Infinity Monochromes

NOTE: A folder of smaller PSD documents for the images used in this blog can be downloaded here.

Like many photographers, I love good black and white images.  Not only do they create a connection with the earlier incarnation of the art form, but there is also a certain elegance to monochrome images when they’re done right.  The lack of color creates immediate abstraction since a color-free world is not what we normally see.  Texture, form, and line are elevated and so we engage with the composition at a different level.  Black and white images remind us that color can sometimes be a distraction.  There is deep beauty in the monochrome world, though it is often hard to see with our color-adapted eyes.

Unfortunately, my skill in making black and white images does not match my appreciation for viewing them.  I struggle to get the tones properly balanced in my prints.  There seems to be two competing problems.  One is too much gray.  The image may have a full range of tones, from black to white, but if the midtones predominate, then the image frequently looks gray . . . and quite dull.  The solution to “too much gray” is to increase contrast.  But this then leads to the second problem:  textureless shadows and highlights.  As contrast is increased, detail is lost in the shadows and highlights.  Texture is critical to black and white.  If the shadows are blocked or the highlights are merely light gray without definition, the image has a posterization quality with large areas of uninteresting dark and light tones.  So it’s a fine balance with black and white, and it can take some effort to avoid too much gray in the midtones while maintaining appropriate texture in the shadows and highlights.

I’ve dabbled in black and white processing from time to time, experimenting with the different methods offered by Photoshop and Lightroom.  Recently I’ve started using the “Pixels” output of from the TK Infinity Mask panel as another alternative.  This “Pixels” button creates a pixel layer of the black and white infinity mask on the Layers panel, which basically constitutes a conversion of the color image to black and white.  As I’ve started to understand it better, it’s provided some unique opportunities.  Originally, I saw the “Pixels” option as an interesting feature to include in the panel, though I wasn’t sure how useful it would be.  The panel, after all, was designed to make masks to aid other developing tasks; it wasn’t meant to actually create images.  However, the panel’s sliders turned out to have some direct correlations to black and white images, and they provide an interesting approach to solving the problems listed above.


Before getting started with this discussion, there are a couple important points to cover.  The first is the necessity of properly setting the RGB and Gray working spaces in Photoshop’s color settings dialog (Edit > Color Settings).  In order for the “Pixels” output layer to match the panel’s preview infinity mask, the RGB and Gray working spaces must be properly aligned.  The two most common pairings are as follows:

  • RGB: ProPhoto RGB needs to be paired with Gray: Gray Gamma 1.8.
  • RGB: Adobe RGB (1998) needs to be paired with Gray: Gray Gamma 2.2.

If the RGB and Gray working spaces are not matched, there will be a brightness shift between the mask previewed by the Infinity Mask panel and the “Pixels” output on the Layers panel.

The second point is a reminder that the “Pixels” output option is bit-depth neutral.  If the original image is 16-bit, then the mask generated by the Infinity Mask panel is also 16-bit.  But even more important is the fact that the pixel layer created via “Pixels” output is an identical 16-bit copy of the preview mask (provided that the RGB and Gray working spaces have been properly set).  The process of converting the mask to pixels does not involve an intervening 8-bit selection that compresses the grayscale data.  So even though the grayscale mask discards the color information in the image, the bit-depth of pixel-level brightness data is maintained.

Below is the first image I experimented with using “Pixels” output for conversion to black and white.  Rolling the mouse over the image shows the final result. (NOTE: It may take a couple of seconds for the rollover image to load, but once it does, flicking the mouse back and forth across the image edge instantantly changes the image. Also, rollover images might not appear in the email feed but do work on the blog website.)  I did not record the settings I used to create this, and it’s largely unimportant.  The Infinity Mask panel is meant to be a place to experiment so see what works.  Different color channels, different tones, and different slider settings can all be easily tried to achieve the best outcome.  The “Pixels” output was really just a foundation in this case.  It provided the initial color-to-black-and-white conversion.  From there, additional masks and layers were added to arrive at the final image.  But the conversion step was pivotal in guiding the image to its final form.  The key in this case was using the Infinity Mask panel to find a TONE that looked best as white in the image, and then using the other sliders to manipulate the brightness values of the other tones and, in the process, remove the distracting background elements.

The second experimental image is shown below.  Again, a rather uninteresting color image but one where the repeating lines and shapes might work well in black and white.  The rollover shows the final presentation.

This image helped me better understand some of the fundamental relationships between the Infinity Mask panel’s controls and the monochrome image.  Specifically the sliders.

The TONE slider determines which tone in the image will appear as white in the mask and therefore also white in the “Pixels” output.  A “Lights-1” setting (TONE = 255) is a good starting point, but TONE values from 180 and up can be useful as experiments.  The lower numbers help to open the highlights in the image which can then be further manipulated by the other sliders.

