Bleach bypass: how to make extreme portraits

Bleach Bypass: give your portraits and edge

Bleach Bypass Effect: final image

Photographic styles and digital darkroom effects certainly aren’t immune to the whims of fashion and changing tastes. Whether it’s trendy cross-processing, HDR (High Dynamic Range) tweaks or shooting contre-jour (into the light), flick through the editorial and ad pages of any glossy magazine and you’ll see what’s currently in vogue. The muted colours, exaggerated contrast and super-detailed characteristics of what is known as the bleach bypass effect are very popular at the moment.

Not only can we see the treatment in many of today’s magazines – think grumpy, gnarly chefs – it’s also been used in big-budget, block-busting films such as Saving Private Ryan.

The effect originates from a traditional darkroom process but, like many cool photo treatments, it’s now much easier and less messy to replicate using image-editing software such as Photoshop Elements or Photoshop CS. You simply use a combination of Adjustment Layers, layer Blending Modes and the Shadows/Highlights tool.

Here, we’ll show you how easy it is to get the look, so you can transform portraits of your own.

Bleach Bypass Effect: step 1

Step 1: Be bold with the crop
Open your original image in Photoshop. For a cool, contemporary crop, select the Crop tool from the Tools palette and choose No Restriction from the drop-down menu. Be bold and confident with your crop and don’t be afraid to make a radical cut into your subject’s head (for more on cropping, check out our free portrait photography cropping guide).

Bleach Bypass Effect: step 2

Step 2: Boost the contrast
Go to Layer>NewAdjustmentLayer>Levels and increase the contrast by moving the left and right sliders a little towards the middle of the histogram and the middle slider a little to the left (learn How to read a histogram). Press the Ctrl key while you’re doing this to avoid losing detail by clipping the highlights or shadows.

Bleach Bypass Effect: step 3

Step 3: Remove the colour
Create another Adjustment Layer, but this time choose Hue/Saturation from the list of options. Reduce the Saturation slider to -100 to make the image black and white. Now change the Blending Mode to Soft Light. This will increase the contrast further and some of the colour will also return.

Bleach Bypass Effect: step 4

Step 4: Alter the opacity
To remove even more colour, create a second Hue/Saturation Adjustment Layer and again set the Saturation slider to -100. This time, keep the Blending Mode set to Normal and then set the Opacity slider to 60%. This will introduce more subtle hues into your black and white image.

Bleach Bypass Effect: step 5

Step 5: Enhance the detail
Make a flattened version of the image as a new layer at the top of the layer stack by pressing Ctrl+Alt+Shift and the letter E simultaneously. Now go to Enhance>EnhanceLighting>Shadows/Highlights and set Lighten Shadows to 10%, Darken Highlights to 15% and Midtone Contrast to 15%.

Bleach Bypass Effect: step 6

Step 6: Finishing touches
To finish your image, select the Dodge and Burn tools from the Tools palette and use each tool 
in turn to selectively darken and lighten specific parts of the final image. By subtly burning areas at the four corners and edges of the image with a large brush you can draw the viewer’s eye into the frame.

Did you know?

The bleach bypass technique originates from the traditional film darkroom. During the processing of colour film the bleaching step was skipped. Put simply, this would result in a black-and-white image over the colour one. The resulting prints would have muted colours, increased contrast and more grain.


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