Hungry Birds at Dawn’s Light

by Joe Bridwell

Dawn’s Cacophony

Bosque del Apache is famed for its semiannual bird migration. If you shoot at Magic Hour, that hour around dawn and dusk, your chances of capturing incredible photos are high. Dawn’s Cacophony is a shot looking directly at sunrise. Granted, the sun is hidden behind clouds. Yet, most of its truly gorgeous light is spent inflaming the clouds.

Instinctively, your eye is drawn to the dark, sharp black silhouettes of birds pinned against the clouds. Each bird is distinct; yet, it’s the structured aspect of differing bird shape against changing cloud pattern which adds so much to the elegance of Dawn’s Cacophony…

Direct and Indirect Light

When you take a normal daylight picture at Bosque del Apache, the Bosque is blue like the sky and birds are not black! If you want to add impact, choose to take that picture at Magic Hour. In this case, we were shooting into the direct sun at dawn.

All pre-sunrise light was direct. In Dawn’s Cacophony, clouds intersected those direct sun’s rays, turning orange. Enough light filtered through the clouds to also create an orange reflection on the Bosque.

Combination of light and bird created a truly remarkable silhouette…

Creating Fine Art Magic (CFAM)

Creating Fine Art Magic deals with digital photography from capture to a final fine art image. Perhaps the most intriguing point of CFAM is the artistry you apply during final masks while processing.

To carefully control such artistry, I strongly prefer Luminosity Masking (LM). LM is a development process where you take the available light and enhance it to create dramatic impact for your viewer.

CFAM helps us to adjust brightness, tone, and detail for direct light of Dawn’s Cacophony.

Luminosity Masking

Luminosity Workspace

Here’s a direct screenshot from our principal Photoshop workspace for Luminosity Masking.

On the left, we have the basic image as a raw file. In the center, we show Properties and Histogram panels. On the right, we show the Layers panel. For our Histogram, we use Luminosity display. Although this Layers panel shows our LM workup, we selected the background layer, held down the Alt key, and turned off all layers above. Then, we could show just the original raw file. We chose turned off ‘TK DARKS Triple Play shadow darks 20 pixel blur LM layer’ to show Properties and Histogram panel.

Step 1 – our 1st step is to refine brightness, tone, and detail with the Triple Play action. Using Tony Kuyper’s TK_actions under TP + LM tab, you can choose to modify both Darks and Lights with Curves.

Don’t be surprised when it gives you 10 layers to choose from. Here, I want to have more detail in dark bird silhouettes. I choose a 20 pixel blur TK-Darks-Triple Play.

This image shows Shadow Darks mask – most birds and land at the Bosque’s edge are clearly masked by marching ants.

Lavender Dawn – Shadow Darks mask

Step 2 – if I click the curves symbol on the 2nd mask labeled (M) Shadow Darks, you can see RGB and Luminosity histograms. M stands for Multiply blend mode; S stands for Screen blend mode.

The action will open 12 layers; 5 and 5M layers, a layer group, and a halo removal layer. If you select each mask and Control click, you’ll get marching ants shown above. Pick the mask which most defines changes you want to make  on each image.

Turn on that mask for both M and S (click eye icon)… Then, delete all non-visible masks. If you don’t, you going to save a huge file; each mask covers every pixel in the image!

Repeat the process for 15 pixel blur TK-Lights-Triple Play. By doing so, you’re playing off darks against lights and creating more boundary details. In effect, you’re sharpening silhouette edges…

Lavender Dawn

I use Photoshop CS6. I also use Tony Kuyper’s Luminosity Masks.

We call this multistep process Creating Fine Art Magic!  We think you’ll find use of CFAM tone mapping a distinct advantage in your final fine art result.

So, let’s go through that CFAM workflow…

Step 3 – here’s the Lights mask for 15 pixel blur TK-Lights-Triple-Play. The prior mask was mostly the birds. This mask mostly deals with clouds and Bosque reflections. It also picks up mostly upper mid tones. It does not include super lights where direct sunlight is impacting clouds.

Shadow Darks – Properties, Histogram, and Curves (PHL)

Step 4 – take note of RGB and Luminosity histograms. The RGB histogram shows light’s full range. The Luminosity histogram shows only effects within marching ants above. It ranges from the mid-to-upper tonal range luminosity.

We should mention one of the strongest features of an individual luminosity mask. That mask self-feathers; whatever changes you make within the mask range die out smoothly at mask edges and only effect the region under marching ants.

