Powerful Results with Masks and Blending Modes

Scanner manufacturers in the 1950s, the engineers behind the construction of such devices for the manipulation of photographic negatives, knew a lot about light.

They took the frequencies of three of the primary colors of the rainbow — red, green, and blue — and made bitmap representations of them, grayscale images, running from pure black to pure white, and everything in between.

These became masks that could be used to limit, shape, and control the light passing through the photographer’s negative.

It allowed the scanner workers to enhance negatives just like the photographers of old who also used masks, often cutting them out of construction paper, to control the amount of light that passed from a projector, through a negative, before landing onto the print paper.

Ken-Cook by Tom Lowe

‘Ken Cook’ © Tom Lowe

Just ask Ken Cook, the present Artist in Residence about the power of blending modes.

He artistically applied a blend mode, another powerful set of tools in Adobe Photoshop, to a duplicate layer of his original Raw image. He then applied a Gaussian blur to the layer, and finally the blend mode “divide”, to create some outstanding prints from the thousands of images he took over a year of the same rock formation near the Preserve’s Midland Hills campground.

Visit the Desert Light Gallery until the end of March to see his creations. 

Back to the scanner makers. Their use of these frequencies gave the operators the ability to create greater contrasts and color shifts. Their masks were empowering. 

Today, most photographers don’t use high-end scanners, but instead the previously mentioned desktop publishing tool: Photoshop. This Adobe product includes those same three frequencies for our use, but they are called “channels” instead of frequencies.

You say, “so what? I just want to take my picture and put it up on Facebook.”

I understand. You are like someone who wants a delicious cake or pie, and travels to the bakery to buy a ready-made product. You are not into purchasing yeast, flower, eggs, milk, flavorings, sugar, and baking your own pie, or your own cake, to your own individual taste.

If you want to do some of your own “baking,” like Ken Cook with his photography, your own creative expression, then you want to learn how to make masks and use Photoshop’s blending modes.

_MG_5987 Original steam engine comes to Kelso


Take a look at the Raw file I took of a steam engine at the Kelso train depot in Mojave National Preserve. Out of the camera it’s dull, there is virtually no sky, and everything else is just dull.

_MG_5987 Steam engine comes to Kelso

Use of masks

Here is the same image where I used masks created from the red, green, and blue channels to brighten, lighten, and make-more-appealing, at least to my eye, the sky and colors of the train station.

There is now so much detail in the sky. The yellow of the station is so much brighter.

That information was in my original digital camera Raw file, but hidden, waiting to be brought out to my own taste.

And what do I get for my trouble?

A feeling of self expression, like Cook has done with his exhibit, something beyond words, and an image that conveys my interpretation of a steam locomotive visiting the Kelso depot. 

Jim Smart
Vice President