Like most things in Photoshop, there are many ways to sharpen images. There are lots of tutorials and online videos showing the different methods, and plenty of opinions about what works best. While I am certainly no expert in image sharpening, I still need a practical sharpening method in order to present my images to others. And, because I’m no expert on image sharpening, I also want a method that is simple to use and works on every image. That’s what I’m going to try and discuss here—my personal approach to sharpening images. It is simply this: USE A LUMINOSITY MASK. Yes, I know about the multitude of sliders and different color modes, blending modes, and edge masks for sharpening (and understand most of it), but gave it awhile back for something more automatic and less complicated. Pretty much a no-frills, one-size-fits-all method to image sharpening that provides consistently good results.
First a couple of concepts about sharpening that everyone needs to know. The most important is the one widely mentioned on the Internet and other references: image sharpening is produced by increasing the tonal contrast at the edges. Edges are simply where two different tones meet in an image. Increased tonal contrast means that the light side of an edge gets lighter and the dark side gets darker. More tonal contrast at the edges is perceived as a sharper edge, and sharper edges create the impression of a sharper image. Photoshop’s Unsharp Mask filter allows the user to determine the tonal difference that constitutes an edge, how much contrast is added to that edge, and how far away from the edge the increased contrast extends. The image below shows a 50-step tonal gradient. Because of the large number of steps in the small space, the separation is poor and the edges between adjacent tones are somewhat blurry. Using Photoshop’s Unsharp Mask filter these edges can be sharpened. The mouse rollover of the image shows how some exaggerated sharpening easily creates more distinct edges between the tonal steps by increasing contrast at the edges. (NOTE: Rollover images may take a few seconds to load initially.)
The second concept that is important to sharpening with luminosity masks is that both sides of the sharpened edge—the light and the dark side—are not perceived the same. Over-sharpening that shows halos and “crispiness” is almost always the result of the light side of the sharpened edge being too light. When someone mentions they can see halos in a sharpened image, it is always a light halo to which they are referring. Sharpening, however, increases contrast on both sides of the tonal edge. The light tones on one side of the edge get lighter (producing light halos) and the dark tones on the other side get darker (producing dark halos). Light halos are terribly obvious when looking at an image, but the dark halos are essentially invisible. We readily see the light halos and totally ignore the dark ones. So the reason luminosity masks work so well for image sharpening is this: luminosity masks, because they can select specific tones, are able to conceal the light side of the sharpened edge (where obvious haloing and over-sharpening are perceived), while at the same time revealing the dark halo (which is perceived as enhanced sharpness instead of as a halo). Luminosity masks are created from the actual tones in an image so they perfectly reflect the enhanced contrast that sharpening creates at tonal edges. As such, they’re an ideal tool to adjust a sharpened edge to preserve sharpness while at the same time reducing halos.
To see the importance of the dark tones to image sharpening, roll over the above image again. Notice how you can see the enhanced sharpness more in the dark tones than in the light tones. It’s subtle, but compare the difference in the change in sharpness from the rollover in the darker ¼ tones with the lighter ¾ tones. It helps illustrate that it’s the dark tones in the image where sharpness is perceived. Luminosity masks that reveal these dark tones, therefore, can do a nice job of maintaining the impression of an appropriately sharpened image even as the light halos and lighter tones are masked.
It’s the Darks-series of luminosity mask that conceal light tones and reveal dark tones, so it is these “Darks” masks that will be of value in the image sharpening process. It’s also worth noting that to use luminosity masks successfully for image sharpening, it’s necessary to do the sharpening on a duplicate layer of the flattened image. This is so that when the luminosity mask is employed to mask light halos, the unsharpened, “un-haloed” image pixels can still show through from the layer below.
Web presentation provides a good example of the utility of luminosity masks for sharpening. An easy way to sharpen an image for the web is to downsize it in two steps using the Image>Image Size command and to apply the Filter>Sharpen>Sharpen command after each downsizing. For the first downsizing, choose a dimension that is 1.667 times the final desired dimension. If an image will be downsized to a 900-pixel horizontal dimension, for example, choose 1500 (900 x 1.667 = 1500) pixels as the first down-sizing horizontal dimension. After this, run the menu command Filter>Sharpen>Sharpen to do an initial sharpening of the image. Then run Image>Image Size again, this time inserting the desired 900 pixels as the horizontal dimension and afterwards run Filter>Sharpen>Sharpen again. The results will be a predictably too-sharp image. The image below shows what this looks like.
If you look closely at the image you’ll see that it’s the light tones that are causing the perceived over-sharpening. While there may not be any obvious halos, there are plenty of “micro-halos” making the image look extremely crisp. Rolling the mouse over this image will show the unsharpened version. As you can see, it’s the light tones that have really popped out in the sharpened version. Smaller rocks and some of the upper diagonal edges have gone almost pure white. The improved sharpness looks good, but the visible white indicates it’s gone too far.
The predictable over-sharpening that occurs with this down-sizing method is actually ideal as it allows a predictable solution—a luminosity mask. The goal here would be to hide the excessively white pixels allowing the darker pixels from the layer below to show through, but to still maintain the excellent sense of sharpness that’s needed for good presentation. The Dark Darks mask does this quite well for this image. The image below shows the Dark Darks mask. The roll-over shows the over-sharpened image. Although it’s a little difficult to see at this size, the darkest areas of the mask correspond to the lightest, whitest areas of the over-sharpened image. When added as a layer mask to the over-sharpened image layer, this Dark Darks mask conceals the light tones (good-bye white pixels) and reveals the sharpened dark tones (so that the image still looks sharp).
The image below shows the final sharpened version with Dark Darks mask in place as a layer mask. The excessive sharpening is gone, but the image is still nicely sharp. The rollover shows the over-sharpened version without the mask. Note how the edges that were too bright and overly crisp have been eliminated and how the dark tones still have a sense of sharpness that is not overdone. The Dark Darks mask provides the proper gradation of tones to conceal the over-shapening in the light tones, but to still also reveal the improved sharpness in the dark tones.
The layer stack for this sharpening process is shown below.
NOTE: My web-sharpening actions make use of a similar down-sizing/sharpening/masking technique, though the mask used is more complex to allow for greater flexibility in adjusting the final sharpness of the image. The “straight” Dark Darks mask was used in this example to illustrate the utility of a Darks-series mask to conceal the light side of over-sharpened edges and how the Darks-series masks can be used in the image sharpening process.
Sharpening images for the web using a luminosity mask is quite easy; web images are relatively small, almost always under 1,000 pixels for the longest dimension. Can this method be scaled up for print-size images that may be 5,000 to 10,000 pixels on the long side? The answer is yes, but it’s necessary to be able to predictably sharpen an image (or slightly over-sharpening it would be even better) before adding the luminosity mask. The Filter> Sharpen>Sharpen command isn’t going to work. It’s fine when down-sizing an image for web presentation (72 dpi), but will yield very crude results for a print at 360 dpi. My solution for a long time has been Nik Sharpener Pro. I’m currently using version 3.0, but have been using this program for sharpening since version 1.0. (NOTE: I have no affiliation with the makers of Nik software.) While I don’t have any documentation on this, the software seems to read the unsharpness of the image and then calculate and apply the correct sharpness setting specific to that image. In other words it is very automated and produces predictable results. Within the interface there are a number of sliders and menus for such things as output device, some creative controls, and even local controls, but I don’t use any of them. I simply run the plug-in at the default settings every time, which happens to be for output on a “display,” which I take to be a monitor. And every time I get a slightly over-sharpened image to which I can add a Darks-series luminosity mask to conceal the over-sharpening on the light side of tonal edges and to reveal the sharpening on the dark side of the edge.
Using this information, I’ve listed below the steps I follow for sharpening an image to be printed on an inkjet printer.
