Monday, January 19, 2009

REVIEW: Welcome to Oz by Vincent Versace

If you've read Photoshop books and articles then you've probably already heard of Vincent Versace because the techniques he describes in this book are reused in many other books. In this review I'll discuss his 1st edition which is based on Photoshop CS2, but when I wrote this there was mention of a new second edition. That information has vanished so apparently something has caused those plans to be scrapped. I now recommend you go ahead and get this edition of the book as a update no longer seems to be forthcoming.

Vincent Versace's portfolio and industry praise speaks for itself, and perhaps his face to face instruction is outstanding (so the legend goes - I have no first hand experience). He's part of NAPP's dream team and a three time nominee for the Photoshop Hall of Fame, so his credentials are without question.  This book offers a glimpse into his mind and how he approaches "developing" a photo, so it's awesome to have the opportunity to get into this guy's brain.

Chapter by Chapter Comments

Here's my thoughts on each chapter of this book:

Chapter 1 - The Tao of Dynamic Workflow

This chapter starts off with a rather prophetic quote: Practice doesn't make perfect. Perfect Practice makes perfect. You first have to practice at practicing. - Vince Lombardi and then talks about Shibumi: The Art of Perfect practice. The point behind all of this is to drill home the point that practice alone isn't enough - you have to learn how to practice at being perfect. What I think Vincent really means here is that you have to pay attention to the fine details and practice at making those little adjustments that separate a photo from being average to extraordinary. This all makes sense and is very motivational, so I was drawn in to this book rather quickly.

It was great to see how Vincent attacks a problem using his own image maps (not the Photoshop feature) to outline what changes should be made to the contrast, depth of field, and lighting. He uses this to transform an ordinary photo that you or I could get into something that is very special.

He accomplishes this using some well known Photoshop techniques (i.e., curves adjustments, Gaussian blur) as well as some lesser known techniques like using the Lighting Effects filter and Nik Software's Skylight filter (from Nik Color Efex Pro 3.0 Complete). The results are impressive and you feel like you are shadowing a true pro at his office during an internship. I love this aspect of the book and was excited about what I might learn.

Here's an example of the before and after from the web site:

In the end this chapter was promising but not as easy to follow along as most other books are, so I was a bit disappointed.

Chapter 2 - Image Harvesting

This chapter discuss a topic that is heresy to some and a fact of modern digital photography - image harvesting. This is the concept of taking portions of multiple images and compositing them together to create a vision of what the photographer intended. Vincent argues that it allows us to get closer to recreating what the eye saw. However, when I look at Vincent's final images, I can't say that my eye has ever seen what he's created so I think that statement is a bit of a stretch.

Using a patch of leaves Vincent uses image harvesting to create the depth of field he wanted and he follows up using LAB color adjustments, Nik Software's Skylight and Contrast Only features from (from Nik Color Efex Pro 3.0 Complete) to create the color and contrast of a pro photograph and then Nik Software’s Sharpener Pro to sharpen the image in the right places. He finishes this all up with a ray of sunlight from the Lighting Effects filter in Photoshop to create a another masterpiece out of a fairly mundane photo.

This chapter is very hard to follow along with because there is a certain element of skill required with brushing techniques that the average Joe isn't going to have. An advanced Photoshop user can probably keep up with this chapter, but many will struggle to get results that are as good as Vincent's (hence the perfect practice references early in this book).

Chapter 3- The Unwitting Ally

I was excited during the first two chapters, but was struggling to get the results I had hoped for. In this chapter my frustration reached its peak because I found the chapter to be too cumbersome working on a boring image that required a lot of effort for little reward (the final result failed to impress me - especially given the effort involved). The only new concepts introduced in this chapter were surrounding blending modes and the Hue/Saturation adjustment layer. The rest of the topics were repetitive (which is okay) , but offered little additional value to the reader.

I was sorely disappointed in this chapter and felt like it was a cumbersome way to learn what Scott Kelby effectively teaches in a couple pages with more practical applications.

