“How I Did It” is a continuing series of ‘photographic process breakdowns’ explained by the photographers themselves, on how they created their photograph – from concept to final output. This time, Tony Solis explains how he created this dynamic imagery, conceived from the Star Wars films.

When I was a kid I played with little “Star Wars” action figures. As an adult, I play with full-sized ones.

For those of you not familiar with the 501st Legion, they are a volunteer group that builds movie-quality replica costumes from “Star Wars” and donates their time to charity. Think “Star Wars”-themed Boy Scouts. The time, energy and money these guys (and gals) put into their costumes is amazing but the joy they seem to bring to kids is truly remarkable.

So, my buddy Adam is in the 501st and had been posting photos of his new costume, the all-black Biker Scout (or Storm Commando). I sent him a post saying we needed to do some shots and he was quick to respond with a time he was available.

Now, since I love “Star Wars” I knew I needed to emulate the setting of “Return of the Jedi” and since I live in Santa Cruz, I happen to have a redwood forest nearby.
I took a couple of different posed shots of Adam but one that I knew I needed was one of the gun firing.

The lighting was simple; I used a DIY scrim with white ripstop and a strobe as the key, fill and for some specular. I put it together for about $25 and it measures 32×70 inches, so it’s big. I used that instead of a softbox mainly so I could get some nice specular highlights on the full-body shots and kept using it because we both had other things to do that day and I didn’t want to spend too much time changing the light. This was the only shot where I used a second light source. (see photo below)

“Star Wars” guns fire lasers and lasers emit light. My biggest problem with most sci-fi movies is the fact that laser guns (or lightsabers) don’t emit light on anything. I didn’t want to have the same problem, so I took a second strobe, gelled it with a red 25 gel and popped it down the gun barrel and onto the chest of Adam. In the straight-out-of-camera photo it’s subtle, but it gave me a good starting point for post.

One last thing before I get to the post processing. I made sure Adam was behind a few leaves because I wanted them to catch the light of my gelled flash. I thought that if I didn’t place something in front of him that he might look like he was Photoshopped into the frame.

In Lightroom, all I did was bump the clarity up to 100. I find that for artificial light sources (like, oh, say, laser blasts) the micro-contrast of clarity works better that overall contrast or an S-curve. I can keep more detail in my extreme highs and lows this way. Besides, I knew I would open the photo in Photoshop as a smart object so I could play around in ACR until I got the look I wanted. (see photo below)

From here I just played in ACR until things started looking the way they did in my head. Looking back at the file, I lowered the overall contrast and increased the highlights slider to really emphasize those speculars. I also warmed the color temperature up. I got more shadow detail with a warm temperature than with a cool one.

From here I added 3 radial filters in ACR. One was a dark blue filter on the outside edges of the photo. I liked the way this looked for cooling down the photo as opposed to just using the color temperature. I had a bit more control and could pick the right shade of blue. The second was a radial filter on the body and helmet using a red color and increasing the highlights and contrast. The third was one the gun barrel and ground using a red color again but this time also pumping the exposure up +4 stops.

The Photoshop is actually pretty minimal here. I made a selection on a new layer that matched the perspective of the gun barrel and filled it with white. I added an inner glow of orange and an outer glow of red with layer styles. (see photo below)

On another new layer I painted white over some parts of the glow just to make it a little less uniform. On another new layer I used a very large soft brush and clicked once at the muzzle for the glow of the flash (see photo below).

I used white and then used a color overlay layer style so I could get just the right mix of orange and red.

OK, as far as energy beams and lasers go, this step is the most important. I have a sparks brush that I used to add a little texture and depth. You can get the sparks brush I used from deviant art, here.

Using my Wacom tablet, I lightly painted down the laser blast (as always, on a new layer) with a couple of different sparks brushes, then used the motion blur filter to give the illusion of movement (see photo above).

When doing special effects on your photo, the goal is to simply trick the mind for a second. Everyone knows something like a laser blast isn’t real, but adding this one little extra step makes it seem real within the context of your photo.

I finished off the muzzle flash with a small white brush and lightly painted streaks from the center of the muzzle outward and added a warm outer glow with layer styles (see photo above).

I used the Nik software Color Efex Pro to finish off the photo (see photo below).

First, I selected all my layers and converted them to a smart object so I could go back and change the filter if I didn’t like the results. I meant to only use film grain but ended up using brilliance/warmth and detail extractor as well.

The brilliance/warmth enhanced the warm glow on Adam and from the laser blast together, so it kind of married them and made them look a little more like part of the same photo. The detail extractor came about because I thought the laser would create even more speculars than I had in the photo, so this added some extra contrast without losing detail in the shadows.

Using film grain is my favorite trick to finish a photo, not because I’m trying to emulate film but because it hides some of the tell-tale signs of photo composites. You don’t see masking lines, brush strokes or gradients as much and, again, it tricks the eye into thinking everything you see is part of the same photo.

If you don’t have Color Efex Pro you could do the same thing by creating a new layer, filling it with 50% grey and setting the blend mode to overlay. Then go to Filter/Noise/Add Noise and play with the settings until you get the desired effect.

And that is “How I Did It”.


Tony Solis is a HSW supporter, a passionate and dedicated photographer by day, and Copy Desk Chief at the Santa Cruz Sentinel newspaper by night (he works a night shift, of course!).

He lives in the Santa Cruz area with his wife Julie, where he finds a phelthora of photographic opportunities. You can see more of Tony’s work on his website: http://www.anthonylsolis.com/