Saturation Masks 2: How to make and use “true” 16-bit saturation masks

The first blog in this saturation masks series reviewed why Photoshop’s HSB/HSL filter is NOT a good way to create saturation masks because it consistently overstates the saturation of dark colors in the image. This post will review the method to make “true” 16-bit saturation masks that accurately map saturation in both light and dark colors. This results in perfectly feathered saturation masks for all colors in the image at all brightness levels. The best methods for using these true saturation masks, and their vibrance mask counterparts, will also be discussed. The video at the bottom of this blog reviews all the information on saturation and vibrance masks in this and the previous blog.

The image below is from the video. To see its true saturation mask, roll the mouse over the image. (The mask may take a couple of seconds to load and the rollover might not be visible in the email feed.) Notice how just the most saturated colors (orange clouds) are light in the mask. Unsaturated and dark colors are dark in the mask. Colors of intermediate saturation (blue in the sky) are shades of gray. This is a very accurate saturation mask, and it’s the starting point for making adjustments to control saturation that are equally precise. NOTE: The Granger Chart image will also be used in this blog. Copies of these images are included in the assets download folder for this blog.

There are good reasons for wanting to make saturation masks better than those created by the HSB/HSL filter. The primary one is accuracy. Creating saturation masks that properly reflect pixel-based saturation makes it very easy to use them to modify saturation in the image. Increasing or decreasing saturation, either globally or locally, can be precisely controlled once an accurate saturation mask is available. Many people have found HSB/HSL saturation masks less than useful because they end up with masks that include too many unsaturated dark colors. Inaccurate masks lead to flawed adjustments. Once a precision saturation mask is available, though, saturation adjustments become a standard part of the workflow since they offer consistent, predictable results. Another reason to make a better saturation masks is to aid in decision making. An HSB/HSL saturation mask is so obviously inaccurate that it’s hard to decide whether or even how to modify it to make it work. Once true saturation masks are available, it’s easy to quickly look at them and decide which one to use or how to make an adjustment to the mask to make it fit the image.

True saturation masks are actually quite easy to make, though the method is not entirely obvious. Start with a Selective Color adjustment layer and set the color change to “Absolute” in order to make sure the necessary adjustments are independent of the amount of color actually present in each pixel. Then for all the colors in the “Colors:” drop-down menu (Reds, Yellows, Greens, Cyans, Blues, Magentas), move the “Blacks” slider all the way left to -100%.

Selective color adjustment

For all the non-colors in the “Colors” drop-down menu (Whites, Neutrals, Blacks), move the “Blacks” slider all the way right to +100%.

Selective color adjustment

This Selective Color adjustment drains all the color from the image. So it’s now essentially a gray-scale image even though it’s still in RGB Color mode. But this gray-scale image is what the true saturation mask looks like. In order to make an actual mask of it, simply duplicate any of the color channels on the Channels panel since they’re all identical at this point. Once the duplicate channel is available, the actual Selective Color adjustment layer used to create it can be deleted. A Photoshop action to complete these steps is included in the assets download for this tutorial.

This duplicate channel is the true 16-bit saturation mask. This is the process carried out in the background when the RapidMask2 module creates a saturation mask. It results in a very accurate saturation mask that can be further modified using the buttons on the panel if adjustments are needed to better target specific colors or parts of the image.

The image below shows the Granger chart with its true saturation mask. Notice the smooth transition from saturated to unsaturated colors in both the light and dark tones in the image.

Granger chart plus saturation mask

Saturation masks, however, are really only half the story. Just like there are two main types of luminosity masks, lights and darks, there are also two types of saturation masks: saturation and vibrance. And, again, just like with luminosity masks, they are the inverse of each. Inverting a saturation mask creates the vibrance masks, and both masks are useful when balancing saturation in an image.

Granger chart plus saturation mask

Armed with these two types of saturation masks that accurately reflect true saturation in the image, it’s quite easy to become a saturation ninja, expertly controlling image saturation to your liking. There are just two main techniques to master:

  • Saturation painting through a saturation mask, and
  • Using vibrance masks as a layer masks on a Hue/Saturation adjustment layer

However, knowing which technique to use is important.

SITUATION #1: OVER-saturation

TECHNIQUE TO USE: Saturation painting through a saturation mask.

