Vector First Aid

A life-saving plug-in from Astute Graphics

After all the trouble with my OS crash recently, I found myself just out of the mood (and habit) of creating art pages. However, going through my assets to make sure they were all backed up, I did get in the mood to make better use of them, especially when it came to creating new elements I could use with art journaling. If, like me, you enjoy creating composites, whether for scrap, journaling, photo art, or planner pages, you’re probably also not going to want to take the time to create each and every element from scratch—not when designers spark your imagination with their kits. But that doesn’t mean you’ll never want to figure out what they’re doing, even if simply to appreciate the effort that goes into these elements by trying it yourself.

Some of the creative assets I buy don’t come from scrapbook sites, but from sites dedicated to designers. Here you can find fonts that are terrific for scrapping or art journaling, textures that are perfect for papers or photo art, brushes of all kinds, as well as things like flowers, figures, and flourishes. These asset sites, such as or, often sell bundles of assets at extremely good prices. But as they are geared for designers, assets are also often in a vector format as well as being PNGs or JPEGs. The vector assets almost always come in EPS format, which is a universal vector format, so many programs can open them (although they may rasterize them), but much of the vector artwork has so many anchor points along their paths that not only are the file sizes very large (and will slow Illustrator down), they’re nearly impossible to edit in their original state.

PathScribe dialog & selected artwork
Astute Graphics’ PathScribe plug-in shows the number of points selected AND the number of paths, as well as their open/closed status. PathScribe includes a Smart Remove Points feature, as well as a Smart Remove Brush for “brushing away” the excess points without deforming the path beyond your tolerance setting.

This is where Astute Graphics’ latest plug-in, Vector First Aid, is uniquely able to save our sanity. If you’re not already familiar with Astute Graphics, they create plug-ins for Adobe Illustrator that make working with vector almost easy, even for us pixel artists. I began using Illustrator at the same time as I began learning to use Photoshop, and I liked what could be made with vector, but it wasn’t until I learned about Astute Graphics plug-ins that I began to relax and enjoy creating vector graphics with the combination of Astute Graphics tools and Illustrator’s powerful features, such as Recolor Artwork and the Pattern Options panel.

For a long time now, Astute Graphics main drawing tools, PathScribe and InkScribe, have had a feature called “Smart Remove Points.” PathScribe has even dedicated a brush to removing points, letting you simply brush along paths to remove the excess points that interfere with editing. The Smart Remove Points feature is smart enough to adjust Bezier handles wherever possible, to know if the resulting path will deviate from the original by more than you have determined was acceptable, and leave necessary anchor points intact. Illustrator doesn’t care what happens to the path when you delete a point, and will never adjust the handles to retain the path’s shape, nor leave a point in place if the path depends upon that anchor.

Super Smart Remove Points icon
Vector First Aid incorporates the Smart Remove Points technology with the additional benefit of being able to apply it to the entire file—useful for files created with Image Trace, the Pencil tool, or in EPS format, all of which are well-known for having excessive numbers of anchor points.
Vector First Aid Preferences
Preferences for Astute Graphics plug-ins are often overwhelmingly comprehensive, but the default settings suit most of the time, and the ability to finely tune to customize the feature or tool is one of the reasons their use is so unlimited compared to similar features found in Adobe Illustrator. Here the Smart Remove Tolerance can be precisely adjusted to best suit the paths that will be affected.

This feature alone made it possible to use Image Trace on simple artwork that had been scanned, objects drawn with Illustrator’s Pencil tool, and EPS objects. Now, however, with Vector First Aid, all I have to do to start cleaning up paths is select the paths, push a button and relax. Vector First Aid looks at the entire selection and removes the excess points, not deviating from the original path any more than I’ve allowed in its Preferences.

Vector First Aid panel with action results & artwork
After running Super Smart Remove Points, almost half the points have been removed at a tolerance of 15 (default is 20), chosen to best preserve the shape of the paths and still produce paths with a manageable amount of points. From here, PathScribe’s Smart Remove Points feature (or brush) can be used in a more individually targeted fashion to reduce more points if desired.

While that feature alone is worth the price of admission, it’s a mere fraction of what Vector First Aid can do. Another really useful feature is its ability to join paths, and unlike Illustrator, to do so smartly. Instead of manually searching a document for every open path that should be closed, and then using Illustrator’s Join command which always joins any two points with a straight line, Vector First Aid will search for you for any paths whose end points are as close as you specify for paths that should be joined. It then joins smartly, preserving smooth or corner anchors, rather than arbitrarily making them all corner points.

Vector First Aid Icon strip
Vector First Aid includes icons for the most common issues: Super Smart Remove points, Rejoin paths, Combine point text, and Replace missing fonts.

Illustrator has always been able to import many different formats, but not always all that cleanly. Much of Vector First Aid is dedicated to fixing the problems that come with the files we open in Illustrator, but we also create our own problems when creating from scratch, and Vector First Aid has us covered. If you look at the screenshot below, you’ll see how very powerful the plug-in is. Notice that you can configure it to perform several tasks at once, so that even if you could do those tasks with Illustrator commands, you’d have to either write your own actions or scripts (to cover the different issues), or you’d have to perform them one at a time—and that’s just if Illustrator can do the same thing.

Vector First Aid menus
The pop-up menu provides access to the many individual features used to fix documents that have acquired faults and unnecessary baggage during their construction, or that have become broken in the import process. You might consider Vector First Aid in part as Illustrator’s missing Preflight feature, as well as first aid for the many types of files Illustrator doesn’t handle with total compatibility.

