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TKActions V4 — A New Panel for Luminosity Masks and Beyond

July 8, 2015

I’m pleased to announce a new TKActions panel for Photoshop. This is the fourth version of this custom luminosity mask panel (V4) and has been completely rebuilt. It takes advantage of new capabilities in Photoshop extension panels–smaller footprint, smarter buttons, updated interface, and more features–to provide users a practical and efficient way to add luminosity masks to their workflow.

TKActions V4 panel

The top part of the panel is a Photoshop control center. It executes many common menu commands and keyboard short cuts with the click of a button. Most of the usual steps for developing an image can be accessed from here.

The bottom of the panel has three tabs. The Spectrum tab provides a new interface for creating luminosity masks. The widths of the buttons in this section roughly match the tonal ranges that will be selected in the image. Standard luminosity masks (Lights/Darks/Midtones) as well as subtracted and zone masks can now all be created with a single click.

In addition to the Spectrum tab, the bottom of the panel also has an Actions and Basic tab. The Actions tab has several useful functions for enhancing the image and a web-sharpening section for preparing images for jpeg output that has been completely redesigned. The Basic tab provides an alternate interface for using luminosity masks with Curves and Levels adjustment layers and as Channel masks and selections.

TKActions V4 panel

A partial list of new features and improvements in the V4 panel includes:

  • 16-bit luminosity masks−These were discussed in previous blog posts.
  • Spectrum selection−Creates ALL masks, including zone and subtracted masks, that were available in the previous version 3 panel.
  • Integrated actions−No more action sets to install on Photoshop’s regular Actions panel.
  • Smart buttons−Panel buttons monitor the Photoshop workflow and only fire at the right time.
  • Toggle buttons−Allows one button to perform multiple tasks.
  • Active selection indicator−Keeps track of when there is an active selection even if the marching ants aren’t visible.
  • Updated web-sharpening−No more fixed-dimensions. Users can enter their preferred dimension from 100 to 3000 pixels and easily tailor the level of sharpening to their taste.
  • Condensed history−No more scrolling histories for buttons that execute multiple steps. One button, one click, one entry on the History panel, Ctrl/Command-Z to undo it.
  • Tonal Clarity−A saturation-neutral method for enhancing detail and structure in an image.
  • One-click Photoshop control−Many Photoshop menu commands and keyboard shortcuts can now be accessed from a color-coded interface for more efficient image processing.
  • Midpoint rollovers−Choose among the different luminosity masks based on tones sampled from the image.
  • Rapid clear channels−Quickly remove all alpha channels from the Channels panel to decrease file size and memory use.
  • Creative Cloud installation−Once acquired, the new panel and future updates are automatically installed on computers signed in to the Creative Cloud desktop application (see this video and this one).

The new V4 panel is designed to help take the guesswork out of luminosity masks and make them more accessible than ever. It’s also meant to make other actions and tools more available to allow photographers to creatively develop their images. My website has additional information. The complete Instructions PDF can be downloaded and covers all aspects of the panel. Sean Bagshaw has also recorded a corresponding video series called the Video Guide to TKActions that explains the new panel in detail. Samples can be found below.

Purchase options for the new panel and videos are on the Special Offers page. A German version of the panel and accompanying videos are available on André Distel’s website.

Free Panel to Make 16-bit Luminosity Masks

June 4, 2015

Lately I’ve been experimenting with several features that could make Photoshop extension panels easier to install and use. To test some of these new elements, I’ve created a mini-panel (image below) focused on just making 16-bit luminosity masks, like the downloadable actions that were available in the previous blog posts. With the new custom panel these same actions can now be run with a click of a button instead of having to play them from Photoshop’s regular Actions panel. The new panel can be downloaded free at this website.

TK-mini panel

It’s a very simple panel overall and provides the easiest way yet to quickly generate the Lights, Darks, and Midtones series of luminosity masks using the new 16-bit process. The luminosity masks generated are placed on the Channels panel, so check there for the results after clicking one of the buttons. Luminosity masks can do many things, and it’s up to the user to determine which mask they want to use and how to use it for their image. Techniques for using luminosity masks are described in the tutorials section of my website.

The CC and CS6 versions look slightly different, but do the same thing. They also have slightly different installation procedures. The complete Instructions PDF describes how to install the panel, how to use it, and also has some trouble-shooting tips. Please take a few minutes to read it before installing the panel to help insure that the process goes smoothly.