- It’s important to start thinking about the sharpening process at RAW conversion. In the RAW convertor (ACR/LR), I drag the “Amount” for the Sharpening slider to zero and also leave the Clarity slider set to zero. In other words, I purposely do not add sharpening as part of RAW conversion. I usually do a lot of processing in Photoshop, and any processing step that increases contrast can also increase apparent sharpness. If too much sharpness is added during RAW conversion then the overall image, or certain parts or tones, may over-sharpen during processing, and it’s hard to remove this over-sharpening when it comes time to do the final sharpening. Purposeful sharpening right before printing is a more controlled way to add the final sharpness. I prefer to use a dedicated sharpening procedure at the end of Photoshop processing instead of adding sharpness during RAW conversion before I even start working on the image.
- Image development in Photoshop—work in 16-bit and add as many layers and adjustments as necessary. With no sharpening added during RAW conversion there is freedom to do whatever is necessary for the image without being too concerned with its effect on image sharpness.
- Duplicate and flatten the processed image.
- Create a duplicate image layer. Remember, sharpening needs to be done on a duplicate layer of the unsharpened image so that the un-haloed edges of the unsharpened image can later be revealed in the sharpened version when the Darks-series luminosity mask is added.
- Run Nik Sharpener Pro 3.0 RAW Presharpener—this corrects the soft blur inherent with digital capture. NOTE: This Presharpening step is NOT the actual final sharpening step. It does what some references refer to as “capture sharpening,” which is much more subtle than final sharpening. It’s a very necessary step, though, as it allows the final sharpening to be effective. It seems to create the micro-edges (not the micro-halos) that are so necessary for creating great detail and sharpness in the image. There are sliders in this Presharpener dialog box, but , again, I simply accept the defaults here too. The image below shows the Nik Presharpener interface.
- Create a duplicate image layer of the “RAW Presharpener” layer.
- Run Nik Sharpener Pro 3.0 Output Sharpener using the default settings. This does the “final” sharpening of the image. The default settings almost always over-sharpen the image as described above. The image below shows the interface for the Nik Output Sharpener.
- Create the Dark-series of luminosity masks on the Channels panel.
- Load a Darks-series luminosity mask as a selection by doing a Ctrl+click (Mac: Command+click) on one of the masks on the Channels panel. See the paragraph below for information on which mask to choose.
- Create a layer mask of the selection on the Output Sharpener layer.
Below is how the Layers panel looks after the sharpening sequence is completed.
There are a variety of factors that will determine which Dark-series mask works best for this method of sharpening. It’s useful to try all the Darks-series masks, at least initially, to see which does the best job at removing the over-sharpening while also permitting the Output Sharpener layer to add the appropriate amount of sharpness to the image. Trying all the masks also provides a sense for how the different masks affect sharpening and what works best for a particular image size. Masks that include more tones (Darks and Dark Darks) allow more sharpening to be revealed and therefore more apparent sharpness to show in the image. If the image looks too crisp or has halos with one of these masks, try the Shadow Darks or Super Darks instead.
Generally, the more an image is enlarged from its capture size the more sharpening it can tolerate. I use a 21-megapixel camera and proof my images at 12×18 inches, 360 pixels per inch on matte paper using an Epson inkjet printer. This output size results in about a 30% increase in the total pixel count from what was captured by the camera. For an image at this resolution with this increase in pixel volume, the Dark Darks mask works close to 80% of the time for properly masking the final Nik Output Sharpener layer. The Darks mask is usually the alternative if the image needs more sharpness. For a 16×24 image from the same camera and at the same resolution, the pixel count is more than doubled from what was captured by the camera. In this case, the Darks masks might work. Another option to consider is an inverted Light Lights mask. Any inverted Lights-series mask becomes a Dark-series mask, and inverted Light Lights reveals more dark tones compared to a Darks masks, so it will reveal more sharpening as well. Images downsized from their capture size may only need the RAW Presharpener layer. If additional sharpening is still necessary, the Output Sharpener layer will likely only need a Shadow Darks or even Ultra Darks mask to add a bit of additional sharpening.
There are, of course, variations to this procedure. The most obvious is to NOT add any sharpness at all to monochromatic areas of the image, like blue sky. In this case, make a selection of the sky and mask it off on the Presharpener layer and also fill the Dark-series mask with 100% black for the sky selection on the Output Sharpener layer. There may be other variations too. The goal is to respond to what the image needs, but to also keep the actual sharpening procedure as automatic as possible.
A Few Words About Edge Masks
I don’t use edge masks for overall image sharpening. They’re intended to select the edges in an image and constrain sharpening only to these edges. That’s good in theory, but there are two problems. The first is that they only find the major edges. Finding the smallest edges is also often important in order to reveal micro-details in the print. Sharpening through an edge mask misses some of these finer edges. The second problem is that the edge mask selects both the light and the dark sides of edges. As already discussed, the light side is the problem side. Revealing it excessively leads to over-sharpening and halos. Edge masks don’t discriminate between the light and dark sides of sharpened edges the way luminosity masks can. Sharpening through edge masks can still produces halos, especially for edges that have strong tonal contrast to begin with. The image below shows what an edge mask looks like for the example image used here.
Darks-Series Luminosity Mask vs. Darker Color Blending Mode
Another strategy sometimes employed for dealing with light halos is to change the blending mode of the over-sharpened, halo-containing image layer from Normal to Darker Color. Darker Color blending mode compares pixel tones of the current (sharpened) layer with the pixels in the layer beneath and displays the darker of the two. Light halos are replaced by the darker pixels of the underlying unsharpened image. This technique can work sometimes for images sharpened for the web, but is too strong and lacks important tonal distinction when used for sharpening images for print. The Darker color blending mode completely removes the pixels that were lightened by sharpening and in the process also removes some necessary sharpening.
A Darks-series luminosity mask, on the other hand, conceals the light halos, but in a progressive manner. Luminosity masks always have a gradation of pixel tones that make them self-feathering. This gradient of tones preserves the sharpening by still revealing some of the lightening on the light side of the edge, but it removes enough of it so that halos and overly crisp edges disappear. Even more important, in the darker tones, the Dark’s series masks might not remove anything from the light side of the sharpened edge since the contrast increase from sharpening may not have pushed the light side to the threshold that will be concealed by the mask. So in the ¼ tones (that are so effective in the perception of image sharpness) the Darks-series mask reveals all that it can, possibly including both the light and dark sides of the sharpened edge, to maintain the sense of overall image sharpness. Unlike the Darker Color blending mode which blindly selects the darkest tone to reveal, a Darks-series mask can effectively block light halos, reveal a gradation tones to insure sharpness, and maintain full contrast edges in the ¼-tones. This tone-variable affect of the luminosity mask helps to get sharpening right across all tones in the image.
Again, I’m not an image sharpening guru and just want a simple, predictable method for sharpening my images. Slightly over-sharpening the image and then adding a Darks-series luminosity mask provides that. It takes a bit to write out the procedure, but in reality it is so automated that it can be done with very little thought. This sharpening method has also helped me understand how we perceive light and dark halos differently in the sharpened image and how emphasizing the dark side relative to the light side of the sharpened edge can be used advantageously. The next installment in this series will look at another technique where choosing the “dark side” can be used to create some useful effects.
Lastly, I want to take a moment to mention that Sean Bagshaw has recorded a new series of videos on creating and using luminosity masks. The Complete Guide to Luminosity Masks provides excellent instruction both on how to create the masks and how to apply them as a part of a creative workflow in Photoshop.
Luminosity masks serve as a way to select specific tones in an image for adjustment, usually in an effort to help develop an image in the photographer’s personal style. Beyond the artistic applications of tonal adjustments and exposure blending, luminosity masks can have more practical uses as well. Fixing edges is an example. There are several pixel manipulation activities that can alter edges within an image to the point that they look unnatural. Sharpening is perhaps the best example. While there are several ways to control the sharpening process, unintended halos or unnatural “crispness” can still occur. Halos can also sometimes happen when blending exposures for high dynamic range (HDR) scenes using automated processes. The algorithms for these programs sometimes select pixels from the wrong exposure in areas of fine detail. This can result in halos that can be either subtle or obvious depending on the chosen settings for the program.
