Comparing Masks: Lightroom/Camera Raw vs. TK8

This is a rather long article. It covers a lot of territory. You might want to scroll through first to skim the topics and find the ones that interest you most.

Introduction

I received some inquiries about how the masks generated by the TK8 plugin compare with similar masks generated by the new masking capabilities in Lightroom and Camera Raw. I hadn’t investigated this as I don’t often use Lightroom/Camera Raw masks, but Dave Kelly gave me a few tips, and I was excited to see what I could learn.

At first I wasn’t sure how to proceed. In my mask experimentation in Camera Raw I was relying on the color overlay in to help me “see” the mask that was being generated. This usually looked good, but would not provide a usable comparison with TK8 masks, which are grayscale. Luckily, Dave showed me the “White on Black” option for displaying masks in Camera Raw.

This displays the Camera Raw mask in grayscale. With this option selected (and assuming it works like masks in Photoshop where white reveals, black conceals, and gray partially reveals/conceals) it would now be possible to make a more direct comparison between masks created in Lightroom/Camera Raw and those created via TK8. If you decide to compare masks on your own, be sure to choose this option.

The image I chose for testing is the one below. This is a raw file from my iPhone captured as a DNG file using the Lightroom Mobile app.

I wanted to test the Luminosity and Color masks in TK8 with the corresponding luminance and color range masks in Lightroom/Camera Raw. There is plenty of color in this image for color masks, and I made adjustments in Camera Raw to produce a histogram that displayed a wide-range of tonal values without clipping either the shadows of the highlights. The Camera Raw histogram is below.

In order compare the different masks side-by-side, I needed to screen capture of the mask generated in Camera Raw and then copy it into Photoshop. I have an Adobe RGB monitor and so dropped the screen captures into a document with the Adobe RGB color profile for cropping and resizing to fit this article.

For the TK8 masks, I simply opened the raw file into a document with the Adobe RGB color profile Photoshop. The TK8 panel could then be used to make the necessary masks. The “output to image” button on the panel would output the mask as a pixel layer. From there it was again resized to fit the article.

Luminosity masks: Lights-1

The most logical place to start when comparing these masks is the Lights-1 luminosity mask. This is the most basic of all luminosity masks and is easy to generate even without Lightroom/Camera Raw or the TK8 plugin. However, the image below shows the setting used to create the Lights-1 masks for this comparison.

The two different Lights-1 masks are shown side-by-side below, Lightroom/Camera Raw on the left and TK8 on the right. Drag the divider left and right to see the differences.

Analysis

Based on these two mask, it’s possible to make a few general observations.

Lightroom/Camera Raw masks have more contrast.

The most striking difference between these two masks is the contrast. The Lr/CR mask is high-contrast and the TK8 mask is lower contrast. There are a more middle gray tones in the TK8 mask while the Lr/CR mask contains more textureless white and black areas. So, even though these masks are constructed to select the same tones, the end result is not the same.

Lightroom/Camera Raw masks have significantly more contrast than the original image.

Even though the original image does not appear to be particularly high-contrast, the Lights-1 mask created in Lightroom/Camera Raw is indeed high-contrast by comparison. The contrast in the TK8 mask more closely resembles the contrast of the original image, and this is borne out in the histograms of the original image and the masks shown below. Note how the Lr/CR Lights-1 histogram has significant clipping in both the shadows and the highlights.

TK8 masks have more flexible contrast adjustment options.

Seeing these histograms points out another distinct difference between the TK8 masks and Lightroom/Camera Raw masks and that is that TK8 masks can easily have their contrast adjusted higher OR lower. For Lightroom/Camera Raw mask, on the other hand, there is no way to decrease the mask’s contrast. After seeing the Lr/CR mask, the user might like to experiment with a lower-contrast version, but this is not possible. The amount of pure black and pure white in the mask can both be adjusted in Lightroom/Camera Raw, but only in a way that INCREASES overall contrast in the mask. There is no way to lower the Lights-1 mask contrast in Lightroom/Camera Raw.

The TK8 plugin has a modification section available as part of the the mask-making process. It’s relatively easy to perform a Levels adjustment using the red-outline button shown in the image below to adjust contrast .

Lightroom/Camera Raw masks appear slightly blurry (though this is likely just my image).

