Guest article by Joel Wolfson

Beyond Realism: From Real to Surreal in 10 StepsAbout the author: Joel is published internationally and his roster of notable clients include Newsweek, Elle, Seventeen, Houghton Mifflin, and corporate clients such as Apple, AT&T, 3M, United Airlines and Pillsbury. His technical articles on digital imaging have been translated for use in more than 30 countries. Yet he is best known for his artistic images and unexpected views of everyday places around the globe.

Normally I go to great lengths to capture and present my subject as I saw it. This approach is based on realism when communicating the experience; whether the awe of a beautiful landscape, the intrigue of ancient architecture, or conveying the essence of a person in a portrait.

Beyond Realism: From Real to Surreal in 10 StepsWhat happens if you take this concept to more of an extreme and go beyond realism? I’ll show you how I created the surreal fantasy image just below. It started as a photo of my two dogs exploring tide pools on their first ever visit to the ocean (above).

It took ten steps using Lightroom, Photoshop, and two Topaz plugins: ReStyle and Glow, to create the image below. The beauty of these two plug-ins is they have so many presets from which to choose. So if you haven’t learned the plugin yet, you can easily try a variety of push-button effects until you find one that fits your image.

©J Wolfson_When I am with Gypsy 500px

Here are the 10 steps I used to create it:

  1. RAW is blah. I started in Lightroom and adjusted the RAW file to bring it back to a natural state as you see in the first image above. (For those not accustomed to working with RAW files, the images come out of the camera looking somewhat flat and require some adjustments to make them look more like the original scene.) Typically they require some increase in contrast and/or clarity, a bit of saturation, and of course, capture sharpening. These everyday tasks can also be done in Photoshop and/or with plugins such as Topaz’s Clarity and Detail.
  2. Photoshop. After bringing the adjusted image into Photoshop, I selected and duplicated the Background layer (Cmd-J/Ctrl-J). I renamed the layer “ReStyle”. I always label my layers with something that indicates what I did with it, so I know if I need to go back to a particular layer and change it or just want to remember what I did. I made sure to select that layer and go up to my Filter menu and pull down to Topaz Labs > Topaz ReStyle launching me into the ReStyle plugin.
  3. ReStyle. In ReStyle I clicked on the Night collection in the upper left and chose the preset Electric Blue Lights. I then clicked OK in the lower right corner to save the preset back into the layer in Photoshop, yielding this:Low Tide Dogs
  4. Layer mask. Selecting the “ReStyle” layer, I created a mask in this layer by going up to the Layer menu and pull down to Layer Mask > Reveal All (or simply click on the Layer Mask icon at the bottom of the Layers palette). I then selected the layer mask by clicking on it and then selecting the brush from the tool palette (B), choosing pure black as my foreground color (also in the tools palette.) With the brush selected I change the opacity (top left) to 30 percent and lightened the background rocks by painting the brush in those areas. The mask looks like this:Beyond Realism: From Real to Surreal in 10 StepsLow Tide Dogs
  5. Merged layer for Glow. Because I want the net effect of what I’ve done to be the basis for using my next plugin, Glow, I make sure this layer is selected, and then hold down the Option key while selecting Merge Visible under the Layer menu. This creates a new layer combining the stack below it. I relabeled this layer “Glow.”
  6. Glow using blending mode. Inside the Glow plugin, I selected the Neon category of presets from the top pull-down menu. I chose the Natural Neon III preset, which looked like this: Beyond Realism: From Real to Surreal in 10 StepsBefore clicking OK, I used the Blend Mode pull-down and chose the Screen blending mode which has an overall effect of making the image lighter like this:Beyond Realism: From Real to Surreal in 10 Steps
  7. Layer mask in Photoshop. Although I like the look of the colored electrical charges in some of the photo, it’s a little too overpowering in the background rocks and tends to distract one from the main point of interest. So, I created a mask in this layer and brushed out the effect on everything but the beach and rocks just behind the dogs. This time I have set the brush for 100 percent opacity. The resulting mask looks like this:Beyond Realism: From Real to Surreal in 10 StepsAnd the resulting masked image in this layer looks like this: Beyond Realism: From Real to Surreal in 10 Steps
  8. Preparing for a trip to Glow. With the rocks back to a pre-Glow state, they don’t fit in with the rest of the image. Therefore I brought them back into Glow and used the same effect as before (but will ultimately make it much more subtle once I get it back into Photoshop in the last step). For now, like in step 5, I used the Option (Alt on PC) Merge Visible combination to duplicate the layer including the masking I just did. I relabeled it “Glow- background” and launched the image into the Glow plug-in again.
  9.  Glow plugin for the background. Once again, I choose the Neon category and selected Neon Natural III, but this time left it in the default Blend Mode of Normal. It doesn’t look much like what I had in mind, but all I’m looking to do here is to use only the colors from the effect in Glow so I can make the background rocks fit in better with the rest of the scene. I have to mentally block out everything except the color in the background rocks. Clicking OK in Glow, I have now returned to image back to Photoshop with the image in my “Glow- background” layer looking like this:Beyond Realism: From Real to Surreal in 10 Steps
  10. Blending mode…mask…final image. The way I accomplish my task is two-fold: First I go to the pull-down menu in the layer palette just to the left of Opacity and change the blending mode in this layer to Color. As the name implies, it only reveals the color information without all the neon effects. You might ask why I don’t use the blending mode in the Glow plug-in? The simple answer is that there isn’t a Color blending mode in the plug-in. But even if there were, I would still do it in Photoshop because there are several layers and masks beneath this one that affect it (when you’re in Glow, the blending mode is only affected by the base image with which you came into Glow). Here’s the image after changing the blending mode to Color: Beyond Realism: From Real to Surreal in 10 StepsSecondly I create a mask and use the brush tool (similar to Step 7) and mask out everything but the background rocks because that’s all I want to add with this layer. Here’s the mask:Beyond Realism: From Real to Surreal in 10 Steps

And Voila! Here’s the final image:

©J Wolfson_When I am with Gypsy 500px

Behind the Image – A Personal Note

I titled this image “When I Am With Gypsy.” The dog in the foreground dipping her paw in the tide pool is Gypsy. She and Astro (the one behind her), were both rescues and the closest of friends. In people terms, they adored each other and did everything together. Gypsy passed away a little over two years ago at the ripe old age of 15. Astro will be 15 in July and is showing her age. So the meaning of the title is a double one. It can bring tears to my eyes when I look at it.

For more examples and a step-by-step video of additional images see the expanded version on Joel Wolfson’s blog.

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