I’ve been studying a lot of photographers lately, and one of my favorites from the very early years of modern photography is Man Ray. Trained as a painter, he brought that approach over to photography, and applied various effects to his images that were groundbreaking. One of his favorite effects was Solarization.

Copyright - Man Ray

Example of Solarization – Copyright – Man Ray

In order to solarize an image in the darkroom, you expose your plate or paper correctly for the image, and then you remove the negative from your enlarger and shoot the plate or paper with just raw light for a brief interval. This added light would “push” everything in the image, light gray areas would become dark gray. White areas become off white. Shadow areas often become lighter than expected. It’s an interesting technique for a surreal feeling image. And of course, a master of the darkroom like Man Ray could block that raw light from hitting all of the plate or paper, thereby selectively solarizing the image, applying the effect only where he wants it to be.

Copyright - Man Ray

A Solarized Self Portrait – Copyright – Man Ray

Inspired by Man Ray’s work in this area, I wanted to try some solarization of my own. Of course, I work 90% of the time in digital, and don’t have a darkroom in which to attempt solarization the way Man Ray did. But I do have Photoshop, and there are several ways to Solarize in Photoshop.

I started out with a fairly simple image I took a few days ago… I was testing out a new type of light and wanted to see how well it performed in a high key setting. It did allright, I got this image from it:

Tim Lewis Photography Solarization Headshot Eugene Oregon Photographer

The Before Image

It’s not bad, but a kind of boring image all in all. Dropping it into Photoshop I immediately duplicated it and applied Photoshop’s Solarize filter on it. I’ve never been all that big of a fan of Photoshop’s solarize filter…. it has very little flexibility to it, and is sort of a one button trick. So I wasn’t expecting much out of it, and sure enough, I didn’t get a lot out of it. Here’s the result:

Solarization Via Photoshop

Photoshop’s Not-So-great Solarization Filter

Pretty terrible, right? Yeah, I thought so too. Into the trash it went. I knew I wanted a high contrast result, with a lot of blacks that become white and that sweet silvery skin tone that you often see in Man Ray’s work. So I opened up a Gradient Map adjustment later and started playing around with it. This approach is pretty much just trial and error. I would create a new node on the gradient map and then just assign a tone to it… see if I liked it or not, and then change or move the node left or right, brighter or darker. The settings I eventually wound up with were:


These settings gave me a slick silvery look, very high contrast and gritty. I found some areas were going too far so I wound up masking off parts of the effect from areas like the sweatshirt and my neck. Then I did a quick bit of Dodging and Burning to get the tones where I wanted them and I wound up with this image, the finished product:

Now, those settings on the Gradient Map won’t work for every image. You’re going to need to come up with new settings for every image you put through this process, and that’s great because you won’t get the same result twice. My beginning image was fairly low contrast, and these settings bumped that contrast up really fast. If my starting point had been more contrasty this might’ve been too much, and different adjustments would’ve been required.

I encourage you to play with this technique. It’s a lot of fun, and obviously I’m just scratching the surface of what’s possible. Explore!