Create Elegant Fades in Your Photos

No matter what the medium, artists love to tinker with the "long fade." Musicians sometimes fade songs to a whisper rather than resolve the song on a beat. In Westerns, the cowboy rides off into the sunset while the film fades to black and the credits start to roll. And in photography, you'll often find photos that fade to black as well. This variation of the traditional vignette effect is popular in portraits and wedding photos. This week, let's see how to add it to your own photos.

The Heart of the Fade: Masks

Since this effect is often used for wedding photos and other portraits, I'll show you how to do this with a photo of my sister from her wedding.

The secret to adding a fade effect is a little photo editing trick called a mask. A mask is an image with a pattern of colors that you can use to change an underlying photo. Imagine, for example, a sort of digital stencil--the mask limits what parts of a photo you can change when you apply a digital effect.

Unlike real-world stencils, though, a mask can be semi-transparent, allowing part of the effect through, almost as if your stencil was porous. The closer your mask is to opaque, the less effect bleeds through. The more transparent, the greater the effect has on the image. So, by controlling the opacity of various parts of your mask, you can achieve some very sophisticated effects.

While some photo editing programs make you work directly with masks, I've found that most modern photo editors try to simplify the process. You might not even know that you're working with a mask at all. That's the case with Adobe Photoshop Elements: Under the hood, we're fiddling with masks, but that term never comes up. I thought you'd like to know that's really what's happening behind the scenes, though--especially if you're using a different photo editing program, and you don't see the tools I talk about in this article. Instead, look for a "mask layer."

Adding a Fill Layer

So let's get started. In Photoshop Elements, open the photo to which you'd like to add the fade effect in Photoshop Elements. (If you're using a different image editor, you'll have to convert a few of my instructions to work in your program.) Our "mask" is going to be a gradient fill layer, so choose Layer, New Fill Layer, Gradient, and then click OK.

Next, you'll see the Gradient Fill dialog box. A gradient fill is a smooth transition from one color to another, such as from pure white to pure black, over the width or height of the photo. In this case, what we want is a smooth transition from a specific color to transparent--which, if you recall, is pretty much the definition of a mask. Click the Gradient drop-down and select the second entry, called Foreground to Transparent.

Don't click OK to close the dialog box yet.

Fine-Tune the Fade

If you look at the right side of the screen, you'll notice that a gradient fill layer has been added to the image, and the image itself has a blue hue at the bottom. We're interested in getting a fade to black, though, so we need to fix that.

Click the gradient itself in the Gradient Fill dialog box, which should still be on screen. That will open the Gradient Editor.

At the bottom of the dialog box, you'll see the gradient, which goes from blue on the left to transparent on the right. We want to change the blue to black. To do that, click the blue box in the lower left, and then click the Color box in the Stops section at the bottom. Finally, in the color palette window that appears, click black and then click OK. You should now see something similar to the screen shot on the left.

Click OK to close the color palette window, but leave the Gradient Fill dialog box on screen.

The last aspect of the photo to tweak? Currently, the fade starts way too high in the photo, so most of the image is dark or just plain black. We want more transparency in the gradient, and we need to compress the black region closer to the bottom. That's easy to do: Just click in the photo and drag downward to pull the gradient effect lower in the image. When you've positioned the gradient to your liking, click OK, and you'll end up with something like my final version, shown on the right.

Hot Pic of the Week

Get published, get famous! Each week, we select our favorite reader-submitted photo based on creativity, originality, and technique.

Here's how to enter: Send us your photograph in JPEG format, at a resolution no higher than 640 by 480 pixels. Entries at higher resolutions will be immediately disqualified. If necessary, use an image editing program to reduce the file size of your image before e-mailing it to us. Include the title of your photo along with a short description and how you photographed it. Don't forget to send your name, e-mail address, and postal address. Before entering, please read the full description of the contest rules and regulations.

This Week's Hot Pic: "Mum," by Diane Leighton, Bellevue, Washington

Diane says that she took this photo with a macro lens mounted on her Nikon D80 and used the self-timer to avoid movement. She enhanced the saturation afterwards using Photoshop.

This Week's Runner-Up: "Little Knees" by Noelia Alvarez, Del City, Oklahoma

Noelia says: "I was enjoying my husband's day off with our kids. When I decided to put them together to take a picture, I couldn't help but notice how small my kids looked next to my husband. So I decided to take this photo to compare their knees."

To see last month's winners, visit our Hot Pics slide show. Visit our Flickr gallery to browse past winners.

Have a digital photo question? Send me your comments, questions, and suggestions about the newsletter itself. And be sure to sign up to have Digital Focus e-mailed to you each week.

This story, "Create Elegant Fades in Your Photos" was originally published by PCWorld.

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