Stunning shadow and highlight details with the TK7 Triple Play

You’ll never outgrow luminosity masks or the TK7 panel. There will be lots of new opportunities once you become comfortable with pixel-based masks. Even I don’t know it all. Occasionally someone writes me with a method for using the masks and the actions in the panel that would never have occurred to me. Something that was not intended at all when I coded the panel, but once I try it I’m like: Wow, how did I miss that!?

Actions menu

The technique that follows (and also explained in the video at the bottom) was one of these and is provided by my friend Daniel Anderson. He was an early adopter of luminosity masks. When I released the Triple Play actions sometime around 2008 or 2009, he wrote back almost immediately excited about what they did for his images and said that he used them on almost every single one. The Triple Play eventually found its way into the panel and I recently connected with Dan and ask him to explain in more detail how he uses this particular action. I decided to try what he suggested am now using it regularly using it too. When properly applied, it indeed makes every image look better. Tonal separation is enhanced in both the darkest darks and lightest lights and details in these tones stand out much better also. The effect allows images, even jpegs viewed on the web, to show wonderful texture in areas where detail is frequently lacking.

The Triple Play is accessed by clicking the “TK►” button in the TK7 Combo and Cx modules to open the Actions menu. The “Lights TP” affects the light tones and the “Darks TP” affects the dark tones. I generally use the Darks TP first since my images tend to have a lot of darker midtones in the final image. And sometimes I only use the “Darks TP” since the amount of lighter tones in my image may be extremely small, so the effect would be minimal. However, if there are obvious light tones in the image, you’ll definitely want to give “Lights TP” action a try.

The Triple Play uses luminosity masks (some of them blurred) and blend modes to achieve its effect. The first step is to choose a pixel radius for a Gaussian blur. A dialog window opens to ask for this.

pixel radius dialog

I use 20 pixels for the Darks TP and 15 pixels for the Lights TP. Dan uses 20 pixels for both. You can experiment, but these numbers would be a good starting point.

Darks Triple Play

The Triple Play action then creates a set of Curves adjustment layers set to Screen or Multiply blend mode that are masked with the Dark-series luminosity masks (some of which are blurred using the user-entered pixel radius). The adjustment layers aren’t meant for adjusting, though. The desired Triple Play effect is achieved simply by turning ON the visibility of different layers and letting the blend modes either lighten or darken the image. Initially, the visibility of all layers is turned off, so there is no effect on the image until the visibility of different layers is turned on.

For the Darks Triple Play, I turn visibility ON for:

  • the “(S) Darks-4, blurred” layer, which lightens the image because it is in Screen blend mode, and
  • the “(M) Darks-4, no blur” layer, which darkens the image because it is in Multiply blend mode.

This combination is known as an S-4/M-4 adjustment. Dan says he starts off with S-3/M-3, but that effect usually feels a bit strong for me in the image’s dark tones. NOTE: The lower the number, the stronger the effect. S-3/M-3 has a greater effect than S-4/M-4 because the Darks-3 masks reveal more pixels than the Darks-4 masks. Many times the S-4/M-4 combination of layer visibility works perfectly and I call it quits. Other times, I might try different layer combinations or adjust the group’s opacity. But I don’t do any actual Curves adjustments. I only turn different layers on and off to find what works. What I’m looking for is better detail separation and better contrast in the darkest tones in the image without too much clipping (though a little clipping might occur and generally looks OK for dark tones).

Lights Triple Play

Whether or not I run a Lights TP depends on the image. For many of my images, the Darks TP is all I do, but if I have some strong white tones in elements that would look better with enhanced detail, I try a Lights TP too. Running a Lights TP is just like running a Darks TP. Choose a pixel radius (15-pixels is a good starting point), let the actions create all the layers, and then turn on the visibility of the ones that produce the best effect, i.e. increased tonal contrast in the very lightest tones without blowing out the brightest values. I usually start with S-3/M-3 since fewer light tones in my images usually means I need more revealing masks to see an effect. However, I’m also more likely to pull back the effect since clipped highlights tend to bother me more than clipped shadows. I’ve found a midtones mask on the “LIGHTS Triple Play” group a good way to insure my whites remain within range. Watch the video below for details.

Here are some important things to know and keep in mind about the Triple Play.

  • It should be LAST step in the workflow. The Triple Play is most strongly affecting pixels at the extreme ends of the tonal spectrum. When you stop and think about it, these are areas that are somewhat harder to adjust. Much of our workflow is focused on the midtones. Midtone adjustments can have a significant and positive effect on the image, so this is where we normally concentrate our efforts. The Triple Play is a chance to get into the darkest darks and lightest lights and make them look equally good. However, once you run these actions, it’s time to quit with the adjustments. Additional processing could run the risk of more noticeable clipping unless you’re really careful.
  • But there is a little flexibility. Dan applies his Triple Play actions after sharpening for print. I apply mine before. By including the Triple Play as the last step on my master file I get the benefit of seeing its effect in both my down-sized jpeg images for web presentation and in the final upsized sharpened prints. I find it scales pretty well, although I may pull back a bit on the amount of web-sharpening if the images look a little too sharp. However, the increased punch in both the light and dark tones is usually apparent when you compare jpegs with and without the Triple Play.
  • Zoom in to see what’s happening. Depending on how many light and dark tones are in the image, it may be difficult to see the effect the Triple Play has on a monitor-sized image. I generally zoom into at least 50% and maybe 66.7%. It’s much easier to evaluate what’s happening and decide which layers to turn on when you can see the details in the image better. I work to get the effect right at this magnification rather than relying on getting it right in a monitor-sized image. Also, be sure you’re viewing a dark part of the image if adjusting a Darks TP and a light part of the image when adjusting a Lights TP.

