TK Actions Quick Tip: Developing a quality night sky

Sean Bagshaw’s YouTube channel has another great workflow video using the TKActions V6 panel. This one covers developing the Milky Way in a night sky image. He starts in Light Room with what appears to be a somewhat unremarkable image of the Milky Way, but with a few quick adjustments uncovers the potential hiding in the dark tones. I liked the Light Room techniques for adjusting the colors in the RAW file and the way the blue fringe around the stars can be removed.

The really good stuff happens when the image is opened in Photoshop as a smart object. Sean selects the Blue channel mask to better target the Milky Way (compared with a standard luminosity mask). He then uses classic luminosity painting to create more dramatic contrast. This involves loading Light and Dark masks as selections and painting white and black through these selections to selectively change image brightness. It’s quick and easy since the selection guides the paint to where it’s needed.

For noise reduction, Sean uses the TKActions V6 panel to duplicate the smart object so the noise reduction can be done on a separate layer and later filtered into the image through a luminosity mask. Using the V6 to duplicate smart objects has the advantage of unlinking the duplicate smart object from the original smart object. This is important since Sean reopens the duplicate smart object in Adobe Camera Raw and is able to perform significant noise reduction on it without affecting the original smart object. If the original and duplicate smart objects had not been unlinked, both the original and the duplicate would have been affected the same by the noise reduction in ACR. Instead, by creating an unlinked smart object first, strong noise reduction can be applied to the duplicate smart object to the point of blurring the stars. A luminosity layer mask can then be applied that reveals the noise reduction in the dark areas of this layer while simultaneously preserving the sharp detail of the individual stars from the original conversion. It’s a bit hard to describe in words, but watching Sean do this in the video will make it crystal clear.

The final technique is to make the stars even sharper using the “Clarity” action in the V6 panel, again combined with a Blue channel luminosity mask as a layer mask. This is a subtle change but the type of one that makes the final image look its best.

The video is just over 21 minutes long, but it seems much shorter. Sean covers a lot of territory with a several really useful techniques facilitated by the V6 panel. The change is quite dramatic and shows what’s possible even when the original RAW file looks marginal. If you’re already doing Milky Way photography or thinking of trying it, this video will give you confidence that you can indeed create a stellar image.

Be sure to subscribe to Sean’s YouTube channel for great tips on photography and post-processing including those listed below.
Quick Tip: Developing a quality night sky
Quick Tip: Split toning
Quick Tip: Cloud sculpting
Quick Tip: Exposure blending
Quick Tip: Favorite new V6 features

The V6 RapidMask2 Module: Any mask, any time

I recently completed an updated video (below) on using the V6 RapidMask2 module. This module is at the heart of the TKActions V6 panel and was designed to be a mask-making juggernaut. Its evolution can be traced to the original luminosity mask concepts, but it’s moved far beyond the confines of those earlier techniques. One compact module can now make any pixel-based mask with just a few mouse clicks. Color, channel, saturation, and vibrance masks are as easily generated with RapidMask2 as standard luminosity masks. The built-in Rapid Mask engine quickly turns pixel values into masks, and these masks are viewed on-screen at near real-time speeds so it’s easy to experiment with different masks and find the best one.

It’s worth noting that all RapidMask2 masks are created using calculations, which provide the smoothest masks of any method to generate them. I experimented with a Curves adjustment layer for generating masks and even created a prototype panel using this method. However, I abandoned Curves when I saw the obvious tonal separation for tones with low pixel density in the image histogram. Calculated masks in RapidMask2 automatically adjust to match pixel density in selected tones by varying mask brightness. This isn’t possible when a static Curves adjustment creates the mask. So I’ve stuck with calculations for making masks in RapidMask2 and am confident it produces the best possible masks.

