Infinity color mask magic

As I was adding infinity color masks to the TK7 panel, Sean Bagshaw was busy recording his Sean’s Favorite Photoshop Techniques, Volume 2 series. The download folder for that series contains lots of good color images, and I experimented with some to make sure the new infinity color masks offered something useful and unique for other people’s images, not just my own. They do, and I sent some quick edits to Sean to show him how I’d used the masks on his images.

Sean took these tests and incorporated them into the Quick Tip video below. And, not surprisingly, he’s gone well beyond my own attempts at using the masks and came up with some innovative ways to take infinity color masks to the next level.

This video is a little longer than the other Quick Tips, but it moves fast. Sean covers the basics of using infinity color masks and then demonstrates using them on six different images. Here are some things to pay close attention to as you watch the video:

  • Try to choose a color that actually has some decent color. Remember, these are color-based masks, and if you choose a weak color (low saturation), you’ll get a weak (dark) mask. When creating an infinity color mask, the Color Picker eyedropper extracts the hue value of the selected pixels to build the mask around. The saturation levels of that hue in the image then determines the brightness of the mask. This means that low-saturated colors will still be dark in the mask. So, as much as possible, click on colorful colors to make the best and brightest masks.
  • The initial mask preview is extremely accurate, but modification can sometimes create an even better mask. One of the great features with for infinity color masks is that you get to choose the color from the image and the mask is built around that selection. As such, the original mask preview is always on target, and in several of his examples, where this initial mask is essentially perfect, Sean just uses it as is to adjust the image. At other times, though, he first experiments with adjusting the color range or modifying the mask using the tools in the MODIFY section of the RapidMask module. MODIFY is especially helpful for darker masks where a less-saturated color was the target for generating the infinity color mask preview. The key to success in all cases is to start with a mask properly focused on a specific color selected from the image. And since this is the core process for generating an infinity color mask, the initial mask is always a great starting point. Once it’s available, there are lots of opportunities to customize the mask depending on what you’d like to do to your image.
  • Infinity color masks aren’t just for color adjustments. One of the things that really comes through in watching Sean work on these images is the variety of different techniques he employs. Infinity color masks are used to adjust color, saturation, brightness, and contrast. And he uses them with Curves, Levels, Hue/Saturation, Brightness/Contrast, and Solid Color adjustment layers to achieve the desired effect. This illustrates a good point, I think. To really get the most out of these infinity “color” masks it’s necessary to let go of the “color” concept and simply start seeing them as new precision masks for making targeted adjustments. Just like luminosity masks can be used to make adjustments other than brightness, infinity color masks aren’t restricted to adjusting color. When you start seeing these different types of pixel-based masks as a continuum of masking possibilities, the full power of what they can do really starts to take shape.

If you have Sean’s Favorite Photoshop Techniques, Volume 2 video series, you might want to go into the practice images folder and follow along with what he’s doing here. Working along with Sean will help you see where and how you might be able to apply infinity color masks to your own images.

Finally, just a quick reminder that everything on my website’s Panels & Videos page, including the TK7 panel with infinity color masks and Sean’s Favorite Photoshop Techniques, Volume 2, is 20% off through the month of September with the following discount code: Update20

Be sure to subscribe to Sean’s YouTube channel for more great tips on photography and post-processing including those listed below.
Infinity color masks
Linked vs. unlinked smart objects
Three ways to use Levels and Curves
Reusing saved luminosity masks
Developing a quality night sky
Split toning
Cloud sculpting
Exposure blending
Favorite new V6 features

Sean’s Favorite Photoshop Techniques, Volume 2

Last week, Sean Bagshaw released his second video series of Photoshop techniques, and, no surprise, it’s really good.

Sean's Favorite Photoshop Techniques, Volume 2

There are three main areas covered in the new series:

  • Exposure blending
  • Fixing problems
  • Artistic enhancement

While exposure-blending is a favorite technique for lots of photographers, Sean demonstrates that luminosity masks aren’t the only approach. His focus is on creating the proper transition zone, and while luminosity masks can be used in this regard, he convincingly shows that it’s actually some of the areas outside those most revealed by the mask that really need attention. He uses selections, gradients, feather-painting, and Camera Raw adjustments in addition to luminosity masks to make the perfect transition zone, tailoring his approach to what works best for each image. Exposure-blending always takes a little extra effort. Sean is a master at this and his transition-zone approach offers some new ideas to make the process accessible, reliable, and results-oriented.

