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.

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.