Personally, I’m as keen on Astute Graphics plug-ins for Illustrator as I am on Nik’s filters for Photoshop. They’re always looking at what we do and asking themselves how could we do something more easily and better. And then they give us a fantastic plug-in that does just that.

Daily Planner #3 for Democracy series
Daily Planner #3 from my Democracy series of White House and Congressional “planner pages” of actions taken by them. Credits belong primarily to RMcMeen and Holliewood.

Topaz Studio First Look

What the open beta says about the next Topaz product

Like probably most of you, I’ve recently been playing with the Topaz Studio public beta. As someone who owns the full collection of Topaz plug-ins, I’ve been paying attention mostly to what the Studio does for me that the plug-ins don’t. Topaz Studio is quite different from the plug-ins—a bit more like the next generation of photoFXlab. But does it do enough to make me willing to pay for another Topaz venture?

Unlike some popular editing software, Topaz Studio makes no attempt to manage your files. It offers neither a browser nor a catalog solution; it’s up to you to know where your files are and to manage them. It does, however, offer a complete workflow for editing your images and adding a variety of effects, along with masks, blend modes and layers to keep the non-destructive workflow edits fully customizable.  It will open your raw files, as well as JPEG, PNG, or TIFF in its standalone version, and acts like a regular plug-in if you invoke it through Adobe Photoshop or Lightroom. You can run it as a Smart Filter in Photoshop, or choose Edit In Topaz Studio with Lightroom.

The features in Topaz Studio emphasize workflow and effects presets constructed from multiple individual adjustments, much like the presets you find in Texture Effects. The Workflow menu covers the more common editing methods, such as “Detailed Architecture” or “Perfect Portrait.” The “More” adjustments section contains a separate menu for each adjustment to be added in any order, or to use in addition to a workflow. The Effects menu works just like it does in Impression and Texture Effects, providing a list of categories to search for effects, previewing them in the sidebar thumbnails, and providing the customary edit button to enter the editing workspace with the chosen effect. Most of the other tools are shortcuts to basic adjustments, as well as to quick editing workflows for the first basic edits you usually perform.

Menu Contents shown
From R to L: Workflow, Adjustment, and Effects menus (not all fully shown)
Quick Edit and tools interface
Icons for basic editing tools, the Workflow and Adjustments menus, as well as quick access to the most common adjustments and basic editing workflows are always available. Shown above is the workflow if you click on the Quick preset.

I think its fairly clear from  looking at the main features in Topaz Studio that its design is intended to leverage the power of the presets they’ve already been offering us through their filters. At the same time, it speeds up the process by creating workflows that combine many of the features that are currently found in their separate plug-ins, such as adding a Radiance adjustment created from their Glow filter, with a Texture adjustment from Texture Effects, and a Precision Contrast adjustment from Clarity, perhaps. If you don’t own some of their filters (or any of them), you still will be able to use many of the more popular features contained in them through these adjustment layers. And if you do own their filters, you can use the Plug-Ins menu at the top to take a copy of your image directly into a filter to gain access to the full power of any of the plug-ins, while still using the simplified workflow approach in Topaz Studio.

Showing thumbnail previews and Edit panel
To the left is the thumbnail view for presets in the selected category. This feature should be familiar to anyone who has Impressions, Glow, or Texture Effects. To the right are the editable layers that constitute the selected effect. If an adjustment layer is neither free nor purchased, it shows up with the effect, but without the sliders that allow for more customization of the settings.
Image Tray can hold many images to blend with each other
Images open into an Image Tray. Any image can be duplicated or duplicated as a new image with all the current active edits applied (using icons in the tray not shown). Although the images in this example are from the same original, an Open icon in the tray also allows you to open different images in order to blend them, similar to using the multiple exposure option in Topaz Texture Effects. Note that the image on the far right was created in Topaz B&W Effects 2 run as a plug-in to Topaz Studio on a duplicate of the image first edited with a Studio workflow.

There’s of course a trade-off to using Topaz Studio to run their more powerful filters—unlike running them individually on Smart Object layers, you can’t later on edit the results non-destructively, re-entering the plug-in merely by double-clicking on its Smart Filter name. However, while you’re in Topaz Studio and working with multiple versions or any other images, you can use the Image Layer feature right then and there to blend results from Topaz filters with each other or with an image you edited solely with Topaz Studio.

The Image Layer interface
A very nice feature in Topaz Studio lets you blend image layers, so versions that have been edited for different qualities can continue to be adjusted before leaving Topaz Studio, or completely different images can be blended as desired.

When I first started looking into the use of Topaz Studio, I was feeling hard-pressed to find a good reason to invest any of my time, let alone my money, in yet another standalone/plug-in image editor. Topaz Studio in particular appeared too simplified to offer much, since even the individual adjustments aren’t as powerful as the full plug-in filters, whether Clarity, or ReStyle, or Texture Effects. However, the more I explore Topaz Studio, and the more images I throw at it, the more I’ve come to feel this simplification of features is an asset, not a liability. The basic editing workflows are very well designed to cover a wide variety of images, and are especially welcome in my workflow when I’m editing the numerous snapshots I have taken or had given to me, like the bridal image I’ve used for these examples. It may not be the ideal application for your very best fine art images, but if we’re honest, most of us have plenty of snaps that we don’t want to spend hours editing. We would, however, like to quickly and easily make them more interesting to look at or better memories to hold. And being able to use our Topaz filters with Topaz Studio makes for a very powerful combination that goes well beyond the quick fix for a snapshot, providing us with a creative adventure.