The Lr/CR mask appears slightly out-of-focus compared to the TK8 mask. However, I’m not convinced that this is an actual property of the mask. This was an image from my iPhone that I had readily available that had good color and contrast. I looked at other images from my dSLR after I started writing this, and they did not appear to have the same level of blur, so this looks like it might just be something associated the DNG files from the iPhone.

Creating matching masks

After seeing the high contrast of the Lr/CR mask, I thought it might be interesting to see if I could replicate it by adjusting the TK8 mask to have more contrast. I just eyeballed it, and the image below compares my results with the Lr/CR mask.

It’s not quite perfect, but it’s close. The Levels adjustment on the original TK8 Lights-1 mask needed to achieve this result is shown below.

I have tinted the clipped highlights red and the clipped shadows blue to show what was “lost” as part of this adjustment, and this is perhaps a good time to discuss what this clipping means in terms of mask performance. One of the most important benefits of using masks generated directly from pixel-level data (like luminosity, color, zone and “range” masks), is how well they can help adjustments through the mask blend into the image. There’s no need to blur the mask to facilitate blending because it is already perfectly feathered at the pixel level to seamlessly match the image. However, clipped highlights and shadows in these masks means the pixel-level feathering is degraded. The dark gray tones go to pure black and the delicate light gray tones go to pure white, and this was clearly seen in the histogram for the Lightroom/Camera Raw Lights-1 mask above. Having the dark gray tones end up black in the mask is not a huge problem. The corresponding tones in the image were barely being revealed in the mask and so wouldn’t receive much adjustment anyway once this mask was deployed.

However, having the light gray tones in the mask clipped to pure white is a different situation. These pixels are already significantly revealed by the mask, and pushing them to pure white means they are now 100% revealed in the mask. For the Levels adjustment shown above, all tonal gradation in the highlights is lost above a pixel value of 171. The light gray highlights present in the original TK8 Lights-1 mask no longer match their pixel-level value in the image and therefore are no longer able to blend adjustments through this mask proportionally to their corresponding pixel-level value, in this case pixel luminance. All pixels above a luminance of 171 will be adjusted as if they have a luminance of 255. This means that there is essentially no mask in place for pixels brighter than 171. They all receive the same 100% adjustment through the clipped mask even though they actually have different tonal values in the image.

Another area of concern with high-contrast masks is the potential for more-obvious edges as the amount of adjustment increases. As gray is removed from the mask, there is less of a transition between the pure black and pure white parts of the mask. This transition zone, which is important for smooth blending at the edges, shrinks. Some types of strong adjustments, like Exposure and Hue changes, can have more obvious edges when this occurs.

Other luminosity masks

All the luminance range masks in Lightroom/Camera Raw have similar properties to the Lights-1 mask described above.

  • They’re relatively high-contrast and have more pure black and pure white than their TK8 counterparts.
  • The histogram of the mask contains clipped highlights and shadows.
  • Contrast can be increased in the Lightroom/Camera Raw masks, but it cannot be decreased to match TK8 masks.

Below are side-by-side comparisons of additional Lightroom/Camera Raw masks with TK8 masks

Darks-1 mask

The image below shows how a Darks-1 mask is created both in Lightroom/Camera Raw and TK8. Darks-1 preferentially selects the darkest tones in the image and tapers off into the lighter tones, selecting lesser and lesser light tones along the way. Tones that are pure white in the image are 0% selected in the Darks-1 mask.

The resulting masks are shown below. Again, pull the divider left and right to see the difference.

Midtones-3 mask

A Midtones-3 mask selects the midtones in the image and excludes the lightest highlights and the darkest shadows. The image below shows how these masks are created in Lightroom/Camera Raw and TK8.

Below are the Midtones-3 masks from the two different sources. They both exclude the highlights and shadows, but the Lightroom/Camera Raw version clips additional shadows and highlights even though the sliders for tonal feathering are set to their extreme dark and light positions (0 and 100, respectively). The TK8 version has dramatically less contrast because it has no added clipping. The TK8 masks will therefore allow for adjustments to be revealed in a wider tonal range in the image.

Zone masks

Zone masks are another type of “luminosity mask” that target specific tonal values between pure black and pure white. The targeted value can vary, and the user usually clicks on the image to choose a tone. The chosen tone is lightest in the mask and then tapers off into the surrounding lighter AND darker tones.