RANGE  =  Black Point.  The RANGE slider determines the tonal width of the mask with the chosen TONE value as the center, whitest value.  By decreasing the RANGE value (pulling the slider left), tones more distant from the chosen tone go to black.  Some pure black in a black and white image often provides a good tonal foundation.  The RANGE slider can help determine where the black begins.

FOCUS = Midtone Contrast.  The FOCUS slider was designed to decrease the sometimes excessive feathering that is a natural part of luminosity masks.  It does this by increasing tonal slope around the 50% gray value in the mask.  In practical terms, this means that increasing FOCUS (pulling the slider to the right) is very good at eliminating midtone grays while maintaining shadow and highlight texture.  This is probably one of the most desirable features when using the Infinity Mask panel to convert color images to black and white.  The FOCUS slider provides a way to simultaneously control the two competing problems (too much gray and textureless highlights/shadows) mentioned earlier.

STRENGTH = White Point.  The STRENGTH slider determines the whiteness of the chosen tone and similar tones.  A value of 100 means that just the chosen tone is pure white.  Values less than 100 gray-down the whites, and values greater than 100 white-out nearby tones.  Leaving this slider set close to 100 is usually best.

Once these relationships between the Infinity Mask sliders and the black and white image are understood, some additional techniques become possible.  One of the most useful is to combine different infinity masks using different TONE settings into the final image.  While it’s sometimes possible to find one infinity mask that does a good job converting all tones in the image to black and white, it’s not always practical.  Different tones in the image may require, or at least work better, with a different black point, white point, and midtone contrast settings.  The Infinity Mask panel makes it possible to quickly make new masks that might work better for specific tones at specific tonal locations in the image.  The “Pixels” output of these masks can then be blended into the final image, sometimes using the “Pixels” output as a mask or selection to do the blending.  It’s even possible to create negative masks of the image and blend these into the positive and have them look completely natural.

This multi-tone blending technique was used to better control tones in two parts of the above image.  Alternate infinity masks starting with different TONE settings were created from the original color image, and these were then blended in using the “Pixels” output as a selection stencil for painting white on a black layer mask to reveal these tones.  The image below shows the final image without these additional blended masks and the rollover shows how the image looks more balanced with them blended in.

Starting to better understand how infinity masks could be used convert color images to black and white, I decide to try the technique on some finished color images.  This turned out to be somewhat easier since the tonal relationships had already been properly established in the developed color image.  It was relatively easy to make an initial “Pixels” output of an infinity mask of the image and then blend in a couple of additional infinity masks with different TONE settings to get the effect I wanted.  The image below shows the “Pixels” output of the original conversion of a color image to black and white.  The rollover is the final image with two additional infinity masks blended in.  The additional “Pixels” output layers help create better contrast in the grays in the canyon and the cloud.

The last image is another finished image that was converted to monochrome using the Infinity Mask panel.  This image illustrates the power of the color channels in the Infinity Mask panel.  The plug-in that runs the Infinity Mask panel has its own recipe for creating luminosity masks.  As a result, the color channel masks created by the panel don’t completely match the Red, Green, and Blue channel masks of Photoshop.  In fact, for black and white conversion, I think the Infinity Mask panel’s color channel masks are superior.  The Lights-1 versions of these channels offer some uniquely different interpretations of the image with higher contrast than the Photoshop color channels.  If the color image has some strong color elements and/or strong color differences, the Infinity Mask color channels nicely separate these colors into different tones. The R (Red) Infinity Mask channel was used to make the initial conversion of the image below.  The rollover shows the final image after some additional adjustments.

In summary, the TK Infinity Mask panel’s “Pixels” output option is a unique method for converting color images to black and white.  The sliders have some direct parallels to monochrome image processing.

  • TONE − Selects the image tone to display as white.
  • RANGE − Sets the black point.
  • FOCUS − Adjusts midtone contrast.
  • STRENGTH − Sets the white point.

Multiple “Pixels” output layers can be created to enhance specific tones in the image, and these can then be easily blended together to create the final monochrome image.  The color channels of the Infinity Mask panel also offer a surprisingly useful starting point to effectively exploit color variation for monochrome conversion.

Infinity Mask and Zone-Picker

Luminosity masks select tonal ranges in the image based on the brightness values of individual pixels. The original luminosity masks tutorial described how to use intersection and subtraction to create series of masks that targeted Light, Midtone, and Dark tonal ranges. Additional tonal ranges were added with zone masks, which used specific subtractions of the Lights and Darks masks. The recently released TKActions V4 panel uses calculations to make “16-bit” versions of these masks. These are all variations on the same theme, namely finding ways to select tones in the image for adjustment, painting, or blending.

The latest update to the TKActions V4 panel adds two new options: the Infinity MaskTM and the Zone-PickerTM. While these expand the ways for creating luminosity masks and selections, for some photographers they will also simplify the process of choosing which mask to use.

