Magic Tower - Tutorial

This is the tutorial that I wrote for 1X some time ago.

The plan was to photograph a famous building while paying homage to the well-known architect who designed it. Everything was perfect, except for the stark, uninteresting sky. Don’t let a barren, blue sky ruin your otherwise flawless image. Here’s what to do, before and after you take the photo.
Turning Torso, the tallest building in Scandinavia, is a famous architectural landmark in Malmö, Sweden. Renowned architect, structural engineer and sculptor Santiago Calatrava designed it, and it was inspired by his own marble sculpture of a human form called “Twisting Torso”. The spiraling, residential skyscraper is fully powered by locally produced renewable energy, and it twists a complete 90 degrees clockwise from top to bottom.

I live in Copenhagen, Denmark, and because Malmö is just on the other side of Øresund Bridge, I was inclined to include Turning Torso in my long-term photo project “Geometry in Motion.” I am a big admirer of Santiago Calatrava’s architecture, so I very much wanted to make a standout image that served as a photographic homage to his masterpiece.

When I photograph a building, I am usually in constant motion, always in search for the best angles possible. I move around the structure so that I see everything, shooting from a distance, and then moving in closer for a very different perspective. My goal on this day was to capture the unusual spiral shape of the building and to create a dynamic composition. I wanted the image to have an almost three-dimensional appearance while portraying the building’s distinct prominence. I decided to highlight a dominant diagonal that stretched from the bottom-right corner to the top of the building. It would become the leading line that guides the viewer up and around the winding structure. I also wanted the sky to be as uncomplicated as possible: the negative space surrounding the building enhanced and complemented the unique shape and structure.


I usually shoot a long exposure to create a dramatic sky, but there were no clouds that day to produce the effect I wanted, so I decided to replace the sky with another photo in my archives. I needed a sky that was fairly dark to contrast with the white structure, and one that would provide some light areas around the top of the building since it was the main point of interest. I first process my images in Adobe Camera Raw and then export them to Photoshop CC. When I convert my photos to black and white, I use Nik Silver Efex Pro 2 plugin.
  1. I opened the image in Adobe Camera Raw and increased the Clarity to 10. This makes the RAW file pop a bit as they usually tend to look quite dull. In the Blues, I increased Saturation so that I could more easily select and remove the original sky in Photoshop.
  2. I exported the image to Photoshop CC. My first step was to crop the photo, maintaining a standard 2:3 aspect ratio.
  3. In order to separate the building from the sky, I first used Color Range to make a general selection of the sky. This works well when the sky is solid blue. I then refined the selection using the Polygonal Lasso. Although it’s not the fastest way to make a selection, the Polygonal Lasso gives me very good control when deciding which pixels to include and exclude in my selection. I always analyze the edges of the selection at 200% to make sure it is as accurate as possible. After selecting the entire building, I divided the selection into two parts so that I could process the left and right sides of the structure separately.
  4. I used the Clone Stamp tool to remove some imperfections on the facade that are distracting.
  5. I selected a sky that complemented the building and then added it to the image. It became a new layer in the Layers Panel.
  6. I made separate black and white conversions for the building and the sky using Nik Silver Efex Pro 2, producing two new layers. Having different layers gives me the freedom to enhance one of them at a later stage without affecting the other. I usually try to find a preset that is pretty close to what I need and then customize it if necessary. In this case, I wanted full tonal range for the building — the Full Tonal Range preset is often a good starting point — but an underexposed effect for the sky, so I used the Low Key preset.
  7. I blended the two layers, and this became the basis for my light painting; in other words, lightening and darkening various areas of the image. I worked separately on the two facets of the building. One step of the light painting consisted of creating an adjustment layer — Levels, Curves or Exposure, for example — adding a negative mask to it (a mask filled with black), loading the selection for the desired element and then applying a Gradient inside the selection. In this way, the effect of the adjustment layer is gradually applied to the element within selection. I then lowered the Opacity of any adjustment layer to about 20%. The Gradients that I applied flow from the top to the bottom-left for the left side of the building, and from the top to the middle of the right side for the right side of the building. In this way, the light simply fades away as your eye travels from the top of the building to the bottom.
  8. To lighten the sky around the top of the building, I created a layer mask for the sky, used a large Brush set to 5% opacity, and with white selected, I dodged the sky.
  9. Once I was satisfied with my light painting, I merged all of the layers. This created a new merged layer at the top of the Layers Panel while the rest of my layers remained intact. At this point, I checked the tonal quality in my image using Nik Silver Efex histogram based on Ansel Adams’ Zone System. I prefer to see that my tonal range has covered as many of the 11 zones as possible, and at the same time, that I have no clipped areas at either end of the histogram.
  10. I used Topaz DeNoise plugin to reduce noise in the photo and to add grain as well. Even if I had shot this image at IOS 100, the post-processing still would have created noise. Since the sky and the building were processed separately, I had to apply Noise Reduction to them separately by loading their selections that I made in the beginning and creating two new layers. The Overall Strength slider for these layers was set to about 10. I also added grain at this stage. Increased contrast in post-processing has a tendency to create banding artifacts, especially in the sky; by adding grain, the effect can be minimized. For the sky, I set the Grain slider to 30.
  11. I sharpened the building using a High Pass filter with a low Radius of 1.5, emphasizing the very small details of the facade.
  12. I saved the file as a PSD so that I could work on it again if necessary. Then I flattened it and saved it as a JPEG for posting online.
  1. Sometimes the weather does not cooperate, or there is not enough time to attempt a long exposure. For these reasons, shoot a good collection of long-exposed skies for your archives so that you can easily change your background when necessary.
  2. Avoid shooting on sunny days if your subject has other tall buildings around it. The sun produces very harsh shadows, and they are pretty difficult to remove unless you are a retouching expert.
  3. Think in advance about what you want to achieve with your image before you start postprocessing, then work in small steps towards your goal as you process.


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