Delving into Depth of Field

Creating more realistic monument sign illustrations in CorelDRAW

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So, your sales person steps into your office and waits patiently for you to acknowledge him. You look up from your keyboard and smile as he asks if you can create an illustration that “has more depth to it.”

You hesitate for just a second before replying, “Depth? What do you mean by depth?”  The sales person continues: “Can you add some dimension to the photo itself … you know, make the sign element look likes it’s embedded into the photo and not just sitting on top of it?” 

Again, you smile and say, “Sure, no problem, so what you mean by depth is you want me to add some depth of field into the illustration.” 

“Yes,” your salesperson exclaims. “Can you do that?”

“Of course,” you say, and the salesperson grabs his design orders and heads out the door. You sit back in your chair, put your feet up on the desk and wonder how in the world you are going to get a photo from this sales person with just the right amount of depth of field. The photos you get now are usually drive-by-shootings that are rarely in focus, let alone taken with a depth of field effect.

Let’s face it, the focal point of your illustrations should be the monument sign design that you have just created. However, when we are provided photos that are void of depth of field, the image can sometimes take on a flat appearance and get lost among the background imagery.  Adding depth of field is a simple process and can make a subtle yet significant impact on the overall look of your presentation illustration.

This article is not about learning how depth of field is achieved with a camera, it’s about learning how to create artificial depth of field in CorelDRAW for more dynamic monument and pylon sign illustrations.

What is Depth of Field
Focal points in a photograph are managed using settings on a telephoto lens, which affect how big or how small the opening in the lens is set at. These settings, called F-stops, are found on the body of most SLR telephoto camera lenses. 
Photographers at sporting events use this technique constantly to highlight the subject of their photo. The fence post shown here becomes the focal point of the photo. (see Figure 1)

Take a look at the two illustrations below created with and without depth of field. Notice how the sign’s appearance is a bit more “crisp” and tends to jump off of the page a bit more than the illustration where the there is no depth of field effect?  (see Figure 2 & Figure 3)

How is it done?
The objective here is to blur the background and some of the foreground without affecting the focal area where the sign graphic will be placed. Again, I am using CorelDRAW X6 for this exercise. 

Getting Started
Open up CorelDRAW X6 and set your “Duplicate” tool to 0.0 offset. This means that your duplicated image will appear directly over the original image with perfect alignment. 

Additionally, you should open up PhotoPaint and create a page with a transparent background-making sure that the No Background box is checked. (see Figure 4)

Then, create a new document and import your original placement photo on page 1 of your CorelDRAW document and size it accordingly per your desired scale. Once you have it sized, select the Bitmap tool and convert it to an RGB 300 dpi bitmap. (see Figure 5)

Step 1: Create a second page within the Corel document, select the newly created photo you placed on page 1 and copy it, then paste it onto page 2 as a backup, just in case you accidentally move the original photo on page 1.

Step 2: On page 1, you will select the photo and duplicate it twice (Ctrl/D twice) and leave them both in place, directly over the original photo on page 1. Now you have two stacked working photos on top of the original photo on page 1, and one master photo on page 2.

Step 3: Now, take a look at your photo and determine where your focal point or “focal plane” should be in your finished illustration, which is where the sign graphic is to be placed. This focal-plane is the horizontal area of the photo (highlighted in white, between the two red horizontal lines) that will remain in focus, and where the sign graphic will be placed. (see Figure 6)

Step 4: Selecting the photo on top of the stack on page 1, use your node editing tool to move the bottom corner nodes upward to where the top red line is shown on the Focal Plane photo. Once you are satisfied with your node editing, click on Bitmaps in your tool bar (see Figure 7) and with your Anti-Alias and Transparent Background boxes checked, convert the node-edited image to a 300 dpi bitmap and leave it right where it is. Then, place your mouse pointer anywhere under this newly created upper bitmap and select the next photo in the pile. This second photo in the pile will be your lower bitmap image. Use your node editing tool to grab the upper two corners of the image and bring them down to the lower red focal plane line.  Select this edited image and convert it to a bitmap also. 