Once installation is complete on any compatible version of Photoshop, open Photoshop and click through the menu commands Window > Extensions > TK. The panel should appear. Once available, it can be opened, closed, and docked to a panels bar just like over Photoshop panels. An image needs to be open for most of the buttons to work.

This is my first experience with the new features and distribution method. If there are problems, please let me know. We can try and work them out together.

16-bit Luminosity Masks: Do they make a difference?

May 13, 2015

In the last blog post I described a new “calculations” method for making luminosity masks entirely within a 16-bit workflow for 16-bit images. The tonal ranges selected by the calculations method match those of the intersection method, but 16-bit masks and selections are smoother (less tonal variation) than their 8-bit counterparts upon close inspection. So the question can fairly be asked (and was asked in the comments on the last post) whether this new method actually makes a difference? Is there a visible advantage when using 16-bit luminosity masks instead of 8-bit masks?

The answer is: Probably not. In theoretical situations, which I’ll try to show, it’s possible to produce some differences, but producing similar differences in an actual image is harder. Even the theoretical differences are hard to illustrate in a WordPress blog like this. Jpeg images saved at the highest setting are further compressed by the website’s software effectively obscuring the subtle differences that can be seen on a monitor. To enhance the differences, I’ll also be using image rollovers. Flicking the mouse back and forth across the image edge will switch between the 8-bit and 16-bit adjustment. If you’re reading this in an email feed, the rollovers probably won’t work, so you’ll need to visit the actual blog to see them.

Before getting started it’s worth noting that conventional 8-bit luminosity masks, since their introduction in the 2006 tutorial, have become standard practice for many photographers. If there was an obvious problem with them, these masks would NOT have been become so widely accepted, integrated, duplicated, YouTube-ated (videated?), or appropriated since then. They’re now recognized as a unique Photoshop tool to blend, adjust, paint, and develop images to suit the photographer’s individual style. Other photographers wishing to demonstrate and promote their own expertise in luminosity masks have adopted the 2006-process for creating them. 16-bit masks represent an advancement, I think, in the way luminosity masks are created, but their role in actually improving images is still undecided.

I’m not aware of any problems in my images that resulted from using traditional 8-bit luminosity masks, but based on my experiments with a 16-bit tonal gradient I can create two situations where there is a theoretical advantage to using 16-bit masks.

1) Severe adjustments though the most selected pixels. To illustrate this, a 600-px by 300-px 16-bit tonal gradient was used to generate a Lights-5 (Ultra Lights) mask via both the 8-bit and 16-bit methods. The full-size gradient and equivalent Lights-5 selection is shown below. NOTE: This is a completely smooth gradient on my monitor and any visible banding is a result of jpeg compression.

Gradient with selection

The Lights-5 mask is incorporated into a Curves adjustment layer over the background gradient. The curve is then adjusted (Properties panel below) to pull the whitest value (255,255,255) down to almost black (20,20,20).

255 to 20 Curves adjustment

The gradient with this adjustment applied through the 16-bit mask is shown below. The rollover shows the same adjustment through the 8-bit mask. There’s not much difference, but if you look closely you might see some subtle banding on the far right side for the adjustment through the 8-bit mask.

By increasing the magnification to 200%, screen-capturing the result, and then saving it as a jpeg at maximum resolution, the difference now starts to show more prominently. The image below is the 2x screen capture (a right-sided quadrant of the above image) for adjustment through the 16-bit mask. The rollover is the adjustment through the 8-bit mask identically enlarged. Now there IS an obvious difference. The 8-bit adjustment is showing some definite tonal banding, but the 16-bit adjustment remains totally smooth (except for slight banding introduced by jpeg compression).

This is, of course, a totally unrealistic adjustment (255 to 20) for any image and an unrealistic viewing resolution (actual pixels x2). But it’s necessary to show what a difference between 8-bit and 16-bit luminosity masks might look like. One interesting thing worth pointing out here is that even though this extreme adjustment would never be made to an image and would never be viewed at this resolution, the 16-bit adjustment still remains tonally smooth in the adjusted area. Conclusion: 16-masks are essentially indestructible. While the adjustment through the 8-bit mask eventually cracks under the pressure of extreme adjustment and 2x magnification, the adjustment through the 16-bit mask remains completely uniform even in this impossibly theoretical scenario.

2) Significant enlargement. The requirement to use a 2x enlargement to see an obvious difference in the first example points to the second situation where 16-bit masks might show an advantage: significant enlargement. To illustrate this, a less severe adjustment (255 to 192, image below) is made to the tonal gradient, again using the Lights-5 mask.

