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Cross Processing Effect In Photoshop Tutorial

In this tutorial we're going to look at a cross processing effect in Photoshop. It's a very quick and easy technique to apply, but is a lot of fun and has a huge impact on pictures.

The phrase 'cross processing' has actually been carried over from film photography, referring to the process of developing film with the wrong chemicals. The result was radically altered colour tone, which in turn influenced the mood and atmosphere of photos. It took lots practice, equipment and time to get right.

Luckily, in a digital workflow, cross processing is literally something that can be done in a matter of seconds! There are infinite variations of the effect, but I'll walk you through the most common one, which produces an interesting nostalgic feel. Here's a quick before and after...

Before:

After:

Here's how it's done...

1. Open your image in Photoshop. I tend to find this effect works best with people pictures. It's often been popular with wedding photographers and fashion photographers (Nick Knight being a good example of the latter). But there are no rules, any subject will do.

2. Duplicate the background layer by hitting Cmd/Ctrl + J (this allows us to make non-destructive edits). Create a Curves adjustment layer.

We are going to create an S curve in the red and green channels, and an inverted S curve in the blue channel (in other words, increase the reds and greens in the highlights and decrease them in the shadows, whilst decreasing blues in the highlights and increasing them in the shadows.

3. Select red from the drop-down menu and set 2 points on the graph at the top right and bottom left intersection points. Drag the top right point up a bit and the bottom left point down a bit, so you have a gentle S curve.

4. Now select green from the drop-down menu, and do exactly as you did for the red channel. Pull up the top right point and drag down the bottom left one, creating an S. The cross processing effect starts to look interesting now.

5. Finally, select blue from the menu and, this time, do the exact reverse of what we did with the reds and green. Drag the top right point down a little and the bottom left one up a bit, so the S is inverted. The basic effect is clear at this stage, but we're not quite finished.

6. Change the blending mode of the Curves layer to Color. Re-open the Curves layer and select RGB from the drop-down menu. Create a slight S curve to increase contrast. Alternatively you can use a Levels adjustment layer and drag the highlights slider to the left and shadows slider to the right. Cross processing does tend drain contrast a fair bit, so this is an important step.

7. Hold Cmd/Ctrl and select your Curves layer along with the duplicate background layer (and the Levels layer if you used one). Hit Cmd/Ctrl + E to blend the layers. Now toggle the eye icon on/off to assess the impact the effect has had. I love the moodiness that it creates, which has a kind of peaceful, nostalgic, retro quality. If you think it might be a bit over the top, just adjust the opacity of the layer to suit your taste.

8. That's it. One very cool cross processed image created. Cmd click the layers, and then hit Cmd + E to flatten the image. Save the photo.

Final Image:

I use the above cross processing combination the most, but from this start point you can come up with as many varieties as you like. Play around with the color channels in Curves and you'll soon find some cool results, even if they don't technically mirror cross processing.

For example, something as simple as increasing reds in the shadows and highlights, whilst reducing blues in the shadows and highlights, can produce an awesome vintage photo effect. To do it...

1. With your image open, select a Curves adjustment layer. Choose reds from the menu and move the point in the top right corner to the left a bit, then the point in the bottom left up a bit. You should have a straight line that's just been moved a bit higher.

2. Choose the blue channel and move the bottom left point to the right and the top right point down. Now you have a straight line that's been moved lower.

3. Change the blending mode of the Curves layer to Color. I don't usually go back and return contrast to the image at this stage, because I like the faded look.

4. Optionally, create a Hue/Saturation layer and reduce the saturation to something between -10 and -20. This sometimes adds to the old photo feel.

Final image:

Keep experimenting with cross processing, because there are loads of cool possibilites with it. Try out different types of shots too. It doesn't only work with people pictures.

I recommend this little digital book if you like simple, effective, easy to follow Photoshop techniques: "Photo Nuts and Post".

Where Next?

Photoshop sharpening techniques

Easy portrait softening in Photoshop

How to use the clone-stamp tool

Return to Photography Art Cafe home

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