These calculations also completely avoid 8-bit selections as masks are generated and deployed. While I previously described the calculations process for making 16-bit masks and built it into the Rapid Mask engine, the reality is that calculations always make masks that match the bit depth of the image. Even 32-bit masks are possible with Rapidmask2 if you’re using the 32-bit mode in Photoshop.

The video below walks you through the workflow for using RapidMask2 to create and use pixel-based masks. It’s basically a four-step process:

  1. Choose a data source (luminance/color/saturation/etc) in the SOURCE section.
  2. Click different masks in the MASK section to find the best one.
  3. Optionally adjust the mask using the MODIFY section.
  4. Deploy the mask using the OUTPUT section.

This video will show you that it’s actually quite easy to make and use pixel-based masks once you have a panel that does most of the work.

More information on using RapidMask2 and the other V6 modules can be found in Sean Bagshaw’s V6 Video Guide series on the Panels & Videos page.

Monochrome 2: Toning with TKActions V6

The first article in this monochrome series dealt with using the TKActions V6 panel to convert color images to black-and-white. This second article looks at another important aspect of monochrome images: toning. Proper toning can enhance the mood of the image. Warm-tones, like sepia, impart a vintage look, while cooler tones communicate a more modern feel. There are a variety of different ways Photoshop can be used for toning. The Solid Color and Hue/Saturation adjustment layers when combined with luminosity masks are two of my favorite methods. The video at the bottom demonstrates both techniques.

Toning Theory

Historically, toning in the darkroom was a secondary development process. After the initial development to reveal the latent image on the exposed paper, the print was immersed in another solution that would chemically react with the silver in the print to produce the toning color. The areas of the image that had more silver (the dark areas) would react more strongly with the toner. Areas with less silver (the light areas) reacted less. This is an important distinction. The entire print did NOT receive equal amounts of toning. Dark areas received more and light areas received less. Visually, this meant that light areas of the image would still retain much of their original whiteness and didn’t change color dramatically in the toner. Very dark grays and pure black toned the most, but a dark shade of any color is hard to distinguish from black, so the color change wasn’t necessarily all that visible in very dark gray and black tones of the image either. However, as the grays in the image got a little lighter and on into the midtones, the toning color became much more obvious in the print. Grays in this range showed a definite color change, but still in proportion to the amount of silver in the print. A Zone 4 gray, for example, would show more intense color than a Zone 6 gray, and this was important to maintaining the tonal separation that created the image in the first place.

untoned image

toned image

This concept of applying toning to the silver-rich areas of a monochrome image (the dark areas) is where luminosity masks really come in handy. The Darks-series masks do exactly this. They select dark tones in the image in proportion to how dark the tone is. The darker the tone, the more it is selected. Using Darks-series masks as part of the digital toning process simulates what happens chemically in the darkroom. However, I’ve also found Midtones-sereies masks quite useful for digital toning. Since the midtones are often where toning is most obvious in chemically-toned prints, using them in digital toning also makes sense, and the results often look good. Which mask works best depends on the image. It’s helpful to try several different luminosity masks to find the best one. One more corollary to all this is that the best monochrome images for toning generally have some good gray midtones. Images with strong contrast where most tones approach black and white won’t show the toning color as well as images that have a lot of gray midtone values.

Toning vs. Tinting

As described above, toning was a chemical process that was strongest in the silver-rich parts of monochrome images. The effect is generally most obvious in the dark and midtone grays. The whites are largely unaffected due to their lack of precipitated silver. Tinting, on the other hand, can be thought of as a staining process that affects the entire image, not specific tones. With tinting, it’s the print substrate (the paper or emulsion) that is experiencing the color change. The midtone grays will still exhibit the color change, but so will the image’s whites. Both toning and tinting are ways to add color to the monochrome image, and in the digital darkroom, it’s possible to specifically target light tones as well as the darks and midtones. So in the digital realm, the distinction between toning and tinting is a bit less clear as it was in the traditional darkroom. One distinguishing characteristic is whether the color is applied uniformly across the image (tinting) or whether it’s restricted to specific tones (toning). The Photo Filter adjustment layer, for example, tends to be more of a tinting technique since it’s applied evenly across most tones in the image. For toning, Solid Color and Hue/Saturation adjustments tend to work best. The left image below shows toning accomplished with a Hue/Sat adjustment layer and a luminosity mask. The image on the right is a tinted image made with a Photo Filter adjustment layer.

