I imagine this is how the direct route to heaven might look — and there could very well be a shopping experience waiting for you at the top.
The idea for this picture came from an actual outdoor escalator installed in a hill behind the National Museum of Singapore. I already had a series of escalator images from an energy company shoot. Then, while visiting Hampton Court in London, I saw a stunning array of beautifully manicured trees that were begging for an escalator.
Background photos: Nikon D800E, Nikkor 70–200 mm VRII lens, 1/1600 second at f/2.8
Escalator photo: Canon 1Ds Mark III, Canon EF 24–70 mm lens at f/5.6, available light with flash fill using a Nikon SB-900 flash
Using a focal length of 46 mm, I shot the escalator at a shopping mall in Staten Island, New York. The image I selected was the lowest of my camera angles, looking up at the escalator from the floor. I knew it would have to be silhouetted and rebuilt to look like it was miles high, heading straight up to the heavens. I used a RAW, unadulterated image without any Lightroom adjustments.
I probably behaved like the typical tourist and took too many pictures at Hampton Court. The court gardens presented the best possibilities for an interesting background. With nothing but time on my hands, I snapped away here and there and everywhere, both outside and inside. At one point I was so absorbed in shooting that I didn't notice I stepped in front of King Henry (actually an actor) walking through one of the great halls. I think I pissed him off. I wish I had a photo of that!
The escalator image was used as shot and no processing was done to the RAW file. The trees of Hampton Court were in bright, late day sunlight with long shadows, so the left side had direct light and the right side was in shadow.
1) In Lightroom 5, I made the same changes to the images of the clouds and the trees:
a) Color temperature was changed from 5000K to 7612K.
b) A Graduated Filter was added on top of image: Highlights –100, Exposure –0.70.
c) The Adjustment Brush was used on treetops using Auto Mask: Shadows 100.
The color temperature was matched between all of the background images for visual continuity, and the Graduated Filter brought details back into the clouds from the RAW capture. The Adjustment Brush was used to open the tree shadows locally except for the cloud photo because those trees were not included.
2) All files were exported from Lightroom to Photoshop.
3) My first step in Photoshop was to convert the escalator layer into a Smart Object so it could be scaled up and down repeatedly without losing any quality. After using the Pen tool to create an accurate path, I created a vector mask on the escalator Smart Object layer. Vector paths can be edited, so any masking errors can be adjusted later with the Pen tool. With the escalator silhouetted I could now start assembling the background and scale the escalator against the background elements.
4) For the next step, I created a new canvas and added the three background images on separate layers. They were all converted to Smart Objects for non-destructive scaling, and I adjusted the size and position of each image until there was a good visual fit. While I was moving the different layers around, I flipped the clouds layer horizontally since the clouds looked better that way.
5) I then added a layer mask to each of the Smart Object layers and used Color Range to create a selection of the trees with the Invert check box selected. I filled the selection with black to hide the sky of the tree layers and reveal the cloud layer underneath them. Then, using a soft black Brush at 50% Opacity, I blended the layers by hand into a single background using a Wacom tablet and stylus. I also added a slight Iris Blur filter at 3% to the smallest of the right trees to match the focus of the left side trees.
6) To remove the dirt path between the trees, I alternated between using selections with the Content Aware Fill tool and the Clone Stamp Tool to build more foreground grass.
7) Once the background images were partially assembled, I dragged the escalator layer with its vector mask onto the canvas with the partially finished background images. The escalator was scaled to a size I liked and put into position.
8) After completing the blending of the background images, I extended the escalator by copying and pasting sections to create a taller version and scaling each new copy to fit the perspective until I had the desired height. Each of the new layers were masked and blended with the underlying escalator layers.
9) Blemishes on the escalator were cleaned up using the Clone Stamp tool and the Healing Brush tool. Then I used the Eyedropper tool to sample a blue-gray tone from the steps. I painted over the steps on a separate layer with a soft, feathered Brush and set the layer blending mode to Color with 25% Opacity. The Color blending mode gave the steps more uniform color.
10) When the escalator work was completed, I merged the finished layers into a new, separate layer and moved it above the original escalator, changing its blending mode to Luminosity. Luminosity kept the colors of the escalator layers underneath while the top layer added contrast.
11) I did additional retouching to the highlights on the railing by adding a new layer on top, set to Color blending mode. Then I used a black Brush at 15% Opacity to paint over the railing without completely hiding the highlights. This helped to remove the shopping mall reflections in the railing while retaining some reflection for highlights.
