The Saguaro Project

NOTE: The images blow are linked to a second rollover image that shows the starting photograph. To see the starting photograph, simply roll your mouse over an image and a wait a few seconds until the second image loads. Then you can move the mouse back and forth across an edge to see the image switch rapidly between before and after.

While I love to photograph and process nature images, “photo fatigue” still happens. There are so many outstanding nature photographs now that I’m a bit overwhelmed by both the number and quality, and wonder if I have much to contribute to this already gargantuan collective body of work. Photography remains one of my passions, though, so I try to invent opportunities for exploring something different to keep me interested.


The Saguaro Project was an effort that combined my fascination with the Sonoran Desert that now surrounds me with the inspiration I’ve found in Club Camera Tucson’s Digital Art SIG. I wanted to take photographs of one of the natural icons in the region, the saguaro cactus, and transform the images into something less photographic. I wasn’t sure what that would be, but I started playing with Photoshop and eventually found the path I wanted to follow.


Before deciding to undertake this project, I didn’t have many saguaro images in my RAW file collection, so the first stop was nearby Sabino Canyon to take some. I was determined to use cactus images taken in any type of light and from the start I was thinking in terms of tight compositions. Isolating the subject and separating it from the surrounding terrain would create a sense of abstraction while still emphasizing the characteristics of saguaros that make them so unique.


After developing a few images I started see the direction this would go. In the end there were six criteria for each image.

  1. Use photographs that were taken in ordinary, unspectacular light.
  2. Have the cactus’ arms bleed off at least one edge of the frame.
  3. Use Steve Dell’s sketch action that he recently shared with me.
  4. Use luminosity masks in the development process.
  5. Use Photoshop’s “spectrum” gradient (the rainbow gradient) as the main source of color.
  6. Add an “orb” to the image in Photoshop to suggest the sun or the moon.

I also wanted to produce at least six images that fit these criteria so I could add a thumbnail gallery on my website that featured them.


One of the nice things about Steve Dell’s sketch action is that it evens out the light even for photographs with considerable contrast. As a result, the color added from the spectrum gradient was applied more evenly than the original lighting would suggest. Luminosity masks were also useful after the sketch action ran for selecting areas that would receive the gradient color. To a large degree, the processing changed the original photos into illustrations, which was sort of the intent given the influence of the Digital Art SIG. In some of the images, though, the underlying photographic starting point can still be easily recognized.


This project took around a month to complete and was a lot of fun. I was exploring photography and Photoshop in new ways, and each image was a new adventure. There was no preconceived idea of what the final images would look like other than it had to meet the criteria. There was lots of experimentation and the final images often required more layers than a “normal” photograph.


In the process of creating these images, I started to appreciate saguaros in new ways. They’re easy to take for granted given how numerous they are here, but they offer a lot of possibilities: an iconic anthropomorphic figure, wonderful textures from the ribs and needles, and lines and shapes that work well from many different angles. The light might not have been anything special when the images were taken, but this project made me realize that it’s more than light that makes saguaros special.

TK Quick Tip: Layer Mask mode

One of the best features in the TK7 panel is the ability to view luminosity masks and other pixel-based masks as fast as they’re created. Seeing the actual mask up front allows you to make an initial assessment of what will be revealed and what will be concealed before the mask is actually put into use. It also allows you to modify the mask to make sure it selects the parts of the image you want selected.

When you actually deploy the mask, though, sometimes it’s not quite doing what it was expected to do. Maybe a different mask would have worked better. Or maybe the current mask is pretty good, but still needs additional modification. It’s occasionally hard to know how a particular mask is going to perform until you actually see how it affects the image.

If the mask you created using the TK7 panel was applied as a layer mask, then there’s no need to start all over. The TK7 panel has “Layer Mask mode” that lets you modify layers masks or even change to a totally different mask without going through the process of generating and applying a new mask.

In the video below, Sean Bagshaw covers three situations where Layer Mask mode comes in handy.

  • Changing to a different mask entirely.
  • Modifying the current layer mask.
  • Exposure-blending to control dynamic range.

The key feature in all these examples is that the image itself drives the decision-making process. In Layer Mask mode, you no longer see the mask since it automatically gets applied as a layer mask to the active layer. What you see instead is the effect the mask has on the image. So in layer Mask Mode you’re choosing the mask based on how the image looks and not on how the mask looks. You can still look at the mask if you want to, but you’ll also be able to instantly see how the mask affects the image. As always, Sean does an excellent job walking you through the process. I hope you’ll give it a try.