tone vs. tint

Additionally, toning should be proportional within the selected tones where it is applied. The more selected tones should exhibit the most color change which then tapers off in tones that are less selected. Again, this is where luminosity masks really shine as they are able to isolate the color to specific tones in the image and in proportion to how much each tone is selected.

“Color” Blend Mode

Using the “Color” blending mode for the adjustment layer that adds the toning color is an additional technique that makes digital toning work well. It’s actually essential when using a Solid Color adjustment layer for toning, where it makes for a very nice toning effect when combined with a luminosity mask. It also provides a bit of a contrast boost when a Hue/Saturation adjustment layer is used for toning, so it’s definitely worth trying.

Summary: Toning is a way to add color and mood to black and white images. Solid Color and Hue/Saturation adjustment layers in combination with luminosity masks are a great way to digitally tone photographs that mimic the traditional darkroom process.

The video below demonstrates two good methods for using luminosity masks and adjustment layers to make digital toning easy and natural-looking with plenty of options for customizing the effect. If you want to practice along with the video, jpeg versions of images can be downloaded here.

NOTE: With the release of CC 2019 in October 2018, there is a blending mode bug on Windows computers. It can cause the wrong toning colors to appear and can also cause PS to crash. The workaround to fix this is to go to Preferences > Performance and make sure there is a check mark in the checkbox for “Legacy Compositing.” This post has more information about this bug and its current status.

Monochrome 1: Black and white conversions with TKActions V6

Monochrome is at the heart of the photography. Early photographs had one color, black (from precipitated silver), and, in combination with a lighter printing substrate (a copper plate initially, but eventually paper), created the classic black and white look that was the signature of photography. Monochrome images have evolved significantly since their origin in the 1800s, but they’re still widely appreciated and are a great way to interpret and view the light captured by a camera.

Masks in Photoshop are monochrome (black, white, and gray) by default. Luminosity masks opened the door to pixel-based masks where the monochrome tones in the mask have a direct correlation to the underlying luminance values in the image. Luminosity masks are not blobs of paint applied with a paintbrush run by a mouse. Their pixel-based nature means that the image itself can always be seen in the mask, at least to some degree. So there’s a definite connection between a luminosity mask and the image. And once you start working with luminosity masks, it’s hard not to notice that some of them could make good black and white images on their own.

As I coded the TKActions V5 and V6 panels, I made sure to include the option of utilizing masks as actual images. You never know when a surprisingly good mask (or at least interesting one) might show up, and only then realize that a monochrome interpretation of the image might be worth exploring. The V6 panel makes this easy to do with dedicated output options that preserve promising masks. The panel essentially functions as a color to black and white converter in this situation. While this isn’t the primary use of either luminosity masks or the panel, it does provide a convenient method to start experimenting with monochrome since the RapidMask2 module can quickly generate so many different masks. This article will focus on ways to use the luminosity masks generated by the V6 RapidMask2 module as the starting point for great black and white images.

Method #1: Mask To Pixels

The “Layer” button of the RapidMask2 module has a menu item for creating a pixel layer from the Rapid Mask. It’s called “Mask To Pixels” and is a direct 16-bit conversion from Rapid Mask to pixel layer in RGB Color mode. No image quality is lost in the process. The 16-bit pixel layer is an exact duplicate of the 16-bit Rapid Mask since there is no intervening 8-bit selection involved.

