Sunday, May 2, 2010

Case Study: The Shiny and the Grunge Look

Photography with photoshop has given birth to a illustration look popularised by photgraphers like Jill Greenberg, Jim Fiscus, Andrzej Dragan, Dave Hill and adopted later by other photographers like Tim Tadder and Joey Lawrence to name a few. For some reason, this look has become an online 'gotta have' effect . There is also a photoshop plugin called Lucisart to achieve this. One reason could be that this effect can be done on ordinary people(from babies to old wrinkled ones and even animals), instead of super models, to make them look more interesting like an illustration. Read more to find out the 'demystification' of these looks, the difference between them, lighting and editing wise.

Lets start with the 'Manipulator' herself. I won't be wrong to consider Jill Greenberg as the innovator of the shiny look. Early in her career when she started using photoshop, she came up with her trademark shiny look, for an assignment in a magazine that required an illustration kind of portrait. She developed a lighting style and blending technique and stuck to it since then. She also uses a lot of digitally illustrated backgrounds for her subjects, which is more predominant in her early work. Her assistant Amy Dresser, is now an established retoucher herself.

The lighting style that she uses for her portraits is very very important for this look. Her setup is pretty standard most of the time with variations here and there. It is usually a 5-7 light setup with 3 in front of the model and three behind and sometimes one for the background. The technique is to blast light from all directions of the model.

Her photoshop work requires a lot of cleaning, cloning/healing, dodge and burn, levels and an overlay/multiply blending technique. I will discuss these techniques later. The final effect is quite easy when you have an image file created with such lighting.

Now lets take a look at Jim Fiscus who also popularised this technique. I came to know about him when i submitted for the International Photography Awards in 2007 and was looking at past winners. (Btw, my entry won second place in the Special Effects Category that year!). His editing style is much more gritty than Jill Greenberg. Being an advertising photographer, he doesn't stick to that technique for all his work, but it is predominent in his portfolio. His lighting styles varies and there is not strong backlights. But the photoshop work is extreme to get the gritty look. First is the basic retouching and then desaturating/toning and sharpening/highpass used in different layers and blended with multiply mode.



Dave Hill's style is a blend of the above two. His lighting is mostly very similar to Jill Greenberg and editing style to the Jim Fiscus look. One of the most important feature of his photography is the use of wide angle distortions to emphasize his subjects characters by shooting quite close to them. It's like looking to his images through a 'peep hole on the door' or whatever you call it. The wide angle lens really helps to give the illustration look and another important thing is to direct the model to have a 'loud' or overdone expression. This helps the image to speak about the concept. And yeah, you need a concept to make it more interesting.

Tim Tadder is another advertising photographer using this technique as his staple style. One more thing common to these images are shooting seperately for background and the main subject/s. The trick is to shoot with a tripod so the frame stays the same. Then light for each subject separately and blend them together in Photoshop.

Next up is the 20yr old Joey Lawrence. This is one guy I admire, not because he can shoot like the above guys, hey thats easy when you know how, but being able to market himself brilliantly at the age of 20 both on internet and the real! Thats when i started learning and was saving to buy my first digital slr from the grey market in India, a Canon D60 body, for the combined price of a 5Dmark 2 and a 70-200 f2.8L. I wish the digital revolution had started long before i regrets though. Anyway, Joey had mastered the photoshop editing techniques much before his lighting ones, and he has been selling photoshop tutorials online since when he was 18. What I like about Joeys work, is that he uses shallow depth of field mainly in his portraits, followed by this grunge technique. Photoshop plays a major part of his imaging using pretty much the standard techniques required for this look. His photoshop techniques are for sale on his website, and his lighting style varies quite a bit from classic one softbox/octabox style on location to the above mentioned Jill G style hard rim lighting(without a ring flash) in studio/indoors.

Take a look at a portrait of the lord of the ring characters from Jill Greenberg almost a decade back

and the recent promo shoot done by Joey L. for the series Twilight(which has become a huge hit) using similar rimlighting techniques.


The 5-7 light setup that is commonly used by mainly Jill Greenberg is simmilar to the one explained below.

