Featured Photographer – Tony Kuyper

October 30th, 2014 by Sean Bagshaw

 

This month we welcome Tony Kuyper as our guest photographer. Tony’s body of work centers around the desert sandstone of the Colorado Plateau and is as beautiful as it is definitive. In addition to his photography, Tony is well known to outdoor photographers for his skills in the realm of digital image developing, specifically in the use of luminosity mask techniques. His popular tutorials and Photoshop actions are well regarded by many of the best contemporary nature and landscape photographers. Tony is also one of the most kind, generous and humble people I know. I first became acquainted with Tony almost ten years ago and have since had the pleasure of getting to know him personally, spending time with him in the field and collaborating with him on Luminosity Mask instruction. Tony generally avoids the spotlight so I thank him for agreeing to this interview and giving us a view into his world.

Inner-Momo

Sean: Give us some biographic back story on Tony Kuyper.

Tony: My background is in the sciences. I got an “A” in Physical Chemistry in college! After getting my degree I moved to Arizona in the 1980s and have mostly been here since. I worked as a pharmacist for the Indian Health Service for 30 years.

Sean: When and how did you get your start in photography?

Tony: There really wasn’t a definitive start to it. It’s always been evolving. Arizona was a whole new world for me compared to the Midwest. I did a lot of hiking and camping trying to see it all. It’s natural, I think, to want to take pictures to hold onto some memories. But in the early days I was just using an instamatic camera. I eventually moved on to a 35 mm and even did a decade of large-format. So it’s really just a long continuum.

Sean: Your photography is centered in the American Southwest, primarily southern Utah and Northern Arizona. What about this landscape attracted you photographically and what keeps you coming back?

Tony: The initial attraction wasn’t photographic. The Colorado Plateau was just an incredible place. It was easy to fall in love with this landscape after living my first 24 years in Iowa. Photography was a way to interact with this place on a more personal level, and that eventually became more central to my travels around the area. Being in the desert feels right for me now, and that helps create a good mindset for taking pictures.

Bow-Wave

Sean: Your photography includes some wonderful large landscapes, but you are most known for your sandstone abstracts. Other than light, what are the most essential elements you look for when capturing this type of scene and what are you hoping viewers will take note of when viewing this body of work?

Tony: I tend to compose less complex scenes, so these images are in line with my general approach to nature photography. Many of these sandstone details are taken in the shadows, not direct light. In the shadows, the color of sandstone shifts considerably, depending on the source of reflected light. Only by getting in close and excluding direct sunlight can you really see what’s happening. The camera, especially in the film days, was critical to this. Our eyes naturally shift the colors to what we expect, but the camera is objective and helped me see sandstone’s alternate hues. The unexpected colors coupled with the amazing shapes and textures make for an interesting subject. So these abstracts are really just my way of exploring sandstone. Hopefully viewers will be able to see the beauty in this rock from a less traditional point of view.

Fiesta

Sean: To quote from your website you say, “Over the years, capturing light has become less and less my goal. Instead, I increasingly prefer to give in to the unpredictability of the situation and simply allow the light to capture me.” Tell us a little more about that statement.

Tony: I’ll say up front that Guy Tal had a big influence in developing this perspective. I photographed with him several times and was always impressed that any light was good light for him. He always came back with some amazing images. I came to understand it was not about approaching the landscape with preconceived notions of what would make a good picture, but rather to find a way to understand the area and eventually allow it to show me what it might have to offer in terms of light. Images created in this manner end up having deeper meaning. There’s something almost magical when I turn it all over to fate and find that it makes better choices than I do. It’s a new connection to something to I didn’t even know existed.

Elephant's-Feet-No-2

Sean: What does your standard camera rig consist of for most of your photographs?

Tony: Pretty minimal. Canon 5D2 camera, carbon fiber tripod, Tamron 28-300 lens, polarizer, and spare battery and compact flash cards.

