Luminosity Masks 10th Anniversary−A brief history of how it all started

Today is the 10th anniversary of my original luminosity masks tutorial.  It was linked in this post on NPN on November 13, 2006.  NPN is a wonderful website to participate in image critique and improve photography skills.  I had been posting images here for a few years prior.  The tutorial was meant to be a way to share a Photoshop secret with my many friends on the forum. Here’s how it came to be.

I had been using luminosity masks for about 8 months before the tutorial was published.  I first saw the term in a spam email in March that year, and, not knowing what a “luminosity mask” was, I turned to Google for answers.  At the time, there wasn’t much to go on.  I was able to piece together the method to make the initial selection, Lights-1, using Alt+Ctr+tilde in Photoshop 7.  Looking at the mask I immediately knew this could very useful.  A perfect mask created from the image itself.  How cool!  I understood Photoshop masks, but this “luminosity mask” was quite unique compared to the masks I was making with Photoshop’s standard selection tools.

I was instantly hooked.  I soon started using luminosity masks all the time because they worked all the time.  My images quickly improved.  The luminosity masks and selections I used were created ad hoc by adding, subtracting, and intersecting the initial Lights mask and other masks derived from it.  It was not an orderly process, but I could eventually find the mask I needed to target the tones I wanted to adjust.

Given how much I liked them and how little information I could find, I decided to try writing a tutorial that explained luminosity masks to others.  This project started in late May 2006 and continued until mid-September.  In addition to the challenges of writing and illustrating a tutorial for the first time, I also had to figure out how to explain the creation of these crazy (but very useful) masks on the fly as I developed images in Photoshop.

It was while writing the tutorial that I found the answer.  I realized that focusing on “intersection” for the Lights and Darks series and “subtraction” for the Midtones would provide the needed framework for photographers to understand and visualize how these masks could target different tones.  I wrote the first set of actions to make luminosity masks during the summer of 2006 and used them to create the tutorial’s illustrations.  I also quickly realized these actions were much better than the ad hoc masks I had been cobbling together previously.  They provided a huge efficiency boost compared to the “freehand” method.  I could now do in one click what had been taking me several minutes before.

I was somewhat nervous as I prepared to post a link to the tutorial on NPN.  There was still considerable disdain surrounding Photoshop manipulation in 2006.  We all knew photographers were doing it, but most were reluctant to admit how much. Once posted, this tutorial would out me as an enthusiastic manipulator.  Plus luminosity masks felt like an overly geeky process compared to the standard Photoshop tutorials of the time.  Would readers be able to follow along?  Would they even be interested?  Regardless of these concerns, I had come to love this technique, and after over 3 months of writing, editing, illustrating, and recording actions, it was definitely time to set it free.

It turned out I was right about one thing . . . luminosity masks. They are indeed a useful technique for developing images in Photoshop.  I was totally wrong, however, on how they would be perceived by the photographic community.  Even in the manipulation-averse culture of 2006 they were quickly and enthusiastically embraced.  The method for making luminosity masks described in the tutorial was adopted by other photographers and even became the standard of practice for a soon-to-emerge flock of luminosity mask experts.  No one was more surprised than me that there would be this level of interest . . . or that luminosity masks would still be going strong a decade later.

While I didn’t coin the term “luminosity mask” (thankfully there was no spam filter on my email back in 2006), I am happy that this tutorial introduced them to a mainstream audience.  I’m also pleased to have been able contribute to the body of knowledge about luminosity masks with additional tutorials on luminosity painting, mask painting, subtracted masks, 16-bit luminosity masks, infinity masks, and several blog posts.

But written tutorials only go so far.  The world prefers videos, and this luminosity mask anniversary would be incomplete without acknowledging Sean Bagshaw.  His video series are the clearest, best organized, most informative, concise yet thorough video instruction available on luminosity masks, and his examples demonstrate how they can be personalized to any workflow.  There’s no doubt that Sean has helped many photographers grasp and ultimately harness the power of luminosity masks.