12) Then it was time to add shadows to make the elements of the image fit naturally together. I built my shadows layer-by-layer, adding new Curves adjustment layers beneath my escalator layers as needed. I started by changing the blending mode of the Curves layers from Normal to Multiply or Darker Color and adjusting the Curves roughly to a natural-looking shadow darkness. I hid the changes by making the masks black and then revealed them where I wanted them by painting with white Brushes to build each different shadow layer. I made contact shadows to anchor the escalator, soft cast shadows relating to the size of the escalator, and other faint shadows that made the shadow work look more natural.
13) I added yet another Curves adjustment layer and made a big, soft shadow on the right and left foreground. I then set the blending mode to Darker Color to suggest trees outside the field of view. I liked the way it made a vignette in front of the escalator. There were six Curves adjustment layers in total to build the shadows that ground the escalator naturally in the scene and add depth to the foreground (Please refer to the layer stack screen captures at the end of this tutorial).
14) At this point I selected all the escalator layers, created a new group for the layers (called “escalator”) and added a layer mask. I continued to “ground” the escalator using a few of the free Grasslands Brushes from BrushEasy to place blades of grass growing around the stainless steel base by painting on the escalator group folder's layer mask.
15) Now the escalator group and all the retouching layers were selected and grouped together in a folder. A mask was added to the group folder and, with a soft black Brush at 25% Opacity, I manually blended the escalator into the clouds in the sky.
16) I was still not happy with the way the escalator was blending into the clouds, so I created a new separate layer at the very top of my layer stack. I used the Clone Stamp tool to create a cigar-shaped cloud from bits and pieces of other background clouds. When the new cloud was finished, the layer was duplicated on top of the original with blending mode Multiply and layer Opacity 25%. This made the cloud darker and brought out its undulating tones. The 25% Opacity helped to blend the top of the escalator, but it wasn't quite enough. These two layers were grouped together.
17) One final layer was added on top of the layer stack, above the new cloud I had just made. I used the Clone Stamp tool with the pressure sensitive stylus to add a little more cloud “ambience,” further graduating the blend of the top of the escalator more believably with the sky. The layer Opacity was set to 65%.
18) There was a leafless tree behind the left side of the escalator that needed to be greened up. I created a new layer and set the blending mode to Color. Then I sampled color from the green tree leaves using the Eyedropper tool and used a soft Brush to paint over the brown tree branches to give the illusion of a green tree.
19) At this point I went over the entire canvas at 200% looking for mistakes, blemishes, inaccurate masks and other details I may have overlooked. This picture involved more layer blending and layer masks than effects.
The shadow details were the most important aspect, as this is what makes the image credible. It is important to note that every layer in this Photoshop document can be edited. This is especially useful when receiving criticism on 1x, as it allows me to make any changes based on member feedback.
Here is the entire final layer stack from Photoshop with all layer folders open. It is overwhelming to attempt to describe every kind of Brush used or supply screen captures of all layer settings to show blending modes, Opacity changes or filter settings. I have tried my best to describe the entire process clearly.
1) When shooting multiple elements for a composition, it is important to attempt to match camera angles in order to make visual sense in the final composition. Take notes, whenever possible, indicating camera height, etc. so your images work together.
2) When silhouetting objects, use layer masks instead of erasing to prevent loss of image area that may need to be restored should the silhouette need additional work.
3) Use blending modes. They are some of the most powerful, yet completely underutilized features of Photoshop. Experiment with them when working. I never cease to be amazed at how blending modes contribute to the results of my final work.
4) Use Smart Objects in Photoshop. This is also a very underutilized feature. When filters or effects are added to Smart Objects, they turn into Smart Filters. Everything about them can be edited, including separate blending modes, plus you have the ability to turn the effects/filters on and off the same way you can turn layers on and off.
An art director once promised me that he would not attempt photography if I promised not to attempt illustration. It is a promise I have not been able to keep. I was an early pioneer in digital photography, starting in the mid '80s with an IBM computer and some simple software. I worked on the permanent collection of New York's MoMA, have won numerous awards for my special effects and still life work in pharmaceutical advertising, and taught photography, Lightroom and Photoshop at the prestigious Fashion Institute of Technology for nine years. Now I privately tutor a small group of selected students and continue to shoot for stock and assignments at my studio and on location. I live in Brooklyn, New York, with my partner, Vicki, and two cats.