Results from Topaz Studio modified in Adobe Photoshop
Although the Topaz filter B&W Effects 2 wasn’t run as Smart Filter, but inside Topaz Studio, the image can of course still be modified in Photoshop to alter color, texture, and tone as desired.

Topaz has recently announced that the basic version of Topaz Studio will be free. A small collection of basic editing adjustments will be fully customizable, while the remainder won’t include their sliders unless you purchase the “pro” version of the adjustment separately. From what I can tell, the Effects and Workflow presets that include adjustments you don’t own will produce results, but only Opacity, blend mode, and masking is editable. I won’t swear to this, of course, since this is still beta and anything can still be added or removed. And since this still IS a beta, I won’t go into any discussion of bugs or other feature limitations. I am, however, increasingly aware of the place this application could have in my day-to-day workflow.

Student Debt Art Journal page for Democracy
Student Debt, from my Democracy art journal series, used a photo art action and several textures to blend the old photo of Stanford University with the lower half from Mischief Circus, including several art dolls from Xquizart. The unifying color and textures could have been even more easily added if I’d had the Topaz open beta when I made this.

MagicSquire for Photoshop

A Brush and Tool preset organizer

Last week during a discussion on the lack of good organization features in Photoshop’s Brushes panels, someone mentioned that they had recently purchased MagicSquire (, a new extension that allows the user to organize brushes into groups, as well as create thumbnail previews and edit the brushes themselves.

This isn’t the developer’s first application. DiskFonts and both MagicPicker and MixColor have been around for some time. MagicSquire is almost brand new, but the developer is putting a lot of effort into bringing in new features, and responds to feedback posted on his feedback page within a day’s time. In the week I’ve owned MagicSquire, I’ve received two updates, and two positive responses to my own feedback requests.

MagicSquire isn’t the only brush organizer out there. I’ve heard good words for both Brusherator and Brush Box, but I’ve only visited their websites; I’ve never used them. I’ve also been using Brush Pilot as a brush viewer for a good many years. However, it’s not been updated for a very long time and has tended to crash more often in Yosemite on my Mac. The website only lists compatibility up to Mavericks. While it’s Mac only, I have seen that there are brush viewers out there for Windows.

Brush Pilot doesn’t work within Photoshop, but previews .abr files with scalable thumbnails and installs them into Photoshop. You can also export PNG files from an .abr file with or without transparency, which can be very handy. You can even Print to PDF to create a contact sheet. You need to use Photoshop’s Preset Manager for any other operations. However, I find being able to preview the contents of an .abr file before installing it so valuable, I’m very happy to have Brush Pilot even if it is no longer being developed and does sometimes have a crashing fit. I have long requested that Bridge take over this role, but so far, nothing has come of that request.

Brush Pilot screen shots
Brush Pilot scans your entire computer searching for .abr files. Any it finds it presents in a tree structure. One pane of the tree structure is devoted to brushes already installed. Click on any .abr file and it previews the contents, using scalable thumbnails to make previewing easy.
MagicSquire's Interface for brushes and edit mode
The bottom image displays the groups, including groups for tools such as the Mixer Brush and the Smudge tool, which are indicated by small icons. In the top panel, the brush shown below in the red box has had stroke thumbnails generated for it—similar to choosing Stroke Thumbnail in Photoshop’s brush panels, but with more options. The Edit dialog lets you name/rename, pick a preview, create a new brush preset, or update the current brush.

For “The Refugee,” (detail above, full image at the end of this post) I used several brushes to create the texture, and it was much easier than it has ever been to select the Brushes and Tool Presets I used, thanks to MagicSquire’s ability to sort them into groups and present a visual reference. I also was able to easily modify a brush and click on the  New Preset icon to save it directly into the same group—or into any group I first targeted.Brushes can be dragged from one group to another, and new groups can be created to organize brushes at any time. Renaming brushes is possible any time you double-click on a brush to enter the Edit mode. The dialog is fully resizable, and with the latest update, you can choose to view a compact mode instead of the full panel. It shrinks the panel to the size of the brush thumbnail until you hover over it, then expands to the full panel while you select another brush. Move your cursor away again and it automatically shrinks back.

Note that in Compact mode, there currently appears to be a bug: double-clicking on a brush to edit it does open the Edit dialog, but it jumps back and forth, making it impossible to enter anything into it, at least on my computer using a Wacom stylus and tablet. But the mode is terrific so long as I exit it before attempting to edit or create a new brush preset.

Screen shots for compact mode
Select Compact mode from the panel menu to create a very small panel easily floated anywhere you want it, or keep it docked as an icon. The panel will automatically pop open on hover and shrink back again when you move your cursor away. (Does not currently work properly in Edit mode)

I’ve been told that the developer is now working to offer previewing by name, marking brushes as favorites, and eventually, loading and saving sets of brushes so those of us with far too many don’t have to load them all in order to keep them organized through MagicSquire. I can hardly wait!

One word of advice for anyone who decides to get MagicSquire: if you’re running 2017, you’ll also want to pick up the free Extension Manager from the Anastasiy website in order to install it, and not try to use the now-deprecated Adobe Extension Manager.

