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Tone Management System - Sunset Example

Many sunrise and sunset photographs do not make good black and white images because it is the color of a sunrise/sunset that makes the image so powerful.  Remove the color and we usually end up with a mediocre image.  So, as a challenge, a sunset image I took along the east coast of the US will be used to demonstrate the flexibility of the Tone Management System.  Specifically, the MCL method will be used.


On the Downloads page, you can download a 271 KB, layered TIFF file of the example if you wish to follow along.  To download now, right click this link and select Save Target As.


MCL Method

Color image
Figure 1.  Color image


Channel mixer
Figure 2.  Channel Mixer settings to preserve Measured luminance


Black and white
Figure 3.  First cut black and white image


Layers panel
Figure 4.  The Layers panel of the final black and white image


Curves reference
Figure 5.  The Curves Reference and Color Sampler targets

The MCL method uses Measured luminance, a Channel Mixer adjustment layer for monochrome conversion, and a Levels adjustment layer for tone management by color.  The color RGB version of the image is shown in Figure 1.

First, let's review the image and see what makes it work besides the color.

After examining it, we will see that besides color, what makes this image a success is the strong silhouette of the boat, the rays of the sun fanning out and the highlighted edges of the clouds.  These elements can still be retained in a black and white image.  So it is these elements that we want to be sure to emphasize.

Convert to Monochrome

To convert the image to monochrome, I added a Channel Mixer adjustment layer using the Channel Mixer settings as seen in Figure 2.  These settings preserve measured luminance.  The resulting image is Figure 3.

Reviewing Figure 3, we can see that the strong silhouette is still present.  However, the rays of the sun and the highlighted edges, while present, are not as dominant as in the color image.  Why?  Because in the color version we had the benefit of the strong reds and yellows of the sun's rays and the highlighted edges to separate them from the weaker colors of the background.  In a black and white image, there is no color contrast, only tonal contrast.  So, we need to increase the tonal separation between the sun's rays and the highlighted edges from the background sky.  Specifically, we will make the sun's rays and highlights lighter and the background sky darker.  We have three Adobe Photoshop controls we can use to accomplish this: Levels, Curves and Hue/Saturation.

In this image, the sun's rays, highlighted edges and the background sky are similar in color.  They all fall into the red color range.  So we will not be able to adjust tone by color range.  This also means the broad affects of a Hue/Saturation adjustment will affect everything almost equally.  Which is not what we want.  Therefore, a Hue/Saturation adjustment layer would be inappropriate for what we want to do.  Instead, we need to consider using Levels or Curves.

Working With Tones

But before we add a Levels or Curves adjustment layer, we need to understand what tones we have to work with.  We can use Curves to determine where our tones are and we will create three color sampler targets Color sampler target as reference points.

To do this, I turned off the Channel Mixer adjustment layer and made sure my caps lock key was on.  I created a Curves adjustment layer as the topmost layer.  Figure 4 shows the Layers panel of the final image.  The Curves adjustment layer described in this paragraph is called Curves reference in Figure 4.  At this point, there are only three layers:  the Image layer, the Channel Mixer layer and the Curves reference layer.

As shown in Figure 5, the Curves dialog box is open.  To examine the image, I clicked and held the cursor and moved it over the image.  With the caps lock key on, the cursor will become a crosshair Crosshair.  I moved the cursor over the sun's rays, highlighted edges of the clouds and the background sky.  While holding the left mouse button down, a ball will float on the curve.  This ball tells us the tone of the area we are mousing over.

Color Sampler Targets

To add the three color sampler targets Color sampler target, I placed the cursor over a representative sample of the sun's rays, held the Shift key and clicked the left mouse button once.  Next, I placed the cursor over a representative sample of a highlighted edge and Shift + clicked the mouse.  For the third target, I placed the cursor over a representative sample of the background sky and Shift + clicked the mouse.  Figure 5 shows were I placed the three targets.  We will use these targets as reference points throughout the rest of the process.  As a side note, we do not have to delete these targets before printing our image.

With the Curves dialog box still open, if we place the mouse over each target and press the left mouse button without holding down the Shift key, we will be able to tell the tone for each target.  Target 1, which is on the sun's rays, has a Curve value of 126, which is Zone V.  Target 2, which is the highlighted edge, has a Curve value of 216, which is Zone VIII½.  Target 3, which is the background sky, has a Curve value of 83, which is Zone III.  The good news is there is enough distinct tonality to work with.  Click OK to close the Curves dialog box.  Let's rename this Curves adjustment layer to Curves reference so that we know we are using it as a reference only and not making any adjustments with it.

Reviewing the Histogram

Figure 6.  All Channel View histograms

Now we will examine the image's histogram.  If the Photoshop histogram does not look like Figure 6, click on the Histogram's flyout menu icon Fly out menu (see red arrow in Figure 6) and choose the All Channels view.  We should not be surprised by this RGB histogram.  We knew that most of the image was dark, and that is what the RGB, or composite, histogram shows.  Now, lets examine the histograms of the individual color channels.

