NOTE: A folder of smaller PSD documents for the images used in this blog can be downloaded here.
Like many photographers, I love good black and white images. Not only do they create a connection with the earlier incarnation of the art form, but there is also a certain elegance to monochrome images when they’re done right. The lack of color creates immediate abstraction since a color-free world is not what we normally see. Texture, form, and line are elevated and so we engage with the composition at a different level. Black and white images remind us that color can sometimes be a distraction. There is deep beauty in the monochrome world, though it is often hard to see with our color-adapted eyes.
Unfortunately, my skill in making black and white images does not match my appreciation for viewing them. I struggle to get the tones properly balanced in my prints. There seems to be two competing problems. One is too much gray. The image may have a full range of tones, from black to white, but if the midtones predominate, then the image frequently looks gray . . . and quite dull. The solution to “too much gray” is to increase contrast. But this then leads to the second problem: textureless shadows and highlights. As contrast is increased, detail is lost in the shadows and highlights. Texture is critical to black and white. If the shadows are blocked or the highlights are merely light gray without definition, the image has a posterization quality with large areas of uninteresting dark and light tones. So it’s a fine balance with black and white, and it can take some effort to avoid too much gray in the midtones while maintaining appropriate texture in the shadows and highlights.
I’ve dabbled in black and white processing from time to time, experimenting with the different methods offered by Photoshop and Lightroom. Recently I’ve started using the “Pixels” output of from the TK Infinity Mask panel as another alternative. This “Pixels” button creates a pixel layer of the black and white infinity mask on the Layers panel, which basically constitutes a conversion of the color image to black and white. As I’ve started to understand it better, it’s provided some unique opportunities. Originally, I saw the “Pixels” option as an interesting feature to include in the panel, though I wasn’t sure how useful it would be. The panel, after all, was designed to make masks to aid other developing tasks; it wasn’t meant to actually create images. However, the panel’s sliders turned out to have some direct correlations to black and white images, and they provide an interesting approach to solving the problems listed above.
Before getting started with this discussion, there are a couple important points to cover. The first is the necessity of properly setting the RGB and Gray working spaces in Photoshop’s color settings dialog (Edit > Color Settings). In order for the “Pixels” output layer to match the panel’s preview infinity mask, the RGB and Gray working spaces must be properly aligned. The two most common pairings are as follows:
- RGB: ProPhoto RGB needs to be paired with Gray: Gray Gamma 1.8.
- RGB: Adobe RGB (1998) needs to be paired with Gray: Gray Gamma 2.2.
If the RGB and Gray working spaces are not matched, there will be a brightness shift between the mask previewed by the Infinity Mask panel and the “Pixels” output on the Layers panel.
The second point is a reminder that the “Pixels” output option is bit-depth neutral. If the original image is 16-bit, then the mask generated by the Infinity Mask panel is also 16-bit. But even more important is the fact that the pixel layer created via “Pixels” output is an identical 16-bit copy of the preview mask (provided that the RGB and Gray working spaces have been properly set). The process of converting the mask to pixels does not involve an intervening 8-bit selection that compresses the grayscale data. So even though the grayscale mask discards the color information in the image, the bit-depth of pixel-level brightness data is maintained.
Below is the first image I experimented with using “Pixels” output for conversion to black and white. Rolling the mouse over the image shows the final result. (NOTE: It may take a couple of seconds for the rollover image to load, but once it does, flicking the mouse back and forth across the image edge instantantly changes the image. Also, rollover images might not appear in the email feed but do work on the blog website.) I did not record the settings I used to create this, and it’s largely unimportant. The Infinity Mask panel is meant to be a place to experiment so see what works. Different color channels, different tones, and different slider settings can all be easily tried to achieve the best outcome. The “Pixels” output was really just a foundation in this case. It provided the initial color-to-black-and-white conversion. From there, additional masks and layers were added to arrive at the final image. But the conversion step was pivotal in guiding the image to its final form. The key in this case was using the Infinity Mask panel to find a TONE that looked best as white in the image, and then using the other sliders to manipulate the brightness values of the other tones and, in the process, remove the distracting background elements.
The second experimental image is shown below. Again, a rather uninteresting color image but one where the repeating lines and shapes might work well in black and white. The rollover shows the final presentation.
This image helped me better understand some of the fundamental relationships between the Infinity Mask panel’s controls and the monochrome image. Specifically the sliders.
