Bas Relief in Photoshop Elements

An old-school darkroom special effect technique, digitized up

Bas Relief (pronounced bar relief) is one of those funky, esoteric darkroom techniques that I rarely used because, frankly, it was too much of a bother.

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You had to sandwich two high-contrast large-format negatives ever-so-slightly out of alignment and contact print them to get the illusion of a three-dimensional embossed version of your photo. It required Litho film and special developer, and it was all expensive and difficult to handle.

Now, however, all you need is an image editing program that offers some variation of layers and the ability to turn a positive image into a negative, and it’s a cinch. It’s so easy, it actually takes longer to explain than to do. Let’s try it, using Adobe Photoshop Elements.

Start with a good basic image. Here’s an out-take from my recent visit to Point Pleasant, New Jersey:

Select the entire photo and make a copy layer, then to to Filter > Adjustments > Invert to turn the layer into a negative image.

In the Layers palate, move the Opacity slider to 50%, and watch your picture disappear into solid gray!

Now the fun begins. In the top layer, select all, and then click on the arrow “Move” tool. Using your up-down and right-left cursors, nudge the top layer one click up, and one click left. An embossed image begins to emerge.

Nudge the image a bit farther to make the effect more pronounced. Not too far, or it will look too blurry.

Using the Enhance > Adjust Lighting > Brightness/Contrast control, move the slider around, first on the top (negative) layer, then on the bottom (positive) layer. Experiment for all kinds of cool effects.

Prefer the truly retro black-and-white look? Simply Go to Enhance > Adjust Color > Remove color for both layers (or start out with a black-and-white image), play with the contrast controls, and you’ll get the effect I always avoided trying as a young whippersnapper—but with a lot more flexibility.

Try this on your own and play with the color and contrast sliders. Try keeping one layer color and see how that affects the image at different contrasts. The possibilities are endless!


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