Black Friday Sale (and free stuff from Adobe)

Just a quick reminder that there is a brief Black Friday sale happening on my website now through Monday, November 28, 2022. All products are 25% off when the following discount code is entered in the shopping cart: BF2022.

The sale includes the latest version of the TK8 plugin as well as all of Sean Bagshaw’s excellent videos, including his TK8 Video Guide. The Spanish and Italian versions of the TK8 Video Guide are also on sale. I hope you can stop buy and take advantage of these special prices. But please be prompt since tomorrow (Monday) is the last day.

For those who are curious, the graphic at the top of this blog comes from Adobe Stock and is free. This is one of the benefits of your Creative Cloud subscription. Many free assets can be acquired using the Creative Cloud Desktop app. To access free images, do the following:

  1. Open the Creative Cloud Desktop app.
  2. Click on “Stock & Marketplace.”
  3. Click the “Free” tab.
  4. Type your search criteria. I used “holiday” to find the image above.
  5. Click the little magnifying glass “search” icon.

This will open a new tab in your default browser with assets that match your search criteria. When you see an image you like, hover the mouse over it. A blue “License” button will appear in the lower right corner. Click that button to download the asset to your computer and then use it whatever way suits your needs.

Best wishes for the holidays.

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.