cross-tone portrait tutorial

Started Apr 28, 2004 | Discussions thread
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Daniel Chui Senior Member • Posts: 2,734
cross-tone portrait tutorial

A few people have asked me how I get the high-contrast, cross-toned portraits that I have been working on lately:



I'll try and write a step-by-step of my workflow of what I usually do, with pictures to show the effects.

A) New adjustment layer: curves.

B) Click on the black eyedropper and select an area on the image that you think should be "pure black".
C) Do the same for the white eyedropper, selecting pure white.


A) Using a duplicate layer, I usually use the SHADOW/HIGHLIGHT tool in photoshop CS to recover pure blacks like the guy's shirt. In this tutorial I forgot to do so on my test images (as indicated by the 1.75, which was added posthumously.) The final image was done a couple days ago, and has used SHADOW/HIGHLIGHT to recover shadow detail.


Oftentimes, in portraits, a person's face will be too dark for whatever reason. This is how I usually brighten up a picture:

A) New adjustment layer: curves. Set blend mode to screen.

B) Use layer masks to selectively brighten only the spots you need. This works very well as a post-processing flash-fill.

The same concept applies to darkening selective spots; just use a curve adjustment layer with blend mode MULTIPLY. For this shot, I found the wall behind him was distracting so I used a curves adjustment layer with a layer mask to make the wall less bright.

Why curves adjustment layers? Stay AWAY from brightness/contrast; this is very destructive and doesn't allow you to go back and check your work. Also stay away from dodging and burning. Do it all on layer masks so you can backtrack if you make a mistake.

This is how I get the B&W tonal range I want in an image:

A) New adjustment layer HUE/Saturation. Set blend mode to color.

B) New adjustment layer HUE/Saturation on of the color blend adjustment layer. Set saturation to -100%.

C) Adjust the "HUE" bar on the blend mode color HUE/Saturation layer until you get a tonal range that is believable and looks good for your B&W image.


Oftentimes, the lighting in my portraits leaves much to be wanted. This step requires a little bit of ingenuity and an understanding of the way light affects the way people look. I'd suggest reading Kevyn Aucoin's Making Faces (a book on makeup application) in order to learn what women do to flatter themselves. You'll find they shade certain spots with makeup to slim their features, or brighten others to highlight them - your job is to do the same thing in post-processing.

A) EYES: New adjustment layer LEVELS. Take the right most slider and blow out the highlights by moving it left a little bit. Hit Ctrl + I and paint back white (or a more subdued tone between black and white) so that the catchlights in their eyes are brightened. You had catchlights in the original shot, I hope; catchlights help give people a more "humane", warm look.

B) JAWLINE: New adjustment layer CURVES. Blend mode MULTIPLY. Hit CTRL + I. Again, paint back using something between black and white along the jawline (only if necessary. Wide faced people will often benefit from a little bit of tasteful shading).

This particular shot didn't need any jawline shading because I had handled that using subtractive lighting via a black board placed to the right of his face. Subtractive lighting is taking-away light from the subject to create a modeling effect.


Okay, sorry if you thought this would be easy... but this is an entirely different tutorial that I will link to here:

After reading the tutorial, you have to select the tones. In most of my sepia cross-toned shots, I use VERY subdued tones so that it is not too far from black and white; I find this produces a pleasing effect.

So the shot still doesn't jump out at you. Easy.

A) New adjustment layer: CURVES. Set blend mode OVERLAY.

B) Adjust opacity of the layer to suit. Usually around 20%-30% will do it for me without overpowering the image.


A) Shift + CTRL + N to create a new layer. Click "use all layers". Do your touchups on this layer using your tools of choice.

6.75) Sharpening:

Personally, I use EXTREME EDGE SHARPENING obtainable here:

7) That's about it. I am very nitpicky so I've left out minor details, suffice it to say I do extensive layer masking with curve adjustment layers set to multiply or screen in order to get the tonal ranges I want in my images.

I hope this is helpful. Any questions, let me know.

  • Chui

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