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.

A Shout-Out to Dave Kelly

Dave Kelly is well into his second year producing his weekly “TK Friday” videos for his YouTube channel, and I think it’s time to provide a well-deserved shout-out given the difference this series has made for me and other photographers.  Dave and I collaborate on these videos to some degree.  He sources the images and processes them using the TK8 plugin, and we then run through the various steps on a weekly Skype call.  I add a few suggestions here and there, but, for the most part, Dave is in charge of the content and decides how the image gets processed.  I’m just a consultant; Dave is the creator who makes it all happen.

I think of Tony as the scientist creating something new and I think of you as the engineer showing us how to use this new creation. Always learning something new from you, Dave.

–David Bee

At its core, the TK8 plugin is a collection of Photoshop techniques useful for processing images, and it’s not limited to just luminosity masks.  It’s sort of like the letters of the alphabet.  Users can apply the techniques in whatever order suits their needs to develop an image in the same way the letters of the alphabet can be arranged to create a useful vocabulary.  In this analogy, the TK8 plugin is an alphabet of processing techniques and the resultant vocabulary is creativity.  After over a year of recording content based on the TK panel, I think it’s fair to say that Dave Kelly is an accomplished TK8 “wordsmith.”

This edit was fantastic! I followed it to the end, and it convinces me that the TK8 panel is such a powerful tool where the possibilities are endless. Your explanations are so easy to follow. Thanks again, Dave.

Jose A De Leon

However, it wasn’t always this way.  In the early days of the “TK Friday” series, I could tell Dave was still working to learn what the TK panel could do.  Still, it was obvious from the start that he was 1) good at figuring things out, and 2) was able to share what he learned with others.  It didn’t take long before Dave started challenging my own concept of what TK8 could do.  He was employing the masks in ways I had not envisioned.  He started using color grading and the mask calculator more effectively than I had.  He questioned whether the plugin could do a new task, and I had to think of a way to accomplish it.  He pioneered using Photoshop tools in combination with the plugin and found new uses for several of the panel’s functions.  Dave’s relentless experimentation has helped even me to better appreciate the potential and possibilities that TK8 has to offer. 

How you figure out the amazing techniques you demonstrate is beyond me. Very impressive and very creative. I learn so much from you. Because I faithfully watch all your videos, my post processing skills have greatly improved. Thanks, Dave!

Stephen Ehrlich

Not surprisingly, the way I process images has improved because of this series.  Seeing someone else use TK8 has always been educational for me.  Seeing someone use it every week is an absolute gift.  I’m able to see the panel through the eyes of an experienced user and learn to use it better myself.  “What would Dave do?” is a question I now ask myself when I get stuck developing an image.  It usually provides an idea of something to try that often works.

Your knowledge and enthusiasm are always motivating and enjoyable. I’m off to try some new and fun techniques!

Hali Sowle

It’s also worth mentioning that while Dave Kelly has undoubtedly influenced many photographers using the TK8 plugin, he has likely influenced the plugin itself even more.  His in-depth use has uncovered several bugs I missed when writing the original code.  He’s also shown me better ways to execute several of the actions to make the panel easier to use.  All updates issued since TK8 was released last September have contained things Dave Kelly helped correct and improve.  And, going forward, I’m looking to incorporate several features that Dave has suggested.  So, while I love learning new ways to use TK8 from Dave, I’m even more excited by how he’s helping to drive its development.  My images are getting better, and TK8 is getting better as well.

Like you, I enjoy going back to older images and reprocessing them based on my new understanding of post-processing via TK-8 panels.

Keith Pinn

I hope you’ll take time to watch some of Dave Kelly’s TK8 videos and perhaps subscribe to his channel.  He has an excellent eye for knowing what can be improved in an image and is also very good at finding ways to use Photoshop and the TK8 plugin to fix problems.  The images he works on contain a variety of subjects.  Watching him work convinces me to NOT give up on my marginal images, and indeed, I’ve resurrected several by applying a Dave-Kelly mindset as I develop them.  I have a feeling I’m not alone in this regard.   Dave has shown a lot of photographers what’s possible with TK8.

This is Dave Kelly’s latest video from the “TK Friday” series. It provides an excellent review of TK8 techniques Dave incorporates into many images as well as new techniques and new ways to use the TK8 plugin.

Exposure Blending with TK8: Two methods

Exposure blending is an editing technique to better control global contrast in high dynamic range scenes where either the shadows or highlights might be clipped. Specific parts from multiple exposures are combined to insure that there is no (or significantly less) clipping in the final image. Exposure blending recovers shadow and highlight detail. While there are a number of algorithms and apps available to create HDR blends, the consensus seems to be that the results don’t always look natural. Shadows might be excessively light, global contrast looks to be off, and there may be halos around high-contrast edges.