The TONE slider determines which tone in the image will appear as white in the mask and therefore also white in the “Pixels” output. A “Lights-1” setting (TONE = 255) is a good starting point, but TONE values from 180 and up can be useful as experiments. The lower numbers help to open the highlights in the image which can then be further manipulated by the other sliders.
RANGE = Black Point. The RANGE slider determines the tonal width of the mask with the chosen TONE value as the center, whitest value. By decreasing the RANGE value (pulling the slider left), tones more distant from the chosen tone go to black. Some pure black in a black and white image often provides a good tonal foundation. The RANGE slider can help determine where the black begins.
FOCUS = Midtone Contrast. The FOCUS slider was designed to decrease the sometimes excessive feathering that is a natural part of luminosity masks. It does this by increasing tonal slope around the 50% gray value in the mask. In practical terms, this means that increasing FOCUS (pulling the slider to the right) is very good at eliminating midtone grays while maintaining shadow and highlight texture. This is probably one of the most desirable features when using the Infinity Mask panel to convert color images to black and white. The FOCUS slider provides a way to simultaneously control the two competing problems (too much gray and textureless highlights/shadows) mentioned earlier.
STRENGTH = White Point. The STRENGTH slider determines the whiteness of the chosen tone and similar tones. A value of 100 means that just the chosen tone is pure white. Values less than 100 gray-down the whites, and values greater than 100 white-out nearby tones. Leaving this slider set close to 100 is usually best.
Once these relationships between the Infinity Mask sliders and the black and white image are understood, some additional techniques become possible. One of the most useful is to combine different infinity masks using different TONE settings into the final image. While it’s sometimes possible to find one infinity mask that does a good job converting all tones in the image to black and white, it’s not always practical. Different tones in the image may require, or at least work better, with a different black point, white point, and midtone contrast settings. The Infinity Mask panel makes it possible to quickly make new masks that might work better for specific tones at specific tonal locations in the image. The “Pixels” output of these masks can then be blended into the final image, sometimes using the “Pixels” output as a mask or selection to do the blending. It’s even possible to create negative masks of the image and blend these into the positive and have them look completely natural.
This multi-tone blending technique was used to better control tones in two parts of the above image. Alternate infinity masks starting with different TONE settings were created from the original color image, and these were then blended in using the “Pixels” output as a selection stencil for painting white on a black layer mask to reveal these tones. The image below shows the final image without these additional blended masks and the rollover shows how the image looks more balanced with them blended in.
Starting to better understand how infinity masks could be used convert color images to black and white, I decide to try the technique on some finished color images. This turned out to be somewhat easier since the tonal relationships had already been properly established in the developed color image. It was relatively easy to make an initial “Pixels” output of an infinity mask of the image and then blend in a couple of additional infinity masks with different TONE settings to get the effect I wanted. The image below shows the “Pixels” output of the original conversion of a color image to black and white. The rollover is the final image with two additional infinity masks blended in. The additional “Pixels” output layers help create better contrast in the grays in the canyon and the cloud.
The last image is another finished image that was converted to monochrome using the Infinity Mask panel. This image illustrates the power of the color channels in the Infinity Mask panel. The plug-in that runs the Infinity Mask panel has its own recipe for creating luminosity masks. As a result, the color channel masks created by the panel don’t completely match the Red, Green, and Blue channel masks of Photoshop. In fact, for black and white conversion, I think the Infinity Mask panel’s color channel masks are superior. The Lights-1 versions of these channels offer some uniquely different interpretations of the image with higher contrast than the Photoshop color channels. If the color image has some strong color elements and/or strong color differences, the Infinity Mask color channels nicely separate these colors into different tones. The R (Red) Infinity Mask channel was used to make the initial conversion of the image below. The rollover shows the final image after some additional adjustments.
In summary, the TK Infinity Mask panel’s “Pixels” output option is a unique method for converting color images to black and white. The sliders have some direct parallels to monochrome image processing.
- TONE − Selects the image tone to display as white.
- RANGE − Sets the black point.
- FOCUS − Adjusts midtone contrast.
- STRENGTH − Sets the white point.
Multiple “Pixels” output layers can be created to enhance specific tones in the image, and these can then be easily blended together to create the final monochrome image. The color channels of the Infinity Mask panel also offer a surprisingly useful starting point to effectively exploit color variation for monochrome conversion.