The Saguaro Project

NOTE: The images blow are linked to a second rollover image that shows the starting photograph. To see the starting photograph, simply roll your mouse over an image and a wait a few seconds until the second image loads. Then you can move the mouse back and forth across an edge to see the image switch rapidly between before and after.

While I love to photograph and process nature images, “photo fatigue” still happens. There are so many outstanding nature photographs now that I’m a bit overwhelmed by both the number and quality, and wonder if I have much to contribute to this already gargantuan collective body of work. Photography remains one of my passions, though, so I try to invent opportunities for exploring something different to keep me interested.


The Saguaro Project was an effort that combined my fascination with the Sonoran Desert that now surrounds me with the inspiration I’ve found in Club Camera Tucson’s Digital Art SIG. I wanted to take photographs of one of the natural icons in the region, the saguaro cactus, and transform the images into something less photographic. I wasn’t sure what that would be, but I started playing with Photoshop and eventually found the path I wanted to follow.


Before deciding to undertake this project, I didn’t have many saguaro images in my RAW file collection, so the first stop was nearby Sabino Canyon to take some. I was determined to use cactus images taken in any type of light and from the start I was thinking in terms of tight compositions. Isolating the subject and separating it from the surrounding terrain would create a sense of abstraction while still emphasizing the characteristics of saguaros that make them so unique.


After developing a few images I started see the direction this would go. In the end there were six criteria for each image.

  1. Use photographs that were taken in ordinary, unspectacular light.
  2. Have the cactus’ arms bleed off at least one edge of the frame.
  3. Use Steve Dell’s sketch action that he recently shared with me.
  4. Use luminosity masks in the development process.
  5. Use Photoshop’s “spectrum” gradient (the rainbow gradient) as the main source of color.
  6. Add an “orb” to the image in Photoshop to suggest the sun or the moon.

I also wanted to produce at least six images that fit these criteria so I could add a thumbnail gallery on my website that featured them.


One of the nice things about Steve Dell’s sketch action is that it evens out the light even for photographs with considerable contrast. As a result, the color added from the spectrum gradient was applied more evenly than the original lighting would suggest. Luminosity masks were also useful after the sketch action ran for selecting areas that would receive the gradient color. To a large degree, the processing changed the original photos into illustrations, which was sort of the intent given the influence of the Digital Art SIG. In some of the images, though, the underlying photographic starting point can still be easily recognized.


This project took around a month to complete and was a lot of fun. I was exploring photography and Photoshop in new ways, and each image was a new adventure. There was no preconceived idea of what the final images would look like other than it had to meet the criteria. There was lots of experimentation and the final images often required more layers than a “normal” photograph.


In the process of creating these images, I started to appreciate saguaros in new ways. They’re easy to take for granted given how numerous they are here, but they offer a lot of possibilities: an iconic anthropomorphic figure, wonderful textures from the ribs and needles, and lines and shapes that work well from many different angles. The light might not have been anything special when the images were taken, but this project made me realize that it’s more than light that makes saguaros special.

TK Quick Tip: Layer Mask mode

One of the best features in the TK7 panel is the ability to view luminosity masks and other pixel-based masks as fast as they’re created. Seeing the actual mask up front allows you to make an initial assessment of what will be revealed and what will be concealed before the mask is actually put into use. It also allows you to modify the mask to make sure it selects the parts of the image you want selected.

When you actually deploy the mask, though, sometimes it’s not quite doing what it was expected to do. Maybe a different mask would have worked better. Or maybe the current mask is pretty good, but still needs additional modification. It’s occasionally hard to know how a particular mask is going to perform until you actually see how it affects the image.

If the mask you created using the TK7 panel was applied as a layer mask, then there’s no need to start all over. The TK7 panel has “Layer Mask mode” that lets you modify layers masks or even change to a totally different mask without going through the process of generating and applying a new mask.

In the video below, Sean Bagshaw covers three situations where Layer Mask mode comes in handy.

  • Changing to a different mask entirely.
  • Modifying the current layer mask.
  • Exposure-blending to control dynamic range.