An Infinity Mask uses a Levels adjustment layer to simulate the Lights- and Darks-series luminosity masks. Which pixels are selected, how strongly (or weakly) they are selected, and the feathering from selected to non-selected pixels are all controlled in real-time by the user. Instead of a number of defined Lights and Darks masks, the possible number of luminosity masks created via the Levels dialog is infinite. Fortunately, the real-time environment for creating the Infinity Mask makes it possible to quickly narrow the selection to the pixels the photographer wants to control. The familiar white-reveals/black-conceals mask image is presented for evaluation, and adjustments to the Levels sliders instantly update the mask image.

Image for Infinity Masks

The image above is used to demonstrate the different set-ups for the Lights and Darks Infinity Mask. The illustrations below show how they work. (NOTE: While there is a lot of information in these diagrams, it is not necessary to memorize it. It’s only necessary to look at the on-screen mask image and adjust the sliders in the Levels dialog window in order to see and make the desired mask/selection.)

Infinity Lights. The on-screen image changes to the Lights-1 luminosity mask. Adjusting the black-point slider by moving it to the right (to choose the lower dark boundary for the selection) and midtone slider (to adjust the feathering) is usually sufficient to create the desired selection. There are additional adjustments available as describe below. Clicking “OK” in the Levels dialog window creates a mask and corresponding selection to match what is being viewed on the monitor.

Infinity Lights

Infinity Darks. The on-screen image changes to the Darks-1 luminosity mask. Adjusting the white-point slider by moving it to the left (to choose the upper light boundary for the selection) and midtone slider (to adjust the feathering) is usually sufficient to create the desired selection. There are additional adjustments available as describe below. Clicking “OK” in the Levels dialog window creates a mask and corresponding selection to match what is being viewed on the monitor.

Infinity Darks

The Zone-Picker helps take the guesswork out of finding the right off-center midtone mask to target specific tones in the image. It uses Photoshop’s Color Picker tool. When the Color Picker opens after clicking the Zone-Picker button, the Eye Dropper tool becomes active allowing the user to choose a color/tone from the image. Once chosen, clicking OK runs an action that automatically chooses among 23 different tonal zones to find the one that most closely matches the chosen tone/color. The available choices are similar to the zone and half-zone buttons on the Spectrum tab of the V4 panel, but a bit narrower and more focused. The luminosity masks/selections created by the Zone-Picker are NOT simulated luminosity masks. They are calculated directly from Lights- and Darks-series masks, and so are themselves 16-bit luminosity masks based entirely on the pixel brightness values of the image.

Adobe Color Picker

The Zone-Picker dialog window itself can be used to choose a color/tone instead of selecting a color/tone from the image. In fact, the dialog window allows two new series masks to be created. Picking pure white (255, 255, 255) produces a Lights-6 selection/mask and picking pure black (0,0,0) produces a Darks-6 selection/mask.

Sean Bagshaw has recorded a video on how to use an Infinity Mask and the Zone-Picker. His application is slightly different from how I describe their use and application, which speaks to their adaptability in different workflows.

The Infinity Mask and the Zone-Picker are additional ways to select tones in the image for painting, blending, and adjustment. These functions have been added to the Photoshop CC 2014/2015 version of the TKActions V4 panel. They will eventually be added to the CS6 version of the panel too, though it will take some time in order to include additional planned updates.

Spectrum Tab V4 panel

NOTE: I’ve added a direct purchase link to the CC version of the TKActions V4 panel on my special offers page instead of linking to the Adobe Add-Ons website to get it. I continue to update the Adobe Add-Ons product with the current version, but Add-Ons has proven unreliable and I can no longer recommend it for the initial acquisition. When it works, Add-Ons is great, but when it doesn’t, the various workarounds are time-consuming and more trouble than most people want to deal with.

The newest CC version of the TKActions V4 panel also has a few other changes:

  1. The Burn/Dodge layers are no longer filled with 50% gray. They are transparent, which allows the painted pixels on the layer to be loaded as a selection and used for additional adjustments. Sean Bagshaw discusses the process in this video:
  2. Layer bookmarking has been added. When actions in the panel require adding layers at the top of the Layers panel, the action automatically returns the user to the layer they were on before the temporary layers were added when the action is finished. This is most important with the “+/- View” button. A round trip using “+/- View” leaves the user back on their original layer to immediately start painting through the selection or to create a layer mask after finding the right selection.
  3. The “+/- View” button should now work in Lab mode as well as RGB mode. The color is a little more intense, but it still works.
  4. The mask generated by the “+/- View” button can now be toggled from red to blue. An extra layer has been added in view mode. Turning “on” the visibility of this layer changes the red overlay mask to a blue mask. This is for people that have a hard time seeing the red overlay.

Blue overlay mask

NOTE: The phrases “Infinity Mask” and “Zone-Picker” were coined by Tony Kuyper and are trademarks of his products− Infinity MaskTM and Zone-PickerTM.