It could be argued that nearly all the luminance range masks in Lightroom/Camera Raw meet this definition for a zone mask as this is how these masks are generated. The Lights-1, Darks-1, and Midtones-3 masks discussed above were just specific variations of the technique for creating luminance range masks in order to have masks to compare with their TK8 counterparts.

To make this zone mask comparison, I switched it around. I first made a luminance range mask using Lightroom/Camera Raw by clicking on a tone in the image to create a mask. Then I used the numbers from that mask to create a corresponding mask in TK8 using the Multi-Mask module’s Zone mask function. The image below shows the setup for both masks.

The resulting masks are shown below.

No surprise, this Lightroom/Camera Raw zone mask has the highest contrast of all the masks compared so far. That’s because the clipping was already built into the mask in the “Select Luminance” settings (shown above) when it was created. The “15” and “85” numbers create tighter clipping. Of course, the user does not have to accept these settings. In the same way that I removed as much clipping as possible for the Lights-1, Darks-1, and Midtones-3 masks when creating them in Lightroom/Camera Raw, the user could move the outer sliders for this zone mask to the outer extremes (0 for shadows and 100 for highlights), to lower the mask’s overall contrast. However, there will still be significant clipping of the mask’s shadow and highlight values because, as should be clear by now, that’s just the way the luminance range masks work.

NOTE: Clipping the shadows and highlights in the mask is NOT the same as clipping the shadows and highlights in the actual image. Clipping these values in the mask just means that the MASK’s darker gray values are pushed to black, lighter gray values are pushed to white, and there are fewer midtone grays.

Color Masks

Color range masks in Lightroom/Camera Raw offer a bit more control over contrast than the luminance range masks because the “Refine” slider can be used to shrink or expand the range of selected colors. To get less contrast, move the “Refine” slider to the right to expand the color range. Below are the settings I used to create the color mask comparison.

In the Lr/CR mask below, the “blue pie” icon that shows the color that was sampled for both the Lr/CR mask and the TK8 mask. Slide the divider left and right to see the differences in these masks.

Again, the Lr/CR mask is still higher contrast than the TK8 mask. The histograms for these masks (below) again show the higher contrast in the Lr/CR mask compared to the TK8 mask. The Lr/CR mask has clipping in both the highlights and shadows. TK8 is only clipped in the shadows, but not clipped in the highlights, and, as mentioned above, clipping the shadows is less problematic than clipping the highlights.

NOTE: With TK8 color masks it is possible with saturated colors to clip the mask in the highlights by pushing the brightness slider to a higher value. However, the user has complete control over this and can easily avoid clipping highlights in the TK8 color mask by adjusting the brightness slider to prevent this. With Lightroom/Camera Raw color masks there is no way to avoid clipping both highlights and shadows.

Mask performance

There are many factors that will influence how well a particular mask based on pixel-level data performs. There are many reasons for using such a mask and many different types of images where it can be applied. A low-contrast mask of this type will always provide smoother blending of an adjustment into the image compared to a high-contrast mask. However, a low-contrast mask also spreads the adjustment more broadly across the image and might “bleed” the adjustment into areas where it’s not wanted. So, it’s highly desirable to create a mask that has the “right” contrast that reveals the parts of the image that need adjustment, conceals the parts that should not be adjusted, and provides a smooth transition between these two extremes.

For small adjustments, especially those that can differentiate between light and dark pixels (like Curves in Photoshop and Highlights and Shadows in Lightroom), masks with clipped highlights and/or shadows probably aren’t an issue. The inherent ability of the adjustment to differentiate between lighter and darker pixels in the image means the adjustment can still be applied proportionally even in areas 100% revealed by the mask. For adjustments like Hue and Exposure that don’t inherently differentiate pixel brightness, it’s more important that the mask be able to do this especially if a significant adjustment is necessary.

In my somewhat limited testing in Camera Raw, I’ve found that the following sliders generally produce natural results with good blending for most Lightroom/Camera Raw luminance and color range masks:

  • Contrast
  • Highlights
  • Shadows
  • Whites
  • Blacks
  • Texture
  • Clarity

The following adjustments, especially if the adjustment was anything beyond minimal, quickly led to results with obvious edges that did not blend in well through Lightroom/Camera Raw luminance range and color range masks

  • Exposure
  • Hue
  • Dehaze

Intermediate results were obtained with other Lightroom/Camera Raw sliders. Small to moderate adjustments looked OK, but bigger adjustments sometimes not so good.

