This post is very much a “Hat Tip” to David Ziser’s blog, DigitialProTalk. He recently published a post where he described a technique he calls Painting with Light and there’s demonstration video to go with it. This is my interpretation and attempt at using this technique.
For this to work well, you need to start off with a decent picture with interesting lighting – shadows and highlights. And to get the range and fine control you will need – working on a RAW image is crucial. This is a picture I took of Mila in the setting sun outside in our yard. The first thing to do to the image is convert it to grayscale. In his blog, David Ziser used the Saturation slider in the Basic panel, but I think this makes the image too flat and much prefer to turn my images into B&W by pressing the Grayscale button. This uses the Grayscale mixer which results in a better and more contrasty starting point (this is always just the first step in the B&W conversion process, but an important one). The next thing to do is to take the Exposure slider all the way down. You should leave yourself with just a few highlights but the image should be predominantly black and/or dark (yes, there is a difference!). You can use the Brightness slider to further tweak your image darker. Below, you see where I am at the start of the process, shown next to the original image. Note the histogram, everything in the Shadows region.
If you want you can tweak further with the contrast and Clarity slider. I put the Clarity slider down to about -50 to give the image a softer look. OK, now the fun begins.
Go into the Adjustment Brush and select an Exposure setting of about +2 (but this will vary according to the image so it’s very much trail-and-error from now on). Choose a largish brush and remember to switch the Auto Mask function off. Then, and this is the important bit, bring the Flow down to something around 65-70.
The Flow slider controls how much of the brush “makes contact with the paper” – at least that’s my understanding of it. So you can build up an effect slowly by repeatedly activating a brush over a spot in an image (I believe that Density would have a similar effect, but I found more control using the Flow).
So the idea now is to gently and selectively bring light back into the image, by slowly brushing it into the appropriate places. I found that sometimes brushing wasn’t good, and just pressing the cursor over a spot would work best. This was especially true around the face. Around the hair, in the small highlights, brushing or sweeping worked fine.
Now all you need to do is to just build up the effect, placing spots of light in strategic places to build up this quite attractive, soft lighting effect. Depending on your subject, change the size of your brush and the flow to slowly and gently build up the image. As you do, remember to activate a new brush each time you change a setting. To finish off the image, I used a small brush and boosted the Clarity (remember to turn the Flow back up to 100) in the eyes to give them some more definition and to serve as the focus of the image.
Of course, this can also work in opposite. Start from an image blown so that it is mostly in the highlights (crank the exposure all the way to the top and tweak with the Brightness) and then use Adjustment brushes with negative exposure. I guess that you would call this Painting with Shadows. I tried to do this with my image of Mila, but I’m not very happy with it – not as flattering as the low-key version above.