Sean: Attention to image developing has long been an important component of your photography. What is your basic philosophy and approach to image developing?

Tony: Two things come to mind. First, connect with your image and let it tell you what to do. Each image is different and requires a unique approach. I find making actual prints to be extremely helpful in listening to the light. It’s much easier to interpret what the image needs when looking at a print than at the monitor for me. The second is to learn to use your tools and develop a skill set that is comfortable. Today’s cameras and Photoshop let us do some amazing things, but it takes some experimentation and practice with both to understand how to best use them. Other than that, I think photographers should be free to do what they want with their images. As David Kachel observed, a sense of realism is important to photography, but strict adherence to reality is not. So the whole process becomes one of interpreting light rather than simply reproducing it, and that opens up a lot of possibilities.

Sandstone-Polychrome

Sean: You are arguably the original and best known luminosity mask user and educator in the world of outdoor photography. Briefly, what are luminosity masks, how did you begin working with them and how is it that you discovered them for the rest of us?

Tony: Luminosity masks are selections based on tonal values in the image. They are created from the image’s pixel values, not from a selection tool. They can be manipulated to target specific tones and blend most adjustments perfectly into the rest the image. I Googled the term “luminosity mask” in April 2006, found out how to make the initial “Lights” selection, and was instantly fascinated with the possibilities. I knew about adding, subtracting, and intersecting selections and played with combining various masks somewhat randomly for several months to get at specific tones in my images. Based on these experiments, the Lights-, Darks-, and Midtones-series were developed for the “Luminosity Masks” tutorial published in November the same year.

Sean: Speaking to anyone not familiar with luminosity masks, what advantages do they have over other Photoshop adjustment methods?

Tony: The perfect blending that luminosity masks provide is probably the biggest benefit. While regular selections and brushes can be feathered spatially into the surrounding pixels to facilitate blending, luminosity selections are feathered tonally. This means that pixel content, specifically the brightness values, determines what gets blended, not just proximity to the selection edge. So as brightness varies across the image, the luminosity mask or selection will automatically adjust. The image is essentially its own mask. Photoshop makes it easy to manipulate the initial “Lights” mask to target different tones, so it’s possible to get this seamless blending in any tones you adjust. Sorry if that sounds a bit geeky, but that’s how it works. This perfect blending can be used to create very balanced lighting in the image. For nature photographers, it’s like to having studio lighting in the great outdoors.

Sandstone-Aurora-RAWSandstone-Aurora

Sean: Many of the talented outdoor photographers I’m familiar with today include luminosity mask techniques in their image developing skill set. When you first began experimenting with luminosity masks did you have any idea how important they would become to modern outdoor photography?

Tony: Not really. The scientist in me thought it was pretty neat what the different luminosity masks could do, so that’s why I wrote the tutorial, sort of like writing a research paper. However, it was my quirky way of using Photoshop and a bit complex at the time, so I didn’t think it would be widely adopted. The actions to make the masks were available right from the start and that probably helped others get on to using these techniques more quickly. But overall the interest in these techniques was definitely more than I expected.

Sean: In 2006 you published your first luminosity mask tutorials and Photoshop actions on NaturePhotographers.net. How have the actions, and the way that they are used, evolved since you first put them out there?

Tony: While the initial series of masks (Lights, Darks, Midtones) are useful, I quickly found that the narrower tonal range selections made from the primary Lights- and Darks-series to be more useful. These secondary masks became more important to me and I’ve developed tools to make them accessible. Something else quite unexpected is that I also use the Darks series of masks frequently in sharpening my images. They’re an effective way to reduce or remove light halos and over-sharpening while maintaining proper image sharpness.

First-Lightening-RAW First-Lightening

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sean: The techniques and actions you introduced almost a decade ago have become a standard tool for outdoor photographers all over the world. Do you see them continuing to evolve and improve, and if so, how?