  • Temperature
  • Tint
  • Curve
  • Saturation

Just to be clear, I do not consider myself a “user” of the Lightroom/Camera Raw luminance and color masks, and the above assessments were based on testing only a few images. I would fully expect frequent-flyers with Lightroom/Camera Raw masks will have a different opinion. Please feel free to leave a comment about your experience using the luminance and color range masks in Lightroom/Camera Raw.

Discussion

The one thing that should be quite clear from this article is that luminance range and color range masks created in Lightroom/Camera Raw are indeed different from TK8 masks. The masks in Lightroom/Camera Raw are always higher contrast than the corresponding masks made with TK8. Additionally the TK8 plugin’s ability to modify masks means it can make high-contrast masks that are similar to those in Lightroom/Camera Raw, but the opposite is not true. Lightroom and Camera Raw are not capable of making low-contrast luminance and color masks that match TK8.

Does this matter? Well, at least theoretically, yes it does. Pushing mask shadow detail to pure black and mask highlight detail to pure white means one of the primary advantages of these masks based on pixel-level luminance or color is compromised. These masks are self-feathering precisely because some pixel-level value in the image (luminance or color) is matched pixel-for-pixlel in the mask. So, not only is the fine separation of tones and colors lost in the shadows and highlights when these values are clipped in the mask, but the remaining tones now have exaggerated contrast that will be less well matched to the actual contrast in the image.

Once pixel-level data is incorporated into masks, the potential for better blending of adjustments through the mask increases considerably.

In reality, though, any mask based on pixel-level data, even a high-contrast one, will likely produce better results than a hard edge selection that selects pixels based on their physical proximity to each other, like with Photoshop’s Lasso tool. Once pixel-level data is incorporated into masks, the potential for better blending of adjustments through the mask increases considerably. Additionally, there are times when a high-contrast, sharper-edged mask is desirable in order to prevent an adjustment from bleeding into tones and colors where it’s not wanted. So, while high-contrast masks would not be my preferred starting point for making masks based on pixel-level data, having access to these masks, even high-contrast versions, is better than having just radial and linear gradients or brushes from which to make masks.

NOTE: If you are using a color overlay to view your masks in Lightroom/Camera Raw, you might want to try the “White on Black” option discussed at the beginning of this article. It potentially gives a better visualization the mask that’s being created and can always be toggled off to view the actual image if that’s necessary.

One final point after making and comparing these different masks (and it’s purely personal), is that I like making masks using TK8 better than using Camera Raw. I like the ability to simply click on a button to get a Lights-1, Darks-1, or Midtones-3 mask instead of having to adjust four luminance range sliders. I also like starting with a low-contrast mask and using the modify options in TK8 to adjust contrast to get it looking exactly the way I want before using it. Lightroom and Camera Raw have the advantage of being able to directly make adjustments through the mask as soon as it’s created whereas TK8 masks need to be output to an adjustment layer as a layer mask or as a selection in order to be used, but first and foremost, I want to create the best mask I can before using it, and TK8 lets me do that. Finally, I think the mask calculator in TK8 is more intuitive for combining masks than the methods in Lightroom/Camera Raw, but have a feeling that those more familiar with Lightroom/Camera Raw probably prefer it. In the end, masks from TK8 and Lightroom/Camera Raw have both provided new possibilities for using pixel-level data for creating masks, and users now have options in both Lightroom/Camera Raw and Photoshop to incorporate these masks into their workflow.

Sean Bagshaw has a good video that provides a broader perspective comparing Lightroom/Camera Raw masks with TK8 and Photoshop masks. I’ve linked to this before in another article, but it also fits well with the topics discussed here.

If you have any thoughts or additional information to add to this topic of comparing masks, please leave a comment. I’d love to hear about your experience.

iPhone · tography: All Souls Procession

Each year in early November the Tucson community gathers to memorialize loved ones who have passed away in an event called the All Souls Procession. This is a cross-cultural event.  It blends the Mexican Dia de los Meutos (Day of the Dead) holiday with a larger artistic expression that encompasses both the sadness and the fond remembrance that accompanies the death of a friend or family member.  It culminates on Sunday evening with a march by participants to a symbolic pyre where written thoughts, prayers, and memories are burned in a shared celebration of how the lives of others have enriched our own.