Mask To Pixels menu option

If the intention is to purposely convert the image to monochrome using the RapidMask2 module, it’s usually best to start with one of the “Lights” masks. Then you can optionally use the MODIFY section to further adjust the mask in order to optimize it before triggering the pixel layer output. In the cactus blossom image below, a Lights-1 mask was modified with a Levels adjustment to produce the final conversion.

lights mask to black and white

Alternate Method #1: Start with zone masks
One rather interesting way to use the “Mask To Pixels” option is with Zone masks. Zone masks are narrow slices of the tonal spectrum, but they’re still monochrome, and they are calculated to have smooth blending into adjacent tones. So there is a smooth tonal gradation as they transition from lighter grays of selected pixels to dark grays and eventually to black for unselected pixels. For simple compositions, like the cactus blossom shown here, try different zone masks or combinations of zone masks. Then use the “Auto” button in the MODIFY section of the RapidMask2 module to normalize the mask so that it has a full tonal spectrum from black to white. This can lead to some slightly more abstract but appealing black and white images. The strong contrast of the “Auto” command creates a wonderful silvery quality in the narrow range of tones selected by Zone masks. This shiny effect is difficult to achieve when working with images with a wide range of tones, but when working with a narrow slice of tones, it happens quite easily. For the conversion below, I added a Zone-7 and Zone-7½ mask together, modified the result with a Levels adjustment, and then used the “Auto” option on the result to obtain the silvery shimmer in the flower.

zone masks to black and white

Method #2: SOURCE > Color > Create

The “Create” option in the “Color” menu was intended as an easy way to make individual colors either lighter or dark in the mask that was being created.

color-create menu

The set-up for doing this requires a few different layers on the Layers panel. This set of layers also easily lends itself for converting images to black and white. So this “Create” option can serve a dual purpose. It can be used to create a Rapid Mask, which is output using the “Rapid Mask” button on the panel, or it can be used to convert an image to monochrome, in which case the correct output choice is the “B&W” button.

black and white button

The “B&W” option keeps the layers used to create the mask intact and simply renames the group that contains them. This provides a completely non-destructive way to do the conversion. At any future time, it’s possible to tweak the conversion by returning to these layers and making additional adjustments.

black and white conversion layers

Below is a color image and its black and white conversion using the Color > Create option.

color image
black and white image

Summary: Luminosity masks, because they are based on pixel-level data, embed the actual image in some manner in the mask. And because masks are always monochrome, luminosity masks have the potential to be a conversion tool for creating black and white images from color files. The TKActions V6 panel includes dedicated output options (“Mask To Pixels” and Color > Create) for using luminosity masks as actual black and white images. The video below demonstrates these techniques.

NOTE: Converting a color image to monochrome is usually not the same as actually finishing it. After converting to monochrome, most images will still require additional processing to achieve their best potential as a black and white photograph.

TKActions Quick Tip: Exposure blending

Sean Bagshaw is heading out into the field soon, but he managed to squeeze in one more video Quick Tip before leaving. This one covers the popular subject of exposure blending. Because luminosity masks target specific tones in an image, they’re a natural for making masks that blend multiple exposures where the dynamic range of the scene exceeds that of the camera sensor. Sean’s approach to exposure blending has been to focus on the transition zone between light and dark areas of the image to make the blend look natural. Luminosity masks can help significantly with this process since they create natural transitions based on pixel brightness. The steps Sean uses are listed below.

  1. Open the RAW files as smart objects in Photoshop.
  2. Stack the images into a single document with the dark exposure on top.
  3. Make the dark exposure layer active, but turn OFF its visibility.
  4. Click the “Layer Mask” checkbox on the RapidMask2 module to enter Layer Mask Mode. This mode automatically applies the mask generated as a layer mask on the active layer.
  5. Click the “Composite” source button to apply a “Lights-1” mask as a layer mask to the active layer (the dark exposure). This starts the blending process.
  6. Turn the visibility of the dark exposure layer back ON to evaluate the blend.
  7. Modify the layer mask to create the proper transition zone. This might involve trying a different mask, using the MODIFY buttons to modify the current mask, or painting on the layer mask with black or white paint (try setting the blend mode of the paintbrush to “Overlay”).
  8. If needed, double-click the smart objects to reopen them in Adobe Camera Raw to make additional adjustments to brightness, contrast, white balance, etc.