The key feature in all these examples is that the image itself drives the decision-making process. In Layer Mask mode, you no longer see the mask since it automatically gets applied as a layer mask to the active layer. What you see instead is the effect the mask has on the image. So in layer Mask Mode you’re choosing the mask based on how the image looks and not on how the mask looks. You can still look at the mask if you want to, but you’ll also be able to instantly see how the mask affects the image. As always, Sean does an excellent job walking you through the process. I hope you’ll give it a try.

History Brush magic: An amazing luminosity mask technique from Alister Benn

I recently came across Alister Benn’s latest videos on YouTube and they are an excellent example of taking luminosity masks to a level that I never imagined. He does it by adding a couple of lesser used Photoshop techniques to standard luminosity masks: the History Brush tool and brush blend modes. I honestly have not done much with either of these, but I can now see how they offer a unique method for burning and dodging. The two videos linked below provide a good overview of Alister’s method. NOTE: I’m listing these in the reverse order that Alister posted them because it makes sense to understand the History Brush first before moving on to the more complex video involving a workflow that uses it extensively.

The first video reviews the History Brush. The thing to keep in mind when using it is to have a consistent Layers panel. Don’t add or remove layers and make sure to paint on the duplicate layer that was active at the time the History snapshot was created. Alister keeps this all quite simple by just using two layers: the Background layer and a duplicate of it, and I’d strongly recommend sticking with this approach until you gain experience using this technique. This video also demonstrates burning and dodging with the History Brush by using the brush’s different blend modes: Screen for dodging and Multiply for burning. While the results look similar to traditional burning and dodging with black or white paint, there are some fundamental differences, which I’ll discuss below.

In the second video, Alister takes the basic burning/dodging technique with the History Brush and combines it with the Adobe Camera Raw (ACR) filter and luminosity masks. In doing so, he’s able combine burning and dodging with subtle color and contrast shifts created using the ACR filter. It took me a couple of times watching to see what was happening here, but there is a very important difference between what Alister is doing compared to standard burning and dodging. Regular burning and dodging uses either black or white paint (or occasionally paint of another color) applied to a pixel layer in either Soft Light, Overlay, or Hard Light blend mode. In Alister’s method, using a single color of paint is completely gone. By painting from an image snapshot using the History Brush, the paint source is effectively the image itself. It’s not black paint or white paint. It’s every color in the image snapshot and everything is precisely aligned, pixel-for-pixel, with current state of the image. So just like luminosity masks insure perfect blending since they are based on data in the image’s pixels, History Brush burning and dodging chooses and aligns colors that also perfectly match the image’s pixels. It’s an amazing convergence of these two techniques and provides a new level of control in determining how paint gets applied to adjust the image. The main point is this: anything you can adjust with the ACR filter (temperature, tint, brightness, contrast, highlights, shadows, color, texture, clarity, dehaze, saturation, vibrance, and the list goes on and on), can now be incorporated into burning and dodging with luminosity masks.

Alister’s method might be a bit challenging to grasp at first, but he does an excellent job walking you through the details. Here are a few tips to keep in mind.

  • Only use two layers, the Background and a duplicate of it, and do all the burning, dodging, and ACR filter adjustments on the duplicate layer.
  • Make sure to step back one step on your History panel AFTER making a snapshot of an ACR filter adjustment.
  • Also be sure to select the correct snapshot as the source for the History Brush.
  • Use the History Brush’s Multiply blend mode for burning and Screen blend mode for dodging. You can also use Normal blend mode to simply paint in the ACR adjustment without any additional brightness changes.
  • Use low-opacity/high-flow brushes or medium-opacity/low-flow brushes. This way you can make subtle adjustments that are progressively built up with multiple brushstrokes.
  • Make your luminosity mask selection right before you start to paint with the History Brush. Making this selection too soon in the process could get confusing.
  • Deselect any active selections before doing adjustments with the ACR filter. If you were painting through a hidden selection, you need to turn it off BEFORE doing an ACR adjustment or else the ACR adjustment will be restricted to the selected area. NOTE: Alister did turn off the active selection in the video, though you had to be watching for it as he didn’t explicitly state it.

The best way to learn this technique is to just dive in and try it, maybe working along with Alister’s video. It does require a bit of active thought to step through the process properly, but once you see what’s happening it becomes much more intuitive. And as Alister shows in this video, the technique can transform an entire image, not just small areas. With the ACR filter being used to adjust the image and then using this as the basis for a snapshot that serves as the paint source, the whole image is now in play. It’s time to think big.

