How to use Color Channels in BlendIf for Stunning Sunsets

Beautiful sunset color is critical to great photographs. It’s what sets your image apart from so many other others. I believe it’s so important that I dedicated an entire chapter of my blending course to getting great color.

There are many tricks for getting great color, but one of my favorites is to couple an adjustment layer with BlendIf. It’s quick, leaves your options open to easily make changes later, and it keeps your files smaller than using layer masks. Combined with the right adjustment layers, BlendIf can create gorgeous sunsets.

In this tutorial, you’ll see several examples of how you can use BlendIf with solid color layers, HSL, contrast-enhancing curves, and brightness layers to extract more color and detail from this sunset cityscape. Part 1 shows the workflow to process the image in Photoshop. Part 2 then explores why using the color-channels in BlendIf is so powerful for enhancing sunrises and sunset.

Tips for getting the most out of BlendIf:

  • Adjust the slider for the “underlying” layer. Do not use “this” layer when applying BlendIf to adjustment layers.
  • Once you find the approximate shadow or highlight slider positions, hold <alt/option> to split the sliders and create a more natural result.
  • To target sunset colors, try bringing up the red shadow slider (instead of using the gray sliders).
  • If you want to further target sunset colors, try bringing down the blue highlights slider. The added benefit here is smaller and this is something you can safely skip, but it’s a nice trick when you want to really tweak the results.

Be sure to also see Color Grading with BlendIf.

Photoshop Selections 101: What they are and how to use them

The walls in my house are a subtle shade of green. “Hampshire Gray,” I think it’s called. Whatever it is, it’s starting to feel a little dark and dated. When we have it redone, our painters will have to protect the windows with removable blue tape before they start painting. They’re professionals, but they still need this tape to avoid accidentally painting on the glass. I suppose they could do it without the tape, but it’d probably take several extra weeks and they’d probably still make a few mistakes. So no matter how good of an artist you are, it is important to have tools to work more precisely and more quickly.

In Photoshop, the equivalent of using blue masking tape is “selections”. These act like a “stencil” to control what you can affect with the various tools in Photoshop. When you have an active selection, you can only use Photoshop’s tools (such as the paint brush) inside that selection. This can help you change a red car to green, without changing the color of the bumper. Or whiten someone’s teeth, without affecting their lips.

Of course, there are always many ways to do things in Photoshop and you can use layers and masks instead of selections to make those same changes. In fact, masks are often the best way to make those changes because you can typically revise or undo adjustments made with layers and masks. But it isn’t an either/or situation,  both selections and masks are critical to producing great images with Photoshop and it is important to understand each of their roles.

Masks control which pixels you can see, while selections control which pixels you can change. Masks conceal or reveal various parts of your layers. Selections affect which pixels you can affect with a tool, warp, or filter. And because masks are just grayscale images, you can also use selections to help create or refine your masks. So even if you use adjustment layers instead of brushes or other tools, it’s important to be skilled with selections.

In the following video, you’ll see these concepts in action as you get a brief overview of every selection tool available in Photoshop.

 

Photoshop offers many tools for making selections. They can be a little difficult to discover, as they aren’t all in one place. They are located in the tool bar, various menus, in the layers and channels panels, and available via shortcut keys. To help you find them, I’ve listed where to find each next to its description.

Photoshop offers the following basic tools for creating selections, including:

  • Marquee selections (Found in the toolbar; shortcut: <M> or <shift><M>).  This allows you to create selections which are rectangular and circular in shape. That may sound simple, but can be quite useful for creating vignettes, general selections, or revising selections by using the add/subtract/intersect commands mentioned below. This is a “dumb” tool which completely ignores the content of your image.
  • Lasso selections (Found in the toolbar;shortcut: <L> or <shift><L>). The general idea is that you draw a freehand selection. The polygonal version allows you to draw with a series of connected lines, and the magnetic version tries to help snap the selection to edges. The use of this tool is often similar to the marquee selections, but with much more control over the shape of the selection. This is a “dumb” tool which also ignores the content of your image.
  • Magic wand (Found in the toolbar;shortcut: <W> or <shift><W>). This tool allows you to select pixels which are similar to whatever you click on. This is very useful to quickly select things like a blue sky. However, this tool creates all or nothing selections, which means that the transitions are very harsh.
  • Quick Select (Found in the toolbar;shortcut: <W> or <shift><W>). This tool is somewhat similar to the Magic Wand, but you click and drag to help define the selection. The Magic Wand is great for subjects which may be broken up (such as a blue sky obscured by tree leaves), whereas the Quick Select is often simpler for targeting continuous subjects (such as a continuous sky).

