This article originally appeared as “The Puppet Master” in the Pro Techniques section of the print magazine Scuba Diver Through The Lens (SD Issue 4/2014, TTL No. 11, pp. 80–85), published by Asian Geographic Magazines in association with DPG. Get your subscription to the successor magazine, Scuba Diver Ocean Planet, in the DPG Shop.
Photoshop (transitive verb): to alter (a digital image) with Photoshop software or other image-editing software especially in a way that distorts reality (as for deliberately deceptive purposes).
– Merriam-Webster Dictionary
When I first started taking pictures underwater, a good shot earned me respect and bragging rights. People knew that to capture a special image often meant I’d travelled thousands of miles to strange and remote locations with a mountain of gear, braving unpredictable living conditions, monsoons, and civil war, all in order to get the shot.
Now that I’m an experienced image editor with a little bit of street cred, the time and effort I exert in pursuit of a photo is moot. When I land a great shot everyone assumes it’s been “Photoshopped”, meaning edited beyond the accepted basics of cropping, adjusting contrast and sharpening.
The manner in which image data is collected by digital cameras requires some degree of post-production to compensate for the lack of sharpness and contrast inherent even in correctly exposed captures. Venturing beyond the basics into more advanced editing territory is sure to invite controversy.
Advanced post-processing has been around for years. Long before the advent of Photoshop, dodging, burning, cross-processing and compositing have been staples of darkroom denizens, as evidenced by this quote from Ansel Adams, who elevated such effects to an art form: “Dodging and burning are steps to take care of mistakes God made in establishing tonal relationships.”
Image manipulation was a hallmark of Adam’s work, yet he was considered a master of his craft, and never taken to task because his images had been “Darkroomed”. He used the most advanced tools at his disposal, and he used them well.
The Post-Processing Debate
It’s my observation that many digital editing detractors know precious little about the editing process, and are either unwilling to embrace new technology, or more likely just can’t figure it out. Let’s face it – film is dead. So should be the concept that any image adjusted in post is somehow less legitimate than an original RAW file or film negative.
Those who attack image editing from a position of ignorance are just as bad as an equally misled school of shooters who claim that any bad image can be “fixed” in post. Both factions are missing the point and undermining the ultimate potential of their images. The happy marriage of solid photographic technique and skilled editing just can’t be beat.
Please notice that I said skilled editing. I recently read an opinion piece entitled “Just Photostop, Already!” in which a well-known underwater photographer railed against the evils of digital photography and Photoshop, even claiming “moral superiority” (his words) for never having owned a copy of the software. The article went on to describe his abundant diving and shooting skills, which I’m sure are beyond question.
What I do question is the implied premise that using Photoshop somehow translates to unskilled shooting. Skilled image editing and skilled shooting are not mutually exclusive. I agree there’s nothing worse than heavy-handed post. I’ve seen plenty of perfectly lovely images ruined because they were over-saturated or sharpened to a crisp. On the flip side, I’ve seen more than a few anti-editing “purists” employ brazenly unethical methods to get a shot.
Ethics vs. Aesthetics
The battle between ethics and aesthetics is at the root of all image editing controversy. Ethics are a set of rules that we invent to define our notion of good and bad – moral values that conform to accepted standards of conduct. Aesthetics deals with the nature of artistic expression, taste, and beauty. In any conversation about manipulating images, we’ve got to deal with the question of when the pursuit of aesthetics begins to violate a code of ethics. The grey area of this discussion gets fuzzier every day as new technology continually redefines the way we’re able to interpret photographic data.
Every photo is an interpretation of sorts. The camera, lenses and lighting all contribute to a departure from objective, scientific reality. Consider high dynamic range (HDR) imaging. Our eyes can see the entire dynamic range represented by an HDR image, but most cameras can’t match that in a single frame. So which is more accurate: the unedited photo that’s limited by the camera’s technical capabilities, or the composited HDR image, which combines exposures from several otherwise identical images to more closely represent the scene as our eyes would see it?
When all is said and done, what really matters is the ultimate intent for the image. If a photo is intended for documentary or journalistic purposes, then a set of ethical considerations applies, which requires accuracy and honesty from the shooter. If only aesthetic considerations are at play, then anything goes.
Puppet Warp Tutorial
On that note, let’s take a look at an advanced technique in Photoshop that purists would consider a cheat, but is a fantastic tool for those not so worried about bending reality. It’s called Puppet Warp. The goal in this example is to change the fin position of a model, but it’s great for all kinds of adjustments, big and small, that can significantly improve the impact of an image. A video tutorial of this technique is available at www.backscatter.com/goaskerin.
1. Open the image in Photoshop and duplicate the background layer. The keyboard shortcut is CTRL+J (⌘+J on a Mac).
2. Select the model with a selection tool of your choice. An accurate selection at this point will mean less work later, but it doesn’t have to be perfect.
3. With the selection around the model active, use CTRL+J (⌘+J) to put the model into her own layer.
4. Turn off the visibility of the model layer. Clicking the Eyeball on the left side of the layer toggles its visibility on and off. You won’t see the image change, because the pixels are exactly duplicated underneath.
5. CTRL-click (⌘-click) on the thumbnail of the model layer to reactivate the selection.
6. With the Background Copy layer active, use the keyboard shortcut SHIFT+BACKSPACE (SHIFT+DELETE) to summon the Fill Dialog Box. You can also access the box from Edit > Fill on Photoshop’s main menu. Choose Content Aware Fill from the drop down menu, and hit OK. Combine the result of Content Aware Fill with other cloning and healing tools to remove the model, at the same time rebuilding the background behind her.
Content Aware Fill analyses the pixels in the image and decides what’s needed to fill in the reef behind the model. Though it’s a mind-blowingly powerful tool, most images require a bit of additional cleanup after it’s been applied. How well Content Aware Fill works depends in large part on the complexity of your picture. On a blue water background it does an amazing job right out of the gate, but if there’s reef or other structure in the selected area, you’ll have to use a little elbow grease to make it look good. I followed up here with the healing brush and patch tool. Make sure to check your work at 1:1.
7. Toggle the visibility of the model layer back on, and make that layer active. Go to Edit > Puppet Warp. On the Puppet Warp Tool Bar you’ll find options to hide and show mesh, to make the mesh more or less dense, and to choke or expand the selection. Until you’re better acquainted with the tool, I recommend sticking with the default settings, with the exception of the mesh visibility, which I toggle off from time to time to have a better view of what I’m doing.
8. Each time you click on the mesh, you add a pin that locks down that area of the image. You don’t need many to do the trick. I put one near the top of her head, in the middle of her torso, then a couple more at the shoulders and hips to keep those areas from moving. A selected pin has a white centre.
9. Next add pins along her legs at the joints and onto her fins. Click on a pin to activate it and drag it to move that part of the image into position. You can manipulate more than one pin at a time by clicking on the first to select it, then SHIFT-clicking on subsequent pins. You can delete pins by holding down ALT (OPTION) and clicking when you see the cursor turn into a little pair of scissors.
10. Keep adding pins to make more specific adjustments until it looks right.
11. When you’re finished adjusting the model’s pose, zoom in to at least 100% and check your work. Click the checkmark at the top of the screen to commit the changes, and touch up the background if needed.
About the Author: Erin Quigley is an Adobe ACE certified digital imaging consultant specialising in customised workflows and editing strategies using Adobe Photoshop and Lightroom. She is an award-winning underwater photographer and editor, and creator of GoAskErin.com, which provides custom tutorials and one-on-one instruction specifically developed for the underwater photographic community.