RATIONALE: Usually there are just isolated areas of over-saturation in an image, often as a result of aggressive processing. Rather than making a global saturation change to correct this, it’s often easier, and more precise, to simply paint it away with saturation painting. This is the equivalent of dodging using luminosity painting and is described in more detail in this tutorial.

HOW TO DO IT:

  1. Create a blank pixel layer set to Saturation blend mode.
  2. Create a true saturation mask and load it as a selection.
  3. Select the brush tool and set the foreground color to gray and the opacity of 5 to 10%.
  4. Paint through the active selection on the over-saturated parts of the image. The active selection of the true saturation mask will restrict the paint to landing on just the most saturated areas of the image, partially removing saturation in the process.
  5. Add additional brushstrokes until the desired level of saturation is achieved.

WHY IT WORKS: Saturation blend mode combines the saturation of the saturation painting layer with the hue and luminosity of the underlying layers. Gray paint has a saturation of 0%. So if gray paint is painted on the saturation painting layer at 100% opacity, the result would be that the underlying color would now be 0% saturated. In other words, all color would be removed. Painting with a brush opacity of 5 to 10% means that the saturation of the underlying colors will be decreased proportionally. A true saturation selection can be used to expertly confine the paint to just the most saturated colors in the images. Painting through a saturation selection with a low opacity brush and multiple brush strokes then provides a very controlled method for lowering the saturation of just the over-saturated parts of the image, which are defined by the active saturation mask selection.

SITUATION #2: UNDER-saturation

TECHNIQUE TO USE: Use a Hue/Saturation adjustment layer with a vibrance mask as the layer mask.

RATIONALE: Under-saturation in an image is often more global. The image simply looks dull when it doesn’t have enough color. While additional saturation could be painted in with saturation painting (by painting with saturated red instead of gray through a vibrance mask), large parts of most images can usually benefit from a global increase in saturation as long it’s restricted to less saturated colors, which is exactly what a vibrance mask does. So it’s often better to do a global adjustment with an adjustment layer rather than a precision adjustment with a paintbrush.

HOW TO DO IT:

  1. Create a true vibrance mask. The initial vibrance mask will usually be too revealing, so narrow the range. I like using a Zone 8-½ or Zone 9 vibrance mask as my starting point for enhancing under-saturated colors.
  2. Create a Hue/Saturation adjustment layer with the chosen vibrance mask as the layer mask.
  3. Open the Hue/Saturation properties and drag the saturation slider to the right to achieve the desired degree of saturation across the image.

WHY IT WORKS: The vibrance layer mask insures that the adjustment only targets the less saturated tones in the image. More saturated colors will NOT receive the adjustment so they won’t over-saturate with this process. The saturation boost only affects dull colors in the image because the vibrance mask controls which pixels are affected.

SUMMARY: True 16-bit saturation masks are easy to create with a Selective Color adjustment layer. Once the initial saturation mask is created, it can be inverted to create a vibrance mask. With these two masks, there are two main methods for balancing image saturation.

  1. Saturation painting with gray paint through a saturation mask is a precision method for addressing over-saturation of specific colors or elements in an image.
  2. A Hue/Saturation adjustment through a vibrance mask is a great way to bring additional saturation to under-saturated tones while sparing more-saturate colors from the adjustment.

Saturation changes to an image can be subtle, but I usually experiment with both techniques when the image is nearing completion. It’s often surprising how specifically addressing saturation in this manner can improve the image.

It’s worth remembering that saturation and vibrance masks made with the Selective Color adjustment are pixel-based masks, which makes them completely self-feathering. This means that any change you make using these techniques always blends seamlessly into the final image.

The video below reviews and demonstrates all this information about saturation masks. If you would like to practice along, a jpg of the image used in the video is located in the assets download.

Saturation Masks 1: The problem with Photoshop’s HSB/HSL filter

In addition to my work advancing luminosity masks, I’ve also been a big proponent of saturation masks. I’ve used them since 2007 when I first started writing about saturation masks and saturation painting. The way I originally recommended making them was Adobe’s HSB/HSL filter. However, Adobe stopped including the filter in Photoshop for a number of years, so I changed to a different and ultimately better method to make saturation masks. Adobe has again included the HSB/HSL filter in the Filter menu of Photoshop CC. Now that it’s returned, this is probably a good time to review why it should NOT be used to make saturation masks.