255 to 192 Curves adjustment

After adjustment using the 16-bit luminosity mask, the gradient looks like the image below. The rollover shows the same adjustment through the 8-bit Lights-5 luminosity mask. In this case, the adjustment is not sufficient to show any obvious difference between the two methods at this actual-pixel resolution.

If this gradient image is enlarged significantly (5x for this example) and viewed at actual-pixel resolution, the tonal banding can once again can be seen. In this case I used “Bicubic Sharper” as the resample method for enlargement to sharpen and enhance any differences that might exist. A segment of the enlargement that includes the tones farthest to the right in the gradient after adjustment is shown below. This is the adjustment through the 16-bit mask. The rollover shows the same adjustment and enlargement through the 8-bit mask. The difference is slight because the adjustment is less extreme, but there is definitely some tonal banding visible in the adjustment through the 8-bit mask that isn’t visible for the adjustment through the 16-bit mask.

While this adjustment is more within the realm of possibility than the last one, it would still be very rare that the whites in the image would be pulled down this much.

An actual image. Of these two examples, the first one that involved severe adjustment is where the 16-bit mask made the most visible difference. So it’s probably worth doing something similar to an actual image to see what happens, though the results of such a similarly extreme adjustment will produce undesirable aesthetic results. In this example the white values will again be dragged down to 20 using a Curves adjustment layer though a 16-bit and 8-bit luminosity mask. The Lights-4 mask will be used in this case in order to include enough pixels to actually see a significant change in the image.

255 to 20 Curves adjustment

Below is the a jpeg of the image that was used for this demonstration. The rollover shows the image after the adjustment. The full-size image measures 5616-px by 3744-px. The green box shows the area of the original image that is enlarged below.

This is obviously another unrealistic adjustment, but, as seen above, it takes something this extreme to produce a visible difference between 8-bit and 16-bit luminosity masks.

Below is a screen shot of the green-box area adjustment through the 16-bit Lights-4 mask viewed at 200% magnification, which is twice as magnified as actual pixels (actual pixels x2). The rollover is the same area with the same adjustment except done through an 8-bit Lights-4 mask.

In this situation there is barely any difference, and certainly none of the obvious tonal banding that was seen with the severe adjustment to the smooth gradient in the first example. You might be able to see a little better definition in the noise in the grayed-down sky of the “8-bit” image, but given the magnitude of the overall adjustment, this difference is tiny.

But why is this? Where is the expected tonal banding in the 8-bit adjustment? I can’t say for sure, but I have a theory. A perfectly smooth tonal gradient, like that used in the examples above, doesn’t really exist in a digital photograph. It’s only something that can be created in Photoshop. In a digital photograph the natural noise and the color variation captured by the camera’s sensor takes the place of the smooth gradation of the Photoshop gradient. These pixel-level, sensor-captured tonal dissimilarities, which are smooth and essentially invisible when looking at the image at any normal viewing resolution, are exaggerated upon severe adjustment though a luminosity mask. So instead of tonal banding with severe adjustment, this natural “grain” just gets “grainier.” It accommodates the tonal changes that accompany a severe adjustment through a luminosity mask (takes the place of banding), and appears to be about the same regardless of whether the luminosity mask is created via the 8-bit or 16-bit method. In other words, instead of tonal banding, an actual image shows tonal “graining” with severe adjustment, which looks similar to noise. The increase in tonal noise/grain is probably a bit more pronounced with 8-bit masks than with 16-bit masks, but because it’s at the pixel level (like luminosity masks) and not in prominent bands, it’s hard to actually see any difference.

The image below attempts to show this increase in grain/noise. It’s a screen capture at 300% zoom (actual pixels x3) of a not-too-grainy-but-not-quite-pure-white area of the sky in another part of the image that is affected by the adjustment. (It’s just to the left of the green-boxed area in the jpeg of the entire image.) The rollover shows how much grainier/noisier this area becomes after the severe adjustment through the 16-bit mask. Severe adjustment of the pixel-level tonal variations that come with digital capture and which are sorted out and enhanced by luminosity masks account for this enhanced grain/noise at this magnification. It happens even with the severe adjustment through the 16-bit mask, which is shown here, but is not nearly as obvious as the tonal banding seen in the gradient examples above. It’s also worth remembering that 16-bit masks are so perfectly matched to the tones in the image that even severe adjustments blend in smoothly. So this graining effect, which is visible at this magnification and occurs with both 8-bit and 16-bit masks, would not be visible in the image itself, especially if the tonal adjustment was more reasonable.

