Value-Shape-Separate-Relate (VSSR)

Welcome to Big Mountain Photography (Dashan Sheying –大山摄影).

Happy “Calendar” New Year 2017.  Why would I say this?  Well, we have another two pending New Year celebrations in the form of the Chinese “Lunar” New Year on 1/28, followed in April by the Tamil “Solar” New Year.  Which to follow?  All of course.

It’s been awhile since my last post as I took a holiday break combined with some deep learnings from John R. Tuttle. I highly suggest you follow John on Instagram or Facebook to get an appreciation for his wonderful fine art images and available archival prints.  VSSR is the artistic image processing approach by John R. Tuttle.

I’d like to share my experience in developing my artistic eye and shifting to my RH-brain when processing a photograph.  In particular,  the use of Photoshop just as a painter envisions and creates his image on canvas.

Disclaimer:  By no means do I claim to possess the mastery of an Artist Eye nor have highly skilled touch in Photoshop, rather I push myself with a strong desire and embedded curiosity to improve the images I create.

Patronage: Please “Follow” along as our adventure in India and later China continues.

I pulled out an old PDF File on Art that I acquire from Les Saucier as my first Master in The Arcanum.

VSSR in a Nut Shell
  • Determine Tonal “Values”
  • Find the Big “Shapes”, Not Details
  • “Separate” the Shapes by Contrast Range
  • “Relate” the Shapes to Each Other
1. The Simple Secret to Better Painting by Greg Albert

I dusted off an old PDF File on understanding the golden rule(s) of Art that I acquired from Les Saucier , my first Master in The Arcanum.  I would suggest you take a brief read yet stop and read Chapter 5 two times on Tonal Value and Contrast.

The Simple Secret to Better Painting

2. Key Highlights of Chapter 5 on Tonal Value and Contrast


  • Lights and dark contribute more to the success of a photography than any other factor, including color.
  • Value contrasts attract and entertain the viewer making any part of the photograph an eye magnet.
  • Points of contrast provide touchstones for the eye as it scans the photograph.
  • Lights and Darks in your photograph must be at least consciously considered if not deliberately planned.
  • Think of Value Scale as a series of grays from black to white, i.e. Zone System.


  • Seeing your scene as a simplified pattern of lights and darks.
  • See the subject as a pattern made up of value shapes.
  • Look at your subject, not as a group of things that can be named, but as a pattern.
  • Think Dark or Light Shapes.
  • What an object is is not as important as its shape and value.


  • Reduce your subject to a few big shapes.
  • Simplify the subject into a pattern of shapes then turn the pattern of shapes into a pattern of values.
  • Reduce the subject to three values: Black, Gray, and White.  Most subjects reduce themselves to three values.
  • Maybe to five values adding Light Gray and Dark Gray thus adding distinctions to make the identity of your subject matter clearer.
  • Once you start thinking about your photograph as a pattern of value areas, you can check to see if that pattern format an effective composition.


  • Value Contrast is a great technique for attracting the viewer’s attention, Gradation of a Value is a great technique for retaining it.
  • Graduation is the gradual change of tonal value from light to dark over distance.
  • The Gradual Change in Tonal Value in the foreground pulls the eye into the photograph.
  • A Value Area having both Contrast and Graduation attracts and retains the viewer’s attention, creates depth in the photograph and helps focus the eye on the center of interest.
  • Value Changes Within Shapes: Graduations of each Shape go back and forth between light and dark.