Alister says he has more videos coming on these methods. Be sure to subscribe to his YouTube channel to see what’s next.

Add YOUR Photoshop actions to the TK7 panel (new method)

In addition to generating luminosity masks, the TK7 panel also creates a more efficient Photoshop workflow with the buttons and menus in the Combo and Cx modules. Many photographers keep one of these modules open in their workspace because it provides quick access to many commonly used Photoshop features. Another way to improve workflow efficiency is to use Photoshop actions to perform repetitive steps. However, using Photoshop actions still involves opening Photoshop’s regular Actions panel. The Combo or Cx modules provide an alternative to this also. Both modules have a dedicated User Actions menu for running Photoshop actions. You just need to take a few minutes to add the actions you are already using. Once it’s set up, you can access your Photoshop actions directly from the User Actions menu in these modules, and this sub-menu automatically closes once the action completes. It’s a fast and efficient way to run Photoshop actions. To help you get started, the video below shows a new method for adding your previously recorded actions to the User Actions menu of the Combo or Cx module.

Two ways to make color masks

Luminosity masks, color masks, and saturation/vibrance masks. The TK7 panel can make all of these. While infinity color masks significantly upgraded the color masks in the TK7 panel, there’s always been another useful way to make color masks in the RapidMask module, and in some situations it can be even better than infinity color masks. It’s the Color > Create command in the SOURCE section. The video below walks you through this “other” color mask, compares it to infinity color masks, and describes situations where one type of color mask might work better than the other.

TK Quick Tip: Frequency separation

Luminosity masks are only one feature of the TK7 panel. There are also lots of buttons and actions to speed the creative workflow. Sean Bagshaw recently posted a TK Quick Tip video on one of the actions: Frequency Separation. While this technique has its origins in fashion and portrait photography, Sean shows how it can also be applied to nature and other photographic situations.

Frequency separation literally separates the image into two layers. One layer contains the color information (low-frequency) and the other the texture information (high-frequency). Once separated, these two component can be dealt with independently. Image cleanup is the main application for this technique and is especially useful when standard methods−like the clone stamp, patch, and healing brush tools−aren’t doing a great job.

Sun flare, human or animal tracks, and certain out-of-place elements in the image are situations where frequency separation is especially useful. The Frequency Separation action is found in the “TK►” button menu on the Combo and Cx modules of the TK7 panel.

blue-example

There are two important points to keep in mind when using the action.

1) The action stops to let the user enter a blur radius. A good choice for touching up color is the default 10-pixels value. For fixing texture issues, increase the blur radius so that it blurs out the unwanted texture or feature.

blue-example

2) Once the new layers are generated, the Clone Stamp tool is commonly used in the cleanup/repair process. It’s very important to set the tool’s “Sample” option to “Current Layer” in order to confine the needed cloning to just one of the frequency separation layers.

blue-example

Sean shows you how to do all this in the video below. I’m sure you’ll find it useful.

Be sure to subscribe to Sean’s YouTube channel for more great tips on photography and post-processing including those listed below.
Frequency separation
Mask-the-Rapid-Mask modification
“My Channels” masks
Infinity color masks
Linked vs. unlinked smart objects
Three ways to use Levels and Curves
Reusing saved luminosity masks
Developing a quality night sky
Split toning
Cloud sculpting
Exposure blending

Infinity Color Masks: A closer look

First off, a big THANK YOU for the positive feedback on the new infinity color masks. They seem to have resonated with a large number of photographers. Also a big thanks for the questions that were sent. I can see there is some interest in better understanding these masks and how they work. In this blog, I’ll look at three sample images using well defined colors to explain what’s going on when you make an infinity color mask. NOTE: This gets a bit technical, so I put the main points in bold-face type if you want to just skim through.

Color is defined by three values: Hue, Saturation, and Brightness, which are the three values in the HSB color model, and all three can be extracted using Photoshop’s Color Picker. All three are also part of an infinity color mask. The initial Color Picker selection extracts the Hue from the sampled area and this Hue is the foundation around which the mask is built. The gray values in the mask are then determined using the Saturation and the Brightness of pixels that match the chosen Hue. That’s the basic idea of how an infinity color mask is made.