Conclusion. The examples in this blog looked at how a smooth 16-bit Photoshop-generated gradient reacts differently when adjusted through 8-bit and 16-bit luminosity masks. In theoretical situations at magnified viewing resolutions some noticeable differences can be seen. However, similar changes would be significantly less visible in actual digital photographs even at exaggerated viewing resolutions or enlargement because very small tonal differences captured by the camera’s sensor provide enough tonal variation to obscure the expected banding that was seen in the theoretical examples. Some combination of multiple or severe adjustments through 8-bit luminosity masks on smooth tonal areas of an image combined with significant enlargement might produce a noticeable effect in certain circumstance. But it will likely take nose-to-the-image viewing or monitor magnification to actually see it. For most images with routine processing and enlargement it simply won’t exist, especially in areas with lots of detail or structure. I have repeated the experiment using severe adjustments using both Midtone and Darks luminosity masks and have also done the same adjustments on different images. The 8-bit grain/noise with extreme adjustment is more apparent in some images, but it takes at least 300% magnification (400% is better) to appreciate any difference between 8-bit and 16-bit luminosity masks.

Other Considerations. There are some additional variables that could come into play when working on actual images. For example, it’s important not to overlook the fact that the smooth blending inherent with luminosity masks allows adjustments to be pushed further than would normally look natural, so a critical “severe adjustment” threshold might actually be reached or exceeded in certain circumstances. Also, the quality of the sensor data could play a role. Better (smoother) data might increase the likelihood of seeing banding instead of graining. (NOTE: Lens quality might also influence the sensor data and my consumer-grade zoom lens might have different results than a professional prime lens.) And perhaps other luminosity mask techniques have different outcomes. Only adjustment through a mask on an adjustment layer was investigated here. Maybe exposure blending, mask painting, or luminosity painting will show a more pronounced effect. Still, any improvement with using 16-bit luminosity masks is likely to be subtle at best. In almost all situations, images developed using 8-bit luminosity masks will likely look just as good (or identical) as those made with 16-bit masks.

The future of 16-bit luminosity masks. I admit to being somewhat disappointed that the advantages of 16-bit luminosity masks seen in the gradient experiments ended up being less evident in actual images. While my use doesn’t indicate a breakthrough improvement from using 16-bit luminosity masks, perhaps the experience of other photographers will be different. I still intend to incorporate the new process into my custom panel in the near future. Creating 16-bit luminosity masks using Photoshop actions takes no more computer processing time than using the traditional method so there’s no reason not to use the best method available, even if the advantages are just theoretical for the most part at this time. If you’d like to practice with 16-bit masks now, a free download of an action set to create them is available here. If you do come up with an example where 16-bit masks are clearly superior when making “reasonable” adjustments, please let me know. I’d like to post or link to the results in order to have a good reason to recommend 16-bit masks as the new standard.

How to Make 16-bit Luminosity Masks

February 28, 2015

In 2006 I released the Luminosity Masks tutorial. It described a process for creating selections and masks in Photoshop based on the brightness values of the image. Instead of a spatial selection where the marching ants enclose a specific area or element in an image, luminosity selections are tone-based. They look at the brightness each pixel and then group together similar tones across the image.

Because they are created directly from brightness values of individual pixels, luminosity masks and selections are completely self-feathering. Selections automatically adjust to match pixel brightness as brightness varies across the image. The continuous-tone property of photographs becomes the perfect-blending property of luminosity masks.

The method described in that original tutorial successively intersected luminosity selections to make the Lights-series and Darks-series of masks anchored in either the lightest or darkest tones in the image. Midtone selections were created by first selecting the entire image and then subtracting off a Lights-series mask and a Darks-series mask. This method for creating luminosity has been widely adopted and reproduced by other photographers wanting to use and promote these techniques.

Last year I started to receive email questions about whether luminosity selections change the bit depth of selected pixels from 16-bit to 8-bit. The answer to this is “No.” It would take something like the Image > Mode command to do that. A little research, though, showed where this misconception was coming from. It turns out that regardless of the bit depth of the image, selections are always 8-bit. Even on a 16-bit image, selections are still 8-bit. The bit-depth of the selection, though, is only referring to the degree of selection possible within the selection (up to 256 for 8-bit). The bit-depth of the image, on the other hand, is describing the amount of color information each pixel can display (65,536 levels for each color channel in RGB). They’re not the same thing. The 8-bit degree of selection is only determining how adjustments get passed to the pixels below. It is not changing the 16-bit precision of the color data in those pixels.