Chapter 4 - Classic Studio Lighting

I was in awe of the Marilyn Monroe style shot featured in this chapter, so I was very excited to work through this chapter to get these kind of results. Once again, I found the brush techniques to be more challenging than expected because you basically need to get them right in one stroke without overlapping OR use a selection and know what the proper values are to get the level of gray needed for the mask. I enjoyed seeing what is possible and how it is done in this chapter, but I failed to get the same type of results using the information provided by Vincent in this chapter. This reinforced my feeling that Vincent is certainly talented and very creative, but he's not a very good teacher. It's kinda like watching the computer geek who says he'll show you something but he just types and clicks away at a pace that no mere mortal could follow. In the end you are in awe of what was done, but have no clue how to do it yourself.

Chapter 5 - Creating a Black-and-White Image from a RGB File

This chapter is very outdated and a waste of time if you are on Photoshop CS3 or greater. There are so many better ways to get black and white images these days, and I'm sure Vincent is probably using Nik Software Silver Efex Pro by now. I expect you'll see major changes here in his new edition due to be released in April 2009.

Chapter 6 - It's About Time

This chapter was probably the most frustrating of all as Vincent once again does a ton of work for a final product that fails to impress me (perhaps it will impress you), and this time he does less even less instruction. Personally, I think his Kimset photo would have been a more interesting subject for this chapter but I suspect that Vincent felt that Smoke was such an unusual treatment of water that it warranted its own demonstration. I respectfully disagree.

The Results

It's pretty tricky to follow along with Vincent Versace's lessons, and it's even harder to apply them to your own images but I tried. Here's my best shot(hover over to see the before image):

Mouse over to see before, mouse out to see after

Overall I feel like I learned something, but I also wonder if it is worth the 5 hours it took to process this photo. I think my big take away is going to be the value of the Render Lighting filter (that I've never used until now) and the value of darkening the background to control the viewers eye better.

A friend once told me after he had watched this video tutorial, that time you spend on the last 10% of your photo can take 10 hours or more, but that's the part that will make the difference from average to exceptional. This book gives you an insight into that, but I'm not sure if I have the patience to do that. I'd definitely rather watch a video to learn the techniques to do that, but if you've feel like you've hit the proverbial brick wall and want to grow more then this book is probably what you are looking for. Products like Color Efex 3.0 and Viveza will certainly make it easier to do some of the things Vincent shows how to do manually CS2, so I'd recommend getting yourself some time back by investing in the tools that Vincent himself praises (and probably will use in his new edition of this book).


There are things I love about this book and many things that I hate. At the end of the day I'm glad this book exists, but I'm even more happy that guys like Scott Kelby have read this book and reintroduced many of the concepts in a much more digestible format.

Vincent is clearly gifted and there are some detail oriented personalities who will love seeing his Photoshop workflow, but at the same time they'll find themselves wanting more details. This is mostly a "watch me" type of book where some details are provided, but it isn't uncommon to find yourself wanting more information on how to accomplish Vincent's magic. Hopefully the next edition will address these shortcomings, but my recommendation is that this is really a book for seasoned Photoshop users. Beginners are going to be lost quickly, so you should probably  skip this book until you’ve exhausted more practical options first.

Skill Level: Advanced
Value: Typical price for this type of book
Recommendation: Only Recommended for Advanced Photoshop Users - Beginner to Intermediate should read other books first.

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Anonymous said...

Hey Ron, gee you must read a lot !

I like what it's done to your sample image, its a positive change. As you say though, perhaps you might have got to the same or similar point with 7-point-system, have you given that a try? It'd be interesting to see the comparison I reckon! said...

Yes, I do try to read a lot. I'm a huge fan of the 7 Point System and mention it in my Recommended Photoshop Books list. The 7 Point System is more practical for most people as Vincent's Photoshop techniques are outdated (but I assume his new book will address that).

Unknown said...

While I like your finished effort, for me I would prefer less color saturation (fore and background). The original image almost seemed 3-D, but the finished pic, by having a dark background, for me, loses the sense of being out there in the woods (environment).