Of course, the actual infinity color mask provides additional options. For example, it’s not limited to a single Hue value but instead creates a mask that encompasses a range of similar hues around the sampled Hue, and there is also a hue-based transition zone from the defined Hue range into nearby hues. Additionally, I’ve cranked up the mask’s lightness since most “normal” photographs produce relatively dark infinity color masks that would be hard to evaluate on-screen. But the exaggerated lightness adjustment does not affect the relative lightness within the Hue range being selected by the mask, except for unusually saturated colors, in which case the mask’s overall lightness can easily be turned down to properly restore the relative pixel lightness. In all cases, though, the infinity color mask is constantly and accurately adjusting with each image to take Hue, Saturation, and Brightness into account for what was sampled from the image.

In the first example below there are three different blue colors−a light (but unsaturated) blue on the left, a darker (and more saturated) blue in the middle, and a lighter blue on the right (with the same Saturation as the middle square). These colors differ only in Saturation and Brightness. They are all the same Hue: Hue = 206 degrees in the Adobe RGB color space. That means that no matter which color square is sampled to make an infinity color mask, the initial mask will be the same. Hue is the foundation for infinity color masks, and since the Hue is identical in all three color samples here, they all produce exactly the same mask when sampled, and this mask is shown directly below the image.

blue-example

The gray values in the mask are determined by the Saturation and Brightness of the colors that share the sampled Hue. The lightness of the grays in the mask varies depending on the Saturation and Brightness of the underlying color.

I’ve listed the pixel-based Hue, Saturation, and Brightness values for each color. Without going into the math, a color needs to have both Saturation and Brightness values greater than zero to show up as a gray tone in the mask. When two colors share the same Hue and Saturation value (second and third squares in the image), the different Brightness values determines the level of gray in the mask. When two colors share the same Hue and Brightness values (first and third squares in the image), Saturation determines the level of gray in the mask.

The lesson from this example is this: Hue is the foundation for all infinity color masks. These masks can’t exclude colors that match the chosen hue and sampling different colors that have the same Hue (but differ in Saturation and Brightness) results in identical masks. I specifically chose blue for this example since some photographers have been asking about using infinity color masks to select one shade of blue from a sky that is all blue. That’s probably not going to work too well. Remember that all three blue colors in this example have the same Hue and the Hue value is the foundation around which the infinity color mask is constructed. So you’ll get the same infinity color mask regardless of which color is sampled in this image to create the mask. In addition, because these colors share the same Hue value, you won’t be able to use the infinity color mask control window on the RapidMask module (shown below for this example) to alter the mask in a meaningful way. Neither the color range nor feathering sliders will make any difference in this example since all the colors are the same Hue. Bottom line here is that an infinity color mask is great at selecting a blue sky and displaying all the Brightness and Saturation nuances in that sky, but not good for selecting a specific shade of blue from that sky. NOTE: For slightly different hues you can try narrowing the hue range and feathering using the controls on the module (see next example), but for substantially similar Hue values, like in many skies, it might not be possible to successfully select a specific shade of blue exclusively.

blue-example

This next example was sent to me by a photographer who was trying to create a mask that selected a somewhat unsaturated orange element in his image that was sandwiched between highly saturated red and yellow elements. The image below isn’t the actual image but represents the situation. Below the image is the mask that is created when sampling the middle tan color, which is actually a desaturated orange color with a Hue value of 30 degrees.

blue-example

The mask generated shows a gray value for the middle square in line with the Saturation and Brightness of the sampled tan color with a Hue of 30 degrees. However, the transition zone colors for orange, red (Hue = 0 degrees) and yellow (Hue = 60 degrees), are much more saturated and brighter than the sampled color. Since red and yellow are in the initial transition zone for this tan color when it’s sampled and, because they have such higher Saturation and Brightness than the sampled color itself, they end up brighter than the sampled color in the mask.

Unlike the blues in the previous example, this is a situation that infinity color masks can handle. Because there are different Hue values for the three colors, the color range and/or the hue-based feathering can be contracted using the infinity color mask control window to exclude the adjacent hues, even though they are much more highly saturated. In this case I collapsed the color range to its smallest width and nudged the feathering slider just a bit to the left as shown in the image below.

blue-example

After I did this, the infinity color mask preview looks like the image below.

blue-example

The gray value of the unsaturated orange sample has not changed, but the red and yellow transition colors are now properly excluded from the mask. And even though the sampled color isn’t white in the mask, it’s still light enough to be useful for revealing an adjustment in this image. NOTE: The gray in the mask could be made even lighter using the MODIFY section of the TK7 RapidMask module.