Unlike selections, the bit depth of masks always matches the bit depth of the image. Layer masks and channel masks on a 16-bit image are themselves 16-bit. This information got me thinking about alternate ways to make luminosity masks. While luminosity selections would always be 8-bit, could pure 16-bit luminosity masks be made for a 16-bit image? In other words, instead of intersecting and subtracting 8-bit luminosity selections to make luminosity masks, could these masks be made without the intervening 8-bit steps?

The answer is “Yes!” Photoshop’s Calculations dialog (Image > Calculations…) provides the key. This dialog can be a bit confusing and is not often used by most photographers. But it’s quite powerful. It can take the 16-bit data from an image or individual channel and, after doing the calculations, output it as a 16-bit channel mask. So it’s 16-bit in and 16-bit out with no 8-bit in between.

If you’re familiar with the series of masks described in the Luminosity Masks tutorial, a few screen shots should be enough to illustrate how the traditional process described there can be converted to Calculations.

The starting point is the same − make the “Lights” mask (which I’m now calling “Lights-1” to make this process easier to follow). Below is a screen shot of the Calculations parameters used to create the “Lights-1” mask.

Calculations for Lights-1 mask

The output of this Calculations dialog is a new channel on the Channels panel. Looking at the channel by clicking on it will show that it is a grayscale version of the original image. This new channel IS the 16-bit “Lights-1” luminosity mask, so it’s helpful to double-click the name of the channel and give it the proper descriptive name (“Lights-1”) which will be used in the next calculation.

The next mask in the progressive Lights-series was originally made by intersecting the first “Lights-1” selection with itself. In the 16-bit workflow, “Multiply” blending mode in the Calculations dialog accomplishes the same thing as “intersection.” So the parameters for making the “Lights-2” mask would be as shown below.

Calculations for Lights-2 mask

The resulting 16-bit mask is again output to the Channels panel where it can be given the name “Lights-2.”

Successive masks in the Lights-series are created in the same manner by using the previous mask as the “Channel:” in the Calculations dialog and setting the “Blending:” to “Multiply.” After repeating this procedure a few times the Lights-series of 16-bit luminosity masks is available on the Channels panel.

The Darks-series just requires one change at the start. The “Invert” checkboxes need to be checked to make the initial “Darks-1” mask the negative of the original image. The Calculations dialog is shown below.

Calculations for Darks-1 mask

Once the “Darks-1” mask has been created, the remainder of the Darks-series is made the same way as the Lights-series − the previous mask becomes the “Channel:” and “Blending:” is set to “Multiply.” (NOTE: The “Invert” boxes are only checked when making the “Darks-1” mask. They remain unchecked for rest of the Darks-series.)

Finally the midtones. The traditional way to make them was to select the entire image and then subtract off one Lights-series mask and one Darks-series mask. The equivalent set-up for Calculations is shown below. One “Channel:” is a Light-series mask and the other is a Darks-series mask. Both are inverted and the “Blending:” is set to “Multiply.”

Calculations for Midtones-1 mask

When any of these 16-bit luminosity masks are loaded as a selection, the selection is still 8-bit. That’s hardwired into Photoshop and cannot be changed. So exact pixel-for-pixel bit-depth-matching between the mask’s 16-bit data and the selection’s 8-bit degrees of selection is not possible. The selection will always be less precise than the image or mask when working in 16-bit mode. But the starting point for these 8-bit selections is now always a “first-generation” 16-bit mask. So while there will be slight variations between the pixels in the mask and the degree of selection in the selection, there is no cumulative variation from successively intersecting masks. I hope to take a closer look at what this means in a future post.

For those who want a purely 16-bit workflow, it is possible to skip selections entirely. Photoshop’s Apply Image command (Image > Apply Image…) can be used to move a 16-bit channel mask to the Layers panel to serve as layer mask for an adjustment layer. Apply Image is also 16-bit in/16-bit out.

While slightly less intuitive than the traditional method for making luminosity masks, the number of steps in the Calculations method is about the same. That means that it’s still cumbersome to work through the process of creating all these masks. To help speed it up, a free set of actions is available for download here. The actions make all the 16-bit Lights, Darks, and Midtones luminosity masks on the Channels panel. A PDF on how to install play actions is included for those not familiar with the process. Additional tutorials on luminosity masks are available on my website.

Luminosity Masks for Black and White

January 3, 2015

Being mostly a Nature photographer producing color images, I occasionally get questions about the applicability of luminosity masks to other genres such as portraits, wildlife, autos, and black and white. I always respond that luminosity masks work equally well on any continuous-tone image regardless of the subject. Luminosity masks select specific tonal ranges in the image, and since all photographs are composed of tones, they all can use luminosity masks to adjust these tones. It’s just a matter of finding a way to select the desired tones and then making the necessary adjustment.

Along this line, I thought I’d provide examples of a few adjustments from a recently developed black and white image. The before image (straight RAW conversion with no adjustments) is shown below. A mouse rollover shows the final image. (NOTE: Depending on the speed of your Internet connection it may take a few seconds for the rollover image to appear.)

I did a basic conversion to black and white in Adobe Camera Raw and then brought the image into Photoshop where I did the rest of the processing with luminosity masks. There were three adjustments that made the biggest difference for this image. The first was a luminosity painting layer. I wanted to improve the cloud texture and enhance the contrast between the clouds and the background in the lower part of the image. To do this I made a new layer, filled it with 50% gray, and changed the blending mode to Overlay. This became the “Dodge” layer for selectively lightening the clouds. Brushing white paint onto this layer has the effect of lightening anything on the layers below. In order to target just the clouds, a Zone 8 luminosity selection was created (mask shown below). It selects the tones in the clouds (lighter areas) without selecting the non-cloud parts of the image (darker areas).

Zone 8 mask

As I painted through this selection, the clouds (lighter areas) received white paint and are lightened, but the adjacent non-cloud (dark) areas receive no paint and remain unaffected. The Zone 8 selection guides the paint onto the layer so that it is perfectly applied to lighten the clouds without spilling onto the non-cloud areas. The effect this has on the image is shown in the before and after (rollover) images below.

The “Dodge” layer is reproduced below. It shows that the Zone 8 selection was extremely precise in depositing paint exactly where it was needed. Even the delicate fringes of the clouds are properly painted without straying onto the mountains behind. Luminosity painting through a luminosity selection can provide this “automatic accuracy” when burning and dodging. In addition, the effect can be built up to the degree that looks right for the image by varying brush opacity and applying multiple brushstrokes. So it’s highly customizable and the results often look completely natural.

Zone 8 mask

A second technique that helped this image involves the use of a quarter-tone mask. These are narrow tonal range selections that have their midpoints near the quarter tones of the image. The highlight quarter tones selection peaks around a gray value of 200 and the shadow quarter tones selection around 56. These are off-center midtone selections, so they aren’t locked into the lightest or darkest tones in the image. They feather tonally into both lighter and darker tones and their use is often accompanied by a favorable contrast change.

In this case, the shadow quarter tone mask (which I refer to as “3/4”) was used on a Curves adjustment layer. The layer’s blending mode was changed to Multiply, which darkens the image. This 3/4 mask served as the layer mask and controlled which parts were darkened. It is shown below.

3/4 mask

The before and after (rollover) images for the change provided by this layer is shown below. It’s subtle, but the adjustment definitely strengthens the darker parts of the mountain without dragging down the highlights.

When I want to do selective tonal lightening or darkening of an image, these quarter-tone masks combined with either Screen (to lighten) or Multiply (to darken) blending mode are something I try because it often produces a pleasing result. I actually find using the Screen and Multiply blending modes effective in many situations where a luminosity mask is the layer mask on a Curves or Levels adjustment layer. Instead of bending a curve or positioning a slider in this set-up, the layer’s opacity is simply adjusted to achieve the desired effect.

The last adjustment that made a significant difference to this image is one where I’m not entirely sure what I did. It involves a Curves adjustment layer set to Multiply blending mode, so it was another darkening adjustment. The adjustment was selectively applied through what appears to be some type of hybrid painting technique of the mask. In this case, a hide-all (black) mask would have had white paint brushed on to reveal the darkening adjustment of the layer. The painted mask is shown below.

Hybrid painted mask

A luminosity selection was obviously painted through to reveal of the sky and the tops of the mountains since the outline of these are clearly visible. But there is also some painting around the lower edges that appears to been performed with no active selection. I don’t recall exactly what was done and have been unable to duplicate it.

Despite the uncertainty of exactly how it as accomplished, this adjustment did a nice job of strengthening the sky texture and providing better overall tonal balance between the clouds in the sky and the mountains. The before and after (rollover) images are shown below.

This last adjustment shows that there is a certain degree of spontaneity in using luminosity masks. Not every adjustment requires just one mask or one way of using that mask. The photographer responds to what the image needs and selects the tools they wish to use to accomplish the desired goal. It’s important to not get locked into thinking that there is one mask that will make everything perfect. Luminosity masks are simply tools that can be used in multiple ways. There is no prescribed path and experimentation is always an option. They offer a versatile tool set for working with tones in all types of images.

