Bending over backwards in Photoshop. Literally

How I made THIS:

From THIS:

A few people were against me posting this entry, as they preferred me to keep the mystery of my imagery intact.

Because I’d already written it and promised it, I think it’s only right that I publish my entry on this occasion. I don’t do it with alot of images anyway.

Now, first I must advise you: I do not recommend doing something like this, ie. taking a picture in such bad lighting, with so much clutter, and then striving to drastically improve or change the image in Photoshop.

In fact, I have never really planned, for any of my images to date, to do as much work to the image in Photoshop as I might have ended up doing. Take THIS image I did for Life Pure Water, for example -

- for that one, I stitched together two main images, each taken on separate days (one with flash, one not) plus a couple of extra images, and I got there in the end, with many hours’ work. It worked (I think) but I would never recommend PLANNING to take this route. Instead, I think of these occasions as being OPPORTUNITIES when you CAN do something amazing to an image that doesn’t look so good straight out of camera. It is sometimes possible, if you have a substandard shot in your possession, to do something with it – of course it doesn’t always work, which is why you can’t RELY on this method.

I will also reiterate, before I have loads of people expressing their cynicism at a ‘fix it in Photoshop’ attitude, that I don’t overly process all my images.

I have three groups of images: the almost SOOC, slightly tweaked images; the 50/50 images where both original shot and processing style are EQUALLY contributive to the final result; and the third group, the heavily manipulated images where a lot of work in Photoshop takes place to bring together several images into a composite, looking very different from each original shot. This group includes the clone images and the trick images which seem to be the most talked about element to  my stuff. With this category, things can be a blind journey, and that was very much the case with this image in question.

Besides, everyone knows that Photoshop doesn’t fix things itself anyway, it’s the talent of the user, right? ;)

Ok let’s get to the point.

What did I want to do?

This was one of those times (like the early self portrait days) when I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do, I was open to spontaneity. I had the trick images from over a year ago in my head. I wanted to do something like my picture The smothering:

In my head I also yearned to shoot underwater, but that wasn’t to be possible now. I also looked up at my ‘Yoga Cats’ calendar, hanging on the wall, that my sister had bought us for Christmas. That may well have inspired the result (ha).

What did I do then?

I decided to do some movement, and try propelling my body into the air. My flat is small and quite cluttered at the moment so it wasn’t easy getting an open area in which to shoot myself. But I was (a) eager (b) impatient (c) feeling ambitious. I cleared a gangway which was insufficient for shooting but thought, even if these shots get relegated to an archived folder on my hard drive, at least I will have blown the first layer of dust off my self-portraiting abilities.

Shot a variety of pics of myself against the wall with some curtain fabric I hadn’t used before, from a charity shop, round my waist as a skirt. I beared in mind I might composite one leg with another so it looks like both are propelled. Tossed a few playing cards over myself, a prop I have been using in my recent shots, but they didn’t really work in this context.

I must state here: these images are rubbish and I did not spend much time on the settings. I wanted to keep the ISO low enough to not create a world of noise, and to keep some low-light ambience in the image. I know I don’t have to post these images to the world to show off ‘what I did in Photoshop’, and on one level, I don’t want to even talk about this process. I guess I want to share it because I like to share tales of things I have done, whether they involve Photoshop or not. This is something I’ll be doing more of this year – and something I will be doing more of in my next Blurb book.

Did what I could, then uploaded the shots onto my laptop. Looked through them, and approved the ones that could be of use.

How did it come out?

Not good. Did a quick mockup to sense what vibe I was getting from the image’s potential. This wasn’t looking good. Just looked silly: me up against a wall, messy lighting, face looking too dark, no narrative or meaning, not sure what I wanted to try and convey: which way should I rotate the photo? Messy, poor quality, already looking noisy – next time I needed good, diffused lighting to avoid having one big hotspot on my legs.

Was that it then?

I thought so. Considered the attempt a failure, as expected, due to poor preparation. I didn’t see easy potential, I just saw a potentially futile processing nightmare, and resolved to get a better location bext time. Shut down laptop and went to seethe in the bedroom and plan what to do next. Planned to shoot some pictures of myself in the bathtub after replenishing myself with food and water.

After chopping veg, and whilst food was cooking, wandered back to laptop and had another look at the pics. Decided that if I were to do anything with them, it would take some work indeed. Decided I’d try it. I was keen to create something, right now.

Started by cleaning up the image with slight adjustments to Levels, Colour Balance, lightened a little with Shadow and Highlight.

Decided on a crop. I wanted to get rid of the clutter and hone in on the figure.

The main thing I’d need to do is bring another leg in, to replace the supporting sticky out leg, so I got stuck into this vital operation-like stage of compositing. Took the leg from another image (the third one in the 3-image montage above). Took some work to do this.

I then had to clone in patches of wall to cover the unneeded leg (as I had forgotten to take a proper image of the scene ‘without me in it’, the necessary element for trick images). I then stretched various bits of wall to cover offending corners and bits of leg. I’d need to lighten that top foot later.

What next?

Finally got the complete shape of my pose against a relatively clean background. Still wasn’t sure about it at all. Then, Matthew walked past and said ‘Oh, I like this one!’ He is never anything but brutally honest, so that was a good sign. Felt encouraged to keep going, aware that the more I was stretching and lightening and distorting the image, the more degraded it was becoming, but I did some denoising and kept going, happy at least that I had an image already more interesting than the originals.

The main thing bugging me now was the stupid lighting. The horrible dark patch of wall behind my midriff area, which was looking even more like an anomalous stripe after bringing fresh new wall to one side of it.

The more I lightened the image, the more it seemed as if I would be trying to make it look as if it were shot in a clean backdrop, when it wasn’t. And yet darkening it didn’t work: that further exaggerated the inconsistencies of the background.

I decided to go down the route of lightening the image, unsure as to how it would look in the end. Pressing on, I managed to even out the lighting with some selection paths, feathering, adjustment of Levels and Shadow & Highlight, and erasing. And some cloning tool to finish up. It was getting there. I can usually always tell whether it’s worth pressing on, or giving up. If small things can be fixed, then have a go. If the whole thing looks fake, don’t bother. I was happy enough with how it was looking at this stage, just knew it needed more and more tweaks. Of course, my judgement will only always be an opinion, others might disagree. One thing I hate about creating images in this manner is the uncertainty, the peaks of hope that can be followed by troughs of disappointment.

Ok, looking good, now what? What to add to the image to complement that open space? I can’t be holding that remote. Well I could, but the floor looks empty. In fact, is that the floor? Should that be the ceiling instead?

Flipped it 180 degrees: hmm, but how would I insinuate to people that this is the ceiling? Photoshop in some wallpaper? Checked iStock. A load of inappropriate images of rooms, shot from conventional angles, came up. No, don’t want to go down that road. Flipped it back.

Ok, the playing cards – let’s grab some virtual playing cards and give the image the same theme as my last one, to advertise the new website. Besides, the shape of the remote would match a playing card that can be easily inserted in there.

Adding playing cards

Cue a couple of hours of fiddling with selection paths, transform tools of various sorts (‘Distort’ was best for the cards) opacity and levels changes, for each playing card. One by one, cut from a screengrab of my website, they were in. Added drop shadows (handy – click FX in the little icons at the bottom of the layers palette). They looked fake, but I liked it. Not fake as in ‘crap cut-paste Photoshop’, but fake as in ‘glossy computerised Pin-up scene that is more exciting than real cards over the floor’ (at least, to me!) Maybe they actually look shit (and maybe they still need more work) but as an accessory to the wider image, I was happy.

Was that it?

Hmm, everything looks a bit floaty and groundless. Matthew passed by again and said he liked it, but I thought it was too contextless, it was again suggesting that ‘I am pretending this was shot in a studio but it obviously wasn’t, so what’s the point’ look. What about marking out a shadow where the skirting board would be behind me? No – how about more, how about an insinuation of a carpet or at least a different coloured floor ? Selected the bottom half of the image, altered Colour Balance, added some vignetting to top edges of this area. Then erased the parts where the effect was colouring unwanted areas – head, cards, tip of foot etc.

Then knew I had to bring a skirting board into the image, as you don’t generally see carpets without skirting boards… that bit was easy.

Dragged in a photo of a skirting board, lined it up, stretched it all across using the Transform tool, zoomed in close and erased the parts it overlapped. Done!

Now some extra touches: cleaning up the edges of the legs, dodging and burning here and there, replicating bits of hair to cover the darker area at the base of my head, bit of dodging and burning, slight rouge and lipstick saturation. And that was about it. Left out vignetting and any Curves adjustments because they didn’t add to the image much – the image was best left pastel-like and fresh, I felt.

Et voila…

When I look at the image, I see a kind of allusion to the colours and skintones in Elvgren’s Pin-Ups… I liked it because, for me, it reached that point of balance between photograph and illustration/painting, where everything is bold, and yet real. You can see the creases in my foot but not the banal clutter it was once propped up on. I felt I had entered my body and face into a kind of virtual environment without creating too many ugly hanging seams.

Very long task I would not like to do for every photo, nor set out to do. But it shows you can do it to some images, if you really want to!

Next time – I want to explore what ’self-taught’ really means. I’ll be chatting to two photography students. See you then!

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Posted in Tutorials/'making of' on February 2nd, 2010 | 37 Comments |

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Comments for “Bending over backwards in Photoshop. Literally”

    1. tom
      9:11 pm on February 2nd, 2010

      Wow. I can’t believe you achieve that with that starting pic!
      Amazing. I bow down to your photoshop skills!

      Really interesting to read how you did it!

    2. uberVU - social comments
      9:49 pm on February 2nd, 2010

      Social comments and analytics for this post…

      This post was mentioned on Twitter by missaniela: proof that there can be life in crap pictures

    3. Brad
      11:41 pm on February 2nd, 2010

      I’m so glad you showed this. First, I really like the photo without the background. The photo under the paragraph where you say, “I then had to clone in patches of wall to cover the unneeded leg …”

      The background on the final print is not necessary and actually distracts (it looks a bit cheap).

      Second, the playing cards are NOT necessary and are kind of a diversion towards what we should be looking at … and that’s your pose. I would eliminate them as soon as possible :) )

      Once again, I really loved this image and the work that you did on it is astonishing. It’s tricked up, but we DON’T feel like we are being manipulated at all. Nice works!

    4. Brad
      12:07 am on February 3rd, 2010

      Ooops. The best photo out of the bunch is actually under where you say, “The main thing bugging me now was the stupid lighting. The horrible dark patch of wall behind my midriff area, which was looking even more like an anomalous stripe after bringing fresh new wall to one side of it.”

      The lack of background in certain images adds more than it distracts and here it does great wonders. I’m serious!

    5. Bernie
      12:31 am on February 3rd, 2010

      Thanks for posting this warts and all. You really haven’t given anything away in the way of “secrets” as there were literally thousands of other decisions you would have made along the way; the size, shape, hardness and opacity of the brush. Blending modes and opacity levels of each layer used. Etc. Plus the years of play and practice it takes to know what all those should be.

      I think this kind of post helps us realize that Photoshop is not a process that images get run through with a single click of a mouse and out they come at the other end as finished works of massed produced art. Photoshop is a huge toolbox and like all tools to get good results takes a lot of understanding of what you want to achieve and of the tools that will get you there.

    6. Bruno M
      12:34 am on February 3rd, 2010

      This is a huge post (pun intended!). Thanks for your walkthrough. I tend to agree with Brad on the “less is more” approach, but since I feel this image is part of a series, I like the final version a little more. It’s punchy, it has a sense of direction, it has context. Never thought you had so much work starting from so little ideas (appreciated the fact that the ideas kept up flowing!).
      Thanks once more, keep it up!

    7. Arty Fucking Smokes
      2:21 am on February 3rd, 2010

      Unlike Brad, I think that making the “floor” a different colour and adding the skirting board was absolutely necessary, to provide depth and to make this look more like “reality”.
      The “stuck to the ceiling” version looks completely ridiculous, but you could probably do something based on that concept if you could come up with the right pose. You’d have to either remove the shadow, or insert a lightsource beneath the figure to make the lighting believable however.
      The perspective of the cards on the floor is slightly off, but they too give some depth to the image. Without them, it still looks too much like a two-dimensional cartoon.

      You mentioned the fear of digital noise, but you’ve got a 5D II. The (almost) unique selling point of that camera is its high ISO capabilities. Whereas most digital cameras (with smaller sensors) reveal obvious noise at ISO 400 to 800, you can shoot with the Canon at 2400 ISO (or even more) in a darkened room and the image will be relatively noise free. For that camera alone, you should definitely try boosting the ISO so that you don’t need to spend so much time cleaning up an image in post. Using off-camera flash (placed behind the model, pointing at the wall) to light the background is also a standard trick for making masks/cutouts easier (but you’re self-taught, so you might want to ignore that!)

      Looking forward to your next trick… :)

    8. Arty Fucking Smokes
      2:23 am on February 3rd, 2010

      P.S. I think the version with three legs has potential too. You could do something really crazy with extra limbs.

    9. Brad
      3:13 am on February 3rd, 2010


      I’m not sure that ISO knowledge is her specialty–I’m joking! At one time though I think her intelligence at ISO was limited seeing that she shot everything at the same ISO!

      The funny thing about the pic is that she hides her remote by a playing card. Now that’s innovative … but, the cards still don’t work in my humble opinion.

    10. Miss Aniela
      6:18 am on February 3rd, 2010

      Amusing to read these comments…

      @ Brad – I like the way it is, but thanks for your opinion.

      @ Arty – I know I have a 5dmII, which I can assure everyone I’m using on manual mode with selected ISO etc – but there’s still noise, baby… (sob) when you shoot in conditions like this.

      I agree about the flash, hence my dissatisfaction with the quality of the shooting. (The battery had gone in my flash receivers…)

      @ Bernie – thanks alot, good points.

      @ Bruno & Tom – cheers

    11. Jeannine
      12:57 pm on February 3rd, 2010

      After your last post I was really curious about your tutorial. Though it isn´t in my opinion a “real” tutorial, because you don´t share all your secrets, and to me: thats a good thing.
      I wanted to say something about your comments and opinions about the “fix it in photoshop attitude” of other people. I do think, that nowadays mistakes in photos can be solved with photoshop. But for a real look you have to bring in also professional facilities that were not connected to photography 15 years before. I would say that this is just another step and not everybody is able to fix bad photographs with photoshop and that thats a kind of art too.
      What you are doing is not just fixing mistakes, you are creating different worlds. And although I know about the possibilities of ps I am so often wondering how you worked out the pictures in your tricks series, expecially “The smothering” and “Washed up”. But I am glad you do not share everything with us, so my mind can work and think about your photos :)

    12. Chris Turner
      1:42 pm on February 3rd, 2010

      Thanks for sharing,

      It’s a brilliant insight into how you work and how determined you are when things aren’t perhaps going to plan.

      I can’t count the amount of times I’ve had an idea, tried it out and then got back to my computer to see a load of junk that I’ve just binned there and then. But perhaps with a little more perseverance something could have been made from it.

      Not meaning to take away from your original photos (you’ve said yourself they’re not the greatest) but it’s encouraging to see that sometimes SOOC shots (even by you) aren’t the best and take quite a lot of saving. I think it’s certainly made me question all the shots I’ve thrown away, and that perhaps the idea/image is more important than a noisy photo/poor lighting.

      Also thankyou for the revelation that you should take an empty shot before you start photographing your subject for multiplicity shots. I’ve been messing around with them myself recently and that’s something that never ever crossed my mind! haha!

    13. jestem
      7:08 pm on February 3rd, 2010

      Thanks, Nat. That was very fun to read.

    14. Brad
      11:28 pm on February 3rd, 2010

      What I say is hopefully helpful. I see that you purchased the “top of the line” and latest Canon model which is very expensive. I’m just wondering if you have ever thought about investing in a light kit of some kind. I see the originals and there’s very little light. I’m astonished that you were able to do what you did with this image (it’s really a testament to your superior processing skills on photoshop … you really are a master at post production work).

      I think a lighting kit would work wonders too and would go a long ways for you. Maybe, I’m being too opinionated for my own good here, but I see nothing negative in owning one. Thanks! :)

    15. Arty Fucking Smokes
      4:26 am on February 4th, 2010

      Are you quite sure you are getting visible noise with the 5D at ISO 400? Your room can’t be any darker than the streets of Cardiff at gone midnight, and Maciej’s images (generally straight off camera) exhibit no visible noise at up to ISO 3000.
      It was images like those that finally convinced me that a digital camera CAN out-perform a film-based one. (If you can afford it!)

    16. Franziska
      12:49 pm on February 4th, 2010

      Very interesting and your comments are very amusing!

    17. Lash LaRue
      2:22 am on February 10th, 2010

      Thanks for the walk-through; this was fascinating.

      I like what you did. One of the great things about modern digital photography is the new possibility of doing something that is a combination of straight photography, painting, and graphic design. You start with several photos, paint in stuff, paint out stuff, add graphic elements — and something totally new and magical comes out of it.

      This demonstration helps me see that our traditional categories need to be bent, stretched, and warped a bit — all of which is very exciting.

      So once again, thanks!!

    18. Mike Sclafani
      3:40 am on February 11th, 2010

      Wow. Thanks so much for the inside look. It is quite inspiring.

    19. Evelyn L
      11:46 am on February 11th, 2010

      Thanks for sharing!

