Lee Howell is an Award-Winning Commercial photographer and creative retoucher based in the UK, specialising in advertising, fashion and contemporary editorial portraiture. Here, he shows us how he created his image, Walk on the wildside.
For this series I wanted to produce an ongoing body of work where the elements of the animal kingdom and classic city architecture are merged into the same imagery.
Wildlife and animals have always appealed to me since I was a boy, as well as being a keen wildlife photographer before becoming a professional commercial photographer and retoucher, which has meant that they have often played a significant role within the imagery I produce.
The concept off adding wild animals into urban settings is not new however and the Internet is abundant with others who have already done so to such great effect.
I am a huge fan of commercial photographer George Logan whose work is synonymous with this style, along with others such as Mikel Uribetxeberria and Ceslovas Cesnakevicius. So for me I had to take influence of what had been done before and produce work in my own particular style and anyone who is aware of what I do, knows that I produce works of fiction.
Playing with our perceptions of how things should look rather than photographing the thing itself and then usually adding an additional element of romantic escapism into the mix.
The final results are more often akin to paintings than photographs, where the viewer understands that the image before them depicts a scene that has been produced to meet a preconceived idea, which I had in my head and then set out to manufacture those elements to produce the final piece.
I make photos rather than take photos, however none of it would be possible without the tool of our trade, the camera, as all the individual elements that go to make the final piece are produced by photographic capture.
So this is how the first image in the series was constructed.
Travelling around the city, this was one of the first back plate shots I took, it was a great time of day, the shadows were getting longer, becoming more prominent due to the sun being low in the late afternoon sky. This helps gives the image more depth and structure, as well as adding that emotional connection with the viewer of the final composite piece that we’re after.
More often that not I replace the original skies in my imagery, mainly because the aesthetic quality of the clouds and colour tones very rarely matches that of the foreground content I’ve captured.
I have files of skies on the hardrives, which I have shot over the years. I carry a camera wherever I go and am always photographing various individual elements that may be used within my work.
For this particular composite I just wanted the warm tones of the sky, an image I had managed to capture from my apartment window, looking out over the Fourth in Edinburgh one evening.
With the sky image dragged over onto the working canvas, the blend mode can be changed to a number of options to give the desired result, Soft Light, Overlay, Multiply, it’s always best to try a number of them because often what you think will work best may not be the one that is actually used.
For this image Multiply worked just fine, though the opacity had to be reduced right down to get the desired effect.
Next step was to mask or cut out the foreground elements, as they weren’t to have any of the sky colour tones on them and I also wanted to increase the size of the chimneys on the left for better composition.
So now we have our foreground assets in place, along with the dome of the Scottish Register office also masked out with our new sky in the background.
For me the composite construction is a lot like putting a collage together, you put all of the different assets into place before doing all of the creative shading/dodging and burning to marry it all together.
From there the birds are added to the background, again these are birds are photographed against a white grey sky and the layer blend mode changed to Multiply, so no masking or cutting out.
The gibbons, photographed on a recent visit to Edinburgh zoo, are put in place and then masked out to remove their backgrounds.
With the gibbons masked out, the red flagged bunting is added, really to add that sense of mischief and story to the image, followed by the shadows for each of the individual foreground elements.
The shadows are crucial for making the viewers eye, which is incredibly perceptive, believe that the elements belong there. The shadows in this case is simply a copy layer of the asset above, in this case the gibbons and flags, turned a solid black and the opacity dialed down to match that of the other shadows within the image.
Some times within the image the shadows are soft, so a blur filter adjustment may need to be added but in this case the shadows are quite hard due to the time of day, so the blurring is just minimal.
It’s at this point I will usually do some dodging and burning, sometimes using those exact same tools, however much of my light and dark shading is done on an 18% grey fill layer, set to Soft Light and using the brush tool with white or black paint. This way it’s totally none destructible and can be edited, added to or reduced at any point in the postproduction process.
For the next step I made a black and white layer using Nik Software Silver Efex pro 2, dialing in a fair amount of structure and a little amount of vignette, though you can simply do this the usual way in Photoshop too.
For me I usually change blend mode of the black and white layer we’ve created to either Luminosity or Multiply, however you can see what the other modes give you, depending on the look your after.
In this case Luminosity added that bit of punch I was looking for with the added structure and at this point I added the fake misty sun with flare.
Simply changing the blend mode of the sun image layer to Screen to make the black in the sun layer disappear. This can be then dragged around the image to a place you’re happy with.
There are loads of fee flares online but to be honest, if I have no commercially work booked, I will often make up a few new flare effects, using different colour circles or shapes on a black background and merging or blurring them together, to pop into new backgrounds at a later date. It’s no different than recording sunsets, cloud formations or shooting backdrops to be used in future imagery, the aim is always to build up a library of usable material.
In between all of these steps above I am constantly going back and forth, dodging and burning/ shading on the grey layer or multiple grey shading layers to help marry up all of the individual elements.
Finally I add a colour grade to the final flattened layer, which can be done in a multiple of different ways in Photoshop, whichever suites your personal work flow best.
Sometimes I use a Selective colour adjustment layer, which is so easy to use and gives you control of pretty much all colour aspects of your whole image. Adjusting each of the colours within the image independently to suite the look you’re after.
A curves adjustment layer will do exactly the same thing, possibly with even more control, it really depends on what you’re comfortable with, and remembering you can change the blend model on these adjustments to give to a myriad of different creative options.
However I will add that I never just leave any image the same as how it came out of the camera, I colour grade pretty much every image in some way or another.
As much of my work is fairly gentle on the eye, filled with soft pastel colour tones, I usually draw back on the blacks somewhat with a curves adjustment, pulling the bar at the left mand side of the Curves graph up a little, putting a control point a third of the way up.
This is so the black’s aren’t black black, they end up being more of a graphite or charcoal black and I often add a little blue tone into them at the same time.
All this helps to meet that specific look and feel that I am striving for, however that is me and you will most likely be after something completely different, but we will use the same tools to achieve what we are after. That’s the beauty of Adobe Photoshop, a million ways to do exactly the same thing, it just a matter of finding which workflow suites you.
Top finish off I sharpen the final flattened image to taste as normal and I usually add a small amount of grain too, which helps cement all of the assets together and can reduce any banding within the image you may get from graduations of colour you sometyimes get, especially if working in 8 bit.
For this I used to add a 1% amount of noise via a noise filter but since Adobe made RAW as an accessible filter within Photoshop I tend to use that, the grain is more adjustable in size, and amount and looks more like real authentic analogue grain than by just adding noise.
And that’s it job done, nothing too technical, all fairly routine stuff if a little time consuming but all easily achievable to anyone with a bit of basic Photoshop Knowledge.
Nothing I do in Photoshop you would call advanced, it’s all fairly simple and straightforward. The hard part is coming up with the strong idea in the first pace and then working out how you’re going to get that image that’s in your head on to paper. or should that be computer screen these days.
More of Lee’s work: