Make a textured portrait

The process of modern photography doesn’t have to end with the closing of the shutter or a few minor tweaks in post-processing – and when you appreciate this you can conceive and create some brilliant effects...

This technique is a great example of combining shooting and editing, so that you end up with an image that’s much more than the sum of its parts. The look is similar in style to a traditional multiple exposure, but the way the image is created – taking a basic but effective portrait and layering it with subtle textures and other images – offers a lot more subtlety and control over its constituent parts. An in-camera multiple exposure is a fine creative technique, but it comes with certain random elements. Here you’ll have full control over everything.

Once you’ve given the technique a go and got the basics sorted, you can refine your ideas, considering what kinds of textures you’re going to use and why. Do they say something about the subject’s character, or do they contrast with the background images to make some wider statement? You can create a series of similar shots using different subjects, like the members of a family, or a band, or use different textures across shots of the same subject, for example showing the changing seasons. Give it a try and you’ll find there’s loads to enjoy.

Capture the shots you need
The purpose of capture here is to make sure you get a good clean portrait that will easily work with the Photoshop texture effects that’ll be applied later. So what ingredients do you need? Subject-wise, there are a few restrictions. You’ll find it easier to work with people who’ll provide a simple outline, which is why a bald head is a good choice. You could instead have your subject wear a hat, or gel their hair so it forms a simple shape. What you don’t want is lots of fly-away hair that makes selections and masks more difficult.

From that point of view, it’s also important to find a clean and simple background to shoot against. I used a white studio background, but a plain wall at home will do the job just as well and you don’t need much space, as it’s a head-and-shoulders composition.

Lighting-wise, you need enough shadow to give the head definition, which will also make blending easier, but not so much that the shadows lose detail. It’s a fine balance to strike, and using flash makes this easier along with the right lighting modifiers.

Flash is by far the most efficient way to get good lighting on the subject. Unlike using window light, you’ll be able to control the look, making the shadows clear, but not dominant, and the extra power from the flash allows faster shutter speeds at smaller apertures and lower ISO settings, making results sharper and clearer. You don’t need a studio flash either, as a suitably modified flashgun will work just as well.

A simple, uncluttered backdrop is vital for this technique, allowing you to make an easy selection of the subject and blend textures into that area. Here, a background roll is used, but a plain wall at home will do the job just fine.

Place your subject
Shooting in profile, a bald or hat-wearing subject is perfect for this technique as, unlike someone with messy hair, they’re easy to cut out. The simple gradation in skin tone also helps, as it will accept the blended textures better. There’s nothing to stop you from using more complicated subjects, but they can act against the simplicity of the composition.

1. Set up your light and exposure settings
Position the subject in profile against a plain background, and set up your light so it’s aimed at their face from the side of your shooting position. Fit a softbox or similar diffuser to the light, attach your trigger or sync lead and check the light is firing. Then you can assess the exposure and power required. The place to start is depth-of-field. You need enough to keep the whole subject sharp, making the selection and masking easier. So, in manual exposure mode (M), I set f/11, which, shooting at 70mm and around 1.5m from the subject, gave me plenty. Next set the shutter speed to somewhere around the flash sync speed of the camera (1/200sec), and the ISO to a low level (100-200). Now take a test shot to assess the flash power, raising or lowering it to get a good exposure. For more accurate results you can use a flashmeter.

2. Modify the flash
For best results you need a mixture of highlight and shadow on the subject. How easy this is will depend on the size of the softbox you’re using, as larger versions will wrap the light too much. If this is the case, try fitting a grid to the softbox. A beauty dish would also work for this effect, but avoid flash modifiers that restrict the light too much – if you end up with parts of the subject heavily shadowed as well as the background, a simple selection will be impossible.

3. Feather the light
Adding a grid will stop the light spreading too much and firm up the shadows, but the look may still not be quite right. For instance, if you’re using the softbox close to the subject it may cause hotspots of overexposure. To fix this, and also to address any spill that’s left from the light, turn it away from the background and subject a little. This will feather the light, making it more even and less intense. Remember to reassess the flash power after any adjustments.

