History Brush magic: An amazing luminosity mask technique from Alister Benn

I recently came across Alister Benn’s latest videos on YouTube and they are an excellent example of taking luminosity masks to a level that I never imagined. He does it by adding a couple of lesser used Photoshop techniques to standard luminosity masks: the History Brush tool and brush blend modes. I honestly have not done much with either of these, but I can now see how they offer a unique method for burning and dodging. The two videos linked below provide a good overview of Alister’s method. NOTE: I’m listing these in the reverse order that Alister posted them because it makes sense to understand the History Brush first before moving on to the more complex video involving a workflow that uses it extensively.

The first video reviews the History Brush. The thing to keep in mind when using it is to have a consistent Layers panel. Don’t add or remove layers and make sure to paint on the duplicate layer that was active at the time the History snapshot was created. Alister keeps this all quite simple by just using two layers: the Background layer and a duplicate of it, and I’d strongly recommend sticking with this approach until you gain experience using this technique. This video also demonstrates burning and dodging with the History Brush by using the brush’s different blend modes: Screen for dodging and Multiply for burning. While the results look similar to traditional burning and dodging with black or white paint, there are some fundamental differences, which I’ll discuss below.

In the second video, Alister takes the basic burning/dodging technique with the History Brush and combines it with the Adobe Camera Raw (ACR) filter and luminosity masks. In doing so, he’s able combine burning and dodging with subtle color and contrast shifts created using the ACR filter. It took me a couple of times watching to see what was happening here, but there is a very important difference between what Alister is doing compared to standard burning and dodging. Regular burning and dodging uses either black or white paint (or occasionally paint of another color) applied to a pixel layer in either Soft Light, Overlay, or Hard Light blend mode. In Alister’s method, using a single color of paint is completely gone. By painting from an image snapshot using the History Brush, the paint source is effectively the image itself. It’s not black paint or white paint. It’s every color in the image snapshot and everything is precisely aligned, pixel-for-pixel, with current state of the image. So just like luminosity masks insure perfect blending since they are based on data in the image’s pixels, History Brush burning and dodging chooses and aligns colors that also perfectly match the image’s pixels. It’s an amazing convergence of these two techniques and provides a new level of control in determining how paint gets applied to adjust the image. The main point is this: anything you can adjust with the ACR filter (temperature, tint, brightness, contrast, highlights, shadows, color, texture, clarity, dehaze, saturation, vibrance, and the list goes on and on), can now be incorporated into burning and dodging with luminosity masks.

Alister’s method might be a bit challenging to grasp at first, but he does an excellent job walking you through the details. Here are a few tips to keep in mind.

  • Only use two layers, the Background and a duplicate of it, and do all the burning, dodging, and ACR filter adjustments on the duplicate layer.
  • Make sure to step back one step on your History panel AFTER making a snapshot of an ACR filter adjustment.
  • Also be sure to select the correct snapshot as the source for the History Brush.
  • Use the History Brush’s Multiply blend mode for burning and Screen blend mode for dodging. You can also use Normal blend mode to simply paint in the ACR adjustment without any additional brightness changes.
  • Use low-opacity/high-flow brushes or medium-opacity/low-flow brushes. This way you can make subtle adjustments that are progressively built up with multiple brushstrokes.
  • Make your luminosity mask selection right before you start to paint with the History Brush. Making this selection too soon in the process could get confusing.
  • Deselect any active selections before doing adjustments with the ACR filter. If you were painting through a hidden selection, you need to turn it off BEFORE doing an ACR adjustment or else the ACR adjustment will be restricted to the selected area. NOTE: Alister did turn off the active selection in the video, though you had to be watching for it as he didn’t explicitly state it.

The best way to learn this technique is to just dive in and try it, maybe working along with Alister’s video. It does require a bit of active thought to step through the process properly, but once you see what’s happening it becomes much more intuitive. And as Alister shows in this video, the technique can transform an entire image, