Using Unsharp Mask in Affinity

OK it’s time to get my head around sharpening once & for all! It’s something I naturally use at the end of editing every photo but I’ve never really understood what the three elements of “Unsharp Mask” did.

Radius. This controls how many pixels adjacent to the edges are sharpened (sharpening works by the software increasing the contrast along the edges of objects within the image). A small radius enhances smaller scale details eg. stray hairs, eyelashes etc. Usually a setting of 0.6 to 2.5 is used. Setting too high a radius can create unwanted halos around objects.

Factor. This affects the strength of the sharpening (how much darker & how much lighter the edges become).

Threshold. This controls how far apart adjacent tonal values have to be before they are considered an edge ie. before any action is taken. Low values should sharpen more because fewer areas are excluded. Therefore, for human faces for example, higher values should be selected whereas, inanimate objects such as still life images can take a lower value.

When using Affinity Photo always apply sharpening non destructively via the Live Unsharp Mask filter, Layer>New Live Filter Layer>Unsharp Mask Filter. By doing this not only can you switch this layer on & off to see what affect the sharpening has on your image but you can also come back to tweek your settings at a later date.

Using a small radius (eg. 0.5) & a large factor (eg. 3.5) will accentuate more of the finer details eg. the brickwork on a building. Using a large radius (4.0) & a smaller factor (1.0) accentuates the larger details & acts in a similar way to a clarity filter. For portraits or images of low contrast eg. skin, increase the Threshold slider gradually to prevent artefacts from being enhanced in these areas.


Sharpening using the High Pass Filter

To sharpen an image in Photoshop Elements I usually turn to “Unsharp Mask” (I had previously used “Adjust Sharpness”). However, I recently discovered an alternative method using the High Pass Filter. Now I have to confess I’m not sure if one is better than the other or whether they are merely three different ways of obtaining the same result. Having said that, from what I can gather the “High Pass” option appears to be primarily used on examples of highly textured images such as, animal fur.

The whole sharpening process works by the software increasing the contrast along the edges of objects within an image. Of course, Elements can’t recognise individual objects so it looks for areas where there is a sudden change in brightness or colour between neighbouring pixels. Our brains interpret this increased contrast as being “sharper”.

There are several methods on the internet of how to use the high pass filter. Some convert the image to a “smart object” first, others head straight for the filter menu. The one described below uses the latter. (As usual, sharpening should occur after you’ve completed all your other processes).

Duplicate the layer “Ctrl+J”. At this stage opinions seem to differ. One method desaturates the image “Shift +Ctrl +U” first. Filter>Other>High Pass. Set the “Radius” to somewhere between 0.5 – 5.0 pixels. Not too much or you will end up with additional noise in the image (if you see any white on the grey screen you’ve gone too far & will get halos). Click “OK”. Change the blend mode to “Overlay” although “Soft Light” (slightly less) & “Hard Light” (slightly harsher) are also viable options. The second method doesn’t bother to desaturate the image & sets the blend mode at the start. This way you can view how the image changes as you increase the radius size.

Once complete, if you feel the effect is too strong, lower the opacity. Alternatively, you can duplicate this layer to increase the effect. If you find the image looks good in some areas but not others use layer masks to apply the sharpening more selectively.

Colour grading – Natural light effect

This is a 4 step process to achieve a natural light, colour grading effect on your images.

  1. Hue/Saturation adjustment layer. Take the saturation down. Not too much unless you’re looking for a really dramatic effect (which is fine for some studio portraits but not for a “natural” look). About -15 to -20 is a good range.
  2. Curves. We’re going to colour the image using the individual red, green & blue curves. Being subtle is the key here. Maybe bring out the red in the highlights & slight ‘S’ curves in the green & blue but it can vary according to ones individual opinion.
  3. Levels. On the blue channel draw in the triangular markers slightly to bring back some blue in the shadows & reduce it in the highlights to bring back some warmth.
  4. Colour fill layer. Add a new solid colour fill layer & choose a gold colour (eg. d0a702). Change the blend mode to “hard light” & bring the opacity down to about 8%.

As ever, the final step is to sharpen the image using whatever sharpening method you prefer (unsharp mask, adjust sharpness, high pass filter etc.) The above image displays the before & after photographs.

Faking snow in Photoshop Elements

Photoshop snow image of a Halifax harbour, Nova Scotia

To superimpose falling snow on a scene in Photoshop Elements is fairly straight forward. However, I don’t think the effect works equally well on all images. Ones that include highlight & shadow areas appear to be the best but a little trial & error is probably recommended.

First, we need to resize the image (this is important for the snowflake size later). Image>Resize>Image Size & set the resolution to 72ppi. Make sure the “Constrain Proportions” & “Resample Image” boxes are ticked.

Create a new layer (Layer>New>Layer or the “New layer” button) then Edit>Fill Layer & set the “Contents” to black with 100% opacity.

Filter>Noise>Add Noise tick “Gaussian” at 100% & make sure “Monochromatic” is ticked also.

Filter>Blur>Gaussian Blur & set the radius to 1.0 pixels.

Enhance>Adjust Lighting>Levels set the slider input levels to 140 low & 142 high.

Change the blend mode to “Screen” & adjust the opacity to make the effect look convincing.

Now copy that layer (Ctrl + J) & put the blend mode back to “Normal”. Image>Transform>Free Transform, grab the bottom circle & rotate the whole image 180 degrees. Filter>Blur>Gaussian Blur & set the radius to 0.5 pixels. Change the blending mode back to “Screen” & reduce the opacity. Make sure the opacity of this layer is lower than the previous one. This will add some depth to the snow effect. You could repeat this previous step again (reducing the pixel radius further & lowering the opacity) as many times as you wish. It all depends upon the look you’re trying to replicate (blizzard white out or casual snow fall).

Depending on the original image you may need to alter the opacity of the two snow layers accordingly to make the effect realistic. The end result may also benefit from adjusting the “Hue/Saturation” of the original image after you’ve resized it to give it more of a winter feel (eg. lowering the hue & saturation, slightly increasing the lightness etc.) but this will vary from one project to the next.

Original image.
Photoshop snow effect


Wind turbine flower

Wind turbine flower, moorland, energy

Scout Moor wind farm located just outside Rochdale in Lancashire, is the second largest onshore wind farm in England. Love them or loathe them, these wind turbines dominate the horizon in the surrounding areas. It was while walking around here recently, I decided to see if I could create something a little more aesthetically pleasing out of them & this is the result.

This image is the combination of six separate photographs taken using “continuous shooting” mode. Once they’re uploaded onto the computer open them all in ACR & click “select all” so that any alterations you make apply to every photo. Now open them in Elements & start combining them. To do this select the Move tool, hold down “Shift” & click the image you want to move dragging it onto the background image. This should create a new layer. Quickly check the alignment of this new layer by clicking its eye icon to hide & reveal it. If any movement has occured, reduce its opacity & use the Move tool to re-align it. With the opacity back to 100% (& the new layer selected) hold down Alt & click the Add Layer Mask icon. This adds a ‘hide all’ layer mask so you can only see the background image. Now select the Brush tool & with a soft edged brush (ensuring the foreground colour is white) paint the additional turbine blades in. Repeat these stages for each photo in the set until you have the completed image.

Panoramic photographs

Taking the photographs.

A tripod is essential here as you want to keep the horizon in the final image level. Ensure the tripod head is level using a hotshoe spirit level or maybe your tripod already has one built in? Also, mount the camera in portrait format to maximise the resolution of the final image.

Take a test shot of an average part of the scene ie. not the darkest or lightest, with your polariser off if you normally have one on. If, after checking the histogram, the exposure looks OK switch to manual mode & dial in these settings. In addition, change the WB to “daylight”.

Ensuring you have an aperture providing sufficient DoF to leave everything in focus (f/8 – f/11 is often fine) hold your hand in front of the lens pointing in the direction you’re going to shoot. This will usually be left as for most people it’s easier to shoot left to right. Begin taking pictures with a 30-40% overlap (this enables the software to stitch them together easier later on). After the last image, take another with your hand in front of the lens but pointing right this time. Now you’ll have a clear sequence of images to link together when you get home.

Stitching the images together.

In Photoshop Elements 12 open all the files in ACR. “Select All” so that any adjustments you make apply to all the images. Now save them as jpegs & place them in a folder somewhere easy to find. Go to Enhance>Photomerge Panorama in the photo editor, leave as “Auto” or try a different style as you please & browse to locate the files you’ve just edited. Highlight them all & click “OK”. Elements will now do its thing (which may take a while depending on how many images you took in the first place). Once complete, you’ll probably get a message asking you to clean the edges. Either click “Yes” for the computer to fill in the blank areas or, “No” to crop the stitched image yourself. If you went for the computer option you may find you need to tidy up the corners. If this is the case, use the lasso tool to ring the bits that look wrong & then “Ctrl + Alt” to grab a section of the picture & bring it down ontop of the area to be fixed. “Esc” to get rid of the Lasso.

Finally, the new stitched image will be huge so Layers>Flatten image before saving.

NB. If you’re using the latest version of Lightroom or Photoshop CC you can stitch directly from ACR. Click the filmstrip & select “Merge to Panorama”, choose your style & click “Merge”.

The Lasso Tool

There are three versions of the lasso tool:

  1. regular
  2. polygonal
  3. magnetic

Tip: “Ctrl & D” gets rid of the lasso tool selection.

The regular lasso tool is good for creating irregular patterns or shapes. Anything you want to draw freehand eg. a puddle on the floor.

The polygonal lasso tool (as the name suggests) is best for creating polygons. If you hold down “Alt” while using this tool though it reverts to the regular lasso tool (ideal for shapes that may have three straight sides & then a wavy fourth for example).

Tip: “Backspace” will get rid of the last click of the lasso tool without having to start all over again.

The magnetic lasso tool is used for tracing around objects. There are three adjustable controls within this lasso tool. Increasing the “frequency” will create more points around the object. However, too many can make the selection become jagged (50-60 is probably a good amount). The “width” setting dictates how far you can move the cursor from the edge of the object & still attach a point. It’s a good idea not to have this set too low. Finally, the “contrast” setting sets how much leniency you have from where you click & where the computer thinks you should put the point. A low value will place it exactly where it thinks the line should go (hence, a slightly higher value is preferable).

Once you have your selection you could add an adjustment layer & change the objects colour.

Smoke trails

A smoke trail portrait

After reading an article by Caroline Schmidt in January 2016’s edition of “Digital SLR Photography” magazine I was keen to attempt this technique. It’s fairly simple to do & although it can be somewhat hit or miss during the photography stage, the editing side is very easy.

Set up. Ensuring you have a black background (a cloth or as I used, sheets of black cardboard) place the incense stick & tray at least two to three feet in front. With your camera on a tripod, shoot in RAW, in Manual mode with ISO 200, shutter speed of one second & aperture f/8 to start with. If you find the smoke drifts towards the camera you may need to adjust the aperture to keep it all in focus. Place the flash gun behind & slightly lower than the incense stick. Make sure none of the flash illuminates the backdrop or hits the lens. With the room lights on, use single-shot AF to focus on the tip of the incense stick before switching to manual focus to prevent the camera from hunting. Now recompose the shot so the incense stick is out of the frame. Turn off the room lights & shoot away.

Editing. Open the image in Adobe Camera Raw & increase the “Clarity” slider to draw out the detail. Next increase the “Highlights” & “Whites” sliders before decreasing the “Blacks” & “Shadows” sliders until you’re happy with the contrast. Don’t worry if the image turns blue due to the ‘clipping warning function’ as there is no detail in the black backdrop anyway. To colour, create a new layer (Layer>New), set the blend mode to Color & use the brush tool to paint the smoke trail in your chosen colour. Adjust the Opacity of the layer to obtain the desired effect. You can add additional layers with different opacities if you wish.


Week 50: How to do a head swap – the easy way.

Open both images. Go to the image with the head you wish to keep. Duplicate the layer (Ctrl J) & use the “quick selection” tool to select the head. Edit>Copy.

Now open the image with the body in it & Edit>Paste. Click on the “move” tool to position the head. Ctrl T (transform image) will let you adjust the size of the head until it looks similar. You may want to decrease the opacity of the head layer in order to match the face below as accurately as possible. Click the tick to confirm once you’re satisfied.

Ensuring the head layer is highlighted you could use the “eraser” tool to rub out any untidy bits around the head eg. the neckline. However, a less destructive way to achieve the same result is to add a layer mask Layer>Layer Mask, ensure the foreground colour is black & use the brush tool to erase any bits (this way if you erase too much you can turn the foreground colour to white & paint them back in). Next, to help blend the two images together alter the opacity of the eraser to about 12% & using a soft brush, go around the entire head to feather the edges.

If you need to match the skin tone a little better, again with the head layer highlighted, go to “hue/saturation” & alter these settings until you get the desired effect. You could also use the “curves” adjustment after this step if you have the full PS software.