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Simulating Atmospheric Volume in Photoshop

A 2D solution to a 3D phenomenon By Dave Nagel
Earlier this week we brought you a tutorial on faking depth of field in Adobe Photoshop, a compositing technique to simulate the look of aperture settings on a camera. Today we're going to look at a somewhat related technique for creating the illusion of distance and scale: atmospheric volume.

Now, those of you who work in 3D programs know that "volumetrics," or atmospheric volume, is no more difficult than the click of a button and maybe some minor adjustments on a couple of sliders. But for those who work with 2D paint and image editing programs, the process is somewhat more involved.

Atmospheric volume is the phenomenon that causes distant objects to blend with the environment, or sky. If you have a mountain range or two nearby, you probably see this phenomenon in action on the way to work every morning. Certainly you've seen it in photographs, as you'll see it in the project I've drawn below.

Irrespective of lighting conditions, an object that farther away will typically be darker than objects that are closer. If you're drawing a person, for example, a hand in the foreground will be lighter in tone than a hand held farther away from your point of view. You'll shade the hand that's farther away to create the illusion of distance. However, when scale and sky enter the picture, the issue is no longer one of shading, but of blending and contrast.

When I say "scale," I mean not only size, but distance. Large objects that are distant will blend with the atmosphere and, in the process, lose color and contrast. A mountain range is a good example of this, where you lose detail in peaks that are farther away from the camera. And this is why I've chosen a fictitious mountain range for today's subject.

For this tutorial, I happened to have drawn our cutesy little mountain scene freehand in Photoshop. But this technique can easily apply to any compositing project, photographic or paint-based. And, while I happen to be using Photoshop for this project, there's no reason these same techniques couldn't be applied to any paint or image editing application. I should note that there are several ways to accomplish this effect, but, as always, I choose editability over speed so that, if I decide I don't like the particular arrangement of elements or want to animate the composition later, I'll have no problems down the road.

One note: This project uses 13 layers. In order to keep you from getting confused on layer order, I'm providing a screen shot of my layers palette representing each step along the way. Look for it at the end of each section.

Contrasting parts of the whole
For this technique, our sample image has a nearby foreground, a somewhat nearby midground, a farther away midground and then a very distant background. When you want to create a composition with such an arrangement, realize that the nearest portions will have the most color, detail and contrast, while distant objects will gradually lose these qualities.

For the foreground, then, you want to treat the subject as you would any foreground. Since I'm doing an early morning scene, I want to have the sun to the "camera's" back, showing appropriate highlights with dark patches behind the foliage. No trick here. Just a little manual labor with the paint brush.

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