4. Controlling the shadows
If the shadows are too strong (which can lead to problems in blending), use a reflector from the opposite side to catch the light and throw it back into those areas. You can balance it on a stand, or better yet have a glamorous assistant angle it for you. For the greatest level of control you can use a second light, set to a lower power than the first, which will create the right kind of lighting ratio.

Create the image in Photoshop
When it comes to the Photoshop section of this technique, there are two very important tools at play – selections and masks. If you’ve shot the starting portrait in the same style as the technique on the previous pages, selecting both the subject and the background should be easy. In fact, one is just the inverse of the other. After making your selections you can quickly turn them into masks, allowing you to tailor whatever textures or other images you want to the subject. Blending modes are also used to bed the Layers in and masks are refined with the Brush Tool. We can use the same selections to make adjustments, limiting them to the subject or the background. As for choosing the images to use, that’s very much a matter of personal preference. You might like to go for contrasting themes like the tree and city in our shot, or something completely different. Experiment and enjoy!

1. Start the selection
Open the portrait and pick the Magic Wand Tool (W). In the Options bar, set its Tolerance to around 15-20, and tick the Anti-alias and Contiguous boxes. Now click on the clean background near the edge of the subject to start the selection. Hold Shift or click the Add to selection icon and keep clicking until the whole background is selected. If you’re having trouble, raise or lower the Tolerance slightly to compensate.

2. Refine the selection
If you’re in the latest version of Photoshop, click on Select and Mask in the Options bar (otherwise click Refine Edge). Under Edge Detection, tick Smart Radius and add a few pixels of Radius to smooth any rough edges and hairs. Set the Feather to 0.5px, and under Shift Edge add +2-5% to cut into the subject slightly. Click OK, then go to Select>Save Selection. Name it Outline and hit OK.

3. Add the first texture and mask
Open the texture you want to use on the subject and go to Select>All (Ctrl+A), the Edit>Copy (Ctrl+C). Now close it, and back on the main image, go to Edit>Paste (Ctrl+V). Next open the Layers palette with Window>Layers and go to Select>Load Selection. On the Channel menu, pick Outline from the list and hit OK. Now go to Layer>Layer Mask>Hide Selection.

4. Recompose the texture
Between Layer 1 and its Layer Mask you’ll see a link icon. Click this to make it disappear and unlock the two. Now click on the Layer 1 thumbnail to make it active and go to Edit>Free Transform (Ctrl+T). Holding the Shift key, drag the corner handles to resize the Layer and drag it into position on the subject, then click the tick. Remember, it doesn’t need to fill them entirely as we’ll be masking and cropping later.

5. Blend and paint into the mask
Still in the Layers palette, click on Normal and change the blending mode to Soft Light. Click back on the mask to make it active, then pick the Brush Tool (B) and, with a large, soft-edged tip, paint black into the mask to hold the texture back where desired, like the face and ear. Lower the Brush Opacity to create a good blend and paint white if you make a mistake.

6. Add a second texture
Open another texture file, Copy and Paste it in as before, then hold the Ctrl key and, in the Layers palette, click on Layer 1’s mask to reload the shape of the mask as a selection. This time, go to Layer>Layer Mask>Reveal Selection. Now separate the Layer and mask using the icon as before, Transform, reposition it and change the blending mode to Soft Light again.

7. Add the background images
Open an image for the background and Copy and Paste it in as before. Now go to Select>Load Selection and pick ‘Outline’ once more. Go to Layer>Layer Mask>Reveal Selection and notice how the mask now looks inverted compared to the others, so the subject is protected. As before, unlock the Layer and recompose it, then add more background images to suit.

8. Keep editing using the outline selection
You can make other adjustments using the same selection. I reloaded ‘Outline’ then used Layer>New Adjustment Layer> Color Balance several times. The first time I added green to the back of the subject’s head; the second I added red and yellow to the front; and finally I added blue to the background. When you’re done, go to Layer>Flatten Image, then use the Crop Tool to tidy the edges of the frame.

This article was first published in the October 2016 issue of Practical Photography - download back issues here.