 

Taking things a step further, selections aren’t quite as simple as blue masking tape. The selection tools mentioned above either create selections which are 0% or 100% for a given pixel. But the more advanced options below can be partially selected from 1-99% as well. These allow for much more natural selections and higher quality work.

Photoshop’s more advanced selection tools include:

  • Refine Edge (Found under the Select menu as “Select and Mask,” or as “Refine Edge” in older versions of Photoshop). This tool helps to soften the improve the edges of your selection by analyzing the image content and is a great way to address edge issues with the Magic Wand and Quick Select tools.
  • Color Range (Found under Selection/Color Range). This tool helps target pixels of similar tone or color. But unlike the Magic Wand or Quick Select tools, it is able to create partial selections. This allows for more natural selections and higher quality work.
  • From Channels/Masks (available in the channels panel under Window/Channels: look for the “load channel as selection” icon at the bottom of the panel or <ctrl/cmd>-click on any thumbnail in the channels panel. Or you may <ctrl/cmd>-click on any layer mask in the layers panel). This creates “luminosity selections”, or selections based on the brightness of the image.  This is an advanced technique, which I cover in great detail on my luminosity masking page, newsletter tutorials, and in my exposure blending course.
  • From Transparency (available by <ctrl/cmd>-clicking on any image thumbnail in the layers panel). If you have a normal layer which covers the entire image, this is the same as selecting everything. But if the layer has some transparency, can be used to target just the pixels in the layer. This is most useful when targeting areas dodged and burned on a transparent layer. For the most part, it is just important to be aware of this because if you -click on the image thumbnail, you will probably see a selection around the image when you meant to load the layer mask or channel as a luminosity selection instead. In other words, you’ll probably run into this by accident at some point if you’re using luminosity selections. Loading from transparency only considers the transparency of the pixels, not their luminosity.

 

Photoshop includes various other tools to work with selections, which are often used to combine simple selections into more complex and useful ones.

Other helpful tools for working with selections:

  • Deselect (shortcut: <cmd>-D). This discards your selection, so that you can once again change any pixel.
  • Select All (shortcut: <ctrl/cmd>-A). This is commonly used to select the entire image so that you can copy and paste it.
  • Expand/Contract/Feather (Found under Select/Modify). Feathering is an especially useful option to help transition more smoothly from areas which are selected to those which are not. Expanding and contracting can be helpful to refine a Quick Select at the edges.
  • Add (shortcut: <shift>). Combining selections allows for more complex selections. Adding via marquee or lasso is a great way to fill in any holes in the middle of your selection.
  • Subtract (shortcut: <alt/option>). Subtracting via marquee or lasso is a great way to remove parts of your selection you don’t want.
  • Intersect (shortcut: <shift><alt/option>). Intersecting keeps areas which are common to two selections. Intersecting with a lasso is a great way to keep just a portion of an existing selection.
  • Hide Marching Ants or “Extras” (shortcut: <ctrl/cmd>-H). This allows you to hide the “marching ants” that are meant to show a selection, as the ants can be very distracting.

 

This is just an overview of the tools that ship with Photoshop. There are many 3rd party options to help create and use selections, such as my luminosity masking panel Lumenzia.

 

Luminosity masking is easier than ever with Lumenzia v7

Version 7 of the Lumenzia luminosity masking panel for Photoshop is now available as a free upgrade for all customers. This is the the most ambition update since v1, with over 160 new features, updates, and bug fixes in total. The major themes in v7 are speed and interactivity. It’s never been easier to create the perfect luminosity mask or selection to make beautiful photos. And the updates have been designed to avoid changing any existing workflows, so you can jump right in.

Lumenzia is also featured extensively in my Exposure Blending Master Course (and Lumenzia v7 can be purchased for 50% off when bundled with the course). None of the techniques taught in the course with v6 change now, but I am updating the course to highlight a few ways you might take advantage of new v7 capabilities.

Buy Lumenzia v7 now.