It’s actually pretty easy watching Sean do it. In the 15 minute video he demonstrates the process, with small variations, using three different images.

Quick Tip: Exposure blending
Quick Tip: Favorite new V6 features
Be sure to subscribe to Sean’s YouTube channel for more tips on photography and post-processing.

TKActions V6: New modules

“Combo” and “Batch” are the newest modules to be released in the latest update of the TKActions V6 panel. The RapidMask2 V6 module was released in October 2017. With the release of these two new modules, the V6 panel is now complete.

NOTE: Previous V5 and V5/V6 customers have already been sent information for a free download of these updated V6 modules. Check your spam/junk if you missed it. Update information was sent on February 26 and resent on March 3. If you’ve not purchased the panel yet, for the next 3 weeks you can use the following code on the Panels & Videos page for a 25% discount on all items: V625off

The new Combo module comes in two versions: Combo and ComboX (also designated Cx). The different arrangements have identical functions, but they make it possible to create two very different workspaces to utilize the V6 panel. This is explained in the “Custom V6 Panel Workspace” video at the end of this blog.

TKAction V6 panel

The Combo module combines the Control and Action modules of the V5 panel into one. This continues the evolution away from the button-crazy, multi-mega-panel design trend to a more compact, efficient, and logical workspace that started with RapidMask2. Most users will now need just two modules in order to access V6 functions: the RapidMask2 module makes all the different luminosity masks and Combo runs Photoshop. The V6 modules use smart menus to replace confusing tabs and even entire panels. A good example is the “TK ▶” button. It opens a menu that contains all the actions of the V5 Actions module plus several new ones (image below). While these actions can be extremely useful when developing images, it’s not necessary to have them in a separate panel given that they are used one at a time and generally only occasionally during processing. The smart menus in the Combo and RapidMask2 modules track what’s happening and automatically close once they’ve served their purpose.

TKActiosn actions menu

Below is a short list of the features of the new Combo/Cx modules.

  • Compact design−Combines the all features, functions, and actions of the V5 Control and Actions modules into one.
  • Run Photoshop from the module−Many common Photoshop functions, keyboard shortcuts, and menu items can be run with a single button click from the module.
  • Muted color interface separates buttons into logical groups in order to quickly find the correct Photoshop function. (Color is adjustable in the Settings window.)
  • Multi-function buttons−Several buttons have dual functions that are graphically displayed on the button itself.
  • Use the “TK ▶” button to access the creative Photoshop actions menu−Includes new actions for Smart Orton and Neutralize Cast 2 for creative development, and Stack, Align, and Focus Blend for blending multiple exposures.
  • Integrated web-sharpening−Sharpen images for the web to any dimension, convert to sRGB, and run post-sharpening actions with one click directly from the module.
  • Expanded user actions−Ten programmable actions, accessed via the “User ▶” button, allow users to run their own actions directly from the panel.

This update also includes some additional enhancements to the RapidMask2 module that was released in October 2017.

  • Advanced Mask Calculator−Any mask created using the panel can be added, subtracted, and intersected with any other mask. This makes it possible to combine luminosity, color, saturation, modified, and even user-created masks in any manner desired. There is also an Advanced Mask Calculator in Layer Mask Mode so users can see the results reflected immediately in the image itself.
  • Enhanced “Pick” button−The Zone mask that is picked is highlighted directly on the panel. This makes it easy to experiment with adjacent or nearby zone masks to see if one of them might work a bit better.
  • Properties panel toggle−Creating an adjustment layer automatically opens the Properties panel so that the desired adjustment can quickly be made. This feature is also active when using the Combo panel to create adjustment layers.