The usefulness of luminosity masks to remove halos generated by automatic HDR-blending programs was brought to my attention by Bruce Leander. One of his blended images is shown below and is used with his permission. A properly exposed foreground that includes the tree and the grass would overexpose the sky, so a second exposure that properly exposes the sky but underexposes the foreground has been blended in so that now both the sky and the foreground have proper color and detail. However, there is also now some subtle haloing between and around the fine branches and leaves of the tree. The automated blending program retained texture well in the branches and the leaves, but also apparently chose the nearby lighter pixels of the foreground exposure for the areas between the branches (instead of choosing the properly exposed sky pixels) thus causing overexposure in these areas. The result is a noticeable lightness in amongst the branches and surrounding the tree—a halo.
Halos of this nature are easily handled with luminosity masks. Since there is excellent tonal separation at these haloed edges, it’s simply a matter of selecting the light side of the edge and darkening it.
The first step is to make all the Lights-series luminosity masks on the Channels panel, click them successively, and see which one is white or gray in the haloed areas while being black in the tree parts. Either the Light Lights or Bright Lights mask looks like it would work. I usually prefer using the more restrictive mask (the one that has the fewer selected pixels when loaded as a selection) when there there is more than one to choose from, which would be Bright Lights in this case. This luminosity mask is shown below.
The next step is to make an adjustment layer (Curves or Levels works) and set the layer’s blending mode to Multiply. This darkens the entire image way too much (image below). In doing so, however, the haloed area has been darkened to a level that would be nearly appropriate for original image.
Now invert the white Reveal All mask on the adjustment layer to make it black instead of white (Windows: Ctrl+I / Mac: Command+I). It is now a Conceal All mask as shown in the layer stack below. The normal haloed image returns.
Load the Bright Lights mask as a selection (Windows: Ctrl+click on it in the Channels panel / Mac: Command+Click) and hide the marching ants.
Click on the Conceal All layer mask to make it the painting surface. Choose the Brush tool. Set the foreground color to white and the opacity to something around 75 to 100 percent.
Now paint over the haloed parts of the image. The brush strokes add white paint through the Bright Lights selection to the layer mask revealing the darker pixels of the Multiply blending mode adjustment layer. Continue painting the halo until it pretty much disappears. Multiple brush strokes are necessary to create the proper reveal.
Below is what the painted mask looks like. As a reminder, painting through the Bright Lights selection, even with a relatively large brush, protects the leaves and branches from receiving paint and therefore from being darkened by the adjustment layer. Since the branches and leaves are completely black in the mask, no white paint lands on them when painting through a selection of the mask. The sky between the branches, however, is non-black in the mask and the selection does allow these non-black areas to receive paint creating white in the painted mask. This reveals the Multiply blending mode of the adjustment layer and darkens the sky between the branches accordingly.
Below is the image after the painted mask reveals the Multiply blending mode of the adjustment layer. Rolling the mouse over the image shows how it originally looked with the halo. (It may take a few seconds for the rollover image to appear.) The halo has been significantly and appropriately darkened and the leaves and branches have maintained their tone and texture. The adjustment looks completely natural as it blends in perfectly to the rest of the image.
While this method removes much of the halo, some areas between the branches still remain too bright. Bruce’s method for dealing with halos is to paint black onto a new layer at low opacity, which works nicely to gray-down these still too-bright areas so they are less obvious. The painting, of course, is done through a luminosity mask (the same Bright Lights mask works) to make sure the paint lands on just the bright areas of sky without darkening the tree limbs or leaves.
An even more elegant solution for darkening these remaining bright areas of sky is to paint with a sampled color that matches what is desired in these areas instead of using black paint. With the Brush tool active, simply choose a color from an appropriate part of the sky (Windows: Alt+click on the desired color / Mac: Option+click) and then paint with it in the bright areas through the Bright Lights selection. This provides both the correct color and correct darkening to the remaining areas that are too light. The image below includes this final touch-up. The rollover shows the previous version with just the painted mask.
Below is how the layer stack looks for this image once the halo reduction is complete.
Bruce Leander as agreed to allow the use of the jpeg of the original image for those who would like to practice this technique. It can be downloaded here. Right click the image that shows up in the web browser, save it, and then open it in Photoshop. Many thanks to Bruce for sharing his expertise and image with a larger audience.
Finally, just a quick note on an update to the tutorials on my website. I recently added a video on how to install and use a new custom Photoshop panel to run the various actions. The video can be found at the bottom of this page.
In a previous post I described how luminosity painting is one of my favorite techniques for balancing the light in an image. The technique can be effectively used to burn or dodge specific parts of an image while maintaining tonal contrast in the areas being painted. In this post I’ll expand on the technique a little more and show some variations in the procedure that can be useful.
Unlike black and white images where a full tonal range from delicate whites to detailed shadows is often desirable, color images usually look better with the highlights retaining some good color instead of going to light or pure white. In fact, I’ve developed a preference for a left-shifted histogram for color images–no whites at all and mostly composed of mid-tones and quarter tones as seen in the histogram below.
Even though there may not be many of them in an image, getting the brightest values correct is still important. This is difficult to do sometimes because simply darkening white values yields gray, which really has no color either, and doesn’t contribute to the richness that may be desired. A good place to start to achieve the proper light tones is with RAW conversion, making sure there are no clipped highlights and that the light tones are already left-shifted and retaining color. This allows them to be further developed to the proper brightness and contrast in Photoshop.
The image below is one that I consider nearly finished. Color, brightness, contrast, and saturation had been addressed during processing, and on-screen it seemed nearly as good as I could make it. I usually let the print help make the final call as to when an image is actually finished, and the light values in this image looked a little weak in the print. They had too much tonal whiteness and not enough color richness. The rollover of the image (it may take a few seconds to load) shows the final version after the light tone had been further addressed. These tones have been darkened in the rollover and have richer color, but the contrast in these light values has been retained to bring out the texture.
There are, of course, many ways luminosity masks could be used to make this adjustment. What I’ll illustrate here is a way to do it with a combination of techniques, each of which may also be useful in other situations.
The first thing that will be done is to luminosity paint through an inverted luminosity mask. I’ve previously written that these inverted masks aren’t too useful. They tend to include a lot of tones and don’t isolate specific tones as a result. However, there is a dictum with luminosity masks that point to a way in which inverted masks might be useful:
To increase contrast in an image when luminosity painting, paint white through a Lights-series mask or paint black through a Darks-series mask.
Because of the way luminosity masks are generated, each series concentrates the selection progressively towards one end of the tonal spectrum. The Lights-series masks, for example, have fewer and fewer tones as the masks progress from Lights to Light Lights to Bright Lights and finally to Super Lights. The tones that do remain in the progression are the whitest and lightest with pure white being selected in every mask. Luminosity painting through a Lights-series mask, therefore, deposits more paint on the less-masked light tones than on the relatively more-masked darker tones. So painting with white means that the light tones get more paint and get lighter faster than the darker tones, which receive less paint. The end result being increased contrast in the area being painted. The opposite happens when painting with black through a Lights-series mask—the less-masked light tones receive more black paint and darken faster than the more-masked darker tones, which in turn decreases contrast in the area being painted.
Any inverted mask switches to the opposite series. An inverted Light Lights mask, for example, is effectively a Darks-series mask. Even though the inverted mask doesn’t have a name, it’s character is decidedly that of a Darks-series mask, namely that the parts of the image that show in the mask are a gray-scale negative of the original image with the darkest tones being 100% pure white in the mask. This is demonstrated in the Light Lights mask for the above image which is shown below. The rollover shows the Darks-series inverse.
So according to the dictum, painting black through the inverted Lights Lights selection, which becomes a Darks-series selection, should darken and increase contrast in the areas that receive paint. That’s what was done in this case. The process is as follows:
- Create the Burn/Dodge layer (new layer > fill with 50% gray > set blending mode to “Soft Light”)
- Create a Light Lights selection (and save a copy as a mask on the Channels panel).
- Invert the selection.
- Hide the marching ants.
- Make sure the foreground color is set to black.
- Paint black onto the Burn/Dodge layer through the inverted Light Lights selection (a 33% opacity soft brush was used)
- Deselect the hidden selection when done.
After luminosity painting through the inverted Light Lights mask, the Burn/Dodge layer looked like the image below. The areas darker than 50% gray cause darkening in the image.