A small PSD file of this image showing the entire workflow can be downloaded at the bottom of this page.

Update — 10 October 2014

October 10, 2014

Just a few brief announcements of recent happenings.

1. I added some free luminosity mask actions for Photoshop Elements to my website. These were recorded to specifically work in Photoshop Elements, but will work in the full version of Photoshop too. However, the set is limited since Elements doesn’t have all the functions and features of the full version. The actions will give Elements users the opportunity to experiment with luminosity masks by adding these techniques to their image-developing toolkit. You can get them here.

actions in PSE

2. I received word from a couple of users that the recent update to Photoshop CC 2014 (release 2014.2.0) appropriately resizes the TKActions panel for high-density monitors. Before, the 240 px x 826 px dimensions for the panel displayed as actual pixels, which meant that the panel was almost too small to use on the new monitors. With the latest update, though, the panel is now the right size for easy use on high-density screens. I’m currently not using a high-density monitor so don’t have any actual experience with this, so feel free to post a comment if your experience differs from what I’ve been told.

3. I just finished a slow, but very satisfying, read through Guy Tal’s latest book “More Than a Rock.” If you haven’t already discovered it, please take a look. It’s a collection of essay’s that will inspire, challenge, and incite a bit of soul-searching in anyone engaged in creative photographic endeavors. His ability to put into words the essence of why we take pictures feels at times like he’s found parts of the soul we didn’t even know about. Guy has a gift for articulating not only what it means to make art through photography, but also shows others how to find this meaning in themselves. If you’re looking for a way to improve your photographs, this book will help you do it without new gear, expensive gadgets, digital gimmicks, or buying more gas. At $4.99 USD it’s an incredible bargain, especially with all the pictures that are included.   It’s available on iTunes and as a PDF.

More Than a Rock cover image

4. I’ve started a luminosity masks discussion group on 500px. If you are interested in discussing these techniques in an online forum, please feel free to join and add your thoughts, questions, and pictures as you experiment. I plan to post my own minor insights from time to time and am looking forward to learning from others as well.

1-2-3-4: Simplifying Luminosity Masks

September 1, 2014

The volume of information about luminosity masks and selections is a bit overwhelming . . . and I’ll admit that I’m part of the problem. I’ve written several blogs and tutorials about various luminosity mask/selection techniques, different ways to create and use them, and little tricks that I find helpful; and there are plenty other sources scattered across the Internet. It can be hard to know where to begin to actually start using them. The goal of this article is to review some basic concepts about luminosity masks and selections and to compartmentalize the various techniques so that users can more easily decide how apply these methods to their photographs.

One: Masks vs. Selections

The first thing to review is the difference between a mask and a selection. A “selection” usually has marching ants over the image enclosing the selected pixels. Whatever you do to the image, the selection determines which pixels experience the effect and to what degree. Selected pixels are affected by the action; unselected pixels are not.

A “mask” is how Photoshop saves a selection. In the mask, selected pixels are white, unselected pixels are black, and partially selected pixels are gray. A mask on an adjustment layer is called a layer mask, and does exactly the same thing as a selection. The lighter a pixel’s tone in the layer mask, the more it feels the layer’s adjustment. White pixels get 100% of the adjustment. Black pixels get none. Gray pixels experience an intermediate adjustment. The left image below shows a luminosity selection with the marching ants. The corresponding mask of this selection is on the right.

Selection plus mask image

The terms “mask” and “selection” are frequently used interchangeably. For this article, however, I will use “mask/selection” when the statement is accurate for both masks and selections, and use “mask” or “selection” when there is a need to be specific.

Two Primary Series of Masks/Selections

There are ONLY two (2) series of primary luminosity masks/selections: Lights and Darks. The masks of the selections are shown below. While there is an entire spectrum of possible luminosity masks/selections, there are still only two primary series: Lights and Darks. “Midtone,” “subtracted,” and “zone” masks/selections are NOT primary luminosity masks/selections. They are secondary masks/selections derived from the two primary series. The primary series only includes the Lights and the Darks.

Lights-series and Darks-series of luminosity masks

The Lights-series selects progressively lighter tones in the image and the Darks-series selects progressively darker tones. All the Light-series masks/selections are “anchored” in the very lightest tones in the image, meaning that the lightest tones are the most selected tones and will appear white in the mask. The Darks-series is anchored in the darkest tones. The darkest tones in the image are the most selected in the Darks-series and will appear as white in the mask of a Darks-series selection. This can easily be seen in the images of the two series of masks above.