This couple is somewhat typical of the skull-like face painting present on many participants at the All Souls Procession. If you squint your eyes you can really see it. For this image, I asked this pair to move to a shady spot since the softer light would allow the details of their face painting to show up better.

I am photographically drawn to this event by the sugar skull (calavera) iconography that is common to the Dia de los Muertos tradition.  In particular, it’s the face painting that imitates the decorative sugar skulls that makes photography at this festival special. Many participants create elaborate skull-like face paintings that are then enhanced with additional articles of clothing, headdresses, and various peripherals that set the mood for their personal involvement in the procession.  For a couple of hours before the parade starts, people are gathering on the street.  It’s a nice time to mingle with the growing crowd and look for pictures.

I think this lady perfectly captures the spirit of the day. Her face is painted like a decorative sugar skull, she’s wearing a flowery headdress, she has a skull tattoo on her shoulder, and she’s carrying the picture of the person she has come to remember.

While I’ve taken my camera to this event in previous years, I decided just to use the iPhone this year.  Even though it’s just an old first-gen iPhone SE, I like the screen for composing images.  I also like the light weight (4 ounces) for maneuverability and freedom, and the ability to shoot raw images for developing the resulting mages in Camera Raw and Photoshop. Linear profiles and luminosity masks work fine with DNG images from the iPhone.  I was a little concerned that the fixed 29-mm equivalent lens would be too short for people close-ups, but this turned out to not be an issue.

These painted ladies embrace the artistic side of this event. The sugar skull iconography has been taken to another level by the makeup artist, who, I think, is the woman on the right. Many painted faces contain color elements, but I often prefer a black and white presentation as it better emphasizes the monochrome, haunting nature of a skull. However, colors like this are more festive than haunting and deserve to be brought through to the final image.

I’m not much of a people photographer, but it seemed like people at this event were extremely open to being photographed. I guess we’re all used to having our pictures taken with smartphones nowadays, though usually not by strangers.  Since they were mostly unrecognizable in their face paint, the subjects were able to maintain a high degree of anonymity when an unfamiliar person asked to photograph them.  Even more, though, I think many people who had decorated themselves for the event wanted to be photographed.  It was a moment to be a celebrity, a chance to be noticed in a way that highlighted their own artistic expression.

This woman is carrying what I think is referred to as an offrenda, which is normally an altar containing pictures and items meant to commemorate the person who has died and to welcome their spirit into the home. This one was portable, and it created a useful frame for the subject’s face.

The nice thing about iPhone·tography is that the camera and camera app (I was mostly using the Lightroom Mobile camera app) does all the work.  It’s simple point-and-shoot photography. The camera found the faces, focused on them and set the exposure while I held the camera at arm’s length and attempted to engage the subject in conversation or direct their placement in the frame.  I did use the camera’s flash and it seemed to help add a little extra light to the faces while also creating a small catch light in the subject’s eyes.   I told the subjects I needed to move in close, and no one seemed to mind.  I was an arm’s length behind the camera, so it’s less of an intrusion into their personal space.  It also felt better from my perspective.  I liked having the extra distance while still being able to get some nice close ups of these faces. 

Backgrounds can problematic in these street portraits, and it’s a reason to fill the frame as much as possible with the subject’s face. Obtrusive backgrounds are also a reason for switching to black and white. Then it becomes a matter of just darkening distracting background elements tonally instead of having to manage their colors as well. This image is a good one for seeing the catch light from the camera’s flash in the subject’s eyes.

Another benefit of iPhone images is the ability to easily share the results with the subjects.  The larger phone screen is definitely better than almost any camera LED display for doing this.  While I think it’s courteous to show the images to the subject, I was a little surprised at how many then requested a copy.  Being able to instantly share the results with the subject creates an interesting new dimension.  It’s something that maybe only happens when photographing people with a smartphone. 

This is another example of where I felt the colors in the face painting deserved to be brought through to the finished image. The person was position with a slightly less chaotic background where the colors would still be manageable and didn’t compete with the face painting. The flash helped preserve light on the face which made processing easier. This image uses the sketch actions in the TK8 plugin to produce the final results.