TK Basic V6 panel

The way to run the HSB/HSL filter is to create a stamp-visible layer of the image and then convert it to HSL (Hue, Saturation, Lightness) with the filter. Once this is done, the new “Green” channel is used as a saturation mask. Sounds easy, but it’s flawed. A saturation mask created by this process poorly matches the saturation in the image, especially for dark colors.

This first blog covering saturation masks will take a closer look at the HSL/HSB filter and the asymmetry problem associated with it. It’s helpful to understand the problem before moving on to the solution. To do this, I’ll use a Granger Chart, shown below, for illustration since it makes the HSB/HSL problem quite obvious. A copy can be downloaded here. (NOTE: There are some color artifacts in the image on this blog as a result of converting from ProPhoto to sRGB for display on the web.)

TK Basic V6 panel

In the Granger Chart, the most saturated colors zigzag across the vertical center of the image. Saturation will vary somewhat depending on hue, but moving vertically, either up or down away from the center, leads to colors with decreased saturation. The saturated colors in the middle gradually transition to 100% white on the top and 100% black at the very bottom. Black and white have no color at all and so, by definition, are completely unsaturated (saturation = 0%). In other words, pixels close to the center are highly saturated, and saturation decreases in a gradual manner as you move towards the top and bottom edges.

And this is indeed what happens according to Photoshop’s Color Picker when moving vertically from the center to the top edge. The image below shows saturation values from the Color Picker at evenly spaced points along the vertical axis. As you move up from the center (Saturation = 100%), saturation values decrease progressively as distance from the center increases. Exactly as expected.

TK Basic V6 panel

But look what happens as colors get darker. Saturation values, again extracted from the Color Picker, do NOT decrease when moving downward from the center. As colors get more black and contain less color, saturation values don’t change. Saturation remains at 100% even though the amount of color present is gradually decreasing. Even the very bottom pixel of the Granger Chart still has a saturation value of 98% according to the Adobe Color Picker. Strange, huh? Why does saturation remain unchanged as color intensity decreases and black increases? And why are the dark colors different than the light colors?

The actual saturation mask produced using the HSB/HSL filter (the “Green” channel after converting to HSL) matches values from the Color Picker. It is shown below. As a quick review, a saturation mask shows white or light gray in saturated colors and shows black or dark gray in unsaturated colors. For light colors, the HSB/HSL-produced saturation mask shows a smooth decrease in saturation, fading from white to black when moving from the center towards the top edge. This is exactly as expected. The central intensely colored pixels are highly saturated and show as white in the saturation mask. When moving towards the top, saturation decreases, so the mask turns gradually darker gray until it is entirely black at the top border, which is white in the image (and therefore 0% saturated).

TK Basic V6 panel

But look what happens with this HSL mask in the dark colors. The dark colors in the image remain pure white in the mask (indicating very high saturation) even though they contain less and less color when moving from the center towards the bottom. Yes, this matches the saturation values derived from the Color Picker, but it ignores the obvious fact that color saturation actually decreases gradually as you move lower from the center of the Granger Chart. There is no corresponding smooth transition in the saturation mask of the dark colors like in the light colors as would be expected.

This is the asymmetry problem that comes from using the HSB/HSL filter to produce saturation masks. Light colors show appropriate saturation and feathering in the HSB/HSL saturation mask, but dark colors show exaggerated saturation and no feathering at all.

The important thing to take away in all this is that a saturation masks created using the HSB/HSL filter significantly (and sometimes grossly) overstate saturation in dark colors of the image. Dark colors end up being mapped as more saturated than they really are. This is also demonstrated in the image below. Its HSB/HSL saturation mask is shown beside it. Notice how the letters and numbers, even though they are nearly black, are showing as a very light gray in the saturation mask created using the HSB/HSL filter. This indicates they contain highly saturated colors. But this is obviously wrong. No way does a color this dark have the degree of color saturation indicated by the mask. Black is 100% UNsaturated, and any colors approaching black should be very dark in a mask that accurately maps color saturation. But in this mask, the characters in “OPEN” and “7 TO 7” are very light. Based on these tones in the mask, their color saturation in the image should exceed that of the deep blue sky (which is a darker gray) and approach that of the reds and yellows in “GRILL” (which are also very light gray). Even worse, the black word “GEARHART” is mapped in the mask as being more saturated than the magenta background behind the hamburger bun. These characters are clearly less saturated than this. So this isn’t just a theoretical concern that happens in a mathematical image like the Granger Chart. The same problem of the mask showing over-saturation of dark colors is also quite obvious and quite extreme in an actual image.

