All Aboard: 20 Layers in Photoshop

All Aboard

A few pictures leap right out of the memory card, through your printer, and into the eyes of admiring viewers, looking just like you expected when you took the picture in the first place. Very few.  Most digital images benefit from some time in the digital darkroom, and sometimes it can take several hours of computer work to create a finished image that is worth the price of a sheet of fine art paper.

The intriguingly rusty interior of  Shaker Heights Rapid Transit Car #76, a Pullman-Standard special for that line which served from 1947 to 1975,  motivated me to setup my Canon DSLR on a tripod and spend some time exploring angles and exposures.  For each of several different angles, I took 3 bracketed exposures, recognizing that the tonal range exceeded the capture ability of my camera.  The image below shows the ‘normal’ exposure for that image without any manual attention in Photoshop.

RAW image before postprocessing

My first step was to combine 3 images into a single HDRI image using Photomatix, and then tone map it back into a standard bitmap for editing in Photoshop.  The advantage of HDRI is that it allows you to equalize out the exposure, even on a high contrast scene, such as this shadowy streetcar interior surrounded by the bright sunlight.

High Dynamic Range techniques allow to pull a lot of detail out of the shadow, without blowing out the highlights. It is also an effective way to emphasize texture, so it is well suited to grotty and rusty subjects.  Its also easy to turn a photograph into a cartoon, with distorted and unnaturally vivid colors, and terminally high levels of dirty-looking mid tones.  If I was going to reprocess this image, I think I’d tone down the HDRishness, but printed on Velvet Fine Art paper, I’ve had nice compliments on this image, and it one a first prize at a camera club end of year competition.


The image above shows the multiple layers required to pull these surprisingly complex image together. The black & white rectangle visible to the right in most of the layers is a mask, allowing me to apply the effect to selected parts of the image.  I did a lot of local exposure correction to make the steps visible, to ensure that the seat was well lit, to open up some of the details, and to highlight the incredibly filthy window.  I ended up reconstructing the metal strip along the left side of the image to neatly frame it, and I copied the ‘rd’ from the mid-car door, pasting it here to complete ‘Aboard’.  I also pasted in the window and reflection behind it.  Some of the above layers were tonemapped through Photomatix, and some are from a single exposure. Confronted with different textures, I ended up doing different levels of sharpening to different parts of the picture.

Shaker Rapid #71 & #76

I love all the details in the interior, with the handset on the floor, and some kind of control box lying on top of a driver’s seat with a lot of miles under and over it.  The rust and grime, and decay are evidence of the authenticity of use and time. It did feel like I put a lot of Photoshop work into this image, but in comparison to the amount of time Ansel Adams spent in the darkroom on some prints, a couple hours isn’t so bad.  It’s the price you pay when you enjoy found subjects, instead of studio subjects, where light can be much better controlled.

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