The resultant image is shown below. The too-light areas have been made darker and painting through a luminosity mask has blended the darkening into the rest of the image, but it’s overdone. There is now a blackness in some of the areas that were painted as well as some dark haloing along the center ridge. This is because the broad, inverted selection allowed the paint to be applied in a very imprecise manner. Too much black paint reached the darker pixels in the image because they are substantially revealed by the inverted selection. While this is expected, the image has taken on a color “gloppiness” as a result. For reference, the rollover is the original image.
It may be hard to notice, but within this heavy-handed paint job the desired darkening of the light tones has been achieved along with a slight boost in their overall contrast. Black paint applied through a Darks-series mask (the inverted Light Lights in this case) insures this. Now it’s just a matter of fine-tuning the painting to separate the properly-painted pixels from the poorly-painted ones.
MASKING LUMINOSITY PAINTING
A luminosity layer mask on the luminosity-painted Burn/Dodge layer is the way to reveal the good parts of this bad paint job. Interestingly, the Light Lights mask, the one that was inverted for luminosity painting, can now serve as the correct mask to reveal the desired darkening in the pixels that were originally too light. While simply adding the Light Lights mask as a layer mask does a pretty good job, I prefer to actually paint the mask through the Light Lights selection so as to create a more precise reveal and to augment it with multiple brush strokes in specific areas. The procedure is as follows.
- Create a Hide All layer mask on the Burn/Dodge layer (a “black” layer mask).
- Create a Light Lights selection. (NOTE: It’s best to use the original Light Lights mask from the unpainted image instead of creating a new one from the now gloppy image. The original Light Lights mask can be stored on the Channels panel when it’s created and reselected at this point.)
- Hide the marching ants.
- Make sure that the mask is selected for painting and that white is the foreground color.
- Paint white onto the layer mask (100% opacity, soft brush) in the areas where the darkening effect of the luminosity painting needs to be revealed.
- Deselect the hidden selection when done.
Imprecision in painting this time has a much less deleterious effect on the image. The Light Lights selection is much narrower than its tonal inverse. As such, it’s harder to paint outside the lines because the selection is more confining as to where paint gets applied. Some care needs to be taken in smaller confined areas or where multiple brush strokes are used, but overall a few wide strokes of the brush creates the painted mask that reveals the darkening in just those areas where it’s needed. The remaining dark areas of the painted mask effectively conceal the gloppiness of the original paint job. Below is the painted mask that was created. The whitest areas are where multiple brush strokes were applied to create greater reveal of the luminosity painting.
The image that results after painting the layer mask for the Burn/Dodge layer is shown below. The rollover is the unmasked layer with the gloppy luminosity painting that was visible without the layer mask.
The painted mask effectively selected the right pixels to reveal in order to achieve the desired darkening effect in the light tones of the image. This is a good example of how luminosity mask selections, when employed in painting, can correctly select tones and seamlessly blend the desired effect into the rest of the image. What’s most remarkable in this case is that even after the grossly overdone luminosity painting through the inverted mask, painting a layer mask through the Light Lights selection was still able to reveal just the right amount of tonal adjustment for each pixel that received paint and almost effortlessly facilitated the desired adjustment to the image.
The blue highlighted layer below shows how this Burn/Dodge luminosity painting layer with its painted layer mask looked in Photoshop’s Layers panel when the procedure was complete.
BLURRING THE MASK
While I don’t often feel it necessary to blur luminosity masks, this is one time that it helped. Light tones tend to blend together visually. Blurring the mask provides a bit of increased sharpness, which causes what texture there is in the light tones to become a bit more visually separated. When I apply blur to luminosity masks, it’s usually a 21-pixel Gaussian blur. That amount was chosen to “correlate” with my 21-megapixel camera, but I’m not really sure if there is any correlation at all. For whatever reason, the 21-pixel Gaussian blur seems to provide a good result when used to blur a luminosity mask. The blurred mask is shown below.
Below is the final image after the blur was applied to the layer mask. The rollover is the image with the unblurred layer mask. The difference may be hard to see in this size image, but it has a nice effect on a larger jpeg and the actual print.
In summary, three steps were used to make this adjustment:
- Paint through an inverted luminosity mask to maintain/enhance contrast.
- Create a painted layer mask by painting through a luminosity mask selection to reveal the luminosity painting to the appropriate degree in the appropriate pixels.
- Blur the layer mask if it helps to improve textures/contrast.
If you’d like to practice this technique on this image, a larger version with a prominent copyright symbol is available for download here.
The last post discussed concepts about listening to the light in an image—working to understand what’s not quite right and then finding a way to correct it. It’s an interactive and iterative process with each step building on what has been done previously. The process may require going back to adjust previous adjustment layers, printing the image and looking at it in different light to see things that the on-screen image might not reveal, and a willingness to experiment to find the best way to make a particular adjustment.
An important part of this process, I think, is finding and nurturing a relationship with the image and its light. While the Layers panel may have 10 to 20 different layers to complete the development process, only a few of them usually make significant changes in how the image looks. These “layers of significance” make the more dramatic changes to the image and set the overall tone and direction that development takes. These are the “finding the relationship” layers—the big steps. They’re the ones that spark interest in pushing ahead, rev up the imagination, and make one start to feel a bit giddy about the possibilities the light may hold in this image. These layers tend to create a degree of infatuation. There is increasing desire to be with this image and it’s light to see what might happen.
The other layers—the majority of layers in the layer stack—make smaller, less dramatic changes. These are the “nurturing” layers. They keep the relationship going, sometimes at a very deep level. When there’s no big changes happening during the development process, it’s these small steps that build on the themes first realized in the big steps. This is often a slower process, and it takes careful listening to figure out what the image wants. But as the whispers become reality, there is a certain closeness and intimacy that develops between the photographer and the image. The light will only speak to the photographer who took the picture at this point, and the photographer is the only one who can understand what the light is saying.
This post is going to take a look at the big steps in the development of an image. These are easier to see in mouse rollovers, so they lend themselves better to instructional purposes. Unlike the last post that showed the incremental changes in finishing an image, the rollovers here should be more obvious. A good place to start is to take a look at the final image, which is shown below. This is another sandstone abstract. The natural color in the rock, the warm light reflected from a nearby cliff face, and the blue light from an open sky combined to produce an interesting mix of colors. I saw the color, lines, and texture when I was taking the picture and felt like I would enjoy developing them out in Photoshop; however, I didn’t visualize this as the final image. The final image is the result of an ongoing dialog with the light as the image developed and the relationship that ensued. I felt there were three “big steps” that moved this image along, and I’ll go over each of them and how they were accomplished. First, however, rollover this image with the mouse. It shows how the image would look with the visibility of the three “big-step” layers turned off. (NOTE: It may take a few seconds for the second image to load.)
The first big step that was important for this image was healing and cloning. My original thought was to keep this minimal since immediately after converting the RAW file everything seemed to look OK and work reasonably well together. About halfway through development, however, this changed. Richer colors and more pronounced contrast were starting to come out, and as a result, some of the lighter blue patches, especially in the foreground, were starting to look out of place in both brightness and color. So I cloned them out. There are different “ethics” with regard to how much cloning one should or should not do to an image. There seems to be more leeway given in nature photography to cloning out rather than cloning in. Removing twigs, leaves, and other “spots” seems acceptable, but cloning in birds, clouds, and animals is not. Personally, my ethics are pretty liberal on this subject. What the picture and the photographer do in the privacy of the computer is their business, not everyone else’s. In other words, it’s a personal decision. I also tend to be somewhat liberal when it comes to using Photoshop’s healing and cloning tools in my images when I feel it works to remove elements that cause visual distraction. If it’s done well and enhances the image, I think it’s a credit to the photographer and their skill. Photoshop’s healing brush, which was used here, generally produces good results, though it does require working on a magnified image to insure perfect blending. The image below is again the final image. The rollover shows how the image looks with the Heal/Clone layer turned off in which the blue areas distract the eye slightly from moving smoothly through the scene from lower right to upper left.