New features in Lumenzia v7 include:

  • Dynamic previews  immediately update the preview as you click “Not” or any of the color swatches at the top of the panel.**
  • The new Precision and Value Sliders to interactively adjust mask strength to be more specific or general. This seemingly simple controls allows you to customize masks extensively in a visual and intuitive manner. You can even adjust mask feathering without opening the Properties panel in Photoshop. **
  • The precision slider also allows you to create intermediate masks (such as L1.5) and more specific masks (such as D7). **
  • Fast previews. This dramatically speeds up the creation of the temporary orange and red layers under many common conditions (up to 4-8X faster on typical files, or up to 20X on extremely large files).
  • The active luminosity selection lights up green so you can easily remember if you are working with L2 vs L3 or something else. **
  • The non-destructive sponge has been completely resigned for speed, simplicity, and better results. It’s the easiest way to enhance or subdue color in your image. (As before, click “Dodge” to access the Sponge tool.) **
  • Highlight blown or nearly blown highlights and shadows by <alt/option>-clicking “Map”.
  • Load any gray or transparent dodge/burn layer as a selection, so that you can further refine your results (such as by applying a contrast curve to only the areas which were dodged and burned).
  • And so much more (>160 enhancements total). See the release notes for a full list of all changes.

** Note for CS6 users: While v7 includes >100 enhancements for CS6, you will see that several new interface items which require CC (such as the sliders). This are unfortunately due to limitations of the nearly 7-year old CS6 platform. Differences are primarily in appearance or workflow. Functional capabilities generally remain nearly the same (the new color model is only available for CC however).

Buy Lumenzia v7 now.

Buy Lumenzia v7 now.

3 Great Ways to Enhance Your Photos with “Replace Color”

Photoshop and Lightroom have an endless choice of tools for enhancing color in your photos. In the past, I’ve written tutorials on how to use Selective Color, Camera Calibration, HSL, and BlendIf. In this tutorial, I want to cover and old and often overlooked tool in Photoshop, Replace Color.

 

There are at least three scenarios where Replace Color can make a big impact on your image:

  • Enhancing de saturated colors: Selective Color and HSL are great tools to enhancing color, but they can’t target colors which are too de-saturated. Replace Color can much more easily target the key areas to add saturation.
  • Increase saturation of bright colors: When the brightness (lightness) of a pixel is too high, increasing saturation may not increase perceived color at all. This is often an issue with bright colorful skies. The way to increase color is to reduce lightness, rather than increase saturation. Selective Color tends not to work in this situation, and HSL can be difficult to target precisely in this situation. So Replace Color becomes a great option.
  • Dodging and burning: It can be difficult to independently control changes in color and tone when using traditional dodge and burn techniques. The beauty of Replace Color is that it gives you independent control over hue, saturation, and lightness while targeting highlights or shadows in your image.

Of course, you can also use it for its intended purpose, to replace one color with another in your image. However, I prefer changing colors in LAB.When you make such a dramatic change in hue on a detailed object (vs a sky), there are some little things that may go wrong and be hard to notice initially when using Replace Color.

There are also some good reasons why Replace Color is not widely used. It does not support a non-destructive workflow, because it cannot be used as an adjustment layer nor on a Smart Object. So Replace Color should typically be used either very early or very late in your workflow. And if another tool can get the job done just as well and work non-destructively, that’s usually the best choice. But when you run into one of the scenarios above, it’s a great option to consider.

Workflow to use Replace Color:

  1. Replace Color works on a single layer, so create a flattened copy of your image. You can do this by clicking <ctrl/cmd><alt/option><shift>-E to create a “Stamp Visible” layer.
  2. Go to Image / Adjustments / Replace Color
  3. Increase the saturation slider significantly to the right (or make some other dramatic change in Hue, Saturation, and Lightness). The result will look overdone, but you’ll be able to clearly see where in the image you are making changes.
  4. Make sure “localized color clusters” is checked. Most of the time, this is the best option. This keeps your adjustments more isolated to the areas you click, which is generally what you need when using this tool. You can always toggle it off and on to compare later.
  5. Now use the picker tool to click on your main target.
  6. Adjust the fuzziness to select more or less of the colors similar to what you initially clicked on.
  7. You can hold <shift> or use the picker with the + sign to manually add to the selection with additional clicks. [The subtract (-) option does not work as you would expect and I recommend not using it at this time].
  8. Now that you have dialed in the targeted, adjust the hue, saturation, and lightness to get the desired effect.
  9. Continue to iterate your targeting and HSL values as needed.

