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Listening to the Light – Examples in Image Development – Part 2

December 2, 2011

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.

Heal/Clone layer


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

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.

Subtracted Darks mask

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.

Subtracted Lights mask

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

  1. Create the Burn/Dodge layer.
  2. Create a Darks minus Shadow Darks selection and hide the ants.
  3. 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.
  4. Create a Lights minus Light Lights selection, clicking OK when the warning box comes up that no pixels are more than 50% selected.
  5. 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.

The Burn/Dodge layer that resulted from painting is shown below. The rollover is the original image so that it’s easier to see which light and dark areas received paint.

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.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. December 3, 2011 7:06 am

    Another great job, Tony, thanks!


  2. Dennis Bishop permalink
    December 4, 2011 11:01 pm

    Thank you so much. These posts are extremely well-written and very helpful.


  3. December 5, 2011 10:02 am

    Great post. Thanks for doing this as it is very helpful to me.


  4. December 19, 2011 10:38 pm

    Thanks for the examples of your techniques.


  5. Irfan permalink
    January 2, 2012 4:18 pm

    Great post for my continuous improvement


  6. July 7, 2014 8:46 am

    Thank you Tony for the detailed tutorial. It is so great that you take the time to explain every bit of your techniques. Thank you for your teachings…


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