Filter > Render > Flame

An Adobe Photoshop often forgotten filter

Fire is a very popular digital substance these days. There are photo art actions that will set any subject on fire. There are photos of fire carefully extracted and served as PNG files to graphic artists. And there are well-known paint programs and 3rd party filters, such as Alien Skin’s Eye Candy, that offer their renditions of fire and flame. However, Photoshop itself has been offering a way to render flames since at least CC 2014. It is no longer available as a scripted pattern fill (Edit> Fill), but now solely resides in the Render menu, along with Trees, Frames, Clouds, Lighting, and more. Many of us tend to forget that the Flame filter even exists. The other day  I remembered it when I wanted a few flames for an art journal page, and decided to reacquaint myself, so I created a simple image to walk through the process and share with you—just in case, like me, you tend to forget how something works when you go a long time without using it.

To use the Flame filter in Photoshop, you first need to create a path. The Pen tool is the obvious method for drawing a path, but for those of you who find the Pen tool intimidating, you can also use a Shape drawn with the Path setting in the Options bar. The main limitation to using a Shape is that it’s always a closed path that encloses empty space, even if a very narrow empty space. It will still generate flames, but it won’t look the same as a flame drawn with the Pen tool. However, that’s not only not always bad, but using a shape is also a quick way to produce an image if you want a burning heart (or house or. . . ).

Flames created with Shape and Pen tool paths
Although the Flame filter requires a path to operate on, you can create a path using a custom Shape layer in Path mode, (left), a basic shape such as Line (middle, or create a path with the Pen tool (right). The Direct Selection tool is used to modify both Shapes and Pen tool paths.
Adding the first layer of flames
Several open paths on the same path layer were used to generate these flames using One Flame Along Path as the Flame Type. Only one slider is in play in this mode on the Basic tab, but you can choose a custom color. Paths shown were stroked with a magenta Pencil on a separate layer for visibility in the screen shot only and were not visible in the final image.

Once you’ve drawn your path (multiple paths can reside on the same layer), it’s a good idea to save your path layer by double-clicking on it and naming it. You’ll probably want to be able to return to it to adjust or use for another flame. Next, create a new, empty layer—the filter always returns pixels and won’t run as a Smart Filter, so protect your image from a destructive operation. With the path active in the Paths panel (you can see the path in the document window), and the empty layer targeted, choose Filter> Render> Flame. . . . In the dialog, experiment with the different settings in the Flame Type list and their sliders to see what looks best. You can also select a custom color for your flames.

New Flame type rendered to image file
After adding in the background (a paper from Holliewood of Mischief Circus), and modifying the logs with a style and overlay, two horizontal, wavy paths on a single path layer created the small ember flames using Multiple Flames One Direction for the Type.
Initial image with 2 separate renders
After rendering both types of flames, this image using the default color provides a start to further exploration of the filter’s capabilities.

Once you have constructed a flame type that you think is very close to what you want, you can choose the Advanced tab to modify the results even more. Most of the settings here are subtle, although some can make a significant difference in the result. For this demonstration, I only used the Basic tab, which in many cases is all you’ll need. Click OK to render the flame(s). Now you can deselect the path in the Paths panel and create another path, or several more paths, on separate layers, to complete the image of your object on fire. For my example, I rendered different flame layers using different paths, and used custom colors, blend modes, and opacity. Where necessary, I modified the paths while looking at the rendered flames on a layer, then turned off the layer, created a new one, and re-ran the filter. I also used Free Transform on rendered flame layers to help them fit the image better.

Two renders of one flame type with different settings
The Flame type Multiple Flames One Direction makes use of several sliders to determine the length of the flames, their width, and their spacing. Shown above is the result of rendering the same flame type two separate times, but using slightly different settings, custom color, blend modes and layer opacity.
Last version shown with and without the paths that created them
Multiple paths (shown top), along with rendering flames with custom color and settings, as well as adding in blend modes and layer opacity produced the image at bottom.

With its decent preview and straightforward sliders, Flame does a pretty good job for anyone who doesn’t need to add lots of flames to everything. If you want greater realism or an organic feel to your flames, building up your fire from multiple flame layers can get you closer than you might expect. But if you want a stylized graphic, this filter has got that covered, too. For occasional use, if you’re willing to toy with the sliders and adjust the paths, I think you’ll find it adequate for most purposes, without forcing you to think you have to spend a lot of money on 3rd party solutions.