"The Refugee" an art journal page for Democracy series
“The Refugee” in my Democracy series — The quote is a selection from Warsan Shire’s poem “Home.” Other credits go to Rebecca McMeen and The Urban Fairy for several of the design elements.


Photoshop layer management from Creative Do

Not long ago, I was in a forum thread discussing how difficult it can be moving layers from one document to another inside Photoshop, especially if, like me, you work with tabbed documents or more than 5 or 6 open images at a time. I frequently apply an edit to one document that I then want to apply to several others in order to coordinate them. But even if I’m working with only two documents, it’s awkward moving selected layers across tabs, and can even be difficult with tiled windows. Someone mentioned that he uses DOCO from Creative DO ( DOCO is available as a Photoshop CC extension through Adobe’s Addons site (Window> Browse Extensions Online (also Help> Browse Add-ons in CC2015, and Help> Find Plug-ins and Extensions in CC2017).

DOCO’s very modest price has been well worth it to me in time saved and for ease of use. I no longer have to either group multiple layers in order to drag them over the tab of another document—if that tab is visible—or tile the documents, which can be too many to accommodate. DOCO requires you check Enable Generator in Preferences> Plug-ins> Generator, then open it from the Window > Extensions menu once you’ve installed it. I keep it docked with other panels I want always open, but you can keep it docked or not as you please. After that, whenever one or more documents are open, opening DOCO’s panel will connect it through the Generator plug-in to recognize all your open documents. Like other panels, the panel is resizable, as are the thumbnails. A checkmark in the upper left indicates the currently selected document or documents, so some actions can be performed easily on multiple documents with one push of a button.

First step in converting a template
Using DOCO to convert from 12” square template to Landscape letter size. One layer has been copied from the source to the target and transformed to fit.
Screenshot indicated layers being copied to another document
Copying the last selected layers from the source document (the lower right cluster), into position to then transform them to fit. DOCO graphically displays that the selected layers have transferred from the active document to the target document.

The initial startup can be a bit slow on my old Mac Pro, but after that I don’t notice any significant delay when using it. If I’m drag-copying several layers at once, it can take a bit of time to complete the action, but that’s dependent on how fast your computer is and how much RAM you have. If I select the same number of layers, then drag them onto another tiled layer without using DOCO, it still takes Photoshop a considerable amount of time to make the copy, and is both more difficult to set up, and I have to drag much farther distances.

Finished template easily organized through DOCO
It was very easy to click on the target document thumbnail, drag some layers over, transform, then click back on the target’s thumbnail to bring over more layers, keeping all organized in groups that were neat and tidy.

Even better than using DOCO to adjust my templates is using DOCO to recolor individual elements to give a new lease on life to an old kit. I can open 20 objects (or more) and know that DOCO will keep track of them and provide live previews for each one. I take one element to alter with adjustment layers—for instance, changing purples to pinks, although you obviously can change a hue more radically than that. Adding adjustment layers is non-destructive, and I find that adding just a Hue/Saturation and a Brightness/Contrast layer to the object I wish to recolor is often enough. But you can experiment with any number of ways to recolor using non-destructive methods. (I have written about tinting and recoloring at some length in the Restoring Trudie Ann series of tutorials.)  You can even record a very simple action that adds a few empty adjustment layers to a document to have them ready to hold the changes.

After adjusting the settings for one object or paper, open DOCO, select the adjustment layers in the Layers panel, then drag them from that document’s thumbnail in DOCO to the next open thumbnail. Continue dragging from the thumbnail you just altered to the next thumbnail until all the open documents have the copied adjustment layers in them. Now you can work backwards, altering settings for that object’s adjustment layers, if necessary, before saving and closing it. Next click on the new “last” thumbnail to adjust and save it. You don’t have to be able to see all your tabs, remember file names, open a separate file list when you have too many tabs open, tile all your documents, or remember which documents haven’t been adjusted, since the resizable panel and thumbnails in DOCO let you easily see what you’ve done.

Using one set of adjustment layers to recolor many different files
When recoloring a group of objects, DOCO lets me ignore the cluttered document window in Photoshop and copy selected layers from one object to the next in the thumbnail pane. The selected layers remain selected as they are copied, so there’s no need to reselect them in the Layers panel.
Panel and thumbnails resize to be extremely large
The dialog above has been resized to almost the same width as my image window inside Photoshop on a 24” monitor. The scale button (lower right) hasn’t even reached the largest thumbnail size available, making it incredibly easy to see what you’re doing when working with DOCO.

While these are the two most common ways I use DOCO, you can perform even more actions on one file or multiple open files. Drag multiple documents onto the active document to merge all of them into the active document, drag selected layers from a document into a drop zone (empty thumbnail space) to create a new document with those layers copied into it, rotate documents, match the size of multiple documents to the size of the active document, close selected documents, and paste the clipboard contents to selected documents.

DOCO's panel icons
Icons at the bottom of the DOCO panel provide a number of functions that don’t require using a modifier key.

I hope this gives you some idea of how this powerful, but inexpensive, Photoshop extension panel can help with your own workflow. I don’t know how I managed without it all these years.

"Speak No Truth" art journal page in Democracy series
“Speak No Truth” is the latest in my Democracy series. Credits: Anna Aspnes and Jen Maddocks.

