Cross Processing Effect In Photoshop

In the film era, photographers were forever seeking unique ways to process and print film in order to create distinctive visual effects. This included such black-and-white darkroom techniques as solarization and lith printing, for instance, but also included color film processing effects too. Color film processing done right didn’t leave much room for creative interpretation, but if you really altered the chemistry significantly you could take any negative from mild to wild.

One of the most popular of these special color techniques was called cross processing, in which a photographer would shoot E6 color transparency film and process it in C-41 color negative chemistry (or sometimes the other way around). Popularized in the 1990s, it produced a contrasty, colorful and downright strange look that can be found all throughout popular media from that era—from album covers to editorial photography, magazines to the early internet. If a photographer wanted to create a bold, alternative, color-shifted look, they often turned to cross processing.

Just because most of us aren’t shooting film anymore doesn’t mean we need to give up our love for this fun look. In fact, achieving a digital cross processing effect provides a level of control that the color darkroom simply can’t provide. So here’s how to use a few simple Photoshop tools to bring back the 1990s and recreate the cross processing effect in your photos.

Before cross processing

First, choose a bright image with decent contrast and a strong center of interest. Because cross processing boosts contrast, you don’t want to start with a muddy, flat or low-key file. And because the effect itself is so funky, I find it doesn’t work well when the viewer’s eye doesn’t know exactly where to look. Landscapes and streetscapes can work well, and I find portraits are particularly effective—especially when they’ve got a clean background.

Start by retouching to pay special attention to ensuring the overall look is bright, or even high key. You’re going to end up throwing out a lot of skin detail, so don’t worry too much about perfecting that part of the picture just yet. And if you’re not sure how to brighten your image in Photoshop, consider using a Curves or Levels adjustment layer for a quick fix. In the example shown here, I started with a Levels adjustment layer to bring up highlights and midtones in particular.

With the image ready for cross processing, start by converting it from RGB to CMYK. This is found under the Mode heading of the Image menu. This will allow you to isolate the Cyan, Yellow and Magenta channels and apply them for exaggerated color effects.

Faux cross processing technique

With the image now CMYK, open the Channels palette and you’ll see five channels: CMYK, Cyan, Magenta, Yellow and Black. Without disabling the other channels, simply click on the yellow channel to make it active. (If the other channels disappear when you click on the yellow channel, click on the eye icon next to the CMYK panel to ensure the overall image remains visible so you can see exactly how the changes impact the color.)

Then click on Apply Image found under the Image menu. The Apply Image palette will appear and you’ll want to ensure it shows the Yellow channel is selected, then next to that click the Invert checkbox. Next, choose a new blending mode from the Blending dropdown menu. Instead of Normal, change the blending mode to Hard Light.

Lastly, choose an opacity of roughly 50 percent or less and click OK to apply the changes. You’ll see that the image now has a strong yellow color cast and your cross processing is underway.

Next, click on the Magenta channel and repeat the Apply Image steps, this time experimenting with opacity and blend modes. Normal can work, as can Hard Light, Color Burn and others. In the example shown here, I used an opacity of 35 percent.

Finally, click on the Cyan channel in the Channels palette and repeat the Apply Image steps one more time, but don’t invert. A blending mode set to Multiply and 100 percent opacity will add cyan to the shadows in particular, and this can really help to complete the cross processing look. But since we’re going for fun effects, there aren’t really any rules for how your image should appear. If you’d like to see more of a color shift, try experimenting with the blending modes as you apply the image on the different channels.

Faux cross processing technique

In the example here, I use the Color Burn mode on the Cyan channel and went even farther to boost the contrast by using curves to enhance contrast on the individual channels as well as in the overall image.

In the end, this faux cross processing technique is a wonderful way to create bold, graphic images with a non-traditional color palette. It doesn’t work for everything, but for the right kind of image, especially those in which an alternate reality is beneficial, it’s a fun look that really works.

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