"Daily Planner" series for Democrace with Flame render
Several designers—Rucolla, Lynne Anzelc, ViVa, and more—were used to create this “Daily Planner” art journal piece as part of a series for Democracy. The fire engulfing “Free and Fair Elections” was created very quickly in Adobe Photoshop CC with the Flame filter.
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Troubleshooting 3rd Party Actions

Understanding the photo art actions you purchase

Lately I’ve been seeing an increasing number of people creating photo art state that in their process, they used an action from graphicriver.net, a popular online retail source for very lengthy and complex actions that produce artistic effects. (I have looked around, and yes, there are other places selling products to designers that also carry some actions, if you want to check for other sources.) I myself was directed to the site just a couple of months ago, and have slowly begun to acquaint myself with the effects I can get from the actions that are different from my favorite plug-ins, such as Topaz, On1, and Nik. I have also purchased a few, and as a customer, I can definitely state that you might run into some snags when you try to run these actions.

So I thought I’d just briefly talk about what you can do before you give up in frustration and send screenshots, perhaps even your file, to the action’s designer. The good news when purchasing actions from this retailer is there is easy access provided to speak directly with the designers, and from the public comments they appear to be very quickly responsive to any issues you have. However, it’s always a good idea to know how to do some troubleshooting on your own, as well as how to use these actions to increase your own understanding of what Photoshop can do, and learn to modify the results.

Painterly results on still life
Commercial Photoshop actions offer a variety of different looks and allow you to modify the results. You can combine them with other actions or 3rd party filters, expanding your options when creating photo art. This is the default result using the Splash Art 2 action by IndWorks.

Fortunately for us, many of the actions come with a video tutorial on YouTube. The designer walks you through the setup to get both Photoshop and your image into the state the action requires to run. Since each designer, and even each action, may have slightly different requirements, you should make certain you watch at least the beginning of their tutorial before you start. Some do provide a readme file, but not all, or the file may not include all the steps to set up your Photoshop. The video tutorial covers it visually. Even better, the tutorial then demonstrates what the various layers and sections do to the image and how you can modify it. Watching before you purchase can help you decide if the action will be customizable enough to suit you.

Baby portrait with graphic action
Thanks to the YouTube tutorial, this image (using the action Circles by sevenstyles) was easy to modify to look very different from the default result.

Even with so much help, though, things can go wrong. An action may start to run, then quit with a message that it couldn’t perform a step. And this is when you need to know how to troubleshoot the action. If it stops very soon after starting, it’s usually that something is missing in the setup. You didn’t name the layer you created correctly for the action, you forgot to load a brush or pattern, or you didn’t make sure the file was in 8 bit mode. (Photoshop has never upgraded most of its ancient filters to run in 16 bit.) There are other setup requirements as well, and each one will be encountered at some step in the action, so each must be strictly adhered to.

Painterly style using Dust by sevenstyles
Many of the actions work by letting you select the main subject and/or focal point where you want the most detail to appear. This selection is filled with color on a separate layer, and different actions require different names for that layer. A soft selection will produce one type of result, while a hard edged selection may produce an entirely different result. It’s worth running the action more than once, varying your selection, to get different results. Here a very soft selection was used for the Dust action by sevenstyles.

First thing you need to do, then, is to check that the basic setup is as called for. But there can be more obstacles than the tutorial tells you about. For example, I kept having the first action I purchased fail early, but not terribly early, in the action. In fact, in this case, even posting a comment on the site for help from the designer wouldn’t have helped. I had unchecked an option for automatically creating masks when adding an adjustment or fill layer. As soon as I realized the action was expecting masks that my preferences weren’t creating, it was a simple matter of re-enabling the default preferences. I then sent an email to the designer so that perhaps in future, he’ll include it in his instructions. Another occasion was far more involved and complex. Tolerances in a selection process were too restrictive for many images. Once I’d isolated the issue (resolving it by placing modal stops to manually alter the input), and informed the designer, the designer cleverly rewrote the action to solve the issue without the user needing to stop to change the default settings.

