Building transitional qualities into your images

 In Photography Tips, Post-Processing

In May 2017, Ken Koskela will be co-leading a photography tour to Guilin, China with Out of Chicago Summer Conference presenter Rick Sammon. For more information, check out their tour page at kenkoskela.com.

Great photographs often incorporate a transition between opposite characteristics. Examples include light and dark, warm and cool, and moving and still. In some cases, the transition occurs naturally in the scene. In many cases, however, you can build transition into your image during the shoot or in post-processing.

Transitions created or enhanced during processing need to look both natural and believable. I’ve gotten great results using luminosity masking for complex and abrupt transitions, as well as gradient masks when a more gradual transition is called for. I favor both of these techniques over brushes.

Here are some examples of the types of transition you can build into your pictures:

Warm to cool transition

A transition from a warm color (like orange, yellow or red) to a cool color (especially blue) can lead to a dynamic image. In landscapes, low-angled sunlight provides warm colors, such as in the image above of Mesquite Dunes. I like the dominating warmth of the dunes and sky, but the cool colors in the upper right-hand corner complete the image by adding some nice transition.

You can also add a warm to cool transition during post-processing, such as with the portrait below. The shipping container is red, which is a warm color. The light hitting the container in the upper right corner occurred naturally. To create a warm to cool transition, I added some blue using a color fill layer at low opacity and a gradient mask to smooth the transition. For me, this subtle transition made a big difference in the final picture.

Indonesian dock worker taking a break behind a shipping container

Indonesian dock worker taking a break behind a shipping container

Light to dark transition

Transition between light and shadow can make a picture appear three-dimensional. I waited for what I considered to be the optimal balance of light and shadow on the dunes before pressing the shutter button. In my opinion, those shadows are a must because they add to the transitional qualities of the picture.

Evening light striking the orange dunes at Deadvlei

Evening light striking the orange dunes at Deadvlei

The portrait image below was created using side lighting, also known as “split lighting.” This technique creates a pronounced, abrupt transition between light and shadow, resulting in a three-dimensional look.

Stylish woman decked out in a red hat and sunglasses against a dark background

Stylish woman decked out in a red hat and sunglasses against a dark background

Moving to still transition

I like pictures that include both stationary and moving elements. The picture below is one of my favorite examples of this because of the intense looking motion blur of the London Eye combined with the stationary buildings and trees.

London Eye spinning at night

London Eye spinning at night

Sharpness to blur transition

The eyes of the portrait subject below are sharp while the doorframe is blurry. This directs your attention to the eyes and away from the frame. During shooting, you can do this by selecting a wider aperture and positioning yourself closer to the subject, leaving more distance between the subject and the background. In this case, I accentuated it further in post-processing.

Close-up portrait of Indonesian man smoking in the doorway to his home

Close-up portrait of Indonesian man smoking in the doorway to his home

High contrast to low contrast transition

The image below transitions from a higher contrast foreground to a lower contrast and brighter distant background. This transition was part of the scene, but accentuated in post-processing with an adjustment layer and gradient mask.

Creek on Middle Prong Trail of Little River during Autumn.

Creek on Middle Prong Trail of Little River during Autumn

Conceptual opposites

On a related note, creating an image with opposing concepts (fast and slow, old and new, etc.) can make the viewer stop and think. The shot below isn’t an amazing picture, but it does convey a cool concept. The juxtaposition of two different types of flight in the same image makes you look a little longer at the picture. (In case you are wondering, this is not a composite, but was taken in a single shot with some lucky timing).

Two forms of flight represented by a lone seagull flying in front of the Blue Angels during the Chicago Air and Water Show

Two forms of flight represented by a lone seagull flying in front of the Blue Angels during the Chicago Air and Water Show

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