should look like what’s shown in Figure D.




The last path you need to make is for the two areas previously highlighted in Figure B, the dwarf spruce and the outcropping. As before, make a new path in the Path panel and name it Mid-ground Alternatives. Then, with the Pen tool, create a path for these two areas, as shown in Figure E. We’ve now finished creating the interest-area paths.




Convert path to selection border

Now we’ll apply a gradient to a new layer using a path converted to a selection border as a mask. You can change the selection border at any time by changing the...


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