Placing modal stops or removing action steps
Clicking on an empty box next to a checkmark (above left) inserts a modal stop. Use this when you want to change the input of that step, rather than accept the recorded input. Not all steps allow you to add a modal stop, but most that allow for input do. If you don’t want to allow the action to perform a step, such as converting your document to the sRGB color profile (above right), simply click on the checkmark next to the step to turn it off.
Demonstrating the use of the Insert Stop dialog
There is no reason you can’t add what you want to an action. You can record additional steps if you’re feeling adventurous. Inserting Stops that help explain some of the steps in an action is a very safe, effective way to remind yourself of what the action is doing or what you might want to do to customize it at this point. These Stops can be very useful when you don’t use an action for awhile and have forgotten the details.

To find out where an action was failing, I needed to step through the action slowly, watching the Layers panel, the document window, and the Actions panel. If you’ve ever looked at actions, you’ll know that they’re written in plain English, so not that difficult to understand. Photoshop offers Playback Options in the Actions menu to help you run the action. The option Step-by-Step will pause briefly after each step, allowing you a little time to read an action. If you just want to get a quick idea about how the action works, this is a good option. The option Pause for (blank) seconds is self-explanatory.  I don’t know about you, but I don’t know in advance how long it will take me to read or grasp the intent of a step, as well as notice each step’s effect in the Layers panel and on the image itself, so I choose to manually advance from one step to the next—I hold down the Cmd/Ctrl key while clicking on the play button. I can stop for as long as I need to understand the effect of each step.

Playback options for actions
Usually you want to play an action with the Accelerated option enabled. However, to get a better view of what the action is doing, you might choose one of the other, slower options. The option you choose is sticky, so if you discover your action is running very slowly, check to see if you haven’t forgotten to set the options back to Accelerated.

Taking the time to perform a careful check of your setup and, if necessary or you’re curious, to walk through an action, will reduce frustration and increase your understanding of how Photoshop can be used to create an effect. If you’re someone who likes to tinker, you’ll also see where adding modal stops, or turning off a step entirely, could be to your advantage. The money you spend on 3rd party actions will go a lot further the more you involve yourself with the nuts and bolts of each action, giving you the edge when it comes to modifying the action to suit a wider variety of images.

Art Journal "The Great Divide"
The Great Divide, part of my Democracy series, was created long before I bought any photo art actions, but the theme of inequality is still very relevant. Having looked at the actions, I have noticed there are a number which will turn photos into sketches that I could easily incorporate into my art journal pieces. Credits: mainly from itKuPilli’s altered art kits.

Photoshop’s Puppet Warp

Using the most flexible Warp tool

I confess when I’m pulling out elements to scrap or journal with, I’ll remember I can change the hue, saturation, and lightness of any object, as well as scale it to fit (within reason), but I forget that I can also warp it to fit. I’ve loved Puppet Warp since it first was introduced, but simply don’t need it often enough to remember I can use it when it would be the ideal tool. It’s the V8 juice of Photoshop for me—gee, I coulda had a puppet warp.

After the Million Pussy March, I wanted to commemorate the women of all walks of life who came together not just to protest the planned demise of women’s choice, but to celebrate their sisterhood. I had a picture I took long ago in Washington DC, plus plenty of cats, but no pink pussy hat images that fit them all. I settled on Halloween cartoon cats to emphasize them awake (and determined), but would have had the same problem had I chosen pictures of real cats. The need to make just a couple of hat images fit a lot of different cats meant Puppet Warp to the rescue!

Puppet Warp is intended for you to use on a pixel-based object on an otherwise transparent layer. It will work on any layer that isn’t a Background layer (even on masks and shape layers, but only over the entire layer—expect some disappointing results). It’s usefulness as the name implies, however, is primarily for warping a puppet, not an entire landscape photo. I find it’s best used on a Smart Object layer as a Smart Filter, since that way you can reopen the dialog and edit the warp again—or remove it entirely. Most of the time, the default settings in the Options bar are as good as you’ll need, but it’s also helpful to understand the other options, since you might want to use them from time to time.

Puppet Warp run as a Smart Filter
Puppet Warp will run as a Smart Filter on a Smart Object layer, allowing you to re-enter the Puppet Warp dialog and continue editing the mesh as if you’d never clicked OK, as well as making it easy to remove the warp entirely.
Before and after editing Puppet Warp as a Smart Filter
When run as a Smart Filter, Puppet Warp lets you return to the dialog to change any of its settings long after you initially committed to the warp.

