Blurbomat - Jon Armstrong - Budget Print tutorial image final tweaks

How to Turn an Ordinary Photo Into an Extraordinary Photo

I’ve often been asked about my process for tweaking photos. I thought I’d use one of my favorite photos and show how I took it from initial capture to final public display. I had forgotten how far I had taken this image from its initial capture:

Blurbomat - Jon Armstrong - Budget Print tutorial image final tweaks

click image to see larger version

As with all tools, there are many ways to accomplish the same thing. I found a set of techniques that work really well for taking a photo that doesn’t have the best light or isn’t shot at the perfect time of day and amping it up. You may have better or different techniques to accomplish similar things and I say to you things like, “Keep the hope alive.” And: “Awesome!”

I generally don’t like writing Photoshop tutorials, because my assumptions about everything are usually wrong. In this case, I wanted to write a fairly straightforward tutorial, but after showing a draft to Heather, decided to rework it substantially, with more screenshots and better explanations of the steps. This is not a beginner tutorial for Photoshop. This is an advanced tutorial. I hope it doesn’t frustrate you or confuse you.

Some assumptions
—You have access to Photoshop and know your way around some of the palettes. In particular, the Layer Palette. There are several buttons at the bottom of the Layer Palette. There are two that I’ll be making reference to; 1) The New Layer/Duplicate Layer and; 2) the Adjustment Layer button.


When I mention duplicating layers below, I mean you select the thumbnail/icon of the layer you want to duplicate and drag it to the New Layer button (#1 in the above illustration). This duplicates the layer and positions it above the layer you clicked and dragged.

—You have a photo that you’d like to tweak.

—You aren’t afraid to play around with sliders and settings.

Taking the picture
I might muck about with some settings on the camera, but I want to capture the vision in my head as close as I can while I’m in the moment. I might think about post-processing, but that’s pretty rare. I usually make a mental note of the kind of thing I want, click the shot and move on. This isn’t always the best way to work, but it’s how the image I’m using in this tutorial evolved.

So here’s our starter image:

Blurbomat - Jon Armstrong - Budget Print Tutorial - Base Shot

Click image to see larger version

Photoshop time
I always keep a layer in Photoshop of my original file, untouched and at the bottom of the stack in the Layer Palette. So the first thing I do is select the background layer and drag it to the New Layer button. This creates a layer of the same image that I can edit, calm in the assurance that if I do anything untoward, I can revert to my original without too much pain. After doing this, the Layers Palette looks like this:

The photo has pretty flat light and not a lot of mood. I love the low angle and of the six shots I took of the building and hydrant, this image shows the most promise by far. That pesky tall grass really is distracting. In my first sharing of this photo, I left it in throughout the processing. Big mistake. It’s out. I’m going to use the stamp tool and get rid of a few strands of tall grass. Since this is optional on whatever you might be working on, I’ll skip all the technique and screenshots, as that would likely be enough information to be its own tutorial. After several hours of painstaking use of the stamp tool it’s time to perform an Unsharp Mask:

Blurbomat - Jon Armstrong - Unsharp Mask - tutorial image

This is an entirely subjective thing. Use the three sliders to make your image sharper, without making it look like it came out of a digital camera circa 1997. Which would look like ass. Avoid looking like ass. I use the Amount and Radius settings to get what I want. There are times when the Threshold slider can help, but for speed, it’s all about a .4 to .9 pixel radius and a setting between 80% and 150% on the Amount slider. As with all the steps, the values you might use depend on your image resolution and degree of sharpness you want:

Blurbomat - Jon Armstrong - Unsharp Mask dialog window

With that, we are here:

Blurbomat - Jon Armstrong - Tutorial image

Click image to see larger version

Note that because this is a screenshot of a large image, you might not see much difference between the previous image and this one; when you do it yourself, you’ll see a dramatic difference that will change how you look at photos.