Below is the Heal/Clone layer that produced this effect. The healed ares show up well against the checkered background. Looking closely at this layer shows a bit of a dark smudge in the lower left corner. This isn’t healing/cloning; it’s luminosity painting. I had the wrong layer selected and accidentally added a thin layer of black paint to the Heal/Clone layer. However, I liked the effect it had on the image and simply left it in. The effect can easily be seen in the rollover above as a bit of darkening in this area.
Make-It-Glow is a technique available in my complete set of tutorials and actions. I actually don’t use it all that often, but when it works, it can make a big difference in how an image looks. It simultaneously increases contrast and saturation in a smooth manner across the entire image. It essentially imparts a glow to the image that looks pretty natural. A low-contrast, low-saturation image that has lots of texture is a good place to try it. Images that have large areas the same color or significant color saturation tend to look garish with this technique, so it needs to be used judiciously. Since it makes a pretty dramatic change, lowering the opacity of the layer it’s on can help decrease the effect if it goes too far. Also, a vibrance mask on the layer can help restrict the effect to less-saturated areas of the image. In this image, it was applied soon after RAW conversion and before development had brought out the colors and contrast. As such, it worked well to increase the overall saturation without the need to lower the layer’s opacity or mask the effect. Again, the final image is below. The rollover is how it looks with the Make-It-Glow layer turned off.
Luminosity painting once again had a significant impact on this image, but it was used in a decidedly different manner than in the last post. In the image in the previous post, most of the burning and dodging were done through a Basic Mid-tones mask to even out the brightness across the image. This resulted in decreased general contrast, which was restored in the next step. For this image I was more concerned about the lack of local contrast that I was seeing in the image and wanted to paint in more contrast while at the same time evening out the light across the image. To increase contrast with luminosity painting, there is an easy rule to remember: LIGHT through LIGHTS, DARK through DARKS. What this means is that to increase contrast when luminosity painting, paint a LIGHT color through a LIGHTS-series masks or paint a DARK color through a DARKS-series mask. For luminosity painting, LIGHT color paint = white, and DARK color paint = black.
So here’s a summary of my goals and how I’ll accomplish them:
- 1st Goal: Darken and increase contrast in areas that are too light.
Technique: Paint black through a Darks-series selection (Expanded Darks, Darks, Dark Darks, Shadow Darks, or Super Darks).
- 2nd Goal: Lighten and increase contrast in areas that are too dark.
Technique: Paint white through a Lights-series selection (Expanded Lights, Lights, Light Lights, Bright Lights, or Super Lights).
While it’s necessary to follow the “LIGHT through LIGHTS, DARKS through DARKS” rule in order to to increase local contrast while balancing overall light, it’s also possible to do it in a more nuanced way that offers greater control. Instead of using the “straight” Darks- and Lights-series selections to paint through, subtracting one mask from another creates a subtracted selection that selects image tones nearer the mid-tones. So, for example, paint won’t be applied to the full range of tones in a Darks selection. Instead, just the Dark tones near the mid-tones are selected. For this image the “DARKS” selection that was painted through was actually the Darks minus the Shadow Darks. This selection contains the image’s dark tones, but the darkest tones are subtracted off making the selected tones the darker mid-tones of the image.
Black paint is going to be applied through this selection to the Burn/Dodge layer to darken the too-light areas of the image, which generally contain light tones. As such, it’s necessary to be a bit careful in how the paint is applied. The subtracted selection still favors dark tones, so dark tones can easily get more paint than light tones when black paint is applied through the selection. So it’s important to choose the right size brush that doesn’t spread the paint too far outside the intended areas to be darkened and to control the brush strokes so they predominantly hit in the light areas that need to be darkened. Sometimes a slightly harder brush (30-50% hardness) can be useful in not straying into the dark areas too much.
You might be thinking that this approach sort of goes against the main advantage of luminosity painting, which is that errant brush strokes are of little consequence since the selection is controlling which pixels receive paint. This is a consideration, of course, but also keep in mind that painting is occurring through a luminosity selection, so it will still blend into the image. It’s just a matter of making sure that most of the paint gets stroked onto the areas that need to be changed. Additionally, the selected tones that receive paint are near image’s mid-tones; the darkest tones in the image are subtracted off and don’t receive much paint.
Again, the selection being painted through here is Darks minus the Shadow Darks. The mask of this subtracted selection is shown below.
The light areas are darker in this mask but aren’t completely black. This means they will still receive paint if they are stroked with a brush of sufficient opacity. Because the mask reveals dark tones more than light tones, darker pixels get darker faster when black paint is applied through the selection to the Burn/Dodge layer. So if the light tones are painted black through this selection, all the light tones get a bit darker, but the darker light tones get darker faster than the lighter light tones. This increases contrast in the light tones, and is exactly what is expected from the “DARK through DARKS” rule, and what is desired in this image.
Lightening the dark tones to increase contrast works the same way except this time the selection being painted though needs to come from the Lights-series of mask. A subtracted selection is once again desirable and the Lights minus Light Lights works well for this purpose. It selects the lighter mid-tones in the image and subtracts off the image’s lightest tones. It’s a pretty narrow selection and it’s mask shows a predominance of dark gray tones as shown below.
When loaded as a selection, there are no pixels more than 50% select, so no marching ants appear. Still it’s the right selection for the job and will be effective in lightening the dark tones while increasing their contrast. However, it’s again necessary when painting to be a careful to brush primarily the dark areas of the image that need adjustment and not stray too much into the light areas. With a little care, the LIGHT paint through the LIGHTS-series of masks lightens and increases the contrast of dark tones in the image.
The image below shows the painted Burn/Dodge layer for this image. White paint lightens and black paint darkens the underlying image and it’s possible to combine both these things on one layer by painting through the appropriate selections as described above. The rollover shows the image before painting in order to see how white paint was applied to the dark areas of the image and black paint to the light areas in order facilitate the appropriate burning and dodging.
The more even light across the image and the good maintenance of local contrast that resulted from luminosity painting can seen below. Again, this is the final image and the rollover is the image with the Burn/Dodge layer turned off.
A quick summary of this procedure might be useful, so here are the steps
- Create the Burn/Dodge layer.
- Create a Darks minus Shadow Darks selection and hide the ants.
- Apply black paint to the Burn/Dodge Layer through this selection to areas of the image that are too light, being careful to adjust brush size and hardness to only paint in the light areas as much as possible.
- Create a Lights minus Light Lights selection, clicking OK when the warning box comes up that no pixels are more than 50% selected.
- Apply white paint to the Burn/Dodge Layer through this selection to areas of the image that are too dark, being careful to adjust brush size and hardness to paint mainly in the dark areas where increased brightness is desired.
I like this technique enough that I recommended it to Alban Fenle when I saw one of his images. I requested to use the image in this post as it worked well to demonstrate this luminosity painting technique and he agreed. His image is more “realistic” than my sandstone picture and is shown below. The only adjustment I added to this image was luminosity painting on a Burn/Dodge layer as described above. The too-light areas of the image were painted with black paint through a Darks minus Shadow Darks selection, and the too-dark areas were painted white through a Lights minus Light Lights selection. The paint was somewhat carefully applied with a 30% hard brush to makes sure the right pixels received paint. This evened out the light across the image and maintained good contrast in the areas being painted. The end result, I think, is richer colors with stronger detail in both the highlight and shadow areas. The rollover shows the image after luminosity painting using this technique.
Alban’s version after applying this technique is posted on his Google+ page. It’s different from what I did, and that’s one of the nice things about luminosity painting—it’s a very personal way to interact with the image; no two photographers can do it the same. There are many interpretations of an image, and the photographer and the image will together decide what works best.
One of the hardest things about developing an image in Photoshop is figuring out what changes to apply to improve it. This is an acquired skill, I think, that, like composing an image with the camera, improves with practice. Sometimes I know exactly what I need to do in Photoshop, but I also spend a lot of time going back and forth on different possibilities, experimenting with alternate techniques, and generally exploring options before settling on a particular adjustment. Even then, I may go back and readjust an adjustment layer depending on what happens with subsequent layers.
Image development is a dynamic process, not a one-way street. I receive questions asking which technique to use in developing an image and when to use it, and the answer is always the same: It depends on what the image needs. Responding to the image often means that a standard “workflow” probably isn’t going to work. It’s really the image dictating what needs to be done, not the photographer or some repeatable steps. It’s necessary to respond to the light in the image in the same way you respond to the light in the field. Don’t try to control it. Instead, work with it, listen to it, and let it determine the direction of development.