Puppet Warp works with pins which, when active, let you drag on the mesh, and when inactive, will block a region of the mesh around the pin from being easily modified, so the distortion occurs only where the inactive pins have no sphere of influence. In the Options bar, looking at it from left to right, you might choose Rigid for the Mode if you don’t want an inactive anchor to have a large sphere of influence, protecting more of the mesh from distortion, or choose Distort to make the sphere of influence around anchoring pins very small, making a fluid, smooth distortion over more of the mesh at once.

Viewing Mesh and active/inactive pins
Active pins have a white dot in the center and allow you to freely drag on them. Solid pins attempt to prevent the mesh from being distorted within their circle of influence. You can Shift-select multiple pins to move them in tandem.
Left half of Options Bar
The leftmost drop down list sets how easily the mesh can be distorted when moving a pin. The middle drop down list sets how fine the mesh will be. Expansion extends the mesh beyond the object by number of pixels, and the grid icon toggles the mesh visibility on and off.
Balls used to compare mesh modes.
The ball on the left is being distorted with the “Normal” mode for warping, while the ball on the right uses the same move with the “Distort” mode. Note that the ball with Distort attempts to make the amount of warping even all over, unlike “Normal,” which limits most of the distortion to the area right around the pin being moved. The Mesh visibility is off for easier viewing.

For how fine the mesh is, choose Fewer Points if you need the mesh to distort more smoothly over a broader area, or More Points if you want to be able to easily pin down the mesh to limit the warp to a smaller area. Expansion helps you get control over very fine areas, such as the fine stems of flowers. By placing the mesh outside the object itself, you can place pins further apart so each pin has a greater area of influence. This helps make for smoother mesh distortion.

The “layer” buttons for Pin Depth are a feature I have almost never used. Pins are remembered by the computer as if each one has been placed on a layer. If you move a pin so the object being distorted crosses over another object, whether the mesh you move is on top or behind depends upon which “layer” each pin resides on. Use the Pin Depth icons to move the active pin up or down the “layer stack” in order to move it in front of or behind the inactive pin(s).

Right half of Options Bar
The right half of the Options bar handles Pin Depth and Mesh Rotation, as well as the usual Reset, Cancel, and Commit icons.
Pin "stack" visually demonstrated
Pins are stacked behind the scenes as they are laid down. When one part of the mesh crosses another part, you can use the Pin Depth icons to place that part of the mesh on top of the rest, or behind it. The Mesh visibility is off for easier viewing.

When bending an object using rotation, you’ll usually grab a pin and move it freely. The default Auto rotation mode allows you to do this, and uses your Mode to determine how the mesh distorts. But if you want to set a specific amount of rotation, you can enter a number (positive or negative) in the input field, or hold down the Option/Alt key to display a rotation circle around the active pin, and drag just outside of the circle to visually determine the rotation. In both cases, Auto switches to Fixed and you can change the Mode after the rotation to see the effect of the different modes. An advantage of using the Fixed rotation is it will only rotate the selected area. You can’t accidentally drag it up, down or sideways, which is very easy to do when in Auto rotation mode.

Mesh warping with Auto or Fixed selected
Rotating a pin by dragging on the pin itself leaves the Rotate setting at the default Auto, which uses whatever Mode setting is in effect. The angle field automatically updates to show the degree of rotation (middle image). But if you use the HUD (head’s up display) with the Opt/Alt key pressed to rotate the mesh, or enter a specific number in the Angle field, Rotate switches to Fixed. You can easily change the Mode from Rigid (left image) to Distort (right image) and the fixed angle remains the same, while the Mode changes the degree of warping you see.

You can also use modifier keys with Puppet Warp. The Option/Alt key will display the scissors icon when hovering over an active pin to delete it. Or you can press the delete/Backspace key to do the same thing. If you want to select multiple pins and move them at the same time, select each one with the Shift key held down. Whichever active pin you now grab will tug on all the other selected pins.

Cmd/Ctrl-H toggles the Mesh View (grid icon) if you haven’t chosen that shortcut to hide Photoshop itself. Whatever keyboard shortcut you have assigned to Undo lets you undo the last move you made (there is no stepping backwards in history multiple times) and you can either press the Reset icon to remove the pins but stay in Puppet Warp mode, or press Esc to cancel the entire operation.

