Think Negative

Think Negative

The Positive Power Of The Inverse Command

by Howard Millard

Since we were toddlers, we’ve all been told to think positive. I guess that in most situations that will serve you well. But photographically, you may want to ignore that advice. If you’re not entirely pleased with your latest picture, try converting it to a negative image. Whether your original is color or grayscale, the reversal of tones can create a striking effect, giving your image a totally new look. Furthermore, you can try this approach with any subject—people, landscapes, cityscapes, or objects.

By presenting a negative as your final image, you invest it with impact, drama, and elements of the unexpected. Showing a well-known subject with reversed tones compels the viewer to look at it in a new light, from a fresh frame of reference. Sometimes a simple inversion will do the trick. In other instances, you can create a more compelling composition by combining negative and positive elements with selections and masks.

Getting To Negative
In digital photography, the path to negative success is fast and easy. In an image-editor such as Adobe Photoshop CS4 (or any other version or other available software), first open your image, make a copy to work on and save your original in a safe place. Then, with the copy open, choose Select>Inverse from the menu. The keyboard shortcut is Command-I on the Mac, Control-I with Windows. This will reverse the tones of your photograph and often impart an eerie, otherworldly ambiance. Sometimes, you’ll need to heighten the contrast and/or saturation with a Curves Adjustment layer or a Hue/Saturation Adjustment layer.

To add a new twist to an iconic architectural subject, I began with a black and white image of the Guggenheim Museum interior (#1) which I shot looking up with an ultra wide angle lens. In Photoshop CS4 on my Mac, I used the keyboard shortcut Command-I, (Windows: Control-I), (#2). Alternatively, you can choose Select>Inverse from the top menu bar. The negative effect imbues the image with an eerie, surreal edge. As a final touch, to close off white edges and accent the geometry, I added a thin black line as a frame via the Image>Canvas Size command.


Color Negative
Negative thinking works well with color images, too, adding a whole new level of effects through the gamut of reversed color hues and tones. I started with this shot of a hydrangea with fairly dark leaves (#3), knowing that conversion to a negative would render the leaves in light tones (#4). Choosing Select>Inverse transforms the leaves into a fine pattern of light greens and purples, but color is weak and the flowers in the center are dark. To cure the thin color, I added a Hue/Saturation adjustment layer and pumped the saturation to +55 (#5). Thanks to the boosted saturation, the leaves are now rich with purple, green, and yellow hues (#6). The visual contrast is heightened and in the central flowers, intense blue and yellow has been brought out.




Image reversal can be used very effectively with portraits, too. My beginning image was this shot of Mei (#7). I first tried a color inversion, but found that did not work well with this photo. Next, I decided to convert the color to black and white. In early versions of Photoshop, you can use Image>Mode>Grayscale, but if you have CS2 or later, the Channel Mixer or a Black and White (B&W) Adjustment layer offers more control . Since I shot the original as a raw file, I decided to convert to B&W in Adobe Camera Raw, ACR. For my workflow, I edit first in Adobe Bridge. To open a selected image in ACR, I simply double click on it within Bridge. Next, I adjust for the best color and tonality in ACR. Then, I click on the HSL/Grayscale Tab, shown here (#8), and check the “Convert to Grayscale” checkbox. No less than eight sliders allow me to control the grayscale rendering of reds, oranges, yellows, greens, aquas, blues, purples, and magentas. Mei’s portrait is now converted to B&W (#9) with a full range of grayscale tones. A straight reversal of tones did not appeal to me for this portrait. So I drew a triangular selection using the Polygonal Lasso tool (nested with the Lasso tool in the toolbar), then hit Command-I (Control-I on Windows), (#10). I tried a number of different shapes and positions before settling on this one with the face divided diagonally into positive and negative elements. Further, the negative reversal over the eyes is reminiscent of a mask, adding a further element of mystery.



Positive/Negative Combos
Combining positive and negative versions of an image can create intriguing patterns. Here I started with a raw image of a statue of a mermaid playing a flute-like instrument (#11), then converted it to B&W using a B&W Adjustment layer in Photoshop CS4. Next I made a copy of it and flipped it via Image>Image Rotation>Flip Canvas Horizontal. Then I went back to the original file and inverted it to create a negative. Next, I expanded the canvas size of the negative image so I could place the positive image immediately to the right of the negative. Finally, I duplicated the combination of two, flipped the copy vertically to turn it upside down, expanded the canvas size of the top pair, and dragged the upside-down copy to the bottom half of the image, as seen in the screenshot, (#12), a screenshot of the components I used to create the composite seen in (#11). Using the Move tool in Photoshop CS4, I dragged the upside down copy onto the expanded canvas at the bottom of the original pair, then aligned it with the arrow keys. This technique often works well with portraits, too. Starting with the mermaid sculpture shot, I first inverted it, so the entire image became a negative. Next, I drew a triangular selection with the Polygonal Lasso tool, then I inverted the selection. The result is a positive triangle within a negative background (#13). In case you were wondering, I drew the triangle a number of times before arriving at the best composition.


All Photos © 2010, Howard Millard, All Rights Reserved


Selective inversion and diagonal composition work together to give this shot of one of my electric guitars (#14) its dramatic impact. I positioned the instrument on a patterned rug at an angle and shot with a wide angle lens. Next, I added a white border. Finally, I used the Marquee tool to select the right half of the image, then inverted it via Command-I (Windows: Control-I).