While there were plenty of regular cameras at this event with long lenses, flash, and reflectors, I have no regrets about only taking and using my single-lens iPhone. It was easy to engage with the subjects while taking pictures and the images turned out better than expected. It was also an interesting challenge to compose with a shorter focal length lens, but in the end I think it might have created a better connection with the subject both photographically and personally. Not surprisingly, a street festival like this can be a great place for photography, and the iPhone can be a fun way to explore the possibilities.

Burning and Dodging with Contrast

One of the more interesting techniques to come out of the TK8 plugin, I think, is a new method to burn and dodge images in a way that enhances contrast instead of just globally lightening and darkening all pixels that receive paint. 

The traditional way to burn and dodge

The most common method to burn and dodge an image is to fill a blank pixel layer with 50% gray and change the blend mode to Soft Light or Overlay.  Then paint on the layer using black or white paint.  White paint increases the brightness of underlying pixels and black paint decreases the brightness of the underlying pixels.  50% gray is transparent in these blend modes and has no effect on the underlying pixels. Brush opacity can be adjusted to control the strength of the effect.

The image below demonstrates what happens with this type of burning and dodging. White paint, 50% gray paint, and black paint are applied to Burn and Dodge layers created with the TK8 plugin, which automatically sets the appropriate blend modes.   The brush opacity was set to 100% for this example. 

The “White brush” line shows where white paint was applied to a 50% gray layer set to Overlay blend mode. The strongest effect appears at the center of the gradient with highlights and shadows being affected somewhat equally as you move away from the center.

The “Black brush” stroke was applied to a 50% gray layer set to Soft Light blend mode.  Here it looks like the dark tones are slightly more affected than the light tone, though the tonal darkening extends all the way to the edge of the brightest highlights.

As expected, the “Gray brush” stoke shows no change since 50% gray paint is transparent in Overlay and Soft Light blend modes. 

The “Paint Contrast” method

The TK8 plugin has an action in the Combo and Cx modules called “Paint Contrast.”

It creates a “Paint Contrast” pixel layer set to Hard Mix blend mode and 15% Fill.  There is no “transparent” color in this blend mode, so it’s not possible to fill the layer with 50% gray paint and have the image remain unchanged. 

The image below shows what happens when the same white, 50% gray, and black brush strokes are applied to this layer.

The “White brush” stroke created a change in pixel brightness that is more pronounced in the brighter tones of the gradient.  There is still some additional brightness added in the dark tones, but it is less than the amount added in the light tones.  As a result, there is increased contrast.  The light tones have gotten lighter faster than the dark tones and this creates greater tonal separation between highlights and shadows.

The “Black brush” stroke shows the opposite effect.  The shadow tones have become darker while the highlights are barely affected.   Again, this results in increased contrast.  Darker tones have gotten darker faster than the lighter tones so there is greater tonal separation across the gradient. 

The “Gray brush” stroke increased contrast in both the light tones and the dark tones.  The shadows have gotten darker and the highlights have gotten lighter.  Neither change is as strong as with the “White brush” or “Black brush,” but it’s easy to see the added contrast on both the light and dark sides of the gradient.

Improved texture: A practical use of “Paint Contrast” for burning and dodging

One way to increase local texture in an image, especially a nature scene, is to selectively darken specific shadow areas (burn them) and lighten specific highlights (dodge them).  Generally, this is best accomplished using a tablet and stylus (instead of a mouse, as somewhat exacting control is necessary) along with traditional burning and dodging techniques using a 50% gray layer.  Lights and Darks luminosity masks can help select the right tones, but it’s often easier to just free-hand burn and dodge with a small, low-opacity brush on those areas where local tonal changes are desired.  When done well, there is added local contrast that brings out the textures already present in the image.

Using a “Paint Contrast” layer for burning and dodging makes this process easier, especially if all you have is a mouse (instead of a tablet and stylus).  Painting black or white onto a “Paint Contrast” layer preferentially selects the tonal range that matches the paint.  Highlights get lighter with white paint and shadows get darker with black paint.  The opposite tone is minimally affected, and the end result is again that added local contrast is created that brings out the textures already present in the image.  A smaller brush or even a luminosity mask selection might be useful in some situations, but good results are also possible with just free-hand painting with a moderately large brush over the tones that you want to affect. Using “Paint Contrast” makes it easy to add texture to the image because the paint color (white or black) automatically selects the best pixels for increasing contrast.

