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: 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

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.