History Brush magic: An amazing luminosity mask technique from Alister Benn

I recently came across Alister Benn’s latest videos on YouTube and they are an excellent example of taking luminosity masks to a level that I never imagined. He does it by adding a couple of lesser used Photoshop techniques to standard luminosity masks: the History Brush tool and brush blend modes. I honestly have not done much with either of these, but I can now see how they offer a unique method for burning and dodging. The two videos linked below provide a good overview of Alister’s method. NOTE: I’m listing these in the reverse order that Alister posted them because it makes sense to understand the History Brush first before moving on to the more complex video involving a workflow that uses it extensively.

The first video reviews the History Brush. The thing to keep in mind when using it is to have a consistent Layers panel. Don’t add or remove layers and make sure to paint on the duplicate layer that was active at the time the History snapshot was created. Alister keeps this all quite simple by just using two layers: the Background layer and a duplicate of it, and I’d strongly recommend sticking with this approach until you gain experience using this technique. This video also demonstrates burning and dodging with the History Brush by using the brush’s different blend modes: Screen for dodging and Multiply for burning. While the results look similar to traditional burning and dodging with black or white paint, there are some fundamental differences, which I’ll discuss below.

In the second video, Alister takes the basic burning/dodging technique with the History Brush and combines it with the Adobe Camera Raw (ACR) filter and luminosity masks. In doing so, he’s able combine burning and dodging with subtle color and contrast shifts created using the ACR filter. It took me a couple of times watching to see what was happening here, but there is a very important difference between what Alister is doing compared to standard burning and dodging. Regular burning and dodging uses either black or white paint (or occasionally paint of another color) applied to a pixel layer in either Soft Light, Overlay, or Hard Light blend mode. In Alister’s method, using a single color of paint is completely gone. By painting from an image snapshot using the History Brush, the paint source is effectively the image itself. It’s not black paint or white paint. It’s every color in the image snapshot and everything is precisely aligned, pixel-for-pixel, with current state of the image. So just like luminosity masks insure perfect blending since they are based on data in the image’s pixels, History Brush burning and dodging chooses and aligns colors that also perfectly match the image’s pixels. It’s an amazing convergence of these two techniques and provides a new level of control in determining how paint gets applied to adjust the image. The main point is this: anything you can adjust with the ACR filter (temperature, tint, brightness, contrast, highlights, shadows, color, texture, clarity, dehaze, saturation, vibrance, and the list goes on and on), can now be incorporated into burning and dodging with luminosity masks.

Alister’s method might be a bit challenging to grasp at first, but he does an excellent job walking you through the details. Here are a few tips to keep in mind.

  • Only use two layers, the Background and a duplicate of it, and do all the burning, dodging, and ACR filter adjustments on the duplicate layer.
  • Make sure to step back one step on your History panel AFTER making a snapshot of an ACR filter adjustment.
  • Also be sure to select the correct snapshot as the source for the History Brush.
  • Use the History Brush’s Multiply blend mode for burning and Screen blend mode for dodging. You can also use Normal blend mode to simply paint in the ACR adjustment without any additional brightness changes.
  • Use low-opacity/high-flow brushes or medium-opacity/low-flow brushes. This way you can make subtle adjustments that are progressively built up with multiple brushstrokes.
  • Make your luminosity mask selection right before you start to paint with the History Brush. Making this selection too soon in the process could get confusing.
  • Deselect any active selections before doing adjustments with the ACR filter. If you were painting through a hidden selection, you need to turn it off BEFORE doing an ACR adjustment or else the ACR adjustment will be restricted to the selected area. NOTE: Alister did turn off the active selection in the video, though you had to be watching for it as he didn’t explicitly state it.

The best way to learn this technique is to just dive in and try it, maybe working along with Alister’s video. It does require a bit of active thought to step through the process properly, but once you see what’s happening it becomes much more intuitive. And as Alister shows in this video, the technique can transform an entire image, not just small areas. With the ACR filter being used to adjust the image and then using this as the basis for a snapshot that serves as the paint source, the whole image is now in play. It’s time to think big.

Alister says he has more videos coming on these methods. Be sure to subscribe to his YouTube channel to see what’s next.

Add YOUR Photoshop actions to the TK7 panel (new method)

In addition to generating luminosity masks, the TK7 panel also creates a more efficient Photoshop workflow with the buttons and menus in the Combo and Cx modules. Many photographers keep one of these modules open in their workspace because it provides quick access to many commonly used Photoshop features. Another way to improve workflow efficiency is to use Photoshop actions to perform repetitive steps. However, using Photoshop actions still involves opening Photoshop’s regular Actions panel. The Combo or Cx modules provide an alternative to this also. Both modules have a dedicated User Actions menu for running Photoshop actions. You just need to take a few minutes to add the actions you are already using. Once it’s set up, you can access your Photoshop actions directly from the User Actions menu in these modules, and this sub-menu automatically closes once the action completes. It’s a fast and efficient way to run Photoshop actions. To help you get started, the video below shows a new method for adding your previously recorded actions to the User Actions menu of the Combo or Cx module.