The front light mainly consists of two silver umbrella lights on left and right side with equal amount of power. Ring Flash is used on or off camera in center in front of the model to provide the fill. This fill light is low powered for a darker moody look or of equal power as the umbrellas for a brighter look.

The back lights are used for providingstrong rimlight all around the model. One is placed on top center and behind her head and other two on left and right side pointing the shoulders. Too much light normally gives a bright white rimlight on the models cheek bones, shoulders, arms and hair. The quality of this light should ideally be hard or very slightly diffused. Hoenycomb Grids, Beauty Dish, Silver Umbrellas work best for this. Most of the times the details are lost in the burnt area so care has to be taken not to cross the line. Lightmeter or histogram or tethered laptop should be used to determine the exposure of the rim light.

It goes without saying that you should shoot in Raw mode to recover highlights.


This same lighting can be replicated on location with either 1 or upto 4 strong flashes(ideally 250 watts to 1000 watts)/battery packs along with the sun in the mix as either the backlight or one of the side rim light. This is commonly used by photographers like Dave Hill.


Instead of going through a single image and create a recipe, I would like to explain the most common techniques used for creating  the illustrated look. It might be a bit confusing for new comers, but advanced users should be fine.

The first and foremost is the RAW CONVERSIONS. It is a nice trick to create two outputs of the same raw file, one exposed perfectly for Highlights, and the other for Shadows. Then place them in layers in Photoshop. The one exposed for shadows should be on top. Simply erase the burnt areas to reveal the perfectly exposed highlight area from the layer below.

Basic retouching/cleaning with clone stamp/ healing tool, liquify etc. comes next followed by DODGE/BURN techniques. Create a 50% gray layer and change the blending mode to overlay. Use the dodge tool to make things lighter and burn tool to darken areas. One important characteristic to achieve a similar look is by sharpening through HIGH PASS filter and change the mode of this layer to either Soft Light or Overlay and experiment with the opacity. This is a shortcut to get this type of look but not exact.

We have designed actions which are more complex than the steps explained above, that help you get this look. The 'Grunge n Shine' along with Grunge Portrait actions and 'Photo Illustration' action are specially designed to get the various looks above. You can combine it with any color and tone actions to get the desired tone. Adjust layer opacity to go from Greenberg's sharp shiny look to Hill's extreme grungy look. Below is an example of Jill Greenberg's 'look' using first the 'Photo Illustration' action followed by the 'Sleek Cyan' action. Possibilities are endless.

Seriously, there are so many photographers and photoshop enthusiasts out there using this technique. Although this look works very well for illustrated portraits for sports magazines, TV/Movie promos and advertising, one will get kicked out showing this work in Vogue, Elle or Cosmo. Try it out to add some extra punch and art element for your grandparents/baby portraits but think again if you really want to ‘stick’ to this style.

Disclaimer: All photographs and videos used in this article are copyright of their respective owners.


  1. Thank you for this article! Was pretty much instructive! And a not: Joey Lawrence is linked wrong [ points to instead of ]

  2. Hey there. I stumbled upon you guys a while back. Thanks for sharing all this amazing stuff!

    There are so many "information" sources on the internet, but only a fraction really give powerful and useful content. You certainly excel on the above! :)

    I trust you are still honeymooning (a little) and enjoying the new home.

  3. An awesome post!

    Thank you for sharing. There are so many "information" giving people on the web. But only a small percent actually give concise, useful, insightful and honest information.

    You guys certainly give generously here!

    Thank you (sorry no coffee- its been a slow month), but a heart felt thanks.

    I trust you are still homey mooning (a little) and enjoying the new home.

  4. Thanx St John, never mind the coffee...but do spread the word for us.

    Thanx for pointing out Stefan....correction made.

  5. Made a few attempts at this my self...

    having trouble with the PS work though...

  6. WOW thanks for sharing!
    This is great!
    I will try it asap and let you know how it went :D
    Also if you have a second please take a look at my work on
    I would love your feedback!!!

  7. Great article, I hadn't really thought about the differences between each of these before just that they were similar, thanks for sharing!