  • Harmony With Value Contrast: The Japanese word “Notan” by Arthur Dow expresses the beauty and harmony of darks and lights balanced together or interacting in what Japanese called Visual Music.
  • The concept of Notan includes figure-ground relationships formed by dark shapes against light or light shapes against dark.
  • Notan combines all that makes shape and value contrast interesting: variety dimension, concavity and convexity, interlocking figure-ground ambiguity and dramatic opposition
  • All the shapes both positive and negative must be interesting shapes in themselves with varying intervals.  Their interaction should create harmony and balance.
  • Values Help Define the Subject: Soft and hard, smooth and rough, light and dark can all contrast to make a seemingly simple picture one of subtle mystery.
3.  VSSR Workflow in Lightroom / Photoshop
In Lightroom (or Adobe Camera Raw):
1) Basic Tone and Color Adjustments
2) Distraction Removal (or in Photoshop)
In Photoshop:
3a)  Visual determine the Large Shapes.  Usually 2-3.
3b) Using Selection and Masking tools, create a separate layer mask for each of the 2-3 large shapes to which we will adjust tonal values to separate the shapes.
3c) For each layer selection, add adjustment layers that as a Clipping Mask for Curves at a minimum. Other adjustment layers to consider adding are Hue/Saturation, Brightness, Vibrance, Gradient…  Suggest not to use Levels as Curves is the superior tool.  Here we are Separating the 2-3 Shapes using contrast with varying Tonal Values.
3d) Then add a Curves Adjustment Layer for the entire image thus getting the Shapes to Relate.
4. Example 1

Raw File Before Processing in LR – Not a pretty sight but wait as I work the magic of VSSR.


Here I envisioned two Big Shapes; all the people as one big shape and the inverse as the 2nd big shape.  So I zoomed in with a small brush to select all people one at a time ensuring a proper edge selection. This was my first layer mask which I added a Curves and Hue/Saturation adjustment layers.  Then, copying and inverting the layer mask I have my 2nd big shape of the everything else which again I added a Curves and Hue/Saturation adjustment layers.  


The Curves and Hue/Saturation adjustment tools were tweaked to taste with first sliding to the extremes then backing off.  Here you see a Curves being applied to the 2nd inverse big shape.


The final image with a border having a thin black band, thick white band and chop.

5. Example 2

RAW File Ahead of LR Processing – A So-S0 Look


After Lightroom basic adjustments plus conversion to B&W in Photoshop, I selected three Big Shapes, i.e. 1) the water, 2) the photographers plus camera and three the shoreline background.  See the three layer masks where the “White” on Black is what is selected.  For B&W, I just added one adjustment layer, i.e. Curves – the most powerful of all tools.


Here’s a close-up of the Curve Adjustment Tool being applied to the Photographers with the standard S-Curve.


To finish off the image and “Relate” the three Big Shapes, I applied a Curves Adjustment Layer to the entire image.


A close -up of the Curves Adjustment Tool.  I could have applied the Brightness – Contrast Tool yet held it in reserve.


The final image with a two-band border with texture applied in Photoshop.

You-Tube has plenty of videos explaining the Selection and Masking Tool Set available in Photoshop.

Here are a few to get started:

VSSR Gallery  (Let Me State the Big Shapes That I Adjusted Tonal Contrast and Color)


Big Shapes to Adjust Tonal Values for Separation Then Related Together: 1) The butterfly 2) The flower/bush and 3) The background


Big Shapes to Adjust Tonal Values for Separation Then Related Together: 1) The young priests walking in file 2) The background sky 3) The background Steps and 4) All the rest.


Big Shapes to Adjust Tonal Values for Separation Then Related Together: 1) All 5-6 towers 2) The 3 firewood stacks, 3) The water and 4) All the rest.


Big Shapes to Adjust Tonal Values for Separation Then Related Together: 1) The water 2) The 6 boats 3) The sky and 4) The shoreline with buildings.


Big Shapes to Adjust Tonal Values for Separation Then Related Together: 1) The water, 2) The two girls, 3) The upper RH wall and 4) All the rest.


Big Shapes to Adjust Tonal Values for Separation Then Related Together: 1) The man, 2) The structure he is sitting on, 3) The RH vertical wall and 4) All the rest.


Big Shapes to Adjust Tonal Values for Separation Then Related Together: 1) The center structure plus its reflection, 2) the water, 3) The back wall and ground and 4) All the rest.


Big Shapes to Adjust Tonal Values for Separation Then Related Together: 1) The man, 2) The RH painting, 3) RH vertical wall and 4) All the rest.

Here John provided some great feedback on his take of the image by filling the frame with the subject, i.e. the man.  I was going for the diagonal glance of the god down on the man yet this is a better composition.  Never stop learning.


Being able to bounce ideas off each other which in turns helps to level me up, is the rewarding experience for me.  Thanks John.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s