There’s a corollary to this concept of listening to the light that is very important. Once you do figure out what the image needs, you have to have the right tool or technique to address the issue. As such, I thought it might be instructive to occasionally write a post on how I think about what an image needs at different points in its development and discuss my approach to solving the “problems” that I perceive. In other words, what I heard when I listened to the light, and how I responded to what it was saying. The goal being not to go over every layer in the development of a particular image, but rather to look at a few of them and attempt to discuss the collaboration that was occurring between the image and me at that time. I’ll say up front that it’s not always easy to describe exactly what I was thinking. Sometimes it’s just intuition and sometimes just a fortunate experiment that helps to move image development forward. However, I also think that instances like this maybe reflect our deeper understanding of the light and that we just don’t always have the vocabulary to communicate these feelings.
The image below is one that is partially developed. It shows a sandstone detail that I recently photographed in twilight shortly after sunset. I know abstract images can be confusing, so just to get past the perceptional difficulties here, the camera is pointing downward to capture the layers of texture and color as they recede from the camera. Four Photoshop layers were added after this point in development. I’ll go over them one by one explaining what was going on and my reasons for adding the layers.
The first layer added was a luminosity painting layer, which involves dodging and burning through luminosity mask selections to lighten or darken specific parts and specific tones in the image. It’s described in detail in this tutorial. My goal in luminosity painting is generally to create an evenness of light so that the colors and textures assume a large role when viewing the image. This often involves lessening some of the natural shadows and highlights in the scene that might draw the eye unnaturally in the print. Dodging (lightening) with luminosity painting can sometimes remove excess saturation in dark areas and can add texture in light areas. Burning (darkening) can improve color richness to areas that look washed out and can remove distracting highlights that draw the viewer’s eye.
I usually start the process by painting through a Basic Mid-tones selection since it can be used to both lighten and darken the image, but I also use other selections or combinations of selections from masks of both the Darks-series and Lights-series depending on what I want to accomplish. Once the even light starts to come out in the image, the uneven places seem to stand out a bit more. In this way, luminosity painting sort of becomes self-directing. It’s just a matter of looking at the image and seeing and addressing the unbalanced light and then painting through an appropriate luminosity selection to correct it. I usually have all the Darks- and Lights-series of mask sitting on my Channels panel, as well as a Basic Mid-tones mask, so I can quickly grab what works best. Below is the luminosity painted Burn/Dodge layer for this image. The mouse rollover shows how the image looked before luminosity painting to provide a better idea of where paint was applied to even out the light. (Note: For all the the rollover images, it might take a short time to load the second image, but continue to hover the mouse over the image until it appears. Once it does, you should be able to move the mouse quickly back and forth over the edge of the image to see the change.)
Blacker areas on the luminosity painting layer darken the image, whiter areas lighten it, and 50% gray areas are unchanged. The luminosity selection being painted through determines which pixels receive paint and how much. The luminosity painting layer is generally one of the most dynamic in the layer stack. I continually return to it as subsequent layers shift the light, and apply additional paint, black or white, to bring back the evenness. Below is how the image looked after luminosity painting. The rollover shows the image before the luminosity painting layer was added so you can readily see the difference between before and after.
Once I had the light somewhat balanced with luminosity painting, the next thing I noticed was the lack of saturation in the colors and an overall flatness to the image. While luminosity painting can be used effectively to increase local contrast, using the technique to even out the tones across the entire image can result in a loss of general contrast. The benefit of balancing out the light almost always outweighs the risk of increased flatness though, since general contrast can be easily improved. Because the image was both lacking in general contrast and saturation, the most logical choice for addressing both issues is an S-curve on a Curves adjustment layer. One concern I had with this, however, was the fact that my histogram was looking pretty good at this point. An unmasked S-curve could cause loss of shadow detail as the dark tones got too dark, and the lighter tones might also start looking too light. I certainly didn’t want to clip any shadows in this image taken in soft light, and I generally try to avoid strong whites. S-curves also can really punch up the saturation, sometimes out of proportion to the desired contrast change. A mid-tones luminosity mask (Basic Mid-tones is always a good one to try) would be useful in this case for confining the adjustment to just the mid-tones in order to keep the dark and light sides of the histogram unchanged and for providing a more gentle increase in saturation. The Basic Mid-tones masks for this image is shown below.
This mask is always a bit hard to “read” in that it’s overall grayness is confusing. Essentially what a Basic Mid-tones mask reveals is the image’s mid-tones. Both the light and dark colors are darker (concealed by the mask from being adjusted) and mid-tone values are lighter (revealing the adjustment). The lack of pure black and pure white in the mask makes it seem like it would be ineffective at concealing or revealing anything in a meaningful way, but it actually does a very good job of targeting adjustments to just the image’s mid-tones, as designed, sparing the dark and light colors from being overly adjusted. The histogram below demonstrates this. The S-curve adjustment that was applied on the masked adjustment layer is shown in the figure below.
Like luminosity painting, an S-curve adjustment through a Basic Mid-tones mask seems to find its way into all my images since it’s a really good way to adjust overall contrast without messing up the histogram. If the saturation looks right before the adjustment, I change the layer’s blending mode to Luminosity to avoid adding saturation to the image, but generally the boost in saturation, especially with a small adjustment like this one, looks right and improves the image.
Below is the histogram before the curves adjustment was applied. The rollover is the histogram after the Curves adjustment through the Basic Mid-tones mask. Notice how the two ends of the histogram remain fixed. The improved overall contrast comes entirely from expanding the tonal range in the mid-tones.
At this point I thought the on-screen version of the image was looking OK. I really didn’t see anything else that bothered me all that much. Whenever I reach this point of satisfaction, though, I make a print, and without fail, the problems I couldn’t see on my monitor are now quite obvious. I think this is because the transmitted light of the monitor makes almost everything look better. Pictures generally look better on-screen than on paper. So in this regard, viewing a print in reflected light encourages criticism, and it’s a useful tool, I believe, in helping to understand where the light in the print wants to go. The print in this case indicated a couple of problem areas, and the last two layers for this image are a direct result of viewing a hard-copy version of the image.
The most obvious problem was the blue color cast in some of the white rocks. This is completely natural given the light conditions at exposure—a clear sky with post-sunset glow in the west. However, in the print it seemed like the blue contrasted too much with the warmer elements in the scene. The image had become decidedly warmer as it developed, and these cool whites now felt a bit out of place. A warming filter would take care of this, but it wasn’t needed for the entire image and not even in all the white areas. Just the blue-colored whites need to be warmed. This is a situation where a painted mask works well. I created an Photo Filter adjustment layer with a warming filter and adjusted the filter until it removed the blue in the blue-tinted white areas. The adjustment is shown below.
The layer’s mask was then inverted to black to completely conceal the adjustment. A Lights luminosity selection was created to target the whites in the scene, and the marching ants were hidden. White paint was applied onto the layer mask to the blue-tinted white areas of the image. The lights selection helped target the paint to the lighter/whiter areas being painted. While this step was originally intended to remove the cool color in some of the whites, revealing some warmth in specific darker areas seemed to work well too. Because the Lights selection reaches into some of the darker tones, painting darker parts of the image turned out to be an effective way to warm-up other cool-toned areas as well. Below is the mask for the Photo Filter layer after it was painted showing the areas that were revealed to receive the warming effect. The rollover is the image before the warming was added to provide a better idea of how the blue-tinted areas in the image ware targeted for warming by the painted mask.
Below is the image as it appeared after the addition of the Photo Filter layer with the painted mask. The rollover again shows how the image looked before the Photo Filter adjustment layer was added. The blue-tinted areas in the rollover are now obvious and these areas look more coherent with the rest of the image once they’re warmed up, but again, it took viewing the print to see how this adjustment could benefit the image.