TK Basic V6 panel

NOTES:

  1. The question can fairly be asked as to why these dark colors aren’t actually pure white in this saturation mask of the image as the dark colors are in the Granger Chart? I’m not entirely sure, but I think this probably relates to the way the Granger Chart is created. It’s made from two gradients: one of completely saturated colors and the other of black-to-white tones. I have a feeling that the colors it produces are only a subset of all colors (even though it creates what appears to be a spectrum of all color) and it’s these specific dark colors that get mapped to 100% saturation by Adobe’s Color Picker. Although, it may also be related to how Photoshop converts from RGB to HSL. Or it could be some other reason entirely. The Granger Chart happened to be what I was using when experimenting with saturation masks, and was what tipped me off to the HSB/HSL problem of dark colors appearing more saturated than they really are. But the over-saturation of dark colors has been apparent in all “real” photos that I’ve made saturation masks for using the HSB/HSL filter. The over-saturation of dark colors is seldom 100%, like with the Granger Chart, but it is always very obvious once you’re aware of it and start comparing the saturation of dark colors with other, truly more saturated colors in the image.
  2. It is also worth noting that there is still some self-feathering of the of the over-saturation in HSB/HSL-produced saturation masks in “real” images. There is no abrupt cutoff like with the Granger Chart HSB/HSL saturation mask. So using these HSB/HSL masks would still lead to a smooth blending of whatever is adjusted through such a mask. However, visually evaluating these HSB/HSL-created masks to decide where saturation is truly present in the image is nearly impossible since the dark colors end up being so light in the mask that they frequently outshine actual saturated colors. The bottom line is that any adjustment through such a mask intended to affect actual saturated colors in the image disproportionately affect darker colors in the image instead.

SAT mask menuWith the problem described, the question becomes how to make a more accurate saturation mask, one that treats light and dark colors equally so that the saturation in darker colors gradually tapers off as saturated colors are replaced with unsaturated black. What that mask looks like for the Granger Chart is shown below and was generated using the “SAT” mask option in the TK RapidMask2 panel. It shows perfect saturation feathering in both light and dark tones. This is easily achieved when using a better method than HSB/HSL to generate TRUE saturation masks.

TK Basic V6 panel

Below is the test image along with the more accurate saturation mask generated from the RapidMask2 panel. The most colorful areas are now the brightest shades of gray in the mask and elements with little or no color (the words “OPEN”, “7 to 7”, and “GEAHART”) are very dark gray. This is exactly the way it should be in a pixel-based mask that accurately maps color saturation.

TK Basic V6 panel

I’ve been using this more advanced method for making saturation (and vibrance) masks in my panels and developing workflow for close to a decade and wouldn’t return to using the old HSB/HSL filter at this point even though Adobe once again makes it available. I’ll explain how to create these TRUE saturation masks in an upcoming blog.

SUMMARY: Saturation masks produced using Photoshop’s HSB/HSL filter display asymmetrical saturation when comparing light and dark colors. Light colors show a perfectly feathered saturation transition as colors get lighter and less saturated while dark colors get mapped as being more saturated than their color would suggest. A better method for making saturation masks would take into account pixel brightness as well as saturation.

FINAL NOTE: I’m not an expert in color models and do not know why the HSL/HSB filter maps saturation the way it does or why the Saturation values in the Color Picker remain at 100% for dark colors. I just know that pixel-based masks need to accurately display the pixel-based values I’m looking to adjust if they are to be useful. That way I can properly evaluate the mask and modify it, if need be, to match my image. In the case of saturation masks, the HSB/HSL filter is definitely substandard for creating the type of masks I want to use.

New Complete Workflow video series by Sean Bagshaw: Lake Bled

I’m very pleased to let folks know that Sean Bagshaw has released his third Complete Workflow video series. This one covers his “Lake Bled” image from Slovenia from start-to-finish and uses the new TKActions V6 panel. Exposure strategy, development planning, RAW file adjustments, mask making, exposure blending, fine-tuning, and creative development are all covered. Sean makes some intricate masks for this workflow that are an important part of the blending and development process. The last two chapters are my favorites since they do a nice job highlighting the creative control possible with the V6 panel. But there’s a lot to watch and learn in all the chapters, and Sean uses the V6 panel nearly constantly as he works.