Tony: I think the basic knowledge about luminosity masks is becoming more widespread, but there is still some confusion about how to use them effectively. Deciding when use them, which mask to choose, and how to efficiently incorporate them into the workflow are some of the issues. Developing tools and educational materials to streamline luminosity mask integration will help more people adapt to them. It’s something I’m continuing to work on.

Sean: What piece of advice do you have for photographers interested in improving their image developing skills and realizing their creative potential?

Tony: I think the best way to improve at anything is to make it personal. For photography, that means having a genuine interest in the subjects you photograph. It’s easy to tune into the light and find images when you care about your subject. This also makes image development a creative exercise instead of a chore. If you’re personally committed to what you photograph, you’ll naturally work to improve your technique both in the field and at the computer. You’ll practice and study and find ways to get better.

Sean: Where do you see your interests in photography going in the future?

Tony: I recently moved to Tucson. It’s a whole new world to explore. Very different than the Colorado Plateau, but lots of variety. I’m going to have to branch out from sandstone, but am definitely looking forward experiencing light in a new place.

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  • Tom Herriman

    Great interview and blog post!
    Between the lines I’m reading a humanized realization and blending of science and reality. Like a mask that blends and corrects some of the harsh distortion between human senses and terms of scientific truth.

    “Our eyes naturally shift the colors to what we expect, but the camera is objective…”
    That is a pretty interesting thought. Especially in thinking about how each of us has an individual expectation or preconceived notion.

    “…find a way to understand the area and eventually allow it to show me what it might have to offer…”
    🙂

  • Great interview. Zack Schnepf turned me on to Tony’s luminosity masks and I have been trying to master the technique ever since. I need to keep working on it.

    • Fortunately you have one of the best teachers available at your disposal 😉

  • richardwong

    Great interview guys. Tony’s contributions to the art are genius.

  • Excellent interview, and really helps me understand what Luminosity Masks are all about. And this I really love: “I came to understand it was not about approaching the landscape with preconceived notions of what would make a good picture, but rather to find a way to understand the area and eventually allow it to show me what it might have to offer in terms of light.” Wonderful.

  • I am still working on mastering luminosity masks but already they have proved to be great tools. Your video tutorials and Tony’s guides are a great help to understanding and using the masks. You are absolutly right when you describe Tony as “most kind generous and humble” In my communication with him via email, I have been amazed at the swift and helpful reply as he must get numerous emails each day. This is a man who clearly cares about his craft. Thank you both and regards from the North of England.

  • Andre Distel

    Great interview Sean. Tony has changed the world of post processing and continues to do so with all the improvements in the TKActions Panel. I am sure you can attest, same as I, that he is one great guy to work with. Easy, honest and humble in every way. Glad Tony was willing to give this interview 🙂

  • I first learned about Tony’s Luminosity Masks from a training video I purchased from Chip Phillips. Through Tony’s web site I was introduced to Sean Bagshaw’s Luminosity Mask Tutorials. I have learned so much from these guys on processing my images. Sean’s ability to teach is excellent and pairing these two together to demonstrate Tony’s TKActions is awesome. To anyone out there reading this do yourself a favor any get a copy of Tony Kuyper’s TKActions and Sean’s tutorials on how to use them. This will be the single most important investment you can make to take your images to a whole new level. This will totally change the way you process your captures. PS: Tony is great about keeping his buyers informed of new updates to his Actions. Thanks Tony, Sean, and Chip.

  • Ole Henrik Skjelstad

    Fantastic interview with Tony. And it is so true that he is very kind and helpful.

  • pjcaver

    I think this is a great interview of BOTH of you. Between the TWO of you, you guys have changed the world of digital photography processing in ways that simply weren’t available in the past. Nobel Prizes for you both.

    Peter Jones
    Shot in the Dark Cave Photography

    PS Sorry that this was supposed to be the pjcaver image, not an attachment. Can’t seem to remove it…