The art of making a fine photograph also requires attending lots of small details, and often this means fixing problems that happen either during image capture or as a result of image processing. In one of my favorite chapters, Sean reviews how even the initial Lightroom/Camera Raw adjustments can be detrimental to edges within the image and makes a case for avoiding heavy adjustments during RAW file conversion in favor of the more focused adjustments that can be accomplished in Photoshop. A perfect image almost always requires some level of clean-up, and Sean offers lots of great suggestions. The Frequency Separation chapter, in particular, is pure magic. If you’re not already using frequency separation for your images, you will be after watching this video.

About half the chapters in the series are still devoted to artistic affects, and rightly so, since this is where a photographer adds their personal touch to the image. Clarity, texture, haze, and glow are the major themes this time, but there is plenty of variation on these topics. I’ve been working with Sean for many years, and not surprisingly, the TK7 panel has several of his methods already programmed in to specific buttons and actions. While he demonstrates how to do everything from scratch, it’s also obvious that the panel provides a nice boost not only to the efficiency of using Photoshop, but also the speed at which creative ideas can be tested and modified. Even I learn new ways to use the panel from watching Sean.

As always, I’m pleased to be able to offer Sean’s Favorite Photoshop Techniques, Volume 2 on my Panels & Videos page, and right now there is an introductory 20% discount that automatically activates when you add it to the shopping cart. There’s also a matching discount on the Sean’s Favorite Photoshop Techniques, Volume 1 if you don’t have that yet. (NOTE: Previous customers should be sure to check their email from August 21 for additional savings.) Please contact me if you have any questions.

I’ve posted some sample videos on my website so you can get an idea of the content and quality of this series. I’m sure you’ll enjoy it.

Watch samples!

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.

Sean Bagshaw’s TK7 workflow

“It’s not as hard as I thought.”

That was the reaction of a friend in my local camera club after he bought the TK7 panel and watched Sean Bagshaw’s TK7 Video Guide. Earlier he had told me the panel looked too complicated, but after watching Sean’s videos, he definitely seemed more confident that he would be able to use it successfully

I think this is a normal thought process many photographers go through when they first encounter the panel. They’re curious about luminosity masks, but also a bit anxious as to whether they can successfully integrate them into their workflow. And the panel with all its buttons can seem a bit daunting initially. It’s sort of like the first time you get a computer or a smart phone. There’s some apprehension just looking at the controls, but once you start using it, it quickly starts to make sense. The TK7 panel is pretty much the same. It can be a bit intimidating to look at, but with a little practice, you realize it offers a lot of control over what you want to accomplish with your images.

Sean Bagshaw has been helping photographers feel comfortable with my luminosity mask panels for over six years. His videos break them down button-by-button with expert commentary and demonstrations as to how everything works. And his measured style is just like your favorite teacher who took the time to make sure you understood a concept before moving onto a new topic.

The video below is the portion of his complete workflow chapter from the TK7 Video Guide series where he uses the TK7 panel to finish an image. In addition to showcasing Sean’s teaching style, it also demonstrates some important concepts about using the panel.

  • It integrates easily in to the workflow at many different levels. It makes complex masks but it also efficiently executes basic Photoshop functions.
  • You don’t have to use every button to use it successfully. There is a lot of functionality in the panel, but you can choose just those features you need for your image.
  • Not all experiments are successful. The panel is a great way to try different things with with masks, but, if something isn’t working, well, no problem. The panel also makes it easy to try something else.
  • You’ll never outgrow it. As your skills improve, the TK7 panel will continue to provide new opportunities to explore different ways of using pixel-based masks in your workflow.

If you haven’t seen this video yet, I think you’ll enjoy watching Sean use it on an image. And while he’s certainly an expert at using the TK7 panel, this level of proficiency is easy to attain. With just a little practice, anyone can be a luminosity mask master.

The TK7 panel and the TK7 Video Guide are available on the Panels & Videos page.

