Helo Icon Tutorial
We're going from a not-so-crisp, low light screencapture to an icon with a "classic movie" feel. You might want to try some of these techniques with different kinds of images to see what results you get. Some techniques were inspired by this tutorial. The idea behind this is that you start with low contrast and without much color range— relatively monochromatic or dichromatic— and get something cool out of it. I used Photoshop CS2 for this, but it should be transferable to other graphics software.
The images and likenesses used here all belong to their respective copyright holders, not to me. However, the tutorial itself is my creation and may not be duplicated without my permission.
Select your base image I used this capture of Helo from the new Battlestar Galactica miniseries, and found it at http://photobucket.com/albums/1003/jems1— but you can always capture your own if you have the capabilities. Phew, look at that quality! It's too dark and not sharp enough to simply crop and resize; TV and DVD captures like to do that. This tutorial will help you fix these kinds of images.   to  
Layer 1: Make your base layer
  • Starting with your large image, use Auto Contrast: Image > Adjustments > Auto Contrast
  • Tip: To keep from losing the color palette, don't use Auto Levels. Contrast helps with the lights and darks without messing with the colors.
  • Crop to what suits you, remembering to keep it a square if you'd like a square 100 x 100 icon.
  • Use sharpen twice: Filter > Sharpen > Sharpen x 2
  • Shrink the dimensions to 50%: Image > Image Size
  • Use sharpen again.
  • Since my dimensions are already down to 222 x 222, I go ahead and drop the size to 100 x 100 instead of a percentage step again (since that'd only shrink to 111 x 111). You can repeat as necessary depending on how large of a crop you started with.
    Layers 2 and 3: Clean up — image now looks like —
  • Duplicate the base: Layer > Duplicate Layer
  • Sharpen this duplicate, but DO NOT MERGE THE LAYERS YET.
  • Make another duplicate of the base, and move this layer above the sharpened layer.
  • Bring out the contrast more by changing the blend mode of this layer to hard light, and adjust the opacity as needed (for mine, I set it at 50%).
  • Tip: You'll still be using the original base for something. If you want to merge these three layers, keep a copy of the base. Otherwise, leave it alone so you can duplicate it later.
    Layer 4: More contrast — image now looks like —
  • If you merged the first three layers, duplicate the new layer. Otherwise, merge all, copy this new layer, then backstep and paste the merged version on top.
  • Make this black and white using Image > Adjustments > Channel Mixer and checking "Monochrome" at the bottom.
  • Tip: If you just Desaturate, you'll still have a very dark layer, except now it'll be grey toned. You can also use the color sliders in the Channel Mixer to further play with the contrast.
  • Set the black and white layer to Hard Light and adjust the opacity until you like the amount of contrast (mine is at 40%).
    Layer 5: Add text — image now looks like —
  • Using the good ol' text tool, make you some text and position it how you want it. I chose to do dark text on the lighter part of the image.
  • I chose to use a blend mode on the text instead of leaving it normal so the lighter text colors would darken against the sky (multiply 80%).
  • Tip: Select colors from the palette of your icon using the eyedropper to ensure it's all in the same scheme.
  • If you're curious about the settings I used: Big Noodle Titling, 100 for the distance apart thingy (I forget the name but the image is an AV ith arrows pointing to the sides), 14 pt for the large (readable) font which is #311405, 3 pt for the smallest font above which is #d19051, and 5 pt for the smallish font below which is #bb7132. The full quote: You've got to ask yourself one question: "Do I feel lucky?" Well, do ya, punk?
    Layer 6: A little brightening — image now looks like —
  • Create a new layer above the text layer.
  • Use the eyedropper to select a foreground and a background color from the icon (flip the swatches so one is set foreground and one is background).
  • Then use the gradient tool on the "Foreground to Background" setting and drag it across the layer. I used the setting that puts the foreground color in the middle and the background above and below, and I dragged from near the upper right to below the center of the bottom edge.
  • Set this gradient layer to Color Dodge and adjust the opacity, lightening the icon a little without changing the colors drastically (mine is 10%).
  • Tip: Custom or preset gradients might just have a set of colors you like for other styles, but I kept to eyedropper colors for the look I'm going for.
    Layer 7: Muting and more contrasting — image now looks like —
  • TEMPORARILY merge the layers to create a duplicate; make sure you just copy this merged version or make a separate duplicate image of it, then restore the layers and paste the merged version on top.
  • Do the Channel Mixer monochrome on this layer as well.
  • Hard light and opacity adjust (mine is 65%).
    Layer 8: Still more lightening — image now looks like —
  • Remember the base layer of this that I told you to keep around? Duplicate/paste it again on top of all these layers. Notice how it doesn't have text on it.
  • Set this to Screen and adjust opacity (mine is 25%) to bring out some more of the darker areas, give the light areas a little more punch, and soften up the text slightly.
    Layer 9: Punch those lights again! — image now looks like —
  • At this point, I don't remember exactly what I did to get this starting layer because I'd experimented for a bit with merges and such. Oops. The basic idea, though, is that I got this layer to where the lights looked near white and there was more contrast, but it wasn't where I wanted to stop. I may've played with Curves to do it.
  • Set this layer to Luminosity, and I didn't change the opacity for mine. A little more contrast than what layer 8 gave me, but this also kept some color to my sky since the starting layer looked TOO washed out on its own.
    Layer 10: Final gradient for more dynamics — image finishes up at —
  • One more new layer, this time with a straight black - white gradient (black towards a top corner, white towards a bottom)
  • And now set it to Overlay, play with the opacity (50%) for me, and redo the gradient if needed to get it to where you want. I wanted to darken up his head some, bring out his clothing, and emphasize the hands holding the gun more. This gradient helped me do all that-- see how it pushed the darker and midrange values brighter on the clothes, and made the hand area brighter than the head area so that it "pops" more.
  • Tip: Have fun comparing the base version you started with to the final product, and pat yourself on the back for changing it up that much!