01: Process the RAW file
Start with a RAW file or files that offer the most flexibility for retouching. Utilising the Dynamic Range option is key, as if you’re stuck with only one file, you can process it multiple times for various elements. With the soft, even lighting in this image we were fortunate to only have to process once to get a good starting file.
02: Break down the image
It’s always best to divide your elements then package each in a Group folder. Make a selection of the element in that folder then apply a layer mask to the folder itself. This enables you to include but isolate effects to that individual element. In this case, a good starting point for us is the background, the Dodge Viper and the Mercedes SLS.
03: Addition by subtraction
The saying ‘work before play’ holds a lot of weight here. In general, it’s a good idea to start off by doing the bulk of any pixel-retouching before moving into the creative work. This is where we’d want to do any obvious work with the Clone Stamp or Healing Brush tools, which usually means the removal of all distracting artefacts.
04: Set the tone
With the layer masks in place and the bulk of the pixel-retouching done, we can now move onto the fun side of things. Starting with basic overall adjustments, we create a Global folder to keep everything in place. So as to not have to commit to anything, especially this early on, it’s best to work in a non-destructive manner by using adjustment layers. By applying Selective Color, for example, we can increase the contrast in the sky by adding black to cyans and blues and removing black from whites.
05: Emphasise the subject
To pull more texture and contrast out of the road, we use a Channel Mixer adjustment layer on black and white, with a blue filter and set to either an Overlay or Soft Light blending mode. To add a quick vignette, make a heavily feathered selection where the vignette will be and apply a Levels adjustment layer to control the effect. While enhancing the feel of the road surface, we can also help direct more attention to our subjects.
06: Add layer masks
As we’re breaking down the image more and more, we’ll come across situations where certain tools work better than others for creating layer masks. In this instance, as we isolate the rest of the background from the road surface, the Polygonal Lasso tool works best. As there isn’t a clear-cut line in the pixels, we can quickly add a feathered selection (around five to ten pixels), along the outside of the road then apply the mask. As needed, the mask can be controlled manually using a soft-edged black and white brushes.
07: Replace the sky
As we started off with only one RAW file, this is where having a library of random images, such as skies, comes in handy. In an effort to further minimise distractions and alleviate the tension from the horizon line cutting through the roof of the SLS, this new sky works great. The direction of light is close enough and the mountains nicely frame the cars. We can integrate the skyline by applying to a layer mask manually. Further plant the back plate in the distance by applying a slight Motion Blur filter to it.
08: Apply Selective Color
With the background set for now, we can move our focus towards the cars. With the Dodge Viper having three dominant colours in its paint, the Selective Color tool gives great control when starting to dial in the colour and tonality. The CMYK sliders for every colour enable us to adjust contrast, saturation, hue, colour balance and more in the whites, blacks and reds of the car.
09: Tie up the loose ends
Starting with the background enables us to set the stage first clean things up as we move forward. Not much work is needed for the Mercedes SLS at this point. With a few global and specific adjustment layers we’re able to fine-tune the overall tonality of the vehicle, matching the rest of the image.
10: Apply window reflections
With the basic retouching finished, we can now sit back and survey the creative potential of the image. At a quick glance, the windows of both vehicles could use a little more detail. Use the Pen tool to apply precise selections of the windows then create duplicate layers for each, so as not to affect the pixels below. Cmd/Ctrl-click the layer thumbnail, make a selection of your copy layer and apply the Gradient tool to this window layer, set with a white-to-transparent gradient style and at 60% Opacity. This will achieve a reflective effect.