Fixing dark prints with a Darks-1 luminosity mask

I recently acquired a new Epson SureColor P800 printer. My old printer had started to leak from the print head. I primarily use Moab Lasal paper with a luster finish, so I went to the Moab website to find a color profile for the new printer/paper combination, and was pleased to find that one existed. I loaded it on my computer and did a test print. The color match to my monitor looked great. There was a problem, however. The print seemed dark and heavy overall because the shadows were blocked when viewed in ambient room light. Looking at the print under a brighter light source, I could still see the shadow separation that was apparent on my monitor, so it hadn’t been lost entirely. It just wasn’t printing well. I don’t normally view my prints under strong “gallery” lighting and want them to look good even in ordinary room light. So based on this initial test, I would need to find a consistent way to lighten them. The fact that there was NO color shift in the print meant that the profile I installed was doing a decent job in that important category. Brightness was the only thing that required adjustment.

I experimented with a few more prints that had Curves and Levels adjustments added to the sharpened image, but these ended up with obvious shifts in contrast and color saturation. I then decided to see if a luminosity mask could help. Since the image’s dark values were blocked, a Darks-series mask would be a good place to start. But how to use it? Curves and Levels adjustments hadn’t worked, so I needed an alternative for that also. In the end, I decided to still use an adjustment layer, but instead of adjusting the properties for the layer, I simply changed the layer’s blend mode to Screen, which lightens the image, except for pixels that are completely black.

Bingo! This approach worked well and next print looked much better. Here’s the steps I used:

  1. Create a Darks-1 luminosity mask of the unsharpened image. (See NOTE at the end of this blog for methods to make a Darks-1 mask.)
  2. Sharpen the image using the normal sharpening method.
  3. Create a Levels (or Curves) adjustment layer at the top of the layer stack above the sharpening layer(s).
  4. Set the adjustment layer’s blend mode to Screen.
  5. Apply the Darks-1 luminosity mask created in Step 1 as a layer mask to the adjustment layer.
  6. Lower the layer’s opacity to between 25 and 50 percent.

The image below shows the final layer stack with the print adjustment layer on top.

workspace menu button

Not hard at all, and my image now matched my monitor in color, contrast, saturation, and brightness. In retrospect, this is sort of an obvious solution. The darks were blocked and Darks-series masks specifically targets these dark values. Screen blend mode is also a somewhat obvious choice since it provides an automatic, consistent lightening adjustment that keeps 100% black pixels 100% black, so there is a bit of a black anchor for the blackest blacks in the image. Screen blend mode also seems to lighten with less contrast and/or saturation shift that sometimes accompany adjustments to Curves and Levels using the Properties panel. So the overall effect was to create an automatic lightening effect restricted to just the dark, blocked tones in the image.

Subsequent tests showed that the optimal opacity of the added adjustment layer ranged from zero to 50 percent. It turns out that the value is easy to predict based on image’s histogram.

For images with prominent areas that are very dark or completely black, an opacity setting of 50% is needed.

workspace menu button

For images where there is plenty of dark colors, but still excellent detail in these dark colors, an opacity of 25% works well. This histogram shape is common with many of my images, so an opacity setting of 25% is frequently my starting point when making test prints.

workspace menu button

For images that are composed almost entirely of midtones and/or highlights with very few dark values, no adjustment is needed. There are essentially no dark values that are getting blocked in this situation, so the adjustment isn’t necessary.

workspace menu button

While a custom profile might have been an alternative to consider, the fact that the colors were matching so well with the paper manufacturer’s profile meant that I wanted to continue to use it if I could. So far I’ve made prints of about a dozen different images using this method, and opacity settings of either 50% or 25%, depending on the histogram, have worked every time.

I’m not sure how widespread this problem might be. A member of the local camera club mentioned he had the same issue, so I’m sure I’m not the only one. It’s certainly an easy fix to try if your prints are looking too dark.

NOTE: A Darks-1 mask can be made and applied with either the TKActions V6 RapidMask2 module or the free Basic V6 panel. You can also make a Darks-1 layer mask using Photoshop’s Image > Apply Image… menu command using the settings shown below. Be sure to check the “Invert” checkbox in the dialog window to get a Darks-1 mask instead of a Lights-1 mask.

workspace menu button

TK Actions Quick Tip: Three ways to use Levels and Curves

There are a lot of features packed into the TKActions V6 panel. Not only does it quickly generate luminosity masks, but it also allows them to be modified and output in a variety of ways. In addition, the V6 panel also provides access to most of the common Photoshop functions photographers use to develop their images. Curves and Levels are a natural part of many techniques, so different V6 modules contain buttons and menu items to appropriately access these adjustments. In this new Quick Tip video, Sean Bagshaw reviews the locations of the Curves and Levels options in the V6 panel and demonstrates how each can be used.

