Dragan Effect: how to make dramatic HDR portraits in a matter of minutes

Dragan Effect: how to make dramatic HDR portraits in a matter of minutes

The so-called Dragan Effect is a fun, creative way to give your people pictures a dramatic makeover. We explain how to use a few simple Photoshop effects to create HDR-style portraits with real impact.

Dragan Effect: how to make dramatic HDR portraits in a matter of minutes

While high dynamic range (HDR) imaging techniques were originally conceived as a way of combining multiple exposures to maximise tonal range in high-contrast landscape scenes, HDR software also enables photographers to produce hyper-real effects, and it’s this aspect of the process that has captured the imagination of many HDR enthusiasts.

This hyper-real look is characterised by vibrant colour and eye-popping detail in landscape and cityscape images; however, a similar effect was being applied to portraits long before the HDR craze – and it only needs a single exposure.

Polish photographer Andrzej Dragan first pioneered the technique, and his name has become synonymous with this stylised type of finish. The so-called ‘Dragan effect’ is a method of pulling out every last bit of texture in a portrait image, so that each line, freckle, wrinkle and pore is emphasised, giving the image an almost three-dimensional feel.

It’s a look that’s particularly well-suited to the weird and wonderful archetypes that Dragan photographs, so it’s best reserved for character-style portraits; a glamour model wouldn’t thank you for applying it to her!

How to create a Dragan Effect: steps 1-5

How to create a Dragan Effect: step 1

1 Boost the contrast
Open your portrait in Photoshop Elements. We’re going to start by improving the overall contrast, to make the most of the shot’s rim lighting. Push the Contrast slider all the way up to +100. This will make the image look too dark, but we can compensate for this by pushing Exposure up to 1.20; it doesn’t matter if we clip the highlights a little.


How to create a Dragan Effect: step 2

2 Emphasise texture
Now we can employ a trick to reveal a bit more texture and colour. Drag the Fill Light slider right to 100: this pumps a bit too much light
into the shot’s shadows, and weakens them a bit, so to compensate
for this drag the Blacks slider right to around 17. This sets us up nicely to
apply our main effect.


How to create a Dragan Effect: step 3

3 Reveal detail
Make sure Depth is set to 8-bit in the menu at the foot of the Adobe Camera Raw interface, as we want to use layers in Elements’ main editor, which isn’t an option in 16-bit mode. Click Open Image to open the shot in Elements, and duplicate the ‘Background’ layer by pressing Ctrl+J. Now go to Enhance > Adjust Lighting > Shadows/Highlights. Set both Lighten Shadows and Darken Highlights to 30% and leave Midtones at 0.


How to create a Dragan Effect: step 4

4 Tweak the tones
Click OK, then click the New Adjustment Layer button in the Layers panel, and select Levels from the list. Drag the Shadows, Midtones and Highlights input sliders below the histogram to 55, 1.00 and 200 respectively: this clips the shadows and highlights a little, and increases the saturation. Click the top layer, and press Shift+Ctrl+Alt+E to create a merged layer containing all the visible information.


How to create a Dragan Effect: step 5

5 Invert and blur
Double-click the ‘Layer 2’ name and rename the layer ‘Dragan 1’, then go to Enhance > Adjust Colour > Remove Colour. Next, create a duplicate of this layer by pressing Ctrl+J, and rename the new layer ‘Dragan 2’. Press Ctrl+I to invert the ‘Dragan 2’ layer and go to Filter > Blur > Gaussian Blur. Set Radius to 10 pixels and click OK.

PAGE 1: How to create a Dragan Effect – steps 1-5
PAGE 2: How to create a Dragan Effect – steps 6-10


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