lightening bolt button

  • Choose your subjects. Some elements, like soft clouds, won’t necessarily look better with the Triple Play. Too much detail in the highlights of clouds can look unnatural. Harder subjects, like the European cathedrals in Dan’s images, would be the ideal subject to experiment with the Lights Triple Play, I think.
  • There is a lot going on in the background when the Triple Play actions run. For a large image or a slow computer, it might take a few seconds for the TP actions to complete. There are 11 layers, 10 masks (all 16-bit), and one group needed for each Triple Play action.
  • You don’t need to keep all the Triple Player layers. Once you find the layers you need to be visible to create the proper effect, click the lightning bolt button on the Combo/Cx module. It quickly deletes all the hidden (not visible) layers and makes your Layers panel feel normal again. You can also close the TP layer groups to make the final result more compact.
  • If you want to read about the Triple Play in detail, open the Settings window on either the Combo or Cx module and click the “TK” button. This will take you to a website where you can get a free download that includes a somewhat lengthy “Luminosity Mask Triple Play and Advanced Masking” PDF on how the layers and blurs are created.

Like Dan, I’m using the Triple Play as the last step on every image now. Even when I think I’ve done a good job processing, the Triple Play (especially the Darks Triple Play) makes the image noticeably better, for both the print and the jpeg, every time. There’s better separation in the dark areas of the image, and when you look at the print there is a surprising amount of detail in what would normally be very dark parts of image that lack it. I will definitely keep trying it on all my images in the future.

The video below is a quick review of applying Triple Play to some images. It’s best to view it full-screen since some of the effects are subtle. I really do like this technique and hope you’ll give it a try.

Choosing Sides Part 3: Detailed Darks

NOTE: Like many of the the other posts in this blog, this one makes use of the concepts and terms discussed in the Luminosity Masks tutorial on my website.

Part 2 of this series looked at image sharpening using luminosity masks. Specifically, it discussed how a Darks-series mask can help eliminate light halos that result from enhanced edge contrast that occurs during the sharpening process. The Darks-series mask also allows the “dark halos” from the sharpening process to remain and thereby impart an appropriate amount of sharpness to the image.

The concept of selecting the image’s darker tones for sharpening can also be applied to improving detail in an image before sharpening. There are several ways this can be done in Photoshop, but the method below uses adjustment layers (instead of pixel-containing layers), so that the overall increase in file size is kept to a minimum. It’s also somewhat paradoxical in that it uses blur to increase sharpness.

Here’s are the steps:

  1. Create a Dark Darks luminosity selection.
  2. With the selection active, create an unadjusted adjustment layer (Curves, for example), with the selection in place as the layer mask on the adjustment layer.
  3. Duplicate the adjustment layer so that there are now two identical adjustment layers with the Dark Darks mask as the layer mask.
  4. Set the blending mode of the bottom adjustment layer to Multiply. This will darken the image.
  5. Set the blending mode of the top adjustment layer to Screen. This will reverse the darkening in Step 4.
  6. Click on the layer mask of the top adjustment layer (the one set to Screen blending mode) so that the framing brackets are around it.
  7. Invoke the menu command Filter > Blur > Gaussian Blur… and set the blur radius to 15.
  8. Put the two new adjustment layers into their own group.
  9. Adjust the opacity of the group to dial in the amount of detail enhancement desired for the image.

A Photoshop action to do these steps can be downloaded here.

This is it what it looks on the Layers panel when it’s finished.

Layers panel for Detailed Darks

Below is an image where the Detailed Darks group was employed and set at 50% opacity. Rolling the mouse over the image shows how it would look without the Detailed Darks group being used to enhance detail in the darker tones. (It may take a few seconds for the rollover image to appear.) Although this is a small jpeg, the improved detail is already apparent at this size. It’s subtle, with the luminosity masks blending the effect so well that it’s hard to say exactly what is producing it. And even though the effect is concentrated primarily in the darker tones because of the Dark Darks mask that was used, the entire image, including the lighter tones, seems to have benefited.


What’s happening here is that the two adjustment layers are working together to create sharpening edges throughout and around the darker tones in the image. The Multiply blending mode layer essentially creates a dark halo throughout the Dark Darks selection. The blurred mask on the Screen blending mode layer lightens the dark halo from the Multiply blending mode layer considerably (but not entirely), AND it also lightens the pixels now included in the mask’s selection because of the blur that was applied to the mask. These newly included pixels are on the opposite or lighter side of the Dark Darks selection edges, and Screen blending mode layer lightens these pixels. This creates a situation where pixel-darkening from the un-blurred mask layer is adjacent to pixel-lightening from the blurred mask layer, and this is essentially a working definition of how Photoshop sharpens an image by increasing contrast at the edges. The combination of blurred and un-blurred luminosity masks provides a nicely feathered and graduated sharpening-like effect that is restricted to the tones selected by the layer masks. In an image, this is perceived as improved detail. For a “normal” image it will look like a very sharp lens was used to take the picture. In an image with with slightly blurry areas caused by lack of depth-of-field or imprecise focus, it can actually help reduce the blurriness to some degree.

There are potentially many variations on the ways this technique could be applied to an image: different opacity settings for the group layer, different luminosity masks for the adjustment layers, and restricted application using a mask on the group layer are some possibilities. Interestingly, substituting a Light-series mask (Light Lights instead of Dark Darks, for example), does not sharpen the light tones; it blurs them. This leads to some thoughts on ways to enhance the light tones, and the final installment in this series will provide an example of using luminosity masks to give special attention to the lighter end of the tonal spectrum.