Time to Blur
The image is still very flat and there is very little contrast. Let’s take the layer we did the work on and duplicate it by selecting the layer and dragging it to the New Layer button. This will create the third layer in the image on top of the source/Background and the copy of the source we just finished working on. The Layers Palette looks like this:

Blurbomat - Jon Armstrong - Tutorial image

Apply a Gaussian Blur:


Blurbomat - Jon Armstrong - Guassian Blur menu

Blurbomat - Jon Armstrong - Gaussian Blur Setting

Click image to see a larger version

You’ll want to vary this based on how large your source image is. The larger the image, the higher you can set the blur. Our image now looks like this:

Blurbomat - Jon Armstrong - Copy Layer and Blur

Click the image to see a larger version

Bear with me. You’ll take this layer and change it’s layer settings in the Layer Palette. We’ll set the transparency mode to Multiply by clicking on the drop down menu that says “Normal” and selecting Multiply:

Blurbomat - Jon Armstrong - Multiply

Click the image to see a larger version

Still a little dark:

Blurbomat - Jon Armstrong - Duplicate layer

Click the image to see a larger version

Don’t panic yet. Set the Opacity of this blurred layer to 33%. This is in the top section of the Layer Palette next to the transparency drop down menu:

I know. Still a little dark, but we’re building a foundation. Of love:

Blurbomat - Jon Armstrong - Whoa too dark

Click the image to see a larger version

Mask It: It’s Like Cheese!
This is where the tutorial will take a turn for the fourth dimension. Masking images can be daunting and takes some time to get used to the concept and how layers can work for us. Think of the layers as a sandwich. The layer we will mask is the cheese layer of the sandwich. We’re going to take that cheese layer and turn it into Swiss cheese. We’ll use the mask to make holes in the image that will allow what is underneath to show through.

This step will rectify the darkness somewhat and is going to require some layer masking and painting on the masked portion of the layer. To do this, we’ll duplicate the blurred layer (the layer I’ve called “blur”) and add a Layer Mask to this new layer, selecting “Reveal All” in the submenu:

Blurbomat - Jon Armstrong - Layer Mask Set

Click the image to see a larger version

The effect we’re trying to get is to make the blacks darker and then mask out the parts of the image we want to keep light. This is where the drama and focal points come into play. In our case, the building and the hydrant are the two focal points we want to emphasize. This is what I saw in my head when I took the shot and what I want to achieve with the rest of the steps.

Your Layer Palette should have a mask icon next to the thumbnail of the image:

I took this shot after I did the work, to show what a Layer mask icon in the Layer Palette looks like. I used the brush tool and selected a basic brush with a blurred fall-off:
Blurbomat - Jon Armstrong - brushes

Make sure you select the mask icon in the Layer Palette before you start brushing, as you’ll destroy your masterpiece and want to throw things. Important: Masks are painted in grayscale, so I usually paint with black selected as the brush color and use varying flow rates and brush sizes to mask. In this case, I’ve painted black over the building and the hydrant. You’ll notice that it masks out the dark layer we just created and reveals the lighter layer underneath:

Blurbomat - Jon Armstrong - Start the Drama

Click the image to see a larger version

Save the Drama
We’ve started to make the image more dramatic. Now we need to work with Colors, Curves and Levels. We’ll be using Adjustment Layers, which are your best friend when doing work like this. Adjustment layers are non-destructive layers that sit in the palette wherever you’d like and can make playing around a lot less time consuming (reducing the number of Undos). The Adjustment Layer button is at the bottom of the Layers Palette (it’s the half dark/half light one):
Blurbomat - Jon Armstrong - Adjustment Layers

As you can see, there are a ton of options to play with. We’re going to start with Selective Color, as I want to bump up the yellows and reds:

Blurbomat - Jon Armstrong - 10 Now we are talking

Click the image to see a larger version

Still not quite where it needs to be, but much closer. I’d share shots of the color selections I did, but it’s always different for every photo. So while you can see my settings, they wouldn’t necessarily apply to the image you might be working on. Remember, it’s non-destructive. So tweak away. After we’re done, the Layers Palette looks like this:

Blurbomat - Jon Armstrong - Layers 5

We need to add some contrast, and I like using Levels for this, because I can control the blacks, whites and midrange with more precision than just using Brightness/Contrast. We’ll add another Adjustment Layer by clicking on the button in the Layer Palette and selecting “Levels”. This looks just like the regular Photoshop “Levels” command under the image adjustments submenu. Except this is non-destructive and as an Adjustment Layer, holds your settings should you want to tweak them later. After we do the Level adjustments, our Layers Palette looks like this:

Blurbomat - Jon Armstrong - Layers 6

Which gives us:

Blurbomat - Jon Armstrong - Almost Done

Click the image to see a larger version

Almost Done
The image is very close to being done. But I want just a tiny bit more light on the hydrant and a hint of a vignette. There are many ways to do this, but at the time I worked on this image, Photoshop didn’t have either Camera Raw or the Lens filters to add vignettes. So I did it using Lighting Effects.

We’ll take the blurred layer that isn’t masked and duplicate it. So we’ll be selecting the layer called “blur”, dragging it to the New Layer/Duplicate Layer button. Once the layer is created, we’ll drag it in the Layer Palette so that it is at the top of the palette, above the two adjustment layers we just made. Our Layers Palette looks like this:


Then we’ll select this layer and do the Lighting Effects:


I used these settings in the Lighting Effects panel:

Set the transparency on this layer to Overlay and the Opacity to 33%:

We are almost there. It still needs just a touch of lightening overall, and I like to use Curves to accomplish this. We’ll make a new Adjustment Layer by clicking the icon in the Layers Palette and selecting “Curves”. A simple adjustment lightens up the image enough to recapture some of our highlights. Our Layer Palette looks like this:


Blurbomat - Jon Armstrong - Budget Print tutorial image final tweaks

click image to see larger version

And boom. We’re there. This concludes the Photoshop tutorial.

  • joh3n

    Awesome. Thanks to you and a very old thanks to Heather for the tutorial on how to Doocify images, of which this technique appears to be an upgrade to.


  • Gigi Frankenstein

    ditto on what joh3n says- i learned this technique (or the bones of it anyway) from heather a while back, and i love it. it makes photos look so good that i want to eat them.

  • Brandy K

    Seriously, if you’re ever looking for something to do, as someone who works for and with educators, I know there is always a need in every (geographic) area for someone who can teach Photoshop-and do it without making it sound like Greek. The pay’s not great, and you gotta have patience with the folks who think their Sony cameras will only work on Sony computers…but it is generally very rewarding!

  • jen

    great tutorial. i have been using photoshop for 15 years and still find that there is so much to learn – and i learned a lot from this. so thanks!

  • imjeffp

    Jon, have you experimented with HDR any?

  • chefgirl

    I don’t know if you have the inclination to do so, but you would be a fantastic teacher for beginning and advanced photographers alike. I myself know nothing about photography and would love to take either private or group lessons (too bad I’m in Chicago). I think this is something that you could turn into a lucrative side career, if you wished. You and Heather could even do it as a team (of course, you’d have to watch out for the fanatics who would just want to get close to Heather). Geez, you guys could even have specialty workshops. Nature, animals, children, etc. THink about how well a workshop on shooting children’s photographs would go over in a place like Utah. You have a ready made market.

  • Hemlock

    Holy crapola. I think I’ll stick with Auto Contrast, Colour and Levels for now.

    One of these days, I’ll give this one a try.

  • rivetergirl

    I thought I knew my way around Photoshop. Your tutorial showed me that I have barely scratched the surface. Cool! Thanks.

  • jenB

    Jon, this was both amusing(in a you are funny kind of way) and very helpful! thanks!

  • theinadvertentgardener

    Since I started blogging, I’ve started using Photoshop and, when I need to be speedy, Adobe ImageReady to get my photos where they need to be for the site. It’s been so fun to work with the images, and I’ve learned so much about Photoshop techniques already.

    I’d tried playing around some with the Dooce effect already, but this is going to be equally, if not more, fun to play with! You and Heather create kickin’ images — if I can even get part of the way up that ladder, I’ll be excited.