There are three distinct Curves and Levels adjustments found in the V6 panel:

  1. In the “Layer Mask” menu of the Combo/Cx modules. Buttons in this menu are designated by the familiar Photoshop icons for these layers. They create the corresponding adjustment layer with a white “reveal all” layer mask if there is no active selection. If there is an active selection, the selection is incorporated into the the layer mask as the adjustment layer is created. These buttons work similarly to the items in the “Layer Mask” menu accessed at the bottom of the Layers panel. However, there is one advantage to using the Combo/Cx buttons and that is that they automatically open the Properties panel after the adjustment layer is generated. Most adjustment layers do nothing until you adjust the layer’s properties. Anticipating this, the panel opens the Properties panel so users can go directly to making their adjustment after creating the layer.
  2. In the MODIFY section of the RapidMask2 module. The RapidMask2 module is all about making pixel-based masks, like luminosity masks. While the panel can make dozens of different calculated masks as a starting point (Lights, Darks, Midtones, and Zones), there are actually an infinite number of possible masks for any pixel-based value. The MODIFY section allows you to fine-tune any mask to better match the pixels in the image, and Curves and Levels adjustments fit nicely as one of the modification options. The MODIFY buttons open a separate window where users can watch the mask change in real time as the adjustment is made. There is also a MODIFY section in Layer Mask Mode, and Sean’s video demonstrates how Curves and Levels work in this section as well.
  3. In the “Layer” button menu in the OUTPUT section of the RapidMask2 module. This is the final location for Curves and Levels in the V6 panel. “Layer” menu items automatically apply the current Rapid Mask that has been created by the module to the adjustment layer that’s created. It’s a one-step process to go from mask creation to being able to actually use the mask to adjust the image. Besides the efficiency of using this output process to deploy masks, there are two additional advantages. The first is that no intermediate 8-bit selections are used. It’s a direct channel mask to layer mask process, which is 16-bit to 16-bit. The quality of the layer mask is therefore identical to that of the original Rapid Mask. The second advantage of this output method is that the Properties panel for the new adjustment layer once again automatically pops open. Adjustment layers need an adjustment by the user, and this output method lets you get right to it.

Sean, as usual, does a great job reviewing and demonstrating these different options. I’m sure you’ll feel more confident using them after watching this video.

Be sure to subscribe to Sean’s YouTube channel for more great tips on photography and post-processing including those listed below.
Quick Tip: Three ways to use Levels and Curves
Quick Tip: Reusing saved luminosity masks
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

TK Actions Quick Tip: Reusing saved luminosity masks

Sean Bagshaw recently posted another Quick Tip video covering how to save and reuse luminosity masks. The TKActions V6 panel has the “Channel” button in the OUTPUT section, which saves the luminosity masks it generates, already programmed in. So the saving part is pretty easy. But the panel doesn’t know when you want to actually recover and use the saved mask, and that’s where Sean’s video comes in handy. He’ll walk you through a couple of different methods to add the saved mask to a layer on the Layers panel. Saving and reusing masks on the Channels panel is somewhat of an advanced technique, but it’s helpful to be aware of it for those situations where you’ve spent a little time creating a particularly useful mask that you might want to use again later on.

Another option for reusing and duplicating a previous luminosity mask is to use one already deployed as a layer mask on the Layers panel. To reuse a layer mask, simply ALT/option+click on the mask and drag it to the layer where you want to use it. Photoshop will duplicate the mask and add it as the layer mask on the second layer. While this is a relatively easy maneuver, layer masks can sometimes get a little messy if you’ve painted on them to conceal or reveal how the mask affects the layer it’s attached to. Channel masks, like Sean demonstrates in the video, can be used to save an original version of a mask that can then be further altered with painting or other adjustments after it’s turned into a layer mask.

Be sure to subscribe to Sean’s YouTube channel for more great tips on photography and post-processing including those listed below.
Quick Tip: Reusing saved luminosity masks
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