Separating Foreground from Background in your Photos

When you attend a workshop or presentation by such notables as John Paul Caponigro or Vincent Versace, they talk about adding dimension to a flat, two-dimensional photograph. They teach what visual artists have understood for hundreds of years; how to use the manner in which the eye perceives to influence a viewer’s experience of a photo. A few maxims to observe, that

  • Warm colors rise, while cool colors recede
  • More saturated colors come to the front, while things in the background appear less saturated
  • Distant objects have less contrast than close objects.

This article demonstrates a relatively straight forward way to use these principles to help separate foreground objects from the background in a photo. You can accomplish this in Photoshop by creating two layers of the same photo. One layer servers as the background and a warmer, more saturated layer gets brushed over it. This rather simple approach allows a modicum of control over the effect and the ability to tweak the final result. However, the techniques you would learn from John Paul Caponigro or Vincent Versace offer a much finer degree of control over the final image. I would recommend that you invest in one of their workshops, books, or DVDs. Alternatively you can find some of their classes offered through Kelby Training.

To get started with this tutorial, consider this sample that comes straight from the camera as a RAW file with no adjustments.

The final image draws one’s eye to the main actor in the photo separating it from its background. In contrast to the original, the crocus now appears to be bathed in a warm glowing light.

Start with a reasonable base image in Lightroom or Bridge. I have a preset that makes a Lens
Correction, selects the Camera Callibration profile and defaults to a few Basic settings. In this particular case the original is under exposed, so I brightened up the photo slightly by increasing the Exposure (+0.29) and the Fill Light (8).

[As an aside, I knew I was going to eventually crop the image in Lightroom (I have a series of square formats going on). Therefore, I was not concerned with the overly bright rock in the lower right or the green leafs sticking up from the bottom of the original. Still I think if I did not crop it, I would “patch up” these distractions after the steps described here.]

Next edit this file as a Smart Object in Photoshop (either from the ACR dialog or from the Lightroom menu). Once in Photoshop, create a New Smart Object via Copy and name the top layer “Foreground” and the bottom layer “Background”; add a layer mask to the “Foreground” (filled with black).

Double-click on the Background to bring up ACR. To make the background appear to the eye to recede from the foreground you reduce the Saturation, shift the Temperature toward the blue, and reduce the Contrast. You can also use a negative value for the Clarity to soften the background. Take any combination of these that suits the particular image and the sense you wish to communicate.

Double click on the Foreground to edit that layer in ACR. To make the foreground pop you increase Saturation and perhaps the Vibrance, warm the Temperature, add some Contrast or Clarity. Again the point is to “season to taste”, and once you complete the next step of brushing on these warmer parts, you can come back and fine tune the ACR settings for either the Foreground or the Background.

The Foreground Layer Mask is black which holds back the warming effect you just created. Examine the image deciding which areas to warm and how warm each area is relative to the others. The relative amounts of warmth are realized by brushing in relative shades of grey, remembering that black conceals and white reveals the effect. Caponigro and Versace talk about using “image maps” as a tool used to outline your plan of attack. For brevity I only show the Layer Mask and its relative shades of grey. My goal was to lighten up the entire main crocus, add some warm sunlight coming from the right and put a stronger glow on right-most edge of the main subject.

If you think you can improve the image by bringing more of it or less of it forward, you can brush in more or less of the mask. You can also refill the mask with black to start over. Note both Caponigro and Versace have a clever mechanism to apply relative amounts of an effect; paint with an area of the mask with a broad soft brush and 50% opacity, then use the Fade Control to dial up or down the amount. And as mentioned above you can dial-in the settings for the Foreground or the Background by re-editing the ACR settings now that you have painted-in the effect.

Finally, you can also create separation using only Lightroom and not involving Photoshop (particularly useful if you do not own Photoshop or Elements). In Lightroom, create one or more Adjustment Brushes to paint-in either the foreground (warmer, more saturated settings for the brush) or the background (cooler, unsaturated settings). Below is a screen capture using the LR4 Beta, notice the varying density of the brush to apply relative amounts of the effect.