TKActions v4 Panel & Luminosity Masks

Complex masks can be easy to make

If you read my two earlier tutorials on luminosity masking, or have found articles and videos on the Internet, you probably have realized that using luminosity masks are, for the most part, an intermediate-level skill. Using the basic luminosity mask generated by Cmd/Ctrl-clicking on a channel thumbnail to load the lights as a selection (or inverting the selection to load the darks, instead), is something anyone can do. Anybody with Photoshop, or an application with similar features and access to the channels, can start using a basic luminosity mask to control adjustments and tint effects, and from observing, begin to understand how luminosity masks are different from other kinds of masking. In Photoshop, Select> Color Range> Shadows/Midtones/Highlights goes a step further, letting the user more specifically target a range of tones, instead of simply all the lights or all the darks, while still being intuitive and interactive.

Color Range selects Highlights
Although neither as targeted nor naturally feathered as luminosity masks created with channel operations, using Color Range for Shadows/Midtones/Highlights is a good way to get used to using luminosity masks. Here the range of values from 214 to 255 is selected (white), with a guess at feathering. The preview is a bit small to judge anything accurately.

However, the user who wants to make greater use of luminosity masks is going to need more advanced techniques and strategies for editing their images. This is where purchasing a 3rd party assistant can make a major difference between occasionally dabbling with luminosity masks, and incorporating their use  into an everyday workflow. For no money at all, anyone with an Internet connection and a little Googling can find out how to make a series of ever more narrowly-targeted luminosity masks. A basic understanding of recording actions in Photoshop (or comparable software), lets the user turn the steps for creating the masks into a one-click action. For the DIY-er, this might be just enough, but whenever I’m going to incorporate an editing method into my workflow, I want it to be as easy as possible. I know I’m going to have my work cut out just learning new strategies and finding the right conditions for the new method. I don’t really want to work with the most primitive tools available if there’s something fairly affordable that can help me out.

Expanded action steps for one mask
Here I’ve expanded the action for a similar selection to the Color Range selection above, showing the steps for Super Lights—just one of the many actions created to select each of the basic luminosity masks. There’s no need to guess at an appropriate feather to avoid harsh transitions.

For roughly a week’s worth of Starbucks’ lattes, you can get the TKActionsV4 Extension panel to work with Adobe Photoshop CS6 or CC. Although Tony Kuyper was the first to create an extension panel, TKActions are no longer the only extension panel or series of actions for Photoshop, and I’ve not tested the others—you may wish to. A script for GIMP users is also available. I chose TKActions because I felt the panel was very encouraging both for beginners to the wide world of luminosity masking (myself at the time), but also to ongoing experimentation with the masks as I developed better strategies—and the price was within my budget.  After using TKActions 3, I gladly upgraded to V4, as it clearly had new features and a new organization that made it much easier to use.

TKActionsV4 panel
The new TVActionsV4 panel adds greater ease with color coding and altering the size of the buttons used to select the basic and off-center masks. The coding indicates the type of action, such as using green for layers—creating a new layer, merging layers, creating a dodge layer, etc. Large buttons indicate a broad selection, getting successively smaller as the selection is more restricted.

When I first started out, I had no clue precisely what mask to make for any given image. Instead, I chose to work with Darks, Midtones, or Lights, then clicked a single button on the panel to have the action generate all the masks for the group and store them in the Channels panel. Next I viewed each mask in turn to see which one both included the area I wanted to modify, yet was restrictive enough not to include areas I didn’t want to modify. Note: if you’re not used to using actions, they are incredibly quick to run, so you’re not twiddling your thumbs every time you run a complete set. This made it easy to experiment and learn, but somewhat slow.

Channels panel after running All Lights
Beginners often start with the Basic tab and create a series of channels (or Curves or Levels layers), to view each mask before deciding which one is the Goldilocks zone between selecting too much or too little.

As I began to get a feel for the masks, instead of running all the darks, for example, I thought about whether I wanted most of the darks, or a more narrowed selection of some darker darks. The TKActions panel has always made viewing a selection simple, and with v4, it’s even easier. Now I click View to see a rubylith overlay on my image (or blue, if that’s better for me). The layers placed in the Layers panel are temporary—click View again to turn off the rubylith, remove the layers from the panel, and restore the marching ants. If the ants aren’t visible because no pixels are selected with more than a 50% opacity, a border around the upper half of the panel has a  “marching ants” look that lets me know a selection is active. If my selection doesn’t appear very useful—too much or too little is selected—I guess again and  choose another selection—each “guess” only takes a second to preview. I then click on a button to add a layer and mask for adjusting. Of course, once I have an active selection, I can use Photoshop directly, but if the TKActionsV4 panel is already open, I have a number of one-click choices available.

View of selection with red or blue overlay
When you click on View for a chosen selection, the action that runs uses a rubylith overlay on the image by default, but if you prefer to see a blue overlay, you can turn on the topmost layer in the group.
Marching Ants around panel indicate an active selection
Many luminosity masks won’t have any pixels with more than 50% opacity. Photoshop is unable to display the marching ants to indicate an active selection under these circumstances, but TKActionsV4 runs a black and white “marching ants” border around the upper half of the panel. You’ll always know if you have an active selection affecting your edits.

Beyond access to the basic luminosity layers that any action set will give you, I can choose to make selections using the digital Zone system, or create other multi-zone off-center selections, with the panel’s features aiding me in my choice. These selections help protect the lighter and darker tones around the selection from being affected by the adjustment. I first add a Curves adjustment layer, use the Targeted Adjustment tool (the hand with the pointing finger icon) to hover over the area in the image I want to adjust, then look at the input number at the bottom of the Curves panel. With that number in mind, I hover over either the Zone system numbers or the Multi-zone off-center selection numbers to find the number that comes closest, and choose that button for my mask. The unadjusted Curves layer is only used as an aid to locating the right masks while I’m editing the image.