Final edited Vase with Flowers
Agapanthus grows upright on heavy stalks, but here a few stalks have “wilted,” thanks to Puppet Warp, to create a more asymmetrical bouquet. Credits: Booland, Valentina, LDavison, and Zesty.

So if you’re one of those who has been intimidated by Puppet Warp, or too often forget it’s even there, think about trying it more often. By using it as a Smart Filter on a Smart Object, your original image is safe and you can always try, try again if you’re not happy with the warped object in its setting.

Final "Million Pussy March" composite using Puppet Warp
“Million Pussy March” was created as part of my Democracy series to commemorate the Million Women March in Washington DC (and the more millions around the globe). I warped all the pink pussy hats to fit their owners.

Editing Smart Objects—PNG & JPEG

A Tip for Working With Photoshop Smart Objects

During a discussion about the limitations of editing Photoshop Smart Objects, some of us brought up for the thousandth plus time how frustrating it is to open a JPEG or PNG Smart Object, edit it, and then have to destructively flatten the file back to its original state before we can save the edits to our document.  A good problem-solver in the group took a look and said the real problem is JPEG and PNG files open into their own format, which cannot accept layers, whereas a PSD will open as a PSB file, which can handle layers. The trick, then, is to get the JPEG or PNG file to open as a PSB file.

And to do that, our problem-solving friend told us, run the Convert to Smart Object command on the Smart Object layer containing the JPEG or PNG. Now when I double-click on the Smart Object icon to open it, I’ll see the file format is a PSB file. This will increase the original document’s file size, but it also means I can pile on the layers, layer styles, and even Smart Filters to my heart’s content, just so long as I’m willing to sacrifice extra disk space when saving it.

Original example of PNG file
The original file that I want to alter.
PNG file being edited with layers
The file was placed in my PSD document as a Smart Object, but if I want to edit that file, Photoshop informs me I have to flatten the layers to return the file to its original state.

One reason I might be willing to accept larger files is if I thought that many edits, or days, later, I might change my mind about the edits I’ve made. Having already made one destructive edit, I’d have to make a second, even if the only change to all the edits I wanted to make was to the one of the edits. My Layers panel, too, will be more manageable if I don’t add a lot of clipped adjustment layers above the basic PNG or JPEG Smart Object layers. I inevitably make some kind of mistake where I lose the clipping, and now my adjustment layer is affecting everything below it. For a subtle adjustment, I might not even notice before I’ve begun adjusting everything to match the mistake. I’d rather have those layers tucked away inside the Smart Object.  Add to that, the fewer layers I have to deal with, the clearer I can see what I want to alter or replace, and I’m not scrolling and scrolling and scrolling to find it.

The converted PSB file
By converting the original placed Smart Object layer to a Smart Object once again, double-clicking on that Smart Object to edit it proves the file is now a PSB file and can retain all the layers, filters, and other effects that a PSD file can retain. Notice that the image above opened at 50%, but this image opened at 100%. That’s because I had transformed the original Smart Object layer before I converted it again to a new Smart Object. This is 100% of the converted Smart Object. The original, if I double-clicked on the Smart Object layer visible in this screenshot, is still the full size file I imported. It is also still a PNG file.
Images compared after editing PSB file
Not happy with the strong pinks, I was able to come back and re-edit the Smart Object using the original layers I had added to the PSB file.

Now that I know that the trick to allowing for layers is to create a PSB file, and that creating that file is as easy as simply converting a Smart Object layer containing a PNG or JPEG to another Smart Object layer, I’ll be using that trick often. Smart Objects have many idiosyncrasies, but they offer some of the best protection against destructive editing we have, and are worth mastering.

"At School" art journal composite image
From my Democracy series, “At School” art journals a tweet by Harry Potter author, J. K. Rowling. Credits go mainly to Eenas, Finecrafted, and Holliewood.

Photoshop’s Merge Command

So many secret handshakes in Adobe Photoshop

Not long ago someone posted on a forum that he was having difficulty with Photoshop’s Merge command. It wasn’t behaving as he expected it to. In the course of helping the poster troubleshoot, I found myself going over the different ways the Merge command is invoked, producing very different results depending upon the state of the layers that are being merged, as well as the modifier keys we use to invoke a Merge command. I thought it might be helpful if I posted a summary here.

To avoid some of the massive confusion about these commands, which have been given a variety of names, I’m relying on the name of each command the History panel uses. The History panel produces a legal document and has to differentiate between each of the Merge commands. When it was developed, these are the names it used. These aren’t necessarily the common names people have used over time, but they are the names I think we might do well to adopt to avoid confusion. To follow along, open the History panel (Window> History) and look at the current state right after invoking one of these commands. I kept the graphic as simple as I could to avoid even more complication.

Cmd-E: Merge Down: This is the primary Merge command which merges the selected layer to the layer immediately beneath it. Layers that don’t allow you to merge a layer into them include Smart Object, Video and Adjustment layers. Vector Shape layers can’t merge into other vector Shape layers, either. However, all of these layers except Video can merge into a normal image layer, whether or not the bottom layer includes transparency. If a mask is present on the bottom layer, a popup message will ask you how you want to handle the mask.

Cmd-Shift-E: Merge Visible: This will merge all visible layers, but it will behave differently depending upon whether or not the bottom visible layer is a Background layer or not. If the bottommost layer can contain transparency (Layer 0, for instance) all the layers are merged without duplicating them into the topmost visible layer. If the bottom layer is a Background layer, it will merge all visible layers to the Background layer without first duplicating them.

Layers and History panels showing results
If the visible layers do not include a Background layer, the layers will merge without being duplicated into the topmost selected and visible layer (left). If the visible layers you’re merging include a Background layer, the visible layers will merge into the Background layer (right).

Cmd-Opt-E: Stamp Layers: Stamp is another way of saying “make a copy of the layers and merge it onto a layer.” This is not found in the Layers menu or in the Layers panel menu It is one of Adobe’s many secret handshakes. If all layers can contain transparency, it creates a copy of only the selected layers, and merges them to a new layer above the topmost selected layer. You don’t have to create a new layer first.

If the bottom selected layer is a Background layer, it merges a copy of all the selected layers to the Background layer, changing the Background layer itself, but leaving the other layers intact. This command is especially useful if you have a lot of layers, but only want to merge a very few­—rather than turning off the visibility for several layers, simply select those few you want to merge.

History and Layers panel showing command results
If your selected layers do not include a Background layer, Stamp Layers will add a new layer above the selected layers and stamp a merged copy onto that layer (left). If the selected layers do include a Background layer, the merged copy of all those layers is stamped onto the Background itself (right).
Detail from artwork showing Stamp Layers instance
This is a detail from a much larger document that had many layers. When I wanted to create a drop shadow for the two Xquizart figures, the easiest way to keep the original elements intact, but create a combined drop shadow, was to select the layers I wanted to copy with merge, and use the Stamp Layers command to place it above the original layers. I then turned off the visibility on the original layers, but if I decided at any time to change something, I still had access to them.
Layers and History panel showing instance of
This is possibly the most popular of the Merge commands. It copies, then merges, any visible layers into a new layer that it creates. The layer is placed directly above whatever layer is currently active. In typical use, you want that to be the top layer you currently have in the Layers panel, but not always.

Cmd-Opt-Shift-E:  Stamp Visible: Many people also call this command simply “Merge Visible,” but that doesn’t distinguish it from the actual Merge Visible command found in the Layers panel. This command doesn’t exist in either the Layers panel or in the Layers menu. However, if you hold down the Option/Alt key when accessing Merge Visible from the Layers panel, it will invoke the Stamp Visible command, which you can see reflected in the History panel state.

This popular, though hidden, command copies all the visible layers, merging them, and “stamps” the merged copy to a new layer above whatever layer is currently selected, even a Background layer. You don’t have to create a new empty layer with this command. It will make the layer for you. Of course, if only one layer is visible, Cmd/Ctrl-J to duplicate that layer is the better command.

I hope you find this helpful. Between the lack of menu commands and the variable ways they each behave, the commands can be frustrating. However, they’re worth memorizing. I most often use the Merge Visible and Stamp Visible commands, but there are definitely occasions where Merge Down and Stamp Layers serve my needs.

Full image for A Post-Truth World
A Post-Truth World is one in my Democracy series. When I created it, I added text at the top, then decided I wanted to run Topaz Texture Effects on the image— but without affecting the text or flattening any of the layers. I turned off the visibility on the closed Group text layer and targeted the layer beneath it before using the Stamp Visible command. Credits: itKuPiLLi, Priss, Lorie Davison, Holliewood, and many others.

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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.