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

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.