Curves aid for off-center masks
Even if you don’t ever like to make adjustments with Curves, you can easily use a Curves adjustment layer to see the tonal value that’s underneath your cursor—shown in the Input field. Then hover over to find that target in the Digital Zone system of numbers, or over the buttons that select multi-zone off-center masks.
Layers panel with luminosity masks
The Layers panel shows the few luminosity masks I used to correct basic tonal range on a black and white photo that was scanned from an old print. Normally, I’d use Camera Raw or Lightroom to make such basic adjustments, and use luminosity masks for refinements, but I can just as easily make basic adjustments in Photoshop using luminosity masks. The blue overlay is the first darks mask; the red overlay is the last mask used.

I’ve barely touched on first steps when using the panel. It’s easier in practice than it is to describe, which is why there is so much documentation and tutorials for it. I’ll continue another time describing more strategies.

Original image, intermediate with luminosity masks, final after 3rd party filters
You can use Luminosity masks and Photoshop to perform many edits that you might use an expensive 3rd party plug-in for, or to restrict the effect of a 3rd party filter.  In the above series you can see the original photo after I used the Adaptive Wide Angle filter and the Spot Healing Brush to correct technical imperfections (left), followed by the results of basic edits with luminosity masks (middle), and the final version after adding 3rd party filters to the mix.

Learning to use Topaz photoFXlab

Why I am looking at it once again

When Topaz photoFXlab was first released, I jumped on it without really thinking. It would work, I imagined, like Google Nik’s Color Efex Pro—a plug-in I’ve been using since it was plain “Nik” and cost half as much as Photoshop itself. I thought photoFXlab would let me stack up filters while keeping them editable, at least through Smart Filter technology. So when I found out that while it could be run as a Smart Filter in Photoshop, it didn’t save the stack of layers, I was disappointed. It was also a bit buggy, difficult to install and update with that manager Topaz briefly used, and didn’t recognize when I had updated one of the filters. I basically quit using it. When they released an update, I updated the plug-in, but reopening a Smart Filter still showed that I couldn’t get back to my original layered file, so I ignored it again.

photoFXlab as a Smart Filter

Smart Filter layers lost in photofxlab
If you run photoFXlab as a Smart Filter in Photoshop, it won’t remember the layers when you double-click on the filter to edit it again. In fact, if you accidentally run it as a Smart Filter, be sure to rasterize the layer immediately to prevent Photoshop from rerunning the filter after you perform a command, such as duplicating the layer.

Maybe I was a bit hasty. If I’d bothered then to watch the video tutorial I recently watched on YouTube (Introduction to photoFXlab™ v1.2), I might have realized two things about the update that I hadn’t noticed. First, Topaz developed a proprietary file format (.pfxl) that does save all the layers in a file. And second, they added the ability to use other 3rd party plug-ins inside photoFXlab. Learning this was inspiring enough for me to try it again, this time with a more open mind.  I have mixed feelings about the results of my experiments with photoFXlab, but that’s a big step up from not finding it worth bothering with.

Whether or not it’s useful to be able to use other plug-ins depends entirely upon which plug-ins you have. Topaz can only use them if they are installed by default into Photoshop’s Plug-Ins folder. Since many companies install some of the working bits to their plug-ins outside that folder, I found many of my plug-ins wouldn’t work—not even if I manually copied them to the folder. That’s cheating, and Topaz apparently knows it.

Add/Remove plug-ins dialog box
To add 3rd party plug-ins, in photoFXlab choose Filter> Add/Remove Plug-Ins. Click the Add button and navigate to your Photoshop Plug-ins folder, then click on a plug-in folder.

Beyond that, some plug-ins simply won’t work. The bad news for me was that the only plug-ins Topaz both recognized and that worked were Google Nik plug-ins. The good news was that the latest Silver Efex Pro, Color Efex Pro, Analog, and HDR   all worked, and I use them more than any of the rest, with the exception of On1’s Perfect Effects. I didn’t attempt to add Dfine and Sharpener Pro, since Topaz has its own filters for reducing noise and sharpening that I use more often. Viveza installed, but on my system, I only saw a solid black document when I opened it from photoFXlab. Depending upon what you may have, many more of your plug-ins may work.

Filter list after adding plug-ins
If photoFXlab believes a proper plug-in has been installed, it will add it to the list. Note that it may believe a plug-in is installed, but that plug-in may still fail to work with photoFXlab.

By the way, all my On1 Suite 9  plug-ins are in Photoshop’s Plug-ins folder, but the plug-ins themselves have to be inside a folder, and On1 doesn’t put them in their own folder—which I assume is why I can’t seem to get Topaz to believe in those plug-ins. Creating a folder is cheating once again, but I’m trying to be thorough. Since this is just an extra goodie that Topaz is providing us, I’m not upset to find that many plug-ins won’t work, and delighted that a few of my favorites will. The one frustrating aspect is that to find out, I must add them through the manager, close it, see if they made it into the Filter list, and then if they did, try to run them on an image. But it’s still definitely a net gain.Layers with Nik and Topaz effects

Image after photoFXlab
Using Nik plug-ins along with Topaz plug-ins inside photoFXlab. The final image also used customized borders from On1 Photo 10, which sadly doesn’t work with Topaz, but I was still able to nearly complete my image edits in one place, and save to the PFXL file format for added flexibility.

Using photoFXlab, however, is more difficult for me to really enjoy. I do most of my image editing on raw files in Photoshop using the Bridge> Camera Raw> Photoshop route. When I use photoFXlab, I can save all the layers for an image (using File> Save As and choosing the .pfxl format) before I run the results and return to Photoshop. Once in Photoshop, the results still return as a flattened image layer. I can choose that layer in the future, re-enter photoFXlab, then immediately choose File> Open, telling Topaz not to save the file I just opened, navigate to my saved .pfxl file, and open that. All the layers are there, and if I edit this file and return to Photoshop, it will overwrite the old layer with the new results. Whew. It really works, despite having to go through a couple extra steps to get the layered file open in photoFXlab in the first place.

Dialog box after choosing Open
If you want to reopen a PFXL file, open a file in Photoshop, open the plug-in from the Filter menu, then choose File> Open from the photoFXlab menu. Don’t save your changes (you really haven’t done anything yet), and navigate to where you stored the .pfxl file. If you don’t want to overwrite the layer in your Photoshop file, make sure you’re working on a duplicate layer. The filter won’t run on empty layer.

Against that is the fact that none of these layers are Smart Filter layers—ever. I can’t “open” a layer to edit the filter settings I used, something I can easily do without the plug-in, and that offsets the convenience in having access to all my primary filters handy in the photoFXlab interface. This just doesn’t beat running the plug-ins individually on a Smart Object layer and stacking up the results as editable Smart Filters. So I had to wonder why I’d use this plug-in, but it didn’t take me long to think of a few very good reasons.

Using multiple Smart Filters in Photoshop
Running filters as Smart Filters, if you have the option, is the most flexible way to keep your effects non-destructive and re-editable.

Even if you have a program that uses layers and layer masks, blending modes and opacity—such as Photoshop Elements—that doesn’t mean you can use Smart Filters. Without Smart Filters and without using photoFXlab to run your Topaz filters, all you’ll get is a flat image layer each time you run the plug-ins separately. If you save a .pfxl file, though, you can keep most of your edits on separate layers, so even if you can’t edit the filters directly, you’re not starting from scratch just to edit one of the layers.

If you have Lightroom, which doesn’t have layers, photoFXlab lets you work with layers, layer masks, even multiple images, to build up an image that, once saved, adds the image straight back to your Lightroom catalog. And again, the .pfxl file can be your friend. The downside is it has to run through Photoshop. But if you have recent enough versions of both Photoshop and Lightroom, you can stay organized in Lightroom while taking advantage of a streamlined plug-in workflow. Anyone who uses Lightroom knows how important, and sometimes difficult, it is to keep your catalog intact when you use outside editors.

Fusion Express in Lightroom
If you don’t have Photoshop or (Photoshop Elements 12-14) to act as a host for PhotoFX Lab, Lightroom will run each filter listed above separately and return the results to Lightroom when using Fusion Express 2.

The third best reason to run photoFXlab is it runs as a standalone application—no expensive host required. You can do quite a bit of editing with all the power of layers, masks, and blend modes, as well as several powerful image adjustments you can make in photoFXlab itself. Topaz works with TIFF or JPEGs, but if you shoot raw, you doubtless have a converter for your camera files already.  If you want the greater flexibility of desktop plug-ins without the additional expense of a major desktop application to host them, photoFXlab  just might hit the sweet spot between power and price.

Topaz photoFXlab native edits
photoFXlab comes with several basic image adjustments you can make, including to color and tone, using brushes for local adjustments, cropping, scaling, and straightening a horizon. Even run as a standalone, you’re not without the ability to do some basic edits to your photos.
Panel for preset Effects
You can apply some presets for some of the plug-ins with one click using the Effects menu, or choose the Plugins menu to launch and run most of the plug-ins you have installed . You can also run InstaTone, which recolors your photo using a small library of photos as the source. Results are similar to using ReStyle.

Having now spent a bit more time with photoFXlab, I’ve come to the conclusion that it can work well for quite a few people with a variety of different workflows.  It would be much better if Topaz put some effort into creating some kind of Smart Filter technology for it. On1 has Smart Photo technology that lets you open the Smart Photo inside On1 to edit everything, including your original filter settings. If they can do it, so can Topaz.

However, even if limited in usefulness, I intend to begin putting photoFXlab to work in my Lightroom JPEG workflow. Because it’s still not a Smart Filter type of workflow, I’m not likely to use it in Photoshop with my raw camera files. It also  doesn’t run two of my favorite Topaz filters—Impression and Texture Effects, so I’m sure to always run those as Smart Filters anyway. I’m glad, though, that I gave it a second chance, even if I ultimately decide it isn’t all that valuable for my type of editing, because now I have a much greater appreciation for the choices I have. And maybe someday Topaz will revisit this editor. I think it deserves more of their attention.

Layers for Gecko & Pot image
Using Masks, Blend modes, and layers, it’s easy to build an image from several Topaz filters. Here I began with basic color and tone adjustments, then used DeNoise, Clarity, ReStyle, and InFocus. The detail from the image is shown at the beginning of this review.
Gecko & Pot final image
Gecko & Pot: After running photoFXlab, I duplicated the layer and converted it to a Smart Object, then ran Topaz Texture Effects as a Smart Filter. Because I saved the .pfxl file for this image, I can still go back to photoFXlab and edit the base image without having to start over from scratch.