    Thanks for sharing this info and knowledge!

  • jon deal

    That’s nice stuff.

    Though the pre-press dork in me wants to point out the you must NOT forget to change it from RGB to CYMK. You can only do Lighting Effects in RGB. :-]

    And I’d like to take a moment and AGAIN ask Adobe to make effects like “Unsharp Mask” be layer-able.

  • Shalini

    I so want a macintosh computer.

  • leahkay

    Thanks, Jon. You’ve added even more credence to my claim that Photoshopping is not cheating but an artform unto itself. A mediocre photographer can be a fantastic Photoshopper, and I don’t think that makes her any less of an artist.

  • madge

    Quotes like this one: “Which would look like ass. Avoid looking like ass…” make me wish you actually wrote graphics tutorials for a living. They are usually so freaking boring I immediately lose interest and have to go figure out what to do through trial and error for the nine bazillionth time.

    Seriously. I’m not talking a whole book, but maybe a master class series?

  • ColleenS

    Fantastic tutorial. You did a great job of explaining it.

  • Wayne

    Thanks for this, Jon.

  • jon deal

    Also, I’d just add that the key (IMHO) to getting good results with “Unsharp Mask” filter is to preview your results at 100% at the size of the finished piece. And yes, it’s entirely subjective how much Unsharp Masking you need to do.

    Also, Unsharp Mask can affect the “lightness” of the image so you have to be careful about going too far with it. Unsharp Mask compares the relative densities (contrast) of the pixels and puts small halos of light pixels in the image to give the appearence of sharpening. But I do work that is far less artistic and much more about color fidelity, so that’s why I wait to sharpen until just before I hit “Save.” That way I can easily hit Undo and start tweaking my color correction layers if need be.

    Man, I loves me some Photoshop.

  • Twinmama

    I guess the only other suggestion I would add is “don’t forget to save final as a .psd.” I am continually kicking myself for saving photos like this with many layers and tweaks only as jpg (thinking it’s ready to upload), only to change my mind about one niggling little thing and have to start over completely because I was SO STUPIDLY CONVINCED I was really done when I saved it as a jpg and closed Photoshop. Don’t be stupid like me.

    Here’s a photo I recently worked on where I’m glad I finally remembered the ever-important .psd, cuz I changed my mind about everything I did to it originally.

    I had Heather’s old tutorial saved as a Photoshop action once but it got corrupted and I lost it, grrrr. I think I had called it “Mashed Tatoes.”

    Shalini: you can do all of this on a Winblows computer with Photoshop. But as per above, I recommend making backups of your prefs file once in while.

  • moonrattled

    Thanks for this. I’ve been working with layers and effects for awhile now, but learned a lot today!

  • Be Still

    I’ve admired this pic for some time now on Flickr. Thanks for pulling back the curtain on how you did it!

  • Torrie

    Holy shit. That is awesome.
    I have so much to learn. All I really do to my photos is adjust the contrast and saturation. A friend bought me a great photoshop book, but I’m having trouble learning from it. I need someone to sit at the computer and teach me.

  • Kristen

    and every photography professor i’ve ever had would argue with you whether or not what you did would still be considered photography. lol

    but thanks so much for that tutorial. as stated by many others before me, teaching photoshop is a hard job. i love tutorials with screen caps of the steps. :)

  • blurb

    Kristen, did every photography professor you had hate Ansel Adams?

  • Lessie

    I like this post. Thanks for sharing.

    Had to share some of my own thoughts.
    In this
    you look SOOOOO much like Leta!

  • rivetergirl

    I did it!! I can follow directions! Thank you so much. If you’re interested, you can see the final version here: and I posted a before and after on my blog, too (totally giving you props for hookin’ a sistah put)

    Really, thanks! You’re awesome. If you’re ever driving West, stop in Grand Junction and I’ll buy you a beer or three.

  • rivetergirl

    Oh and sorry for the numerous comments, but I wanted to comment on Kristen’s comments.