While the awareness, acceptance, application, and appreciation of luminosity masks has increased dramatically since that first tutorial, there’s still more to come.  I love luminosity masks as much today as I did in 2006 and continue to experiment both with the masks and the extension panels that make them possible.  I have a goal of making luminosity masks and these panels even smarter, faster, and more fun to use.  While the first decade was a good start, I still have ideas that I want to explore and share.  Please stay tuned.

Update — 10 October 2014

Just a few brief announcements of recent happenings.

1. I added some free luminosity mask actions for Photoshop Elements to my website. These were recorded to specifically work in Photoshop Elements, but will work in the full version of Photoshop too. However, the set is limited since Elements doesn’t have all the functions and features of the full version. The actions will give Elements users the opportunity to experiment with luminosity masks by adding these techniques to their image-developing toolkit. You can get them here.

actions in PSE

2. I received word from a couple of users that the recent update to Photoshop CC 2014 (release 2014.2.0) appropriately resizes the TKActions panel for high-density monitors. Before, the 240 px x 826 px dimensions for the panel displayed as actual pixels, which meant that the panel was almost too small to use on the new monitors. With the latest update, though, the panel is now the right size for easy use on high-density screens. I’m currently not using a high-density monitor so don’t have any actual experience with this, so feel free to post a comment if your experience differs from what I’ve been told.

3. I just finished a slow, but very satisfying, read through Guy Tal’s latest book “More Than a Rock.” If you haven’t already discovered it, please take a look. It’s a collection of essay’s that will inspire, challenge, and incite a bit of soul-searching in anyone engaged in creative photographic endeavors. His ability to put into words the essence of why we take pictures feels at times like he’s found parts of the soul we didn’t even know about. Guy has a gift for articulating not only what it means to make art through photography, but also shows others how to find this meaning in themselves. If you’re looking for a way to improve your photographs, this book will help you do it without new gear, expensive gadgets, digital gimmicks, or buying more gas. At $4.99 USD it’s an incredible bargain, especially with all the pictures that are included.   It’s available on iTunes and as a PDF.

More Than a Rock cover image

4. I’ve started a luminosity masks discussion group on 500px. If you are interested in discussing these techniques in an online forum, please feel free to join and add your thoughts, questions, and pictures as you experiment. I plan to post my own minor insights from time to time and am looking forward to learning from others as well.

eBooks from My Friends

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.

Creative Processing Techniques-Guy Tal

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.

Valley of Fire-A Closer Look

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.

Falling Down

The image below was taken in 2006.

Cardinal's Roost

I visited again this spring and found that the formation is starting to crumble. The image below shows that the leftmost, red-capped rock has fallen from its perch and now lies at the base of the formation. In October 2009, everything was still intact (see picture in previous post), so this happened over the winter. It was an extremely wet winter here on the Colorado Plateau. It’s possible that the amount of moisture that saturated the rock along with the freeze/thaw cycles that accompanied the winter’s El Niño precipitation was enough to topple the rock. It’s hard to know for sure what actually caused the rock to fall, but it appears to be from natural causes as it would be very hard to reach this place to deliberately push the rock off its pedestal. While the iconic sense of the place remains, the character is definitely changed. The balance that this one rock provided to photographs is now quite obvious. Also quite obvious is the fact that the balance of the rock has been precarious for quite some time. Inevitable though it may be, it’s sad to see it go.

Fallen Rock

While I certainly wasn’t the first to photograph this place, I do happen to be aware of its photographic origins. I worked with Dr. Scott Lybrook (Google him) when I worked in Tuba City. He was an explorer and was the first to “find” this place and realize its photographic potential. He shared its location with Michael Fatali. Soon thereafter Fatali released Once Upon a Time, which quickly became the defining composition, though it was taken lower down and sort of hides the rock in back. Over the years the place has been sought and photographed numerous time. Dr. Lybrook, however, was the one who got it all started.