Don’t Forget Journaling

Updated Type features in Photoshop CC 2015 will help

My big splurge during Black Friday/Cyber Monday week was on an external optical drive. Nothing fancy. Slow as molasses and pleasantly cheap on sale. But my old internal drive was getting louder and louder, clattering and clanking, moaning and groaning like the Spirit of Christmas Past, which, considering how old it is now, doesn’t surprise me a bit. Plus, being an internal drive, I can’t use it with my laptop to archive anything I put on that computer. I’ve had to copy to the desktop over WiFi what I want backed up, and you can guess how often that gets done.

So I bought the new drive and decided that this time maybe I should try to be a bit more organized with the archives, at least with the important files.  In the past, I’ve decided it was “time to back up” and just grabbed whatever files hadn’t been backed up to burn to disc. That meant the scrap pages for a vacation might end up scattered across a dozen discs, sharing a space with unrelated business, videos, test files,  tutorials, and all the other stuff I wasn’t ready to throw in the trash just yet. Good luck to my kids finding anything they might want to keep if I die tomorrow.

Image of different types of files archived together
No one but me would be willing to plow through so many files simply to find the rare stranded scrap page.

Although I’ve been restoring and retouching photos for a couple of decades now, I’ve only been scrapping the family photos since around 2009. However, that was long enough ago that adding the journaling in Photoshop wasn’t a lot of fun. To find a font to use, I just opened the font list and scrolled until I found something I thought I might like. If I were only going to use 10-15 fonts total, using fonts in PS was okay. Otherwise, not so much. So I discovered when I went back to my early albums to organize and archive them, many pages were without any journaling. People, places, the year, often all left without a single mention. I have hated going through the family photos saying “Aunt Millie? Or is it Cousin Bess? Maybe it’s the neighbor?” And here I was doing the same.

Scrapped page without any journaling
How sad. Note the red arrow pointing to a blank journaling tag. The woman is obviously the main subject, front and center, but who is she? Without journaling, she’ll soon be lost to time.

So before I generate an organized archive of these albums, I’m determined to make sure none of the pages are a complete mystery to the rest of the family. Leave them wondering about my other art, but not family history. Fortunately, Adobe just enhanced the Type features in the latest update to Photoshop CC 2015. Now when I need a font for a title, a quote, a short paragraph, I not only have the usual controls to get it to fit, but  also filters for finding the right type of font hiding somewhere in that long list of fonts. The following is a brief description of the features that really help me enjoy adding type to my pages:

Filter by Class—This drop down list lets you see a selection of your installed fonts according to whether or not they would fall into the category of Handwritten, for instance, of Sans Serif. Not all your fonts will necessarily show up. Adobe needs some information about the font embedded in the file in order to classify it. But it makes a pretty good start.

Filter by Classes list
These are the classes Photoshop will filter by, assuming the font provided enough information it could be correctly classified.

Typekit filter—This filter isn’t new, but I thought it worth mentioning in case you haven’t fully explored the font features in Photoshop. If you have a subscription to Typekit fonts as part of the full Creative Cloud group of apps, you can filter your font list just by the fonts installed through Typekit. Do note, however, that if you stop subscribing, you won’t be able to later edit any text you’ve created with a Typekit font. You’ll still be able to print the page, or replace the typeface with another that you have installed.

Using Filter by Typekit fonts
If you have Typekit fonts synced to your desktop from the Creative Cloud, you can search for them using the Typekit filter.

Show Favorite Fonts—This new feature is fabulous! When you finally locate a font in your font list that you know you’ll use again and again, click on the empty star beside it to add it to your Favorites. Now you can filter on just your favorite fonts. This is a real timesaver. One way I’m using it now with my incomplete albums is to temporarily mark a selection of fonts as my favorites. That way if I’m using, say, grungy typewriter and stencil fonts for a boy’s album, I can mark a selection as favorites, add journaling to several pages, keeping a consistent look, then unmark them and switch to girly handwriting fonts for a preteen’s album.

Using Filter by Favorites
Select a group of fonts for a project, or the fonts you always want to keep handy, and mark them as Favorites, then shorten your font list by filtering on Favorites.

Show Similar Fonts—Adobe will use the font you currently have selected  to try to find similar examples. One of the best ways to use this is to highlight the font field,  filter by class, say Slab Serif, then select a font from that list that is most like the kind of font you’re looking for. Now choose Show Similar Fonts and your list will often become even more useful than the Class list was.

Using Show Similar Fonts
When you select a class of font, the list might contain many fonts with a look that you’re not interested in. Select one font that looks like the kind of font you want, then choose Find Similar Fonts to get a new list.

The Glyphs panel—also not brand new, but don’t forget that many fonts come with alternates. The more decorative families often include swashes and multiple forms of an individual glyph so the type can appear more handwritten or fancy—sometimes to the point of being nearly illegible, but that’s half the fun of them. You can also select from among your dingbats without knowing what letter to type or, as I used to do, starting with “a” and progressing through the alphabet until I found the dingbat I wanted­—a process so tedious I avoided dingbats in the past, but no more. With an active insertion cursor, simply double click on a dingbat in the Glyphs panel to insert the dingbat.

Using Glyphs panel
The Glyphs panel makes all those wonderful alternate glyphs and dingbats easy to use.

With all these type features, I have no more excuses for not doing my family the favor of journaling on every page.