 

What is Deconvolution Sharpening and How to Use It

As photographers, we tend to be obsessed with pixels and detail. If that’s you, you’re going to love “deconvolution” sharpening. It is one of the easiest ways to get more detail from your images.

 

The Big Picture: What is “deconvolution” sharpening?

Few topics cause more confusion and debate than sharpening. We could easily end up in a spiral of meaningless debate over terms – so for the sake of this article,  when I refer to sharpness I mean the viewer’s ability to clearly differentiate small details (at a given resolution). That might mean that a sign on a building is easier to read, that you can better see the texture in a rocky landscape, or that you can see individual needle on a pine tree.

There are three essential types of sharpening in photography, including:

  • Capture sharpening, which is done to offset a lack of sharpness in the RAW image caused by technical limitations of our cameras. This might be caused by various factors such imperfections in lenses or an anti-alias filter on the sensor.
  • Output sharpening, which is done to offset a lack of sharpness in the final image caused by the technical limitations of resizing or printing. When we resize an image for the web, the reduction in resolution can create a loss of sharpness, as fewer pixels are available to convey the details of the scene. When we print, the tiny ink dots used spread on the paper, causing a loss of sharpness. “Web” and “Print” sharpening are designed to offset these technical problems.
  • Creative sharpening, which is an artistic process that is left to the style and imagination of the photographer to enhance the image. It has nothing to do with the limits of our equipment. This is similar to the way we apply color grading (an artistic process for emotional impact) to an image after white balancing it (a technical process designed for accuracy).

An image may use any mix of these types of sharpening, but they should be applied in a particular order. Capture sharpening should always be done first, followed by creative sharpening, and then output sharpening last after any resizing of the finished image.

Which brings us to “deconvolution” sharpening. This is a form of capture sharpening designed to offset the softness created by our cameras and lenses. Through some very complicated math and some assumptions about the ways our cameras subtly blur our RAW files, deconvolution sharpening can help restore much of that lost detail. (If you really want to nerd out, search the internet for “point spread function” and deconvolution to learn more – but you really don’t need to understand the details to use this awesome technique).

By using deconvolution sharpening, we are increasing the apparent detail in an image. Just this technique alone can probably help you enlarge a print another 10-20%. On a Nikon D850, increasing linear resolution by 10% would bring us from 46 megapixels to about 56 megapixels (multiply by 1.1 twice because the linear dimensions are applied twice to get the pixel count) without using deconvolution. That’s a huge gain that you can use to get better prints from old files, make massive prints from your current camera, or keep detail when you need to crop your image significantly.

 

How do we use deconvolution sharpening?

There are some software packages out there that promote their use of deconvolution sharpening, but some do not. Lightroom and ACR (Adobe Camera RAW) support it, but you wouldn’t know it because it isn’t labeled or even mentioned. Thankfully, it’s very easy to use if you just know where to look.

If you use my Lumenzia luminosity masking panel, just click “Sharp” and choose the deconvolution method. Everything is done for you. Otherwise, read on for instructions on how to do it with your version of Lightroom or Photoshop.

The “details” slider in Lightroom is really a choice between two sharpening algorithms. Slide it one way for deconvolution sharpening, the other for unsharp mask, or somewhere in the middle for a blend. The trick to working with deconvolution is to set the detail slider accordingly, and then set the radius slider to the minimimum, as we are working to extract small details.

So open up Lightroom or Adobe Camera RAW (Filter / Camera RAW Filter if the image is already open in Photoshop CC). Then go to the detail tab and move the radius slider all the way to the left (to 0.5) and the detail slider all the way to the right (to 100). That’s all you need to do to enable deconvolution sharpening. Once you’ve done that, just move the amount slider up or down until you get the amount of deconvolution sharpening you want.  I generally use somewhere between 30 and 55 for the amount, but sometimes as little as 20 or as much as 80. 50 is a very good place to start. It is generally best to evaluate the image at 100% when setting the amount. Finally, leave masking disabled (set to 0).

If you use Photoshop CS6 and do not have access Lightroom, you should use the following alternative approach for deconvolution sharpening. Go to Filter / Smart Sharpen, set the remove dropdown to Gaussian Blur, and the radius to 0.5px. The adjust the amount as needed. Higher amounts may be needed with this approach, so try 50-100. If you have access to Adobe Camera RAW, use the first method above. But if not, this is a great alternative that also produces great results.