    While I’ve only dabbled in photography myself, I’ve studied art and photography for many years (and even teach art appreciation) and I don’t see how anyone could argue that this isn’t photography. It’s an image taken with a camera therefore a photograph. The fact that it was altered in the developing process is what all great photographers do.

  • nobledesign

    I really want to thank you, Jon, for making this tutorial. I always learn something from watching how others use Photoshop. I’m always saying, “Hey, I didn’t know that button did that!” much the way a young boy might… nevermind.

    Killer photog workage.

  • inash

    Ok…I want to post this now to nip this discussion in the bud because we’ve been through this on blurbomat before.

    Saying a touched-up photo is not photography is like saying highlighted hair is no longer hair, or that a muralled wall is no longer a ‘real’ wall.

    Must we question everything? Do we really have nothing better to do or think about?

  • becky

    i took a photoshop class this summer. so glad i did, as i understood the tutorial and would love to try some of this.

    excellent work with the instructions and screen shots, jon. thanks for sharing.

  • echo8322

    thank. you. so. much. for sharing this!

  • olya

    The image that you get looks pretty much as a HDR image. can we call it a HDR one? If not what is the difference?

  • Kristen

    I disagree with the whole ‘it’s not photography’ statement. The 2 art schools I’ve attended would consider this ‘digital imaging’. The professors just had the mentality that any touch up or manipulation not done in a darkroom or with camera settings would make the photo no longer a photo and therefore a digital piece of art. I think many of the professors are just bitter over the whole digital movement.

    I prefer the whole process of developing film and being in a darkroom over sitting in front of a computer to do my photography. Maybe it’s just because I myself am a graphic designer and I miss the hands on feeling that I get when developing and processing film. But I also like to scratch my negatives and manipulate my photos in other ways in a darkroom, which are somethings that can easily be done in photoshop.

    The last professor I had was starting to warm up to the whole digital movement. He had an eye for a photo to where he could tell you what film was used and any kind of manipulation that was used on the camera settings. So I think when he saw something foreign done in photoshop he was thrown-off. It’s hard to teach an old dog new tricks. lol

    I know there are other debates about this as well. It’s not just something my professors thought of. When I applied for a job awhile ago and showed my portfolio, I ended up explaining the process of some of my photos I had taken because they were dumbfounded it wasn’t done in photoshop. And then the otherway around as well.

    Whatever I was taught, I believe it’s photography. I grew up in the digital age. And actually, my one professor loved Adams. Anyone who can manipulate a photo using just a camera and a darkroom was his best friend. Kind of hypocritical, I know.

  • Solistella


    My college photography teacher was the same way, but I think it was because she was so hardcore about technical perfection. I could take a photo with amazing composition and lighting — but forget it if there was even a peice of dust on the negative when I created my print.

    I think it really comes down to a love for the craft, much like a painter prefers the feel of the brush and the weight of the paint and the sound it makes on the canvas. That sort of painter would say that using Adobe Illustrator is “not art.” It’s just a different mindset.

    I personally find myself much more at home in Photoshop then I do in a darkroom. There’s so much more you can do, your creativity is unlimted, you can always delete a layer (or Apple-Z) if you take a wrong turn. And it doesn’t smell like a fix bath. :)


  • moonrattled

    Jon, just thought I’d pass along – since I know how much effort putting this entry together must have taken – that by religiously following your instructions, I was able to vastly improve web cam screen grabs from an elephant sanctuary. Plus I learned some short cuts that I didn’t know about before.


    P.S. I hope you post more Photoshop lessons/tips! I think you’d get quite a draw for these because your communication style makes learning easy.

    I’m also appreciative of your tip about Lightroom. I’m lovin’ that product.

  • elize

    Hi Jon,

    you were featured on a dutch news site today. Thought you might want to know ..

    Love the pics

  • blurb

    Elize, thanks for the notice and welcome Dutch people!

  • 180/360

    Thank you SO much for sharing your knowledge. You are so funny! I loved this tutorial and can’t wait to try it out.

  • MidgetViking

    Hi! Just tried this tutorial and wanted to add my voice to the many thank yous – it’s certainly added to my PhotoShop repertoire!

