Photoshop Lab Lightness: The Key to Great Image Toning

Untoned version at left, toned with Lab Lightness, right. (Copyright 2009/Andrew Boyd)

Untoned version at left, toned with Lab Lightness, right. (Copyright 2009/Andrew Boyd)

There’s nothing more basic to your toning workflow than burning, dodging and sharpening. Almost every photograph ends up needing a bit of these most-fundamental toning/processing steps….but how do you go about accomplishing this task? I’m here to let you in on an important Photoshop secret: HOW and WHERE to do your burning, dodging and sharpening!

Let’s cut to the chase: you don’t want to burn, dodge or sharpen in RGB! The reason is simple: burning, dodging and/or sharpening your image in RGB means you end up burning, dodging and sharpening COLOR pixels, not simply the FORM of your image (which is actually what you want to do). Doing these things to color pixels is generally a BAD idea, one to be avoided if possible. So what to do? Simple! DO IT ALL IN THE LAB LIGHTNESS CHANNEL!

I have a related post on the site, my Basic Photoshop Toning Recipe, which goes into this material. But I thought it might be helpful to reemphasize how important Lab Lightness is to your toning workflow.

Not familiar with Lab Lightness? Here’s the quick and dirty explanation:  You can break an image up several different ways in Photoshop: RGB (Red, Green and Blue channels), CMYK (Cyan, Magenta, Yellow & Black, as in standard 4-color printing process) and in LAB (Lightness, A & B channels). This last version, LAB, is actually a step that all images go through when converting from RGB to CMYK, but for our purposes here, the important thing to know is that all of the color information ends up in the A & B channels, while the form (as in grayscale) of the image will show up in the Lightness channel. This is great, since now you can work on the image in Lightness without adversely affecting the color pixels in your photo.

Getting your image into the Lab color space is the first step. (Copyright 2009/Andrew Boyd)

Getting your image into the Lab color space is the first step. (Copyright 2009/Andrew Boyd)

I do this with Photoshop Actions (something I’ll address in a future post) but for now, just go to Image>Mode>Lab Color. If your Channels Palette is not active, simply go to Window>Channels to see the resulting channels for your image: Lightness, A & B Channels. Now click/highlight the Lightness channel to activate it. Click the “eyeballs” for the A & B channels to make them visible but not active. Now you can work in the Lightness channel but see the result on your overall color image.

Turning on the palette "eyeballs" make it possible to watch the results of your work in the black and white Lab channel. (Copyright 2009/Andrew Boyd)

Turning on the palette "eyeballs" make it possible to watch the results of your work in the black and white Lab channel. (Copyright 2009/Andrew Boyd)

You’ll find that you are able to do much more subtle dodginglike up under a baseball cap on a bright day-without a “ghosting” effect appearing. And burning is much more effective too. Start with the “Midtones” setting for your burning or dodging brush, set at around 15 to 20 percent. Another great technique to try on difficult, dark dodge jobs: switch to the “Highlights” setting, 20 to 30 percent, and trying dodging that face. Sometimes this brings out nice, crisp detail that would otherwise be lost.

My basic sharpening for most images is Unsharp Mask, set at 75 percent, Radius 1 pixel, Threshold 0. I do this in Lab Lightness after any burning or dodging is completed.

Remember to convert your image back to RGB. If you forget, Photoshop will not allow you to save as a jpeg, which is your clue that you neglected this step: Image>Mode>RGB Color.  That’s it, you’re done!

The finished image. Don't forget to convert back to RGB! (Copyright 2009/Andrew Boyd)

The finished image. Don't forget to convert back to RGB! (Copyright 2009/Andrew Boyd)

selfport1aHi, I’m Andrew Boyd, a.k.a. The Discerning Photographer, and I hope this post has been interesting and informative. Please leave me a comment about it, let me know what you’d like to see more of on the site! You can also sign up for email delivery of all future articles or my RSS feed. Thanks!–DiscerningPhotog

Posted in: Photoshop

About the Author:

Photographer, videographer and photo editor. Host and creator of The Discerning Photographer web site. Currently a Canon shooter.

2 Comments on "Photoshop Lab Lightness: The Key to Great Image Toning"

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  1. Christie says:

    That was very nice. I like the tone of the image. And Thank you for the tutorial that you show above. Thank you.

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