There are two lessons from this example:

1) To make a good infinity color mask, sample a good color. And by “good color,” I mean one with a decent amount of saturation. The tan color in this example is a desaturated orange. It will never be pure white in an infinity color mask, but can still make a useful mask. As colors increase in saturation they get lighter in the mask (like the red and yellow here), and it’s generally easy to look at an image and identify which colors are saturated and which are unsaturated. A good rule to follow if you plan to use an infinity color mask is to sample colorful pixels. Black, white, and gray are “colors” with 0% Saturation. They always render as pure black in an infinity color mask, and colors approaching black, white, and gray will be very dark gray in the mask. So if you want to make good infinity color mask with plenty of light gray values indicating selected pixels, be sure to sample colorful colors.

2) The color you sample in your image will NOT necessarily be white in an infinity color mask. It might be white if it has enough underlying Saturation and Brightness, but the sampled color might also be a shade of gray in the mask, like it is here, when Saturation and Brightness are lower. And that’s OK in many cases. The mask is still properly displaying the pixel-based values for the selected color in your image, and the gray values in masks insure seamless blending when the mask controls how an adjustment gets applied to the image.

The final example image below has two unsaturated colors, dark gray and light gray, and a saturated red. The mask underneath the image shows what I got when I clicked on either of the gray squares to sample for an infinity color mask. Can you explain this?

blue-example

The two gray samples, lacking any saturation, should be black in the infinity color mask, and they are. But why is the red color square white in the mask if I sampled a gray color to make the mask?

The answer lies in the Color Picker when I sampled the gray color from my image. It’s shown below with the arrow pointing to the spot on the Color Picker chosen when I sampled the light gray square.

blue-example

Even though the sampled color has 0% Saturation (it’s a light gray and S = 0% in the Color Picker), Photoshop still requires every sampled color to have Hue, Saturation, and Brightness values in the Color Picker window. When the Color Picker opened, the Hue was set at its default value of 0 degrees. IMPORTANT NOTE: A Hue value of zero does NOT mean there is no hue. It means that the Hue is set to a value of “0 degrees,” which corresponds to the color red. Remember, infinity color masks always use the Hue of the sampled color as the foundation for building the mask, and, in this case, that Hue happened to be red (0 degrees). So for my image of two gray squares and a red one, the red square matches the sampled Hue, and because it is also bright and saturated, it ended up white in the infinity color mask of this image.

There are a couple of lessons here also:

1) The first is one I’ve already mentioned. Colors with zero Saturation (white, gray, or black) are always black in an infinity color mask. You cannot select colorless colors and expect them to be white or even gray with this type of color mask. Both Saturation and Brightness need to be greater than 0% to show any degree of selection in an infinity color mask.

2) The second one is that if a neutral color (white, gray, or black) is sampled to make an infinity color mask, the Hue that shows in the Color Picker will be the foundation around which the mask is built. If there are any colors in the image that are within range of that Hue, they will be selected in the resulting mask. This often comes as a surprise the first time occurs, but hopefully it now makes sense why this might happen.

Conclusion: Infinity color masks are a great way to generate masks using pixel-based Hue as the foundation. Colors with similar Hue value will all be selected by the mask. The other two components of color, Brightness and Saturation, determine the final mask. Bright and saturated colors will be lighter shades of gray or even white in the mask. Dark and unsaturated colors will be dark gray or black in the mask. Remember, infinity “color” masks are selecting COLOR. Objects without much color (unsaturated colors) will always be dark in an infinity color mask. So bright, saturated colors are what can be best selected with these masks. Or, to put it another way, a “color” mask is a poor choice for trying to select parts of an image without color. If you have a dark element or dark area in your image, or an unsaturated color, and need to select it, use a luminosity mask or a saturation mask. These types of masks are better at selecting pixels based on Brightness and Saturation.

OK, I know that’s a lot to absorb, but there’s quite a bit happening in the background when the TK7 panel makes an infinity color mask. Please feel free to leave a comment or contact me if you have any questions.