So far, we’re only affecting dodging or burning changes with our masks on multiply or screen blend modes.

TK-Lights-Triple-Play 15 px blur

Step 5 – with Lights and Darks done, let’s consider an Expanded Mid Tone mask! This modification will have significant effects in sky, bird, and water reflections.


Step 6 – for the 1st time, we choose to modify the Curves RGB histogram. We do so with an Expanded Mid Tones (EMT) mask. Note 2 points on the curve, one just below mid-point and one just above midpoint.

The 1st slightly increases darks within the EMT mask. The 2nd lowers mid-tone and upper lights slightly within EMT.

The effect is to add passion (read contrast) in the clouds by darkening their edges. This gives an appealing scalloped effect.

Expanded Mid Tones mask

Step 7 – the Light Lights LM only affects a small portion of the brightest sky. We prefer this sky be relatively uniform in luminosity.

Curves EMT Add Mid Tone Contrast PHL

Step 8 – we picked an RGB curve point roughly in the middle of Light Lights luminosity mask. We then significantly darkened that area.

In effect, we reduced direct sunlight trying to burst through small regions of yellow clouds.

Although there appears to be significant darkening of lower mid tones and shadows in the RGB histogram, the Light Lights luminosity mask restrained actual darkening to just the upper mid tones.

So, a more sympathetic appearance now graces our image. The lower mid tones which contain the most vibrant orange colors are unconstrained with this step.

Light Lights mask – darken

Step 9 – under Actions Panel for TK_Actions, a miscellaneous action is called Make It Glow. MIG applies a Gaussian blur through a Smart Filter over the entire image.

The image reacts to MIG with subtle enhancement. The response is similar to Saturation but not as blatant.

Make It Glow

Step 10 – You can control this response through 2 changes; how large you make the pixel blur and how small you make the opacity.

The bigger the radius, the more pop. The smaller the opacity, the less pop.

I found one pixel blur only slightly pops Smart Glow. But, it was still too much…

So I began reducing opacity 30% at a time. When I got to one third opacity, the image looked how I recalled it…

Make It Glow – 1px blur

Reduce Opacity to 33%

Step 11 – after I’ve built a luminosity mask sequence, I always go back and check each layer to see if it’s luminosity masking effect is too little or too large! Hold down Alt key and click eye of the bottom layer. This turns off all layers. All layers above are not used until you click each individual eye.

Then make any subtle adjustment the image asks for.

In this masking, I found clouds to be too dark. The simplest global fix is to create an unmasked Curves layer.

In this case, I placed 2 points on the curves layer – 1 at midpoint and 1 half way from midpoint to lightest RGB histogram color.

In both cases, I increased values about 20%.

Step 12 – here’s the final, lightened image for Dawn’s Cacophony.

Triple Play actions left sharp birds. Expanded Mid Tones and Light Lights masks added passion to the edge of the clouds. These effects are clearly shown in the picture center where the black bird silhouettes are contrasted with darkened cloud edges.

Lighten Dawn’s Cacophony

The completed image reflects What the Eye Recalls…


Each image will tell you about different aspects of light. As you learn how images talk of light, you also learn which mask to apply to create the fine art your eye recalls. Here’s clear, exciting visual proof; you can create really superb fine art with skillful use of luminosity masks.

We’re at a point where we can begin to show you how to apply tone mapping CFAM techniques. Lavender Dawn was a relatively simple image. We didn’t have to do a lot of creative tone mapping to bring out its truly salient fine art.

Dawn’s Cacophony really only has 3 component’s; birds, clouds, and water! The bird silhouettes are sharp and distinct. Yet it’s distant cloud edges and luminosity difference in the water which adds so much cohesion. Flying birds and stringy clouds draw your eye to different aspects of Dawn’s total story. Resting birds on the water don’t particularly add to the excitement…

As Paul Harvey said, “And now, The Rest of the Story!

Stay tuned for more clear descriptions of Luminosity Masking as we dig deeper into its intricacies.

Let us hear from you about Luminosity Masking and how it might add to your skillsets?

Would you do this work with a different workflow? How do you use LM to enhance more complex images?

We look forward to interacting with you…

Please comment and share with other interested fine art digital shooters…

©2014 Chopawamsic LC, Bridwell,,

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About Joe 

Photographer, author, teacher with enhanced skill creating Award-Winning Photos. Joe uses Luminosity Masking and CFAM-Creating Fine Art Magic for his work!