Three-Step Workflow

A luminosity workflow is not based on a prescribed series of steps that are repeated with every image. Instead, the photographer evaluates the image on an ongoing basis and determines what adjustments the image requires as it develops.

Step 1−Decide what needs to be done. Look at the image and figure out what it needs. If it’s a brightness or contrast issue or if specific tones need to be adjusted for color or saturation, a luminosity mask/selection often provides a useful approach.

Step 2−Choose the correct luminosity mask/selection. Start with a primary mask as it separates the tones into Lights and Darks (and it’s usually pretty easy to make that decision). However, if the tonal range for adjustment is a midtone and not anchored in either the blacks or whites, start thinking about a midtone, zone, or subtracted mask/selection (see Method # 4 below). To help make this decisions, the “View” buttons on the new panel make it easy see what areas are selected. The image below shows the Lights-3 selection and the corresponding “View” mode equivalent that has a red mask over the selected pixels.

Image plus View mode

Step 3−Choose a method for adjustment from the options listed below. There are surprisingly few.

Four Ways to Use Luminosity Masks/Selections

While there seems to be a confusing number of ways to use luminosity masks/selections when developing an image, they mostly fall into just four (4) categories.

Method #1−Use a luminosity mask on an adjustment layer. This is the classic way to use a selection−make a mask of the selection on an adjustment layer, and then let the mask filter the adjustment to the correct parts of the image. An adjustment layer is usually a good way to make a more general or global adjustment. Even though a luminosity mask filters the adjustment to specific tones, the natural feathering of luminosity masks/selections allows the adjustment to spread beyond the confines of the selection’s marching ants. So when looking for a broader effect, a luminosity mask on an adjustment layer, like that shown below, is worth considering.

Layer mask method

Method #2−Paint through an active luminosity selection onto a pixel layer. Luminosity painting with black and white paint is the best example of this, and, in contrast to an adjustment layer, provides a high degree of precision. Not only can lightening and darkening be brushed onto an image exactly here it’s needed, but repeated brush strokes can further increase the effect. So if precision and control are the goals, painting through a luminosity selection onto a pixel layer, like in the image below, is the best approach.

Burning-Dodging method

Method #3−Paint through an active luminosity selection onto a layer mask. Exposure blending is one example of using this method where a layer mask is painted white or black through a luminosity selection in order to reveal or conceal tones on the current layer. The Hand-Blending HDR tutorial talks about this, but there are several YouTube videos and other tutorials on the Internet that demonstrate this technique (like this one). It’s also possible to use this method to paint in an adjustment to specific tones on an adjustment layer as in the image below. The Painted Masks tutorial discusses this.

Painted mask method

Method #4−Combine various primary luminosity masks/selections to make new (secondary) luminosity masks/selections. While this is not actually a method to adjust an image, it’s still a very important way to use the primary masks/selections. Midtone, zone, and subtracted masks/selection are all created by this method. These secondary masks are incredibly useful as they allow targeting tones that aren’t anchored in the image’s blacks and whites the way the Darks- and Lights-series are. Often, it’s actually best to create an appropriate secondary mask/selection from the primary masks/selections before employing one of the first three methods to actually make an adjustment. The left image below shows a Lights-1 minus Lights-3 selection. The subtracted mask of this subtracted selection is shown on the right.

Combining mask method

Thinking about using luminosity masks/selections in just one of these four ways makes the decision on how to accomplish a particular adjustment easier as it narrows the possibilities. In fact, sometimes the adjustment method will be ore obvious than the mask/selection. For example, if precise burning and dodging is the goal, then luminosity painting (Method #2) is the method of choice and it’s just necessary to find the best selection to paint through. Or if a large tonal area is going to be adjusted, then a luminosity mask on an adjustment layer (Method #1) might be the logical approach. So with the method decided, it’s just necessary to find the right mask/selection to target the desired tones and the “View” buttons can help.

While there are additional Photoshop techniques that can be employed with luminosity masks, they are mostly variations on the methods listed above. For example, the Edit > Fill command could be used instead of painting with a paintbrush, though painting provides much finer control. But don’t get too fancy to begin with. Using luminosity masks is sort of like learning to play a musical instrument. First learn to play the basic notes and before long you’ll see how to combine these into a melodic piece. Similarly, once you’re familiar with the basic processes for luminosity masks, you’ll be able to start using them with increased confidence to achieve the desired results.

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