Note: You still have the original image on this page (page 1), which is sitting directly behind the upper and lower bitmaps you just created. Leave it there-and don’t move it. (see Figure 8)

Step 5: Select the upper bitmap you just created, and in your tool bar, select “edit bitmap,” which will open PhotoPaint and it will automatically place the image onto the pre-determined page setup you created earlier. While in PhotoPaint, at the top of the tool bar select Effects/Blur/Gaussian and set your blur effect to 10, 12 or 15. (see Figure 9) The higher the number, the more blur you will get. Next, click on the red X in the upper corner to close PhotoPaint, and you will get a pop-up box that asks the question: “Save changes to Bitmap or object,” and you want to click “Yes” for this. Automatically you will be returned to page 1 in CorelDRAW where the image you just edited now appears to be very blurry, but not pixelated. 

Step 6: Select the lower bitmap image and repeat Step 4 to make the lower image blurry as well. Make sure you use the same percentage of Gaussian Blur for the upper and lower bitmaps. 

Note: If you were to remove the original image from behind the upper and lower bitmaps you just blurred, they would look like this: (see Figure 10).

Step 7: Apply a graduated transparency to both the upper and lower bitmaps. Select the top bitmap and using your Transparency tool, press and hold the Ctrl key while you drag the tool up or down over the upper bitmap to apply a graduated transparency to the lower 1/3 of the bitmap image. Repeat this process for the lower bitmap but in the opposite direction. The goal is to allow the two blurry bitmaps to fade away and reveal the crisp, in-focus look of the original photo. This provides a seamless, gradual transition from “in focus” to “out of focus” above and below the horizontal focal plane.

Note:  If you were to remove the original image from behind the upper and lower bitmaps you just applied the transparency effect to, they would look like this: (see Figure 11).

Step 8: You will suddenly notice that with your original image still in place behind the two blurry translucent bitmaps, you now have an image (a photo) that appears to have depth of field. The majority of the upper and lower bitmaps are out of focus and gradually become in-focus toward the horizontal focal plane. At this point you can play with the Transparency tool to adjust how large your Horizontal Focal Plane is and the degree of blur that appears to transition over the original photo in both directions. This allows control over the final depth of field effect.

Place your Sign Design Graphic into the photo
Import your vector-based monument graphic and place it over the top of both blurry transparent bitmaps that reside on top of the original photo. Then, select only the lower bitmap and bring it to the front of the page, in front of the monument sign graphic. Adjust the amount of gradient transparency that overlaps the very bottom of your sign graphic using the still active Transparency tool. The upper bitmap stays in place directly over the original photo, and behind your monument sign graphic. In this example, only a slight amount of the lower bitmap overlaps the monument sign, giving the grassy area in front of the sign a very subtle, very gradual and very effective depth of field effect.

Final Step 9:  Select the entire graphic/photo and save a copy of it on a new page-label it Master Control Image or something that will remind you not to delete it or convert it to a bitmap. You will use this image to make changes to the illustration after the client changes their mind and now wants to see your design with an EMC on top of it. 

With your Master Control Image safely in place on a back page, go back to page 1 and select the monument sign graphic, the original image and two transparent bitmaps and create a single 600 dpi bitmap image. It’s always a good rule of thumb to use JPGs for presentation-they look better, and can’t be modified by less-than-ethical competitors. 

This process provides you control over several different transparency and blur variables for adjusting how the final illustration looks. You may decide that the lower bitmap isn’t even necessary-or needs more blur than the top bitmap, regardless, the choice is yours and the variables allow you to create the best looking depth of field effect in your final illustration.

Good luck with your new project and don’t be afraid to experiment with this technique. The possibilities are endless.

Matt Charboneau

Matt Charboneau

Matt Charboneau (shar-bo-no) started his career in the sign industry in 1985 as Charboneau Signs. He initially focused on hand-lettered signs, windows, and vehicles while also providing logo design and graphics. As years passed, he expanded into the world of electric monument signs, combining his eye for graphic design with his mechanical aptitude. He utilized the internet to provide his design services to sign companies around the country, providing remote assistance with design, fabrication, and installation drawings of all types of electric signage. In 2007, he became a contributing writer and the technical advisor for monument signs at SDG magazine. In 2017 he published the Pre-Sale Sign Survey Field Guide. In 2019, he started Storm Mountain Signs and the Sign Design Institute, which offers design training for new sign designers. He reachable at [email protected] or 970-481-4151.

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