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Lee Varis’ 10-Channel Workflow – part-1

Despite the wishes of most avid photographers, the photographic image is not really finished at the moment of capture. Every image can benefit with some level of post processing, even if it is just a modest adjustment in white balance or contrast. Most people never realize the potential of a captured image because they stop well before exploring all the enhancements that are possible. It is my belief that you don’t know how good an image can be until you’ve pushed it too far!

Meet the 10-channel Workflow

I have a basic image enhancement workflow; I call the 10-channel Workflow, based on the groundbreaking work of Dan Margulis, that attempts to push beyond the normal limits of image processing to deliver a stunning level of color and tone. This process takes advantage of the unique tonal rendering of the individual channels of an image as it can exist in the three major workspaces in Photoshop. Consider, for example, this simple image of a sunflower:

Sunflower
All color images are made up of grayscale “channels” that differ in tone rendering

This simple image can exist in a number of different formats, but if we consider just the three major color workspaces: RGB, Lab, and CMYK, we can see that any image can be thought of as having ten unique grayscale rendering for each of the channels:

All 10 Channels
Starting from the upper left – the image as it exists in RGB, Lab, and CMYK

What are Those Channels Good for?

We can utilize the different tonal renderings in the grayscale channels to re-map the luminosity of the color image in ways that go beyond what is possible with the various sliders in ACR/Lightroom, and the normal adjustment controls in Photoshop.

I will explore some of these different techniques in a step-by-step image enhancement of the following image, starting in Adobe Camera Raw, but before we begin Let’s change our workflow options—click on the little blue hyperlink at the bottom of the ACR dialog:

ACR-Workflow_Options
Change your options to output sRGB at 8 bits to follow along with the tutorial

How to Push the Image

Those of you that know me, may remember that I am not a big fan of working in ProPhoto RGB – I find it a singularly difficult and inadequate editing workspace. There is more contrast between the channels in sRGB, and for the 10-Channel Workflow, these contrast differences mostly work to our advantage. (there is no particular benefit to working in 16 bits for the workflow, so I stick with 8 bits) – for now, here is the image in its original Raw, unadjusted state…

Raw Image
Here is the image in its neutral starting place in ACR – no adjustments, white balance as shot. The white steam clouds from this power plant have skewed the exposure so that the foreground is rendered too dark.

Some modest Basic Panel adjustments get a more pleasing image, but here we’ve maxed out the shadow and highlight sliders – not always possible with every image without introducing unwanted artifacts…

 

Basic Panel Settings
Neutralizing the color temperature by clicking on the clouds with the white balance tool, lowering the highlight slider to -100 and raising the shadow slider to +100, plus Vibrance for the blue sky, and plus saturation for the red rock foreground.
Adjusted Raw
The adjusted image is more pleasing, but it could still be improved.

At this point, most would stop and call this image done, as good as its going to get, but doing so would miss out on the full potential for the image rendering. We could perhaps push the saturation a bit more, but I prefer to be conservative here because it’s so easy to add more color later on. The next step, after opening in Photoshop, is to examine the individual channels to see if any one channel has a better tonal rendering as far as contrast and detail. Most of the time, with landscapes like this, the red channel looks better overall. So… let’s turn the image into a B&W rendering using the red channel – apply a Channel Mixer adjustment layer…

Channel Mixer
Select B&W with Red Filter from the Presets menu.

By using the B&W with Red Filter Preset, we get the grayscale rendering of the red channel – now we change the layer blend mode from Normal to Luminosity…

 

Red Channel Version
The result of the Channel Mixer adjustment layer
Luminosity Blend Mode
Changing the layer blend from Normal to Luminosity applies the B&W tone & contrast to the color image for some surprising results.
Red_Luminosity
The new color version has a darker sky and lighter foreground. Compare with the original image!

This completes only the first step in the complete process. We have utilized only one out of the ten possible channels to affect the tone and contrast of the image. We will look at enhancing the color saturation using Lab, in part-2 of the series. Stay tuned for more of this advanced image enhancement workflow…

For those of you who may be impatient, and you’re already intrigued enough to explore these ideas in more detail, I have a new online course: The 10-Channel Workflow – a comprehensive guide with nine step-by-step projects with detailed video instruction, including downloadable work files.  Click here for more information.

Stay Tuned for Part-2…

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