The final layer for this image involved color-cloning. While not all that bothersome in the on-screen version of the image, the unmatched rock color in the upper parts of the image, especially the upper right, looked unbalanced in the print. Revealing the Photo Filter warming didn’t help correct this A curve adjustment could be used to shift the color and then this color change could be revealed in the off-color rocks, but since there is plenty of the “right” color readily available in other parts of the image, an easier method is to simply paint in the desired color using the cloning color, retaining texture technique. Using this technique, the final layer is a pixel-containing layer set to Color blending mode. The desired color was sampled from other areas of the image and painted into this new layer where color change was desired. This technique worked particularly well for this image since the underlying color was slightly darker than the sampled color being painted into the layer. Color-cloning tends to lighten the painted area just a bit, so painting over a darker color keeps the area from appearing too light after painting. Generally when using this technique, I just paint the color onto the Color Clone layer at a low opacity to build up the color to the desired level. In parts of this image, however, I wanted to limit the color change to just the darker tones, so I painted through a Dark Darks and Shadow Darks selections to avoid adding the tint to the lighter tones. The image below is what the Color Clone layer looks like. Remember, this layer is set to Color blending mode so only the hue and saturation of things in this layer are transmitted to the image. The luminosity, which defines texture, comes from the composite of the layers below. The rollover shows the image before color cloning in order to see which areas were targeted to receive paint.
In summary then, four techniques were used to provide the finishing touches to this image: luminosity painting, a Curves adjustment through a Basic Mid-tones mask, a painted mask with a Photo Filter adjustment layer, and color-cloning. The different layers for these steps are shown below. Each technique was applied after assessing the image (listening) to see where change was needed, and each was specifically chosen to address the particular concern that was uncovered. As often happens, an actual print of the image revealed more than the on-screen version, but adding layers to correct the print also led to subsequent and noticeable improvement in how the image looked on the monitor.
NOTE: A more complete description of this mask painting technique can be found here.
Luminosity painting is one of my favorite Photoshop techniques and is described in a this tutorial. It is a method for burning (darkening) and dodging (lightening) specific areas of an image and specific tones in those areas by painting through luminosity selections.
Painting a layer mask for an adjustment layer is another example on how luminosity painting can be used. It provides a method to first make a global adjustment using an adjustment layer, then hiding it, and then painting to very precisely reveal the adjustment in exact areas and tones in the image.
The image below shows the final version of an image where an adjustment layer with a painted luminosity mask played an important role during development. The mouse rollover is the image with this adjustment layer’s visibility turned off. (It may take a few moments for the second image to load, but once it does, you should be able to pass the mouse back and forth across the edge of the frame to flip between the before and after image.)
Essentially what is happening is that an adjustment layer is affecting the image (darkening it), but only in specific tones and in specific areas. All similar tones are not equally affected, as would be expected with a specific luminosity mask serving as a layer mask for the adjustment. In fact, no single luminosity mask is able to mask the adjustment with the accuracy needed for this particular image. A painted mask, however, is able to do this with relative ease. It augments a luminosity selection to over-reveal the adjustment in some parts of the image, completely conceal the adjustment in others, and even incorporates parts of two different luminosity selections into the same painted mask. In this way, painted masks allow greater customization depending on what the image needs.
To make this adjustment, I started by first creating a Curves adjustment layer and changing the blending mode to Multiply. Multiply blending mode is like placing two identical transparencies in register on a light box. Even though each may be properly exposed, stacking one on top of the other makes the image look much darker, as if it were noticeably underexposed. In a similar way, Multiply blending mode darkens an image except that pure white (255,255,255) and pure black (0,0,0) are unchanged. Below is how the image looked after doing this.
While clearly excessive when not moderated by a mask or decreased layer opacity, Multiply (and its image-lightening counterpart, Screen) blending mode tend to make very natural-looking tonal changes to the image when properly applied. Provided that they are used in moderation, these blending modes can subtly and appropriately change image tones without unexpected saturation or contrast changes that sometimes accompany Curves and Levels adjustments.
By default, Photoshop creates an all-white, reveal-all layer mask when adjustment layers are created. Once the blending mode is changed to Multiply, the image is clearly too dark because the pure white mask conceals nothing. While Multiply blending mode will benefit parts of the image eventually, this full-on effect is not desired. To return the image to its original state before the adjustment layer was added, simply type Ctrl+I (Mac: Cmd+I) to invert the layer mask from white to black. This completely hides the adjustment from the image. The menu command Image>Adjustments>Invert can also be used to do this. The figure below shows how the new layer looks on the Layers panel. It’s worth noting that no adjustment was made to the curve for this adjustment layer. Changing the blending mode from Normal to Multiply is all that was needed to darken the image.
Once the desired (but exaggerated) adjustment is created and concealed, it’s necessary to create a luminosity selection to paint through to reveal the concealed adjustment just where it’s needed in the image. The easiest way to get the right selection to paint through is to make an entire series of masks on the Channels panel and choose what works best. For this image, I want to darken some of the lighter tones in the image. The Lights-series of luminosity masks provides several choices of masks that target progressively lighter tones. The figure below shows this series of masks as they appear on the Channels panel.
Masks are graphical representations of selections, with light colors showing selected pixels and black representing pixels that aren’t selected. Shades of gray correspond to the degree to which pixels are selected—dark gray pixels are less selected than light gray pixels. Any mask can be turned into a selection with a Ctrl+click (Mac: Cmd+click) on the mask’s thumbnail image.
Examining the masks by clicking them one-by-one on the Channels panel helps find the most appropriate one for this image. The mask that shows white (or light gray) in the areas that need to be changed (darkened in this case) is a good starting point. However, it’s also good to think about combining masks to make an even more refined selection to paint through. For most selections I use for luminosity painting, I’ll generally subtract off a selection at the extreme end of the series. So, for example, in this case I chose the Light Lights mask as targeting the tones I wanted to reveal on the adjustment layer. Instead of just creating a selection from the Light Lights mask and painting through it, however, I also subtracted off the Super Lights. I want the very lightest tones to stay nearly white, and by subtracting them from the selection that is painted through, they won’t receive much paint and will remain concealed from the adjustment and unchanged in the image.
So, after creating the Lights-series of masks on the Channels panel, here’s the process for making my desired selection:
1) Ctrl+click (Mac: Cmd+click) on the Light Lights mask thumbnail—this loads this mask as a selection.
2) Alt+Ctrl+click (Mac: Opt+Cmd+click) on the Super Lights mask thumbnail—this subtracts these tones from the selection.
I now have a selection that is targeting the tones enclosed by marching ants in the figure below–light tones are selected but very whitest tones are not.
The next step is to paint through the selection onto the black layer mask to reveal the blending-mode adjustment in the desired parts of the image. There are likely marching ants from loading the selection, and it’s helpful to turn them off by typing Ctrl+H (Mac: Cmd+H) so they don’t hamper judging the effect that painting has on the image. Even though the selection outline is hidden, the selection will still be active and directing paint to the desired tones.
Single-click on the black layer mask on the adjustment layer making sure the framing brackets are around the mask.
The “color” to paint with is easy: white. The mask is 100% black, completely concealing the blending mode adjustment. To reveal the adjustment in the image, white paint needs to be applied to the mask. So make sure the foreground color is white. Type “D” to reset the colors if white is not the foreground color.
Select the Brush tool by clicking on it on the Tools panel or by typing the letter “B”. The opacity setting for painting will depend somewhat on the mask(s) chosen or combined to make the selection to paint through. Selections made from masks with pure or nearly pure white areas in the mask pass more paint through the selection and require a lower opacity setting to reveal the adjustment. A good starting value for opacity in this case is 10 to 20 percent. Selections made by subtraction within the same series will often have the “white” pixels subtracted out of the selection, so a higher opacity setting is necessary to force paint through the “grayer” pixels that remain. Fifty percent is reasonable choice for these selections. There will always be some experimentation in mask painting, and opacity is easily reset based on what happens as paint is applied.
Now that this is all set up, it’s just a matter of clicking and dragging the mouse across the image in the areas where the adjustment (darkening in this case) needs be revealed. Releasing the mouse stops the painting. One brush stroke is usually NOT sufficient to create the desired or perfect reveal of the blending-mode adjustment. There are two alternatives. If the reveal is insufficient, additional brushstrokes can be applied. Perhaps increasing the opacity or changing the size of the brush (bracket keys) will be necessary. However, layering in multiple brushstrokes to slowly reveal the adjustment is often desirable as long as each stroke makes a slightly visible difference.
