Tutorial: “The Highpass/Hard Light Look”

Here’s a more in-depth tutorial on the “Highpass/Hard Light” look. By the way, this probably has a better name, but no one’s ever told me it if there is.

[click “continue reading” below for more…]

First the lighting: This is shot in my living room. There is a piano behind me, as well as a beige wall. Where’d it go?? I set my shutter so that the background fell almost to black. I tried to balance it so there was perhaps a little ambient fill in the shadows on my face, but that has probably been negated by processing. The main light is an SB-28, set to full power, through a homemade grid (aka grid spot or honeycomb grid). I made it using drinking straws and a plastic gutter accessory. But that’s a story for a different time. The rim light is a Sunpak 333 with a “window green” gel on it, set to (I believe) 1/4 power. I set the flash to wide angle, and aimed it at the back of my head. Both strobes are triggered using cheap ebay wireless triggers.

But hey, this post isn’t about the lighting! It’s about the Photoshop.

So here’s my starting point. I exported the RAW file from Lightroom, made some super secret retouching steps to make myself look pretty (yes, this is me). I’ll go over those in a future post. As you can see, a handsome model but the image is very normal.

The first step is to hit shift-option-command-E on your keyboard, if you’re using a Mac. If you’re using a PC…well do we really need to get into that? Go buy a Mac, I’ll wait here.

This key command merges all visible layers to a new layer. See below for the result, which is a new layer that looks remarkably like the original. You won’t see a change to your image just yet, since the merged layer is just a duplicate, sitting on top of your existing layers.

With this new, merged layer selected, select Image -> Adjustments -> Desaturate. Your new layer will now be in black and white.

Now go to Filter -> Other -> Highpass. Enter a value of 100. Why 100? Because it seems to work. Feel free to experiment with other numbers, for different effects. Click OK. You should see something like this:

You can see above how the highpass filter has brought out some detail in the background (over my right shoulder) , that otherwise was not very visible. I mask that out later, along with the green rimlight (see below).

Now go over to your Layers menu, and with the merged layer still selected, choose “Hard Light” in the pop up menu above the layers.

The end result is what you see below. You could stop now if you wanted, but realistically you’re going to want some adjustments. The effect has a tendency to emphasize edges in weird ways, so you’ll probably mask some of that out. You might want to back off on the effect when it comes to skin, as it can make people look a little ugly sometimes. Sometimes I’ll paint out the skin but leave the eyes and everything else effected.

You’ll notice my screenshot (the image before last) includes a Hue/Saturation layer as well. This is an optional step, but it seems to go well with the general look. In this case, I didn’t desaturate everything. Rather, I left the green at normal saturation so as to retain the edge light effect. (See more on that below.) I did this by selecting all the other colors besides green in the Hue/Sat window, and reducing them by about -40.

If I were doing a family portrait, I would use a mask to remove this highpass/hard light effect from the faces and skin of the subjects, as well as remove the desaturation. Leaving only their clothese and the background effected. With something more commercial in nature, such as the Keith Clark or Model Portfolio shoots I blogged about recently, I’ll keep the effect on the skin but perhaps mask some of it out. In the image we’re working on here, I left it set to 100% for educational purposes, but then I masked out the green rimlight area. The effect can sometimes blow out color on edges of things. Below is the mask I created for the highpass layer.

And the final result, cropped so that my head is partially chopped off (just the way I like it). Some brightness/contrast adjustments too.

I should have shaved before taking this self-portrait. Ah well. Feel free to ask questions in the comments section.

7 thoughts on “Tutorial: “The Highpass/Hard Light Look”

  1. Hi Matt
    Thank you for sharing please don’t stop
    can you please do a tutorial on degrunge’ finding it hard to understand
    the one on retouch pro site

  2. Thanks so much. I had been admiring this photographers work who does the HARD LIGHT THING a lot.. like.. ALWAYS EVER. and a friend of mine assisted him yet he told him he had a special photoshop filter made just for him and that’s how he got the affect. so I now I know he just punches it a little bit more than most.


  3. Hey you’re welcome! Funny how some people seem to guard this and other techniques like they have some secret formula that is the only thing keeping them successful. Even Dustin Snipes seems to want to keep it a secret. I had originally posted the how-to in his blog comments, because about 90% of the commenters were asking him how to do that effect. Since he wasn’t answering, I put in a how-to. He then subsequently edited my comment: he removed the how-to part, and just kept my compliments in there! What’s the point of hiding it?

    A “special photoshop filter made just for him”…that’s funny. 🙂 Perhaps he did.

    It’s not the photoshop, it’s the photo!

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