How To – Getting the ‘Grunge’ Look

Orroral Homestead by Tom Harvey

Photography purists be warned – what you are about to read flies directly in the face of your snobbery and may contain images that are not perfectly exposed and which, in fact, have deliberately had significant alterations with excessive amounts of noise, dust and scratches, blurring of a Gaussian nature, and heavy over use of vignetting. Still reading? Good.

My name is Tom and I am a Grunge Photography addict. Perhaps it is a reaction against the perfectness of digital photography these days and the mass availability of image-capturing technology, or maybe it is the fact that I was a teenager during the 1990’s and the whole Grunge Explosion and Sound of Seattle era, or perhaps I just want to push my work in new directions (but hopefully not One Direction) by capturing a sense of atmosphere, imbuing a sense of artistic license, or visual poetry into my work, but I am hooked.

Recently, a number of people have asked me how I managed to achieve the effects I have with these images, particularly the black and white images of the Orroral Homestead, the main photo in this story, and I have decided to share (this being the era of the democratisation of digital imagery, after all). While much of the technique has been a process of trial and error, I thought I could shed some light on the process that I have used. Others may use different techniques. I use what works for me.

Okay, so first thing’s first, I have been working in Photoshop Elements 10, which is an awesome piece of software with a much lower price tag than its bigger, more complex cousin (which I also love but not on my current budget). As for the image itself, I think that it is important to begin with a) a subject that is going to lend itself to an effective grunge treatment, and b) a photograph that has some aesthetic appeal (think perspectives, textures, dof, etc).

You will need:

1) An image to begin with;

2) A grunge texture background. These you can make yourself or download samples from a plethora of sites available through a simple Google search for ‘Grunge Textures’. The textures that I have made myself are things like pavement with chewing gum stuck on, rusty metal roofing, weathered and cracked perspex, water droplets on my shower curtain – pretty much anything with interesting textures or patterns. Then you play with the contrast, saturation, etc.

3) Editing Software; and;

4) A creative and experimental mind.

The process itself:

1) I tend to decide first whether I want the image to be in colour (decide on saturation, hue, lighting and make adjustments in Brightness and Contrast, Levels, Hue and Saturation) or monochrome (make adjustments using the Channel Mixer to get the right balance of white, black, and everything in between).

2) Decide on what texture you want to add, open the image in your software, select all, copy, close this file.

3) Paste the copied texture layer on top of your original image.

4) Use the eraser tool, set about 5-10% opacity to slowly erase the top (textured) layer, exposing the image below. The aim is to blend the two layers in a way that keeps the best elements of each layer without having elements clashing with each other. This takes some experimentation.

5) Once you have come to a level of blending that you think works for you, flatten the image.

6) At this point, I’m usually thinking that it needs more, so I create a couple of duplicated layers to play with. On one layer, I push the contrast to extreme, darken the image, add some noise, usually some dust and scratches, until I am happy with the result.

7) On the other duplicated layer, I also add noise and dust and scratches, but I keep it light and make sure the image is still well-defined.

8) Using the eraser tool again, I slowly blend the two layers, aiming to get the right mix of noisy, grainy, dark, with enough definition of the subject of the image, to make it aesthetically pleasing. Trial and error is the order here.

9) Flatten image, maybe tweak the brightness and contrast, levels, vignetting, etc. a little bit more, but for all intents and purposes, this baby is done!

As with most art, this process is highly variable and depends largely on what kind of mood I’m in and what the original image gives me to work with. What I am generally aiming for is to present an image that is imperfect and atmospheric, and I will work for extended periods of time until I get the look that I think works for me, generally without any preconceived notion of what it is I am actually hoping to achieve.

I highly recommend this form of image experimentation – it is fun and rewarding – and it delivers images that are generally unique and more visually interesting than a snapshot or a poorly constructed HDR image. Grunge it up!