The Batch module is also part of this release. It resizes and sharpens entire folders of images for web presentation. It may not be used frequently, but can be huge time-saver when there are lots of images to sharpen.

The videos below provide a brief overview of the V6 panel. Additional information can be found on my website. The comprehensive instructions PDF for the V6 panel can be downloaded here. To purchase the V6 panel plus other panels and videos, please visit the Panels & Videos page. Don’t forget to use the V625off discount code. It also works on Sean Bagshaw’s videos listed on that page.

Please contact me if you have any questions.

TK Basic V6 panel: New and FREE!

NOTE: This free panel is available on the Panels and Videos page. It is NOT a replacement for any of the current V6 modules. It is simply a new panel for people who want a fast and simple way to start working with luminosity masks.

I’m very happy to announce the new TK Basic V6 panel for Photoshop. It has the same core process and speed as the more comprehensive RapidMask2 module, and has similar features and layout. It’s essentially RapidMask2-lite and is a great way to experiment with adding luminosity masks to the Photoshop workflow. It’s also free and comes with some great videos.

TK Basic V6 panel

Key features:

  • Rapid Mask engine. The Basic V6 panel uses the same technology for generating 16-bit luminosity masks as the V6 RapidMask2 module. New masks are calculated and displayed on screen at near real-time speeds.
  • Mask-based interface. Users see masks up front to make intelligent choices about which one to use.
  • Intuitive layout. Top-to-bottom workflow with numbered sections for creating and deploying masks.
  • Click-tracking. The last button clicked retains an accent-colored shadow. Users always know which mask they last generated.
  • Multiple output options. Curves, Levels, Brightness/Contrast and Hue/Sat adjustment layers are available in the “Layer” menu. Selection, Channel, and Apply buttons provide additional output options.
  • Compact design. Small footprint so the image window is not obscured. The panel can be conveniently placed above any standard Photoshop panel or docked at the side of the workspace.
  • Instant help. Moving the mouse over any button provides information on what it does in the window at the bottom of the panel.
  • Active selection indicator. Provides visual feedback that Photoshop has an active selection even if it’s too weak to generate selection borders or if the marching ants have been turned off.
  • Language switch. Settings dialog offers six language options for the panel’s user interface.
  • Photoshop CC and CS6 compatible. Download folder has versions that work in PS CC and CS6.

There are many ways to use luminosity masks when developing images in Photoshop. Adding them as layer masks on adjustment layers and painting through active luminosity selections are two common techniques. The Basic V6 panel makes it easy to incorporate these methods into the workflow simply by clicking a couple buttons. The panel is also a great way to to see how easy it is to use luminosity masks since the Rapid Mask engine does all the hard work in the background. Luminosity masks need to be fast and intuitive in order to become a standard part of the workflow. The TK Basic V6 panel makes this possible and is the ideal tool for quickly getting up to speed with their creative potential.

To make the panel even easier to use, Sean Bagshaw has recorded a fantastic set of six new videos that are also included in the free download. Three of them are available to watch below. The first is a brief introduction to the new Basic V6 panel. The second is probably best and most concise description of luminosity masks I’ve ever watched. And the third video is a button-by-button walk-through of the entire panel. The download folder has additional videos on installing the panel, setting up the color workspace, and workflow demonstrations on how to use the panel.

The TK Basic V6 panel and videos are available as a free download on the Panels and Videos page.

If you like the Basic V6 panel and Sean’s videos, please consider trying the all-inclusive V5/V6 panel and Sean’s V5/V6 Video Guide. This “Combo” product is a complete luminosity mask resource that allows generating an infinite number of luminosity masks with many more ways to use them. For a limited time, the following code can be used for a 15% discount on the Combo, which is also available on the Panels and Videos page:  Combo15

I hope you enjoy the new TK Basic V6 panel and find it useful. Please let me know if you have any questions or suggestions.