Removing Reality

John Lennon gave us an all-so-true quote: "Reality leaves a lot to the imagination." In photography, imagination is the key to a creative image. Removing a bit of the reality sometimes can result in a more artistic and creative image. In this column, I’ll share with you a simple technique for removing reality using Photoshop.


Example 1: When we remove some of the sharpness of an image, we remove some of the reality. We can remove sharpness by adding noise or grain, or by blurring the image. One of my favorite techniques for adding grain is to use the Diffuse Glow filter in Photoshop.

Increasing contrast also can reduce details in an image. After increasing the contrast (Image > Adjustment > Brightness/Contrast) in my image, I applied the Diffuse Glow filter.

This is my original shot. It’s not bad, but the image with some of the reality removed looks much more artistic.

Example 2: Here’s an image I call "Green Eyed Lady." It’s a dummy album cover I created just for fun. The process, which creates a very high-key image, is easy to do.



The first step is to duplicate your file and then to desaturate the top layer (Image > Adjustment > Desaturate).

Next, adjust the Levels so the picture has few midtones. Start with the Highlight slider (the tiny triangle on the right). Basically, you want a black-and-white image. Note the difference in the position of the sliders in the "before" and "after" shots. I moved the Highlight and Grayscale slider (middle slider) to the left and the Shadow slider to the right.

Here’s the result of that technique. You have to play around a bit to get the desired effect.

The next step is to select a soft brush and white as the foreground color. Paint over all parts of the image except the eyes, eyebrows, nose and mouth. Here’s a half-painted screenshot to show you the effect. Reduce the Opacity of the brush when working around areas like the eyes and lips. That way, you’ll paint out the details at a slower, more controlled rate, which gives you more creative control over what you’re erasing.

If you want to add some color to the eyes or lips, use the Color Replacement tool (nested in the Brush tools on the toolbar). I chose a shade of green and used this tool to color the model’s eyes.

For more color fun, try the Bi-Color filter in Nik Software’s Color Efex Pro. Here, I selected blue as the top color and red as the bottom color. Experiment. Have fun.

As a final step, I added a back border to my image to make it stand out on a white background. You can do that in Color Efex Pro using Image Borders. There’s another option in Photoshop: Select All, Edit > Stroke, and pick a dark color.

As you can see, reality does leave a lot to the imagination—your imagination.

Rick Sammon teaches photography around the world and on his website. Go to

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