There are of course other programs out there that offer deconvolution sharpening, and I’m not claiming that you might not get a little bit more out of another approach. However, I believe the Adobe deconvolution tools are ideal. They are very fast and easy to use. Most importantly, you can apply them on a Smart Object for maximum flexibility in your workflow.

 

Free deconvolution sharpening actions:

To make things simpler if you don’t have Lumenzia, I’ve created a set of free deconvolution sharpening actions for Photoshop. Just open them with Photoshop (you should be able to double-click them, or just go to Window/Actions in Photoshop, then click the top-right menu in Actions and choose “Load Actions”). Once you have the actions in Photoshop, you’ll see options for low, medium and high sharpening – as well as a second set marked for CS6 users. Just click on the one you want to use and then click the play triangle at the bottom of the Actions panel. These actions can be used with both normal layers and Smart Objects. And you can always choose to click the open option to the left of an action to toggle on the dialogs if you wish to be prompted to choose the specific amount of sharpening you wish to use (be sure to click over to the details tab if you are using the CC actions, as the Camera RAW Filter does not show that screen when first opened).

 

When should we use deconvolution sharpening?

I use it on nearly every portfolio image that I think I might print some day. It’s used to increase detail, so this isn’t a process you need to think about if you’re only going to shrink the image for the web.

When in doubt, just use it. It is quick and easy. More importantly, deconvolution sharpening should be done early in your workflow. It does not need to be the first thing you do to your image, but it should definitely be done before creative/output sharpening or resizing your image. The assumptions that make deconvolution sharpening work fall about once you start making other such pixel adjustments to your image. and the results can look pretty poor if you use it too late in your workflow. You can apply deconvolution to a TIF without issue (within the workflow limitations just mentioned), it does not need to be done on the RAW file.

Never apply deconvolution sharpening after any other type of sharpening. Lightroom applies some sharpening by default, so make sure you are zeroing that out if you are applying deconvolution sharpening in Photoshop.

 

What about noise and halos?

When I’ve told some photographers about this approach, they’ve made comments about seeing noise. And they are right. This approach will turn exaggerate noise in smooth areas of the image, such as calm lakes and blue skies. That’s no problem, we can easily fix that by blending the image to use deconvolution for increase detail in parts of the image where it works, and avoid deconvolution in areas where it causes issues.

Because of this, I recommend always applying deconvolution in Photoshop. Lightroom and ACR will not let you apply deconvolution locally. Yes, there are “sharpness” and “noise” sliders for the local brush, but it is not the same.

There are two basic workflows to apply deconvolution sharpening locally in Photoshop. The first method is to create two layers in Photoshop for the same image. The bottom layer should be unsharpened (amount = 0) and the top layer should have deconvolution sharpening. Add a black mask on the top (sharpened) layer and paint with white to reveal areas of detail where you want to see the sharpening.

The second method is to use a Smart Object, which I greatly prefer for its flexibility. To do this, first select your image layer(s), right-click, and convert to a Smart Object. Then go to Filter / Camera RAW Filter, switch the detail tab (the one with triangles), slide radius to the left, detail to the right, and select the amount of sharpening you wish to use and click OK. This will sharpen the whole image, but you can now use the Smart Filter Mask to apply the effect just to the areas that need it. You can paint black on the mask to remove sharpening over smooth areas, or invert it to black and then use white to paint in the areas of detail.

 

What about other forms of sharpening?

There are literally books written on each of these topics, so I can’t possibly cover all of sharpening in this post. But I want to leave you with a sense of the big picture.

You can use creative sharpening and output sharpening with deconvolution, just be sure to do the deconvolution first. My general workflow is to apply deconvolution then creative sharpening to my master files. My creative sharpening includes various use of High Pass, Smart Sharpen or Nik – and there are many other great tools out there. The goal at this stage is to get an optimal look for the full resolution file.

When I’m ready to output a file for print or the web, I create a flattened copy of the file, resize it, and then apply output sharpening to the file last. I use various Photoshop sharpening tools or Nik for output sharpening. The goal at this stage is to either get an image that looks optimal a monitor for web use, or something which is a bit “crunchy” (oversharpened) when preparing for print.

 


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