NOTE: While it’s possible to paint with gray paint to increase contrast in both light and dark tones, this sometimes gets a confusing.  Using just black and white paint will simplify the process of burning and dodging with this technique.

Additional controls

Below are some additional options to fine-tune burning and dodging with contrast.

Brush opacity—Not surprisingly, brush opacity is one of the main controls.  It’s better to start with low brush opacity and then use multiple brushstrokes to slowly build up the effect.  A brush opacity of 5 to 10 percent is a good starting point for adding white paint and 10 to 20 percent for black paint. Brush opacity of 100% was used to create the demonstration image above, but that’s definitely too strong for actually adding this technique to your workflow. Increased contrast and texture are still achieved with a low-opacity brush.

Use a separate layer for white and black paint—This helps keep the dodging and burning confined on separate layers.  The “Paint Contrast” action in the TK8 plugin always gives the newly created layer the same name (“Paint Contrast”), so it’s helpful generate and label one for white paint and another for black paint in order to keep things straight.

Layer Fill opacity—Hard Mix blend mode is one of those where the Fill opacity can be used to increase or decrease the effect.  To make it stronger without adding additional paint to the layer, increase the Fill opacity.  However, 25% is about the maximum that works.  Above this level, the brush strokes start to become more obvious. Lowering the Fill opacity will, of course, decrease the effect.

The Eraser tool–Since there is no paint color that is transparent in Hard Mix blend mode, the way to remove this effect is with Photoshop’s Eraser tool. Setting the Eraser tool’s opacity to less than what was used for actually adding paint to the layer allows the effect to be erased gradually with multiple brush strokes, which can facilitate better blending.

Summary

Using a “Paint Contrast” layer adds a new dimension to the burning and dodging process.  Additional contrast is added as you burn and dodge and increased local texture is the result.  Since the choice of where to apply paint and how much to apply is up to the photographer, the final results are always quite individualized.  The effect often seems quite subtle because the blending of the paint strokes into the image is so good. However, when you turn the “Paint Contrast” layer off and on a couple of times, then the real power of this technique can be seen. 

Dave Kelly demonstrates burning and dodging with a “Paint Contrast” layer in the workflow tutorial linked below. There are several useful TK8 techniques shown throughout the video. Burning and dodging with contrast starts at 23:00.

The TK8 Triple Play in 2022: Status update

Last Wednesday, Dave Kelly and I had our weekly “TK Friday” meeting where he presented a series of images demonstrating what could be done using the Triple Play actions in the TK8 Combo and Cx modules.  He had received questions about using it and created some examples to show how it works.  Comparing the before and after versions of the images, it was clear that the Triple Play could achieve decent results.  The images he was screen-sharing with me looked good, and it was clear that the Triple Play actions were a factor in their success.

The Triple Play is actually two different actions:  Lights Triple Play works on the lighter tones in the image and Darks Triple Play on the darker tones.  Each action creates a series of Photoshop layers masked by either blurred or not-blurred luminosity-mask layer masks.  The blend modes of these layers are set to either Screen or Multiply.  Screen blend mode lightens the areas revealed by the mask and Multiply blend mode darkens them. Visibility is initially set to “off” on all layers, and users create the desired effect by turning layer visibility “on” and adjusting layer opacity.

As Dave demonstrated his process for using the Triple Play to develop each image, we also tried a variety of Triple Play alternatives: turning different layers on and off, adjusting opacity of different layers, and changing the blur radius used to create the blurred layer masks.  We actually spent quite a bit of time testing the different options, and it was obvious that trial and error was a necessary part of the process for finding our way to a good result.  There wasn’t a definitive approach that would work on every image, but we could usually arrive at a satisfactory edit.

With this in mind, I suggest that Dave also try other TK8 methods to try and achieve results similar to what he produced using the Triple Play.  We had spent considerable time testing inside the Triple Play, but was this the most efficient way to develop these images?  For example, what about just using simpler things, like Screen or Multiply blend modes on various layers in combination with Lights and Darks luminosity masks?  Or Dave’s standard maneuver of using the Mids-3 mask in combination with Color Grading to establish overall balance and contrast when he starts developing an image?