  • http://none Imagol4

    WHY?! would you do this to a perfectly fine photograph? The “starter image” is clean, well lit, and seems to accurately portray the images in the picture. What you ended up with, on purpose I might add, is a photo that looks as if you took it at the wrong angle, at the wrong time of day, in the wrong light, and is slightly out of focus, as if you moved the camera during the shot. This is NOT “artistic” at all, it is just crap. Your tutorial should have started with the crap picture from the end, and used the techniques described to arrive at the picture you started with. That would still have illustrated the PhotoShop techniques, which was your point, but it would have been much clearer to the audience how each step could have improved their own crap pictures into something truly worth looking at.

  • Dhaval

    Cool man…

  • mifrah

    Ok. You have me here. I am total idiot at photoshop but i am a keen learner; oh well, at least if i am explained things thoroughly! i just had my convocation today and sadly few prized pictures (digital of course) have come blurred because of a slightly unsteady hand of the photographer. Tell me, is there anything i can do to save it?

  • Joe Philipson
    • blurb

      That’s one of the effects I wanted to mimic… Ironically, it was this comment that first introduced me to the Orton Technique. I figured somebody in the film world had stacked negatives in an enlarger…

  • blurb

    Mifrah, there’s not a lot you can do to change a blurred photo. You can try sharpening, but that only gets you so far.

    Joe, you might want to look here and then hit this:
    Google search on Dooce effect

  • Sean

    That’s awesome! I usually just do a guassian blur on one layer, a motion on another then set them to overlay or soft light (depending on the picture).

    Awesome tutorial.

  • Robert

    Can any port this tutorial to GIMP?

  • wirehead

    You should do the sharpening at the final resolution as the last step. Don’t do it straight off.

  • DocZayus

    This is sooo cool !

    I just “Stumbled” in and saw this.

    Awesome !

  • Jason

    Veeeeeeeeery nice tut.
    Thank you.

  • kiku

    And like DocZayus, I got this off StumbleUpon too.

  • Emory

    Came via Stumbleupon, too. Thx!

  • Lili

    Great tutorial. I really helped me understand adjustment layers. Thank you for sharing!

  • tracce

    Interesting comments.. 😀

  • Brian

    Great post! Thanks for sharing these tips

  • Flutterbot

    Really terrific post, thank you for the “non-tutorial” Tutorial! :) I’ve been trying to learn as much as I can about Photoshop.

    Thanks again.


  • Betsy Barron

    You rock, Mr. Dooce! I hate working with layers and your tutorial was so easy to understand and I just created a really great image out of a picture I was about to toss b/c it was flat. Thanks so much for posting this and please, post more PS tricks… EVERY DAY!

  • Nishanthe

    Cool effect. Thank you for the nice tutorial.

  • Becky

    I have bookmarked this page, meaning to try it forever.. finally this afternoon, managed to muck about without a lot of finesse. But oh, what fun it was. Thanks so much for a nice tutorial written with a steady hand and no info overload. I can’t wait to have more fun with it. Yay, Blurbomat!

    Photo here in all its ragtag glory:

  • Inès

    Thanks for the tutorial, I’ll try to do it !!

  • Cecilia

    Great tutorial, makes me want to call it the Minor White technique for Photoshop, or something. Here are picts I tried using your tutorial:

    You and yr wife’s blog is really neat! Ex-mormons are cool.

  • Ruben

    Great tutorial, I also tried it and here ‘s from what I’m started:

    to what I became:

    and what added afterwards:

    many thanks,

  • Idetrorce

    very interesting, but I don’t agree with you

  • danthro


    Just wanted to thank you for this tutorial! Used it on a few photos as a total novice and it really got me started in doing post processing beyond what picasa does. I still use parts of it, though not step by step exactly the same anymore. A few times people commented asking me for my technique, so I gave them the link back to here. Thanks again!

  • Elsita :)

    Thank you sooo much for your generosity on sharing your technique! It is very appreciated. Thank you again!
    Elsita :)