Lake Bled photo

Sean has been regularly recording Complete Workflow videos for each new version of the TKActions panel, and starting now they are all bundled into one very economically priced product. The older series feature older versions of the panel (Secret Beach–V4 panel and Northland–V5/V6 panel) , but they still demonstrate the huge variety of different techniques Sean employs to create his dramatic images. If you don’t have the previous videos, the new three-volume set is essentially a guidebook to creative development.

Sean is one of the leading instructions in landscape photography today, and I’m happy to be working with him and being able to offer his high-quality instructional videos on my website. If you’re looking for photographic inspiration, these Complete Workflow vids offer hours of ideas both for working in the field and then in Lightroom and Photoshop. The sample videos below are from the Lake Bled series.

The new 3-series bundle of Complete Workflow videos (Secret Beach, Northland, and Lake Bled) is available on the Panels & Videos page for $45. Blog readers can also use the following code for a 10% discount on this product: CWFLB10

NOTE: I’ve contacted previous customers with private update information for receiving the new Lake Bled video series at a special price. If you’re a previous customer and haven’t received the email, please contact me and I’ll forward the information. Also, there was initially some server issues downloading the new series, but these have been resolved. If you purchased the new series but are still having download issues, definitely contact me and we’ll get it fixed.

TKActions Quick Tip: Exposure blending

Sean Bagshaw is heading out into the field soon, but he managed to squeeze in one more video Quick Tip before leaving. This one covers the popular subject of exposure blending. Because luminosity masks target specific tones in an image, they’re a natural for making masks that blend multiple exposures where the dynamic range of the scene exceeds that of the camera sensor. Sean’s approach to exposure blending has been to focus on the transition zone between light and dark areas of the image to make the blend look natural. Luminosity masks can help significantly with this process since they create natural transitions based on pixel brightness. The steps Sean uses are listed below.

  1. Open the RAW files as smart objects in Photoshop.
  2. Stack the images into a single document with the dark exposure on top.
  3. Make the dark exposure layer active, but turn OFF its visibility.
  4. Click the “Layer Mask” checkbox on the RapidMask2 module to enter Layer Mask Mode. This mode automatically applies the mask generated as a layer mask on the active layer.
  5. Click the “Composite” source button to apply a “Lights-1” mask as a layer mask to the active layer (the dark exposure). This starts the blending process.
  6. Turn the visibility of the dark exposure layer back ON to evaluate the blend.
  7. Modify the layer mask to create the proper transition zone. This might involve trying a different mask, using the MODIFY buttons to modify the current mask, or painting on the layer mask with black or white paint (try setting the blend mode of the paintbrush to “Overlay”).
  8. If needed, double-click the smart objects to reopen them in Adobe Camera Raw to make additional adjustments to brightness, contrast, white balance, etc.

It’s actually pretty easy watching Sean do it. In the 15 minute video he demonstrates the process, with small variations, using three different images.

Quick Tip: Exposure blending
Quick Tip: Favorite new V6 features
Be sure to subscribe to Sean’s YouTube channel for more tips on photography and post-processing.

TK Actions Quick Tip

As many of you know, I’ve been collaborating with Sean Bagshaw for many years on luminosity masks and Photoshop extension panels. He not only feeds me ideas for improved ways to use pixel-based masks, but his videos have also been instrumental in explaining these techniques to the photo community.

Now that TKActions V6 is complete, Sean is planning to restart his Quick Tip series on how to use the new panel. This will provide a great opportunity to watch an expert using the V6 panel, to get a more in depth look at its many functions, and to pick up some creative ideas for developing images in Photoshop.

I’ll be featuring Sean’s videos on this blog and providing some commentary on the techniques, but you might also want to subscribe to Sean’s YouTube channel. That way you can get notified of the other videos that he regularly publishes. He’s got a really nice teaching style that provides a lot of information and is also easy to follow.

His first V6 panel Quick Tip is below and looks at his favorite new features. It’s less than 5 minutes long and gives you an idea of what’s coming.