      10:29 pm on February 15th, 2010

      Wow… you are in a league (if not on the very top of it) with commercial artists like Petty and Vargas. You “paint” with your camera and I have never seen one of your shots that I didn’t love. Please keep sharing your photos as well as yuour secrets.
      Camarillo, CA

    21. Susan
      5:18 pm on February 16th, 2010

      Another wonderful blog. Thanks for sharing, knowing how you think about your photos, and how you want to “process” them helps me to figure out what to try next on my photos.

      As for the idiots above that deem the board as distracting or the cards as distracting, what do they know? Before I read any of their foder the image struck me as amazing. At first i thought you were just good at yoga. because this “pose” is attainable if you are strong enough on the floor. 2nd the lighting or lack therof and the way you process light into your photos has always amazed me. I try that and mine end up looking to dark or too washed out.
      3rd, I liked the cards and recognized them from the self portrait set you did, which also was amazing, but here it added realistic qualities with the blur added.

      All in all another great image, thanks for sharing with your “fans”

    22. Susan Hydzik
      2:45 am on February 17th, 2010

      I am very impressed! You did an amazing job! The photo looked very realistic.

    23. Troy Grover
      2:52 am on February 17th, 2010

      You are talented :)

    24. Jojo
      8:55 pm on February 18th, 2010

      Wow, I’m absolutely blown away by the transformation of your picture. I love it when artists show you their process, it opens up my mind to new ideas..not that I’m any good yet! Thanks for sharing this as I’ve always admired your photos (along with a billion other people!)


    25. Kelly Jill
      10:51 pm on February 22nd, 2010

      Thanks for sharing… your work is an awesome inspiration… and it is so helpful to see an artist’s thought process…

    26. ilse
      3:39 pm on February 25th, 2010

      you are one clever woman. Admiration!

    27. Kasia Znana
      3:13 pm on March 5th, 2010

      Very inspiring post! Thanks for sharing.

    28. What I’ve Learnt This Week: Photography Tips From Around The ‘Net (28th February 2010) | Learn Photography Tips Blog
      10:00 pm on March 17th, 2010

      [...] Bending Over Backwards In Photoshop. Literally. [...]

    29. Rivka
      1:06 am on March 18th, 2010

      Holy cow! You are an amazing perfectionist when it comes to photos! Excellent beyond excellence! And I like that you are a master of Photoshop art. I think it is an art entirely onto itself. The final photo is amazing!

    30. Bob Towery
      7:51 pm on March 23rd, 2010

      Very lovely to share your techniques. I’ll bet committing the process to words gave you some new ideas to try out. Your ART, capitals intended, is very inspiring. Thanks again for sharing.

    31. Breaking New Ground And Creating New Vistas In Digital Photography » Landscape Photography Blogger
      12:14 am on April 3rd, 2010

      [...] that are doing truly new and innovative work. One of these is a young lady who calls herself Miss Aniela, whose tastefully exotic digitally re-constructed self-portraits have reportedly developed a [...]

    32. lz
      4:45 pm on April 16th, 2010

      Thanks Aniela, really appreciate your going into detail about your process.. I’m just starting to experiment with photography, pulling lessons & inspiration from the photo community around me. This post gave me some insight & motivation to try something new, and your work is always creatively inspiring for me. Thanks again and best of luck with yours! :)


    33. E R I N
      2:52 pm on July 2nd, 2010

      wow what a cool little insight into your process!

      you forgot to mention you also have to be insanely talented and creative to pull it off like you do!!


    34. dave
      11:15 pm on August 5th, 2010

      one word….amazing…..not just this one, but all of your work, I LOVE IT!

    35. Manas Pattnaik
      6:59 am on November 10th, 2010

      Thanks a lot for sharing. For some days I was wandering about leviation photography. Your materila will definitek=ly add to my search and throw some light.
      Thanks a lot for sharing again. I do agree some dont prefer to share. Pl do visit my photostream at flickr when yo find time. Regards

    36. Looking at 2010 and evaluating contrived images vs. the ‘haphazard shot’
      6:24 pm on January 1st, 2011

      [...] Bending over backwards – a rare occasion where I completely transform what I consider to be a dark and mundane shot, into a very bright and peach-toned ‘trick’ image by compositing a raised leg from another shot (see the full mind-boggling process on this blog post). [...]

    37. w e n y
      2:46 am on July 5th, 2011

      great posting, aniela. love it. inspired me to experiment it. thank you…!

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