Create A High Tech Pixelated Effect

Want to take one of your photos into the future? In a few steps, you can add a cutting edge high tech look to your images with the Mosaic filter in Adobe Photoshop or Elements. Whether you want to add this futuristic dynamism and drama to a portrait or an object, simply follow the steps outlined here. I've chosen to add it to a profile portrait of a young woman, but the technique can be equally effective with objects such as a cell phone or even a shot of your digital camera. The steps shown here are those I used in Photoshop CS, but Elements has the same filter, as may some other image editors, perhaps with a different name.

1. Open the photo you want to pixelate and make a copy of it, Image>Duplicate. Close the original and work on the copy. I photographed Jessica, #1, outdoors under soft overcast light with a Canon Digital Rebel and a Canon 18-55mm lens at 55mm (equivalent to 88mm in 35mm format terms).

Photos © 2005 Howard Millard.

2. Go to the Layers palette and make a copy of the background layer by dragging it to the New Layer icon just to the left of the trashcan at the bottom of the Layers palette, circled in red here, #2. (In Elements, the New Layer icon is at the top of the palette.) We're going to pixelate the entire copy layer, then remove part of it so that some normal areas from the original background image show through.


3. With the copy layer (layer 1) selected (highlighted) in the layers palette, choose Filter>Pixelate>Mosaic to bring up this dialog box, #3. Make sure the Preview box is checked, and that the size of the preview in the dialog box is set to 100 percent. Use the cell size slider to set the size of pixels you want, then click OK.


4. You'll see this pixelated effect applied to the entire top layer, #4. What looks best will vary with the size and resolution of your image, as well as how dramatic you want the effect to be. I used a cell size of 30 for this 11-megabyte file at 300dpi. Keep in mind what size the image will ultimately be seen in, either as a print or onscreen. Usually, you want the pixelated parts of the image to show some detail. If the cell size is too small, the viewer won't see much of the pixelated effect. But if the cell size is too large, you may just see abstract blobs. Find a cell size that clearly shows pixelation, but also retains some of the tones and detail of the original photo.


5. Now is when it gets interesting. We will digitally hide parts of the pixelated top layer, Layer 1, so that some of the normal original background photo shows through. In Photoshop, click on the New Layer Mask icon at the bottom of the layers palette, #5. This is a small grey rectangle with a white circle in the middle, second from the left, circled in red here. Press the letter "d" on the keyboard to insure that the foreground and background colors are set to their defaults, then press the letter "b" to select the brush tool. In the options bar across the top of the screen, set the opacity to 60 or 70 percent.


Now, with a soft edged, medium sized brush, paint on the image where you want the clear original photo to show through. (For those who want to know, you'll be painting with black on the layer mask).

In these examples, I first brushed carefully around only the eye, #6. Brush several times over areas that you want to fully show through, but leave the transition edges soft for a gradual fade between the normal and pixelated areas. If you go too far or reveal an area that you want to remain pixelated, simply click the letter "x" on your keyboard to exchange the foreground and background colors. Now you'll be painting on the mask with white which will bring back the pixelated top layer. Press "x" again to reveal the background photo with your brushstrokes.


For Elements users, since layer masks are not available, you'll need to use the Eraser tool on layer 1 to erase parts of the pixelated top layer and allow the normal bottom (background) layer to show through.

6. Brushing only around the eye created this somewhat eerie effect, #6.

7. For the final image, #7, I first brushed carefully around the eye, then brushed over the nose and lips as well. Note how the image contrasts the realistic rendering of the woman's elegant features and the fine detail of her eyes with the high tech, futuristic, digital-industrial look of the enlarged pixels of her hair and the background.


For a more complex effect, try combining several different degrees of pixelation, by using different cell sizes in the Mosaic filter on more copy layers.

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