Solarization, otherwise known as the Sabattier effect, is a traditional darkroom technique. It was popularised by the surrealist photographer Man Ray in the early twentieth century, when his darkroom assistant Lee Miller accidentally turned the light on while a print was in the developer. The quirky results saw a partial reversal of the tones in the image, and marked the advent of a fortuitous new look for Man Ray.
In a darkroom, the effect is difficult to master because it’s unpredictable and, of course, means getting your hands wet with photographic chemicals. While this might give the technique some charm, it’s much easier to replicate it in the digital darkroom using the delights of Photoshop.
In this tutorial we’re going to show you how to unleash the power of Curves in Photoshop CS5, so that you can quickly and easily replicate the effect without the the hassle or the mess.
Curves are one of the most powerful tools Photoshop offers, and one of the most compelling reasons to use the full-blown Photoshop CS over Elements. Once you’ve mastered them you’ll have complete control over the tones, contrasts and colours in your images.
You’ll soon realise that there’s little that can’t be achieved in terms of editing. In addition to using Curves, we’re also going to show how to set up a completely non-destructive and re-editable workflow.
This means that, as long as you keep your layers intact by saving your work as either a TIFF or PSD file, you’ll always be able to go back and tweak the effects in your image should you change your mind. So, let’s see how it’s done…
How to give your photos a solarization effect
01 Crop your shot
Open your original image and duplicate the layer (Cmd/Ctrl+J). Select the Crop tool from the Tools panel and hit Front Image so the aspect ratio remains the same as in the original shot.
Mark out an area so the model is central. Now you need to set the cropped area to Hide so you can edit the crop at a later date.
02 Smooth skin
Make another duplicate layer and go to Filter > Other > High Pass. Enter a Radius of about 10 pixels. Click OK. Now go to Image > Adjustments > Invert and set the layer’s Blend Mode to Overlay to smooth the skin textures. Reduce the layer’s Opacity to about 50% – this will soften the intensity of the effects you’ve just applied.
03 Make it mono
For a non-destructive mono conversion, go to Layer > New Adjustment Layer > Black & White (or click on the icon in the Layers panel that enables you to create a new Adjustment Layer). Keep this at the default settings. Next, create another Curves Adjustment Layer and pull the curve upwards to make the image lighter.
04 Add solarisation
Create another Curves Adjustment Layer, but this time check the ‘Draw to modify the curve’ icon (the pencil). You need to make an upside-down ‘V’ shape by holding the Shift key and marking a point in the bottom-left corner, the top centre and the bottom-right corner. The tones should now look suitably skewed.
05 Dodge and Burn
To Dodge and Burn parts of the image non-destructively, create a new layer and fill it with 50% Gray (go to Edit > Fill and then set Contents to 50% Gray). Change the layer’s Blend Mode to Overlay and mark the areas that you want to be darker or lighter with the Dodge (lighter) and Burn (darker) aids from the Tools panel.
Our workflow has been almost totally non-destructive and re-editable, so we can go back at any stage and tweak the intensity of our effects. Different images will behave in different ways, so experiment. For a psychedelic effect, turn off the Black & White Adjustment Layer using the eye icon on the left of the layer’s thumbnail.