On the Red channel histogram, we notice that most of the pixels center around mid tone.  On the Green channel, notice that most of the pixels are on the dark side of midpoint.  On the Blue channel, notice that most of the pixels are dark.  Since they are already dark, there is no need to darken them further and increase the risk of posterizing the image.  Therefore, we will concentrate on the red channel.

Adjusting the Red Channel

To manage the tone in the red color channel, we will use a Levels adjustment layer.  We are going to use Levels for two reasons.  First, to take advantage of its histogram.  Second, to utilize its ability to distinguish between dark, mid and light tones.  Prior to creating the Levels adjustment layer, reactivate the Channel Mixer layer.

The Levels adjustment layer should be created above the image layer and below the Channel Mixer layer as shown in Figure 4.  Change the Channel drop down box to Red.  Take the black Input slider and move it to the right.  This will take the dark tones and make them darker.  This is what we want because we already learned from the Curves control and the color sampler targets Color sampler target that the background sky is dark and the sun's rays are mid tone and the highlighted edges are light.

Red channel
Figure 7.  Red channel adjustment


Levels adjustment
Figure 8.  Image with Levels adjustment applied

For this image, I moved the slider until the black Input level read 70, which is just to the left of the largest rise in the histogram (see Figure 7).  Click OK to keep this adjustment.  Be sure to change the blending mode of the Levels adjustment layer to Luminosity.

The result can be seen in Figure 8.  While a major improvement, I want the contrast to be even more dramatic between the sun's rays, highlights and the background sky.  This can be done with a classic S curve.

Adding an S Curve

I created another Curves adjustment layer above the Channel Mixer layer and below the Curves reference layer in order to work with black and white luminance and not color.

Referencing Figures 9A and 9B, the Curves dialog box, I placed one anchor point on value 83, which is the tone of the background sky.  I placed another anchor point on value 179, which is the midpoint of Zone VII.  I lowered anchor 83 and raised anchor 179.  By lowering anchor 83, shadow areas got darker and by raising anchor 179, highlights got lighter.  Thus, contrast has increased.  I changed the anchor points until I got the effect I wanted.  In this case, anchor 83 was lowered to 73 (Figure 9A) and anchor 179 was increased to 189 (Figure 9B).

S curve Figure 9A.  S Curve

S curve Figure 9B.  S Curve

Final Black and White Image

After applying the S curve, the final cut of the black and white image can be seen in Figure 10.


Final image



First Cut

Final Cut


Figure 10.  Mouse over the labels to see the four versions of the image.



Note that the water does not change tone in the final image.  This is because it was masked out of the adjustment layers.



Many people like toned black and white images.  So, once the final black and white image was created, I added a Hue/Saturation adjustment layer in order to give the image a platinum toned look.  Since the image is that of a sunset, a warm colored tone was applied.  This technique is covered on the Black and White Toning page.  We can see in Figure 11 where the Hue/Saturation adjustment layer was added.  The layer was renamed to Platinum tone.  A medium platinum tone was applied.  The toned black and white image can be see in Figure 10.


Using the Curves reference adjustment layer, we can measure the three color sampler targets Color sampler target and see what the resulting tones are.  Target 1, the sun's rays, which had a Curve value of 126 originally, now has a value of 117.  So it became darker, but less than ½ stop and is still in Zone V.  Target 2, the highlighted cloud edges, which had a Curve value of 216, now has a value of 225.  So it became lighter by stop, but is now in Zone IX.  Target 3, the background sky, which had a Curve value of 83, now has a value of 54.  So it became darker by over 1 stop and is now in Zone II.  So we increased the contrast between the highlighted edges and the background sky by over 1½ stops from the original.


Layers panel
Figure 11.  The Layers panel of the final image

There are four basic ways to target an area of an image for tonal adjustments: geographic using selections and/or masks, color ranges, color channels, and tone itself.  We used three of the four.  We targeted selected areas of the image by using layer masks.  We targeted the background sky by adjusting the tone of the red color channel.  And we used an S curve to take existing tones and remapped them to different tones.  Since the image did not have distinct pockets of individual colors, targeting by color range would be inappropriate.

If we look carefully at Figure 11, we can see layer masks on both the Levels and Curves adjustment layers.  Since all of the adjustments to be made were in the area above the tree line, the layer masks were painted with black paint in the area below the tree line to prevent the adjustment from affecting that part of the image.


The MCL method was used to create the black and white image.  The Levels adjustment layer allowed us to target the dark red colors of the background sky and make them even darker.  We used a layer mask on the Levels adjustment layer to prevent the area of the image below the tree line from being affected.  The Curves adjustment layer was used to increase contrast and further separate the tones.  A layer mask was also used on the Curves adjustment layer to prevent the area of the image below the tree line from being affected.  On both the Levels and Curves layer masks, a 40% gray brush was used to soften the effect behind the boat deck railing.  If the background became too dark in these areas, then the railing would merge with the background.


From start to finish, the Tone Management System supports a visualization approach to image making.  By successfully applying its principals, we can create the image we want.