If the reveal is too pronounced after a single brushstroke, undo it using Ctrl+Z, (Mac: Cmd+Z), and then lower brush opacity, reduce brush size, or possibly load or create a new, more restrictive selection to paint through.
The goal is to sequentially add white paint to the layer mask to allow some amount of the full-on blending-mode adjustment on the adjustment layer to be revealed in the image at just the desired level in the just the areas where it’s desired and in just the tones that need it. By only passing paint through selected or partially-selected pixels, the luminosity selection automatically directs the paint to just the tones that need to be adjusted. The luminosity selection also insures that less than perfect mousing keeps paint inside the desired tonal lines.
The image below shows the painted mask and can help to better understand what’s happening with this type of luminosity painting.
The first thing that can be seen in the mask is an outline of parts of the image. Since the primary luminosity mask (Lights) is a gray-scale of the original image, all subsequent luminosity masks derived from this primary mask show image detail as well. A selection created by subtracting different luminosity masks, as was done in this case, still has partially selected pixels that mimic the luminosity in the original image. Painting through a selection based on the pixel variables in the original image (a pixel-based selection) recreates the contours of the image in all subsequent masks and when painting through these masks. It also helps insure that the painted areas blend perfectly with the rest of the image.
Luminosity painting works because not all pixels receive the same amount of paint. The desired tones that need to be adjusted by the adjustment layer’s blending mode receive more paint, and the tones that don’t need adjustment receive less or none at all. To increase the effect in certain parts of the image, apply more paint with additional brushstrokes or use a brush with a higher opacity setting. This variability in the final mask is one of the advantages of luminosity painting. Instead of being limited to the selection defined by single mask, the mask can be enhanced in any area by simply applying more white paint through the selection. The enhancement can continue until the area being painted is 100% white, a complete reveal of the adjustment layer’s adjustment. The painted mask clearly shows that differing amounts of paint were applied to different areas. Some areas are very white to reveal more of the blending-mode adjustment, some are completely black where no painting occurred at all, and some areas show various levels of gray indicating partial reveal of the layer’s adjustment.
This painted mask is actually the result of painting through two different luminosity selections, and it points out another advantage of this technique: It’s possible to paint through any number of selections to create the desired reveal of the layer’s adjustment. So it’s like using several luminosity masks on one layer mask and choosing which parts of them and to what degree they will benefit the image. In this case, most of the painting was done through the Light Lights minus Super Lights selection described above, but when repeated brushstrokes started to reveal darkening in some adjacent areas where darkening was not desired, a Bright Lights minus Super Lights selection was used to restrict the reveal of the adjustment to even lighter tones in the image.
Once you have a feel for luminosity painting, using it to create or enhance layer masks becomes a logical next step. Painting through a pixel-based selection, like a luminosity mask, applies paint in proportion to the pixel-based selection(s) in the original mask. The pixel-based quality of the mask is retained so that what is revealed or concealed by the painting blends perfectly into the rest of the image. Very precise masks are possible using this procedure. Selections from multiple pixel-based masks can be used, and they can be painted to any level between pure black and pure white to make the perfect reveal of the underlying adjustment. The effects can be subtle or significant; it all depends on where the light wants to go. I hope that you’ll try it and that your images will benefit from this technique.
A PSD file containing the complete Photoshop workflow for this image can be downloaded at the bottom of this page.
Steffen and Isa Synnatschke and Guy Tal have recently released new eBooks. This electronic publication format is becoming increasingly popular as photographers attempt to share what they know with a larger audience without the expense of traditional publishing and distribution of actual books. Tal and the Synnatschkes are good friends who I’ve encouraged to write and share what they have to offer as I believe their unique perspectives will resonate with many nature photographers. These new eBooks validate this conviction. Both offer new insights into what makes photography such a popular activity, and both provide photographers new avenues for exploration.
Guy Tal’s blog is widely followed for its insightful commentary on photography. There is almost an infectious passion in his words that makes readers want to take their own photography to a higher level. Tal is now bringing this enthusiasm to a series of eBooks that take a deeper look at the creative aspects that inform his own body of work. The first was entitled “Creative Landscape” and it took readers into the natural world to explore processes for extracting personal and original compositions. It was a combination of practical knowledge and spiritual attunement that is at the heart of the creative process. The new eBook, “Creative Processing Techniques,” provides a similar perspective, but this time applied to image processing in Photoshop.
The emphasis on creativity in this publication is obvious from this excerpt:
“Given the irregular and unpredictable nature of creative epiphanies, your processing workflow should not be linear or very strict, but rather one of continuous refinement until the desired result is achieved. While the process has a known beginning (the RAW file) and a desired outcome (the visualized image), the transition from one to the other may be the equivalent of navigating a complex maze of paths and creative choices. A non-linear, or iterative, approach is one that relies on progressive refinement and course correction; where goals are re-examined at every step and inform the next iteration in ways that may not be obvious from the start. For best results, we may sometimes need to take a step sideways or even backwards before moving forward.”
This book, appropriately and fortunately, is not another step-by-step guide to Photoshop workflow. Yes, it reviews many tools within Photoshop and Lightroom and explains, in very clear terms, how they work and can be applied to an image. Tal offers some good cases of the so-called “sideways” and “backward” steps that can be quite useful in image development as well as numerous, practical examples of how he applied a variety of other techniques to his own images. However, pixel-wizardry is not this book’s objective. There is a constant emphasis on using the digital darkroom to further the photographer’s creative intent and to encourage a personal interpretation of light. Once again, Tal’s own words are probably best:
“The digital studio offers boundless opportunity for creative expression, experimentation and infusing your work with your own style and vision. Seen in this light, it is much more than just a set of tools for adjusting or correcting pixels. Rather, it is the place where your thoughts and ideas take shape and manifest themselves visually in your creations.”
This combination of practical application of software with creative exploration of the light is very much in line with my own concept of how we should approach our images and their light. I consider myself reasonably facile with Photoshop, but I still learned new techniques in Tal’s book that I’ll use to process my images from here on. And while I read it front to back to glean these pearls, it was the message that image processing is an integral part of photographic creativity that resonated most strongly. Guy Tal’s ability to fuse practical skills and existential concepts into eminently readable prose helps us all become better photographers.
Steffen and Isa Synnatschke are perhaps the premier place-finders when it comes to the Colorado Plateau. From their home in Dresden, Germany, they scour many online resources to assemble bits of information on possible places to photograph during their semiannual trips to the United States. They explore continuously while they’re here and, based on my own time spent in their company, frequently walk right to the place they are looking to find. Wind Song, Sandstone Nebulae, Towers of Hasi Nagi, Lower Chamber, Sitting Ducks, Desert Mushroom, Momo’s Brain, and The Wing and a Prayer are examples of images from my website that owe their existence to the Synnatschkes and their irrepressible quest for new light. Their websites (linked above) show just how many places they’ve photographed and how dedicated they are to good light.
The iconic quality of many of the places discovered by the Synnatschkes makes these locations a natural draw for many photographers. If your vacation and picture-taking time is limited, photogenic subjects in the right light help insure you’ll come home with many good pictures. The Synnatschkes are particularly adept at sniffing out such sites. They have spent nearly a decade traveling and finding these places and are finally starting to share their secrets in the “Closer Look” eGuide series. They recently released their first book centered on the fascinating sandstone of Valley of Fire State Park in Nevada.
This park has been one of their favorite locations over the years, and they have hiked and photographed here extensively. This is an extraordinary place with unusual sandstone everywhere you look. Their desire to explore and eye for composition have uncovered many places within the park whose photographic potential was previously unrecognized. The eGuide provides detailed information about these places: how to get there, GPS waypoints, and recommendations on the best time of day for exposure. If you’re planning to visit the Southwest and are interested in seeing or photographing some astonishing sandstone, Valley of Fire State Park should be on your itinerary and the Closer Look eGuide to it should be in your daypack.