Monochrome 1: Black and white conversions with TKActions V6

Monochrome is at the heart of the photography. Early photographs had one color, black (from precipitated silver), and, in combination with a lighter printing substrate (a copper plate initially, but eventually paper), created the classic black and white look that was the signature of photography. Monochrome images have evolved significantly since their origin in the 1800s, but they’re still widely appreciated and are a great way to interpret and view the light captured by a camera.

Masks in Photoshop are monochrome (black, white, and gray) by default. Luminosity masks opened the door to pixel-based masks where the monochrome tones in the mask have a direct correlation to the underlying luminance values in the image. Luminosity masks are not blobs of paint applied with a paintbrush run by a mouse. Their pixel-based nature means that the image itself can always be seen in the mask, at least to some degree. So there’s a definite connection between a luminosity mask and the image. And once you start working with luminosity masks, it’s hard not to notice that some of them could make good black and white images on their own.

As I coded the TKActions V5 and V6 panels, I made sure to include the option of utilizing masks as actual images. You never know when a surprisingly good mask (or at least interesting one) might show up, and only then realize that a monochrome interpretation of the image might be worth exploring. The V6 panel makes this easy to do with dedicated output options that preserve promising masks. The panel essentially functions as a color to black and white converter in this situation. While this isn’t the primary use of either luminosity masks or the panel, it does provide a convenient method to start experimenting with monochrome since the RapidMask2 module can quickly generate so many different masks. This article will focus on ways to use the luminosity masks generated by the V6 RapidMask2 module as the starting point for great black and white images.

Method #1: Mask To Pixels

The “Layer” button of the RapidMask2 module has a menu item for creating a pixel layer from the Rapid Mask. It’s called “Mask To Pixels” and is a direct 16-bit conversion from Rapid Mask to pixel layer in RGB Color mode. No image quality is lost in the process. The 16-bit pixel layer is an exact duplicate of the 16-bit Rapid Mask since there is no intervening 8-bit selection involved.

Mask To Pixels menu option

If the intention is to purposely convert the image to monochrome using the RapidMask2 module, it’s usually best to start with one of the “Lights” masks. Then you can optionally use the MODIFY section to further adjust the mask in order to optimize it before triggering the pixel layer output. In the cactus blossom image below, a Lights-1 mask was modified with a Levels adjustment to produce the final conversion.

lights mask to black and white

Alternate Method #1: Start with zone masks
One rather interesting way to use the “Mask To Pixels” option is with Zone masks. Zone masks are narrow slices of the tonal spectrum, but they’re still monochrome, and they are calculated to have smooth blending into adjacent tones. So there is a smooth tonal gradation as they transition from lighter grays of selected pixels to dark grays and eventually to black for unselected pixels. For simple compositions, like the cactus blossom shown here, try different zone masks or combinations of zone masks. Then use the “Auto” button in the MODIFY section of the RapidMask2 module to normalize the mask so that it has a full tonal spectrum from black to white. This can lead to some slightly more abstract but appealing black and white images. The strong contrast of the “Auto” command creates a wonderful silvery quality in the narrow range of tones selected by Zone masks. This shiny effect is difficult to achieve when working with images with a wide range of tones, but when working with a narrow slice of tones, it happens quite easily. For the conversion below, I added a Zone-7 and Zone-7½ mask together, modified the result with a Levels adjustment, and then used the “Auto” option on the result to obtain the silvery shimmer in the flower.

zone masks to black and white

Method #2: SOURCE > Color > Create

The “Create” option in the “Color” menu was intended as an easy way to make individual colors either lighter or dark in the mask that was being created.

color-create menu

The set-up for doing this requires a few different layers on the Layers panel. This set of layers also easily lends itself for converting images to black and white. So this “Create” option can serve a dual purpose. It can be used to create a Rapid Mask, which is output using the “Rapid Mask” button on the panel, or it can be used to convert an image to monochrome, in which case the correct output choice is the “B&W” button.

black and white button

The “B&W” option keeps the layers used to create the mask intact and simply renames the group that contains them. This provides a completely non-destructive way to do the conversion. At any future time, it’s possible to tweak the conversion by returning to these layers and making additional adjustments.

black and white conversion layers

Below is a color image and its black and white conversion using the Color > Create option.

color image
black and white image

Summary: Luminosity masks, because they are based on pixel-level data, embed the actual image in some manner in the mask. And because masks are always monochrome, luminosity masks have the potential to be a conversion tool for creating black and white images from color files. The TKActions V6 panel includes dedicated output options (“Mask To Pixels” and Color > Create) for using luminosity masks as actual black and white images. The video below demonstrates these techniques.

NOTE: Converting a color image to monochrome is usually not the same as actually finishing it. After converting to monochrome, most images will still require additional processing to achieve their best potential as a black and white photograph.

9 thoughts on “Monochrome 1: Black and white conversions with TKActions V6

  1. That’s how I did in many of my latest b&w portraits 😉 It’s just a part of the process, but it was really a new inspiring way to use the 16 bit luminosity masks ☺️ Happy to see you thought the same… i’m teaching this tech too (i’m a pro retoucher too and educatori) using and suggesting your panel!

    All the best, Luciano



  2. Tony,

    Good stuff, more options for monochrome and demonstration of the power of the TK Rapid Mask 2 panel.

    I do have a question: the purpose of the Paint Layer at the top of the BW conversion stack?



    1. Bob–The paint layer is included in that set of layers because if you’re using them to construct a luminosity mask, not a black and white conversion, you have the ability to paint black or white on that mask to further conceal or reveal parts of the image in the mask. So it would be unusual to use the “Paint” layer for a blank white conversion, but when making a mask using these layers, it can be handy.


  3. Hi Tony, I really like this a lot. I do use monochrome quite a bit, and I have always used the Photoshop B&W/Channel mixer options. Or, I use Infinity Masks. This is superb, because it reminds me of the many ways we can explore the TK6 panel


  4. Reblogged this on and commented:
    The TK6 Panel is one of the most versatile panels that you can find. I shall blog in more detail about this in the next week or so


  5. Hi Tony,

    I very much liked this method/technique as described in the video, especially in the second example with a zone mask and the auto-levels command applied. When applying this on one of my images I noticed however that the highlights turned black in the final image. Then on viewing your own example I saw it occurred there as well. I wonder how to avoid this if at all possible.


    1. It all depends on which Zone mask you choose. Remember, zone masks are revealing specific tones from the tonal spectrum. Tones NOT revealed in that zone are darker in the mask than the chosen tone. Only Zone 10 will match the whites being white. As you move away from the brighter zones, the lightest tones in the image are less and less selected. By the time you get to Zone 5, the bright tones in the image might not be selected at all, and they would then be black in your mask after an Auto Levels adjustment. The only thing that will be white in a Zone mask after the Auto Levels adjustment are the tones from the image that land on that zone. All other tones will be shades of gray tapering way from that zone. That’s the way Zone masks work. If you have trouble visualizing this, make a black to white gradient and try the different Zone masks with Auto Levels. That will help you see what’s going on and show you better how zone masks work.

      One way to “avoid” this is to NOT use Zone masks. If you want the whites in the mask to match the whites in your image, you’ll need to use Lights-series masks as demonstrated in the first example.

      As I state in the article, using zone masks are a way to make a more abstract image. Those black highlights look just fine with some images.


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