Manually blending exposures using luminosity masks generally overcomes these problems. Luminosity masks focus on specific tones in the image and then seamlessly blend or taper into other tones. This is an ideal characteristic for exposure blending. However, using them for this purpose is usually not as easy as simply applying a luminosity mask to one of the exposures. Additional modifications to the masks, the exposures, or the manner in which the mask is applied to the image are often needed.

I don’t do a lot of exposure blending with my images, but from what I’ve done and have seen others do, there appears to be three main goals:

  1. Recover clipped highlights and shadows. This is essentially a working definition of exposure blending. A high dynamic range scene where the sensor is unable to capture either the brightest or darkest elements needs to use at least two exposures blended together to display the full dynamic range of the scene.
  2. Eliminate or reduce noise in the shadows. Sometimes the sensor can capture a scene’s full dynamic range, but the shadows are quite noisy. Blending in a separate shadows exposure that has the shadow values shifted to the right on the histogram provides both more detail in the shadows and less noise.
  3. Create realistic contrast in the blended image. This would include local contrast in each exposure that is blended as well as global contrast in the blended image.

One thing to NOT do with exposure blending is to try and finish the image based solely on the blending process. The goal should be to make a blended exposure that is a good starting point for additional development in Photoshop. In fact, it probably makes sense to aim for a less-finished blended image as there are lot of useful development techniques that might not be available during the blending process.

Method #1: Match exposures

For many landscape images, exposure-matching is a convenient blending method. It makes creating a perfect blending mask (the luminosity mask) nearly foolproof. This is the method demonstrated by Dave Kelly in the video below. The important step in this method is making the light and dark exposures to be blended look pretty much the same in Lightroom or Camera Raw. This often involves increasing the Exposure of the dark image and decreasing the Exposure of the light image. Additional adjustments to Highlights, Shadows, Blacks, Whites, and Contrast can then be incorporated to make the dark and light images appear similar. Clipped values will not be recoverable, of course, but much of the rest of the image can be adjusted to have similar brightness and contrast. The matching is especially important in the transition zone, where the dark and light exposures “meet.” A good exposure match in the transition zone means that there will be no blending halos in areas of strong contrast (like along the horizon or the edges of buildings).

When using matched exposures for blending, it’s very easy to create a mask that works to facilitate a perfect blend since the images already look quite similar. However, it’s still important to modify the mask to make sure it brings through the best-exposed pixels from both the light and dark exposure. For example, dark values should come from the light exposure in order to decrease shadow noise in the blended image. Mask modification usually involves creating some pure black and pure white areas via a Curves or Levels adjustment of the mask or painting black or white directly on the mask. It’s just the transition zone that needs to have various shades of gray in the mask in order to blend together pixels from both exposures.

NOTE: If using smart objects of the RAW files for blending, after the blending mask has been created, consider revisiting the RAW files by double-clicking the smart object thumbnails and creating better tone, color, and/or contrast in the areas revealed by that exposure. Just remember to try and maintain the exposure match in the transition zone.

Method #2: Paint through luminosity selections

While exposure-matching tends to work well for landscape images with separate sky and foreground areas that have an obvious transition zone, more complex subjects or more complex lighting situations might require a different approach. In the video below, Emil von Maltitz uses various luminosity masks generated with the TK8 plugin to create selections that then serve as stencils for painted masks. The painted masks reveal various image elements from different exposure layers. In Emil’s example, four different exposures are used, and very little work is done on the RAW files before exporting them to Photoshop for blending. It’s the mask-painting through luminosity selections that creates the blend.

The TK8 plugin makes it easy to find the right mask, but the real key for making mask-painting work, I think, is to use a lower-opacity brush (Emil uses 20 to 40 percent opacity) and then judiciously choosing where to paint on the image to bring through the desired exposure. Multiple brush strokes with lower-opacity brushes allow the effect to be slowly built up as each brushstroke adds additional paint to the layer mask. Using more than two exposures for blending adds to the complexity of the blending process, and Emil uses groups for helping to keep the Layers panel organized. Painting through luminosity selections also requires keeping track of what parts of each exposure layer will be useful in the final blend. Emil obviously has a good sense for this, though it would likely take some practice to be proficient when using more than two exposures.

SUMMARY: Exposure-matching and mask-painting are two methods for manually exposure blending high dynamic range scenes in Photoshop. Both methods employ luminosity masks to achieve a seamless blend. Exposure-matching has the advantage of creating an excellent transition zone so that critical areas, like horizon lines, have no halos in the blended image. Mask-painting allows for using original exposure information and is ideal for bringing out details and textures in the blended image.

PERSONAL NOTE: When working with high dynamic range scenes, I almost always start by applying a linear profile to the RAW image and then clicking the “Auto” button in Lightroom or Camera Raw. This process is the best way to see what’s actually recoverable in any given exposure. The linear profile does a fantastic job of recovering highlight details. And, since it has lower contrast in the dark areas than the Adobe profiles, it often shows better detail in the shadows as well. High-contrast shadows with Adobe profiles can look nearly black. Using a linear profile plus “Auto” helps to see what’s really there.