TKActions V6: New modules

“Combo” and “Batch” are the newest modules to be released in the latest update of the TKActions V6 panel. The RapidMask2 V6 module was released in October 2017. With the release of these two new modules, the V6 panel is now complete.

NOTE: Previous V5 and V5/V6 customers have already been sent information for a free download of these updated V6 modules. Check your spam/junk if you missed it. Update information was sent on February 26 and resent on March 3. If you’ve not purchased the panel yet, for the next 3 weeks you can use the following code on the Panels & Videos page for a 25% discount on all items: V625off

The new Combo module comes in two versions: Combo and ComboX (also designated Cx). The different arrangements have identical functions, but they make it possible to create two very different workspaces to utilize the V6 panel. This is explained in the “Custom V6 Panel Workspace” video at the end of this blog.

TKAction V6 panel

The Combo module combines the Control and Action modules of the V5 panel into one. This continues the evolution away from the button-crazy, multi-mega-panel design trend to a more compact, efficient, and logical workspace that started with RapidMask2. Most users will now need just two modules in order to access V6 functions: the RapidMask2 module makes all the different luminosity masks and Combo runs Photoshop. The V6 modules use smart menus to replace confusing tabs and even entire panels. A good example is the “TK ▶” button. It opens a menu that contains all the actions of the V5 Actions module plus several new ones (image below). While these actions can be extremely useful when developing images, it’s not necessary to have them in a separate panel given that they are used one at a time and generally only occasionally during processing. The smart menus in the Combo and RapidMask2 modules track what’s happening and automatically close once they’ve served their purpose.

TKActiosn actions menu

Below is a short list of the features of the new Combo/Cx modules.

  • Compact design−Combines the all features, functions, and actions of the V5 Control and Actions modules into one.
  • Run Photoshop from the module−Many common Photoshop functions, keyboard shortcuts, and menu items can be run with a single button click from the module.
  • Muted color interface separates buttons into logical groups in order to quickly find the correct Photoshop function. (Color is adjustable in the Settings window.)
  • Multi-function buttons−Several buttons have dual functions that are graphically displayed on the button itself.
  • Use the “TK ▶” button to access the creative Photoshop actions menu−Includes new actions for Smart Orton and Neutralize Cast 2 for creative development, and Stack, Align, and Focus Blend for blending multiple exposures.
  • Integrated web-sharpening−Sharpen images for the web to any dimension, convert to sRGB, and run post-sharpening actions with one click directly from the module.
  • Expanded user actions−Ten programmable actions, accessed via the “User ▶” button, allow users to run their own actions directly from the panel.

This update also includes some additional enhancements to the RapidMask2 module that was released in October 2017.

  • Advanced Mask Calculator−Any mask created using the panel can be added, subtracted, and intersected with any other mask. This makes it possible to combine luminosity, color, saturation, modified, and even user-created masks in any manner desired. There is also an Advanced Mask Calculator in Layer Mask Mode so users can see the results reflected immediately in the image itself.
  • Enhanced “Pick” button−The Zone mask that is picked is highlighted directly on the panel. This makes it easy to experiment with adjacent or nearby zone masks to see if one of them might work a bit better.
  • Properties panel toggle−Creating an adjustment layer automatically opens the Properties panel so that the desired adjustment can quickly be made. This feature is also active when using the Combo panel to create adjustment layers.

The Batch module is also part of this release. It resizes and sharpens entire folders of images for web presentation. It may not be used frequently, but can be huge time-saver when there are lots of images to sharpen.

The videos below provide a brief overview of the V6 panel. Additional information can be found on my website. The comprehensive instructions PDF for the V6 panel can be downloaded here. To purchase the V6 panel plus other panels and videos, please visit the Panels & Videos page. Don’t forget to use the V625off discount code. It also works on Sean Bagshaw’s videos listed on that page.

Please contact me if you have any questions.

“Briscoe Light”

Sean Bagshaw has a great new video on creating dappled light and light rays using a technique he learned from Chris Briscoe.

The user gets to manually create the target that determines where the light is applied in the image. It looks to be dramatic yet subtle and also quite natural when done right. Definitely worth investigating if you’re into creatively modifying images in Photoshop.

Be sure to subscribe to Sean’s YouTube channel to get his latest tips, tutorials, and updates.