Digital Tri-Color Photography with free Photoshop action

An old technique has a new lease on life in the digital world of Photoshop to create interesting images from both compact digital cameras and from dSLRs.

Back in the dark ages when I shot film :) I used a creative technique called tri-color photography. In this technique I would set my camera, then a wonderful Canon T90, into multiple exposure mode, mount a Cokin filter holder and then, with the camera on a good tripod, shoot three exposures onto the same frame, one through a strong red filter, one through a green and one through a blue. The resulting transparency (that’s what I normally shot) would show a roughly naturally colored image of anything that did not move but wonderful color effects on subjects in motion. The technique worked well but it was not without its issues. Even with the Cokin filter system there was a risk of moving the camera or adjusting the lens zoom or focus while changing filters. Also, whilst in theory the three filters should have given a result in natural color, there were the inevitable differences between the exact exposure required through the three filters so that the result always had a color cast, though sometimes a small one. But the technique worked and I got some lovely images, especially of the sea, that I exhibited as large Cibachromes.

Now that I work digitally this technique is even easier. Digital cameras have the red, green and blue filters built in, but few have the ability to take multiple exposures. Thankfully there is no need for it.

Tri-color digital photography tutorial

Digitally, the tri-color process consists of the following steps:

  • Mount the camera on a sturdy tripod and either use a cable release or the self-timer;
  • Take three shots of a scene with some part of it moving;
  • Open the three images in Photoshop, Paint Shop Pro or similar software;
  • Copy the green channel from the second image and paste it into the green channel of the first image;
  • Copy the blue channel from the third image and paste it into the blue channel of the first image;
  • This gives you a composite image with the red channel of the first, green of the second and blue of the third.

Tri-color digital photography tutorial

You want to time the shooting so there is opportunity for movement to occur between shots. General with things like the ocean or trees on a windy day you can just shoot. With clouds moving you may want to give more time between shots.

Here is the step by step in Photoshop:
1.    Open three images in Photoshop. Select the first one;
Tri-color digital photography tutorial

2.    Do a Select All
Tri-color digital photography tutorial

3.    Activate the Channels palette and click on the Green channel
Tri-color digital photography tutorial

4.    Switch to the second file and select its Green channel
Tri-color digital photography tutorial

5.    Select All and copy the channel to the clipboard
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6.    Switch back to the first file and paste the clipboard into the Green channel
Tri-color digital photography tutorial

7.    Select the Blue channel
Tri-color digital photography tutorial

8.    Switch to the third file, Select All and select the Blue channel
Tri-color digital photography tutorial

9.    Copy the Blue channel to the clipboard
Tri-color digital photography tutorial
10.    Switch back to the first file and Paste the clipboard into the Blue channel
Tri-color digital photography tutorial

11.    Click on the RGB channel to see the result
Tri-color digital photography tutorial
12.    The result after a mild sharpen
Tri-color digital photography tutorial

Tri-color digital photography tutorial

Tri-color digital photography tutorial
Tri-color digital photography tutorial

I have provided a free Photoshop Action for the Tri-color Process (you may need to right click the link and Save As) that you can download to your computer and use to do the above. You must open the three images first and have the first image the active one before playing the action.

Tri-color digital photography tutorial

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The above is, if you like, the classic approach. There are lots of variations you can make.

Tri-color digital photography tutorial

For example, if you shoot infrared, as I do, you can do a slightly different sequence:
1.    Open the three IR images
2.    Select the first image, do Select All and then select the Green channel
3.    Switch to the second image, click on the Red channel, do Select All and Copy
4.    Switch back to the first image and Paste the Red channel from the second image into the Green channel of the first
5.    Select the Blue channel
6.    Switch to the third file, select the Red channel, do Select All and Copy
7.    Switch back to the first file and Paste the Red channel from the third image into the Blue channel of the first.

Tri-color digital photography tutorial

Tri-color digital photography tutorial using infrared images

Tri-color digital photography tutorial using infrared images

You can, of course combine the green channels, in which case you move the channels into the middle file, moving the Green from the 1st into the Red of the 2nd and the Green of the 3rd into the Blue of the 2nd.

Tri-color digital photography tutorial using infrared images

Tri-color digital photography tutorial using infrared images

Tri-color digital photography tutorial using infrared images

Tri-color digital photography tutorial using infrared images

Remember, the resulting image is just a starting point for further work. You can swap the channels around till you get the color effects you want, do individual adjustments on the channels, apply blur or sharpen and so much more.

These tri-color processes work and work well. Some subjects work better than others, as is true of any technique. The results can be subtle if the movement is slight or bold if the movement is substantial, and particularly so with long exposures where the movements have blurred.

Give it a try, you just might like it.

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9 Responses to “Digital Tri-Color Photography with free Photoshop action”

  1. francoisFebruary 28, 2009 at 6:21 pm #

    the pictures do not appear, are they missing from the file or do I have a problem? (other files from the same site (IR photo) work well.thanks in advance

  2. WayneFebruary 28, 2009 at 9:51 pm #

    Fixed. Thanks for pointing it out to me.

  3. WayneFebruary 28, 2009 at 9:51 pm #

    Fixed. Thanks for pointing it out to me.

  4. HuyJuly 25, 2010 at 10:59 pm #

    Hello,

    I had the hardest time trying to figure this out, and getting the action correctly (by myself, before coming upon this page). I had done it before, and actually accomplished it (somewhat). But I had the problem of, “Could not use the move tool because the target does not include all the composite channels.” The image came out fine, but I just could not move the individual channel layers. I came across your tutorial, and now it works! Woot! Thanks for the tutorial. Oh, by the way, the action you provide isn’t available.

    Thanks,
    Huy

    P.S. I ran the action again this morning, and could select two layers, then just select the one, to align the images. Through research, I came upon the answer. “Normally”(?), each channel “eye” is revealed when you click on the specific channel. I wanted to reveal two layers, and could do that if I hold the shift key. The problem is, when I select the one layer to try to align it against the second layer, the second layer diappears. The solution was to click on the actual “eye” to reveal it, not just the area where the name of the channel layer is. Sorry for the long post. It’s meant to help others who may come across this same problem as I did. Take care.

  5. HuyJuly 25, 2010 at 11:07 pm #

    Oops, edit.

    In the P.S., I said:

    “I ran the action again this morning, and could select two layers,”
    But I mean:
    “I ran the action again this morning, and could NOT select two layers,”

    Let me clarify. I try to select two layers to reveal the alignment between the two. That works fine. But when I try to select one of the layer to move it to align it, only that one layer I select shows in b&w, and so I have no point of reference to align by. But the solution is as stated above.

    Thanks,
    Huy

  6. Emmanichols99August 3, 2011 at 5:56 pm #

    hi, thanks for the post
    would this technique work with three stable moving image shots ? Might try it out

  7. ZanyZFebruary 26, 2012 at 2:06 am #

    I enjoyed your shots using tri-color with digital. I did it years ago when I shot it for assignment while attending school. I was very pleased with the results. I used two dancers as models which worked out very well. I also did some still life with a candle flickering.

    I am missing something on your instructions for the digital Tri-Color application.
    I am have been using photoshop limited edition Ver 5 for years. I seem to miss something in your instructions. I have shot three individual images of a model airplane and have moved the prop between each shot. I have selected green channel on 2nd shot and copied to clipboard then went back to first image opened it up to green channel, selected all and pasted from clipboard. Have followed similiar procedure trying to follow your instructions. But I am missing something. From and old 73 year old photographer who still loves exploring the potential of photography.

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