Triple Play History

While I don’t recall when the Triple Play was released, the copyright on the Triple Play instructions manual says 2011.  At the time, I was continuing to experiment with what luminosity masks could do, and the Triple Play actions were one of the techniques I came up with that I was using in my own processing.  It provided a way to work with brightness, contrast, and detail all at once—hence the name “Triple Play”—by using the combination of layers and luminosity masks generated by the Triple Play actions.  I originally distributed the Triple Play as an action set that users loaded into their Photoshop Actions panel.  When I switched to distributing panels instead of actions sets, the Triple Play was incorporated into the original panel and continued to be part of the TK panel for few versions after that. 

However, my own use of the Triple Play eventually started to diminish.  I continued to find new ways to use luminosity masks, and the Triple Play became somewhat cumbersome by comparison to the newer methods.  With each Triple Play action there are 12 new layers on the Layers panel when it finishes running.  Once the layers are generated it’s still necessary to turn layers on and off to achieve the desired result.  As the TK panel got faster at making luminosity masks and outputting specific masks on specific adjustment layers, the need for all these Triple Play layers no longer seemed necessary to me.  I could now do the same things with more precisely-chosen and individually-modified luminosity masks, which I could then output directly to different adjustment layers.  It seemed to me that the TK panel was now more capable in many ways, and so, I decided to remove the Triple Play actions from the panel.

Oops!  That turned out to be a mistake.  Even though I had personally moved away from Triple Play and onto using different processing techniques, feedback from other photographers indicated that several were still using it, some in ways I had not originally imagined.  So, I eventually put it back into the TK panel (despite it being a bit of a coding nightmare), where it remains today. It can be found in the “Actions” section of the Combo and Cx modules.

Back to the present

As Dave and I tried different non-Triple Play options available in TK8, it became clear that, in terms of general processing, a similar result could be achieved more quickly using techniques that were less bulky and time-consuming than the Triple Play.  This wasn’t entirely unexpected.  The TK panel has evolved significantly since the Triple Play was originally released.  Masks are easier to generate, review, modify, and output.  There are also new actions like “Soft Pop,” “Paint Contrast,” and “Clarity” that can be used in conjunction with luminosity masks and other masks to target brightness, contrast, and sharpness to specific tones and elements in the image. 

Another consideration is that there’s quite a bit of trial and error when using the Triple play to develop an image.  It’s hard to predict which layers to turn on and off and which combination works best unless you try several, and even then, different parts of an image, like the land and sky, might require separate Triple Plays with entirely different settings.  That’s a lot of layers to juggle even if you delete the ones that don’t get used.

In the end, my conversation with Dave helped demonstrate what I already knew about the Triple Play, which is, that, at this point in time, it’s basically a legacy method when it comes to using luminosity masks to develop images.  Yes, I understand there are photographers that find Triple Play to be a useful tool, and I always advocate for using the tools that work well for you.  However, for someone just starting out with luminosity masks, I don’t think Triple Play would be the easiest or fastest method for incorporating luminosity masks successfully into the workflow.  There are alternatives in the TK8 plugin that achieve a similar outcome (well, usually) that require less effort and yield more predictable results.  I think Triple Play is an interesting application of luminosity masks and maybe worth some experimentation for experienced users, but as Dave Kelly’s weekly series has already demonstrated in numerous editing scenarios, it’s also possible to achieve great results without it.

Wait.  Usually?

While it didn’t come up in my conversation with Dave regarding using Triple Play for general image processing, there is at least one situation where the Triple Play does excel over other TK tools, and that is in extracting details from the shadows.  This is a technique discovered by Dan Anderson, and you can read about it in this blog post.  It’s easy to do, and the results are predictably good.  In my experience it’s usually best to try this as one of the last processing steps.  The extra snap and detail in the shadows can be quite satisfying. 

I’ve included a link to Dave Kelly’s video on this topic below. Dave does a nice job of methodically turning on the visibility of Triple Play layers based on how their blend mode (Screen or Multiply) will affect the image, and then fine-tuning the effect using layer opacity. If you’re looking to experiment with Triple Play, this approach is a reasonable way to start. However, you still may have to try several combinations of layers to get things dialed in, and, as Dave also demonstrates in the video, there are alternate methods that achieve similar results.

Do you have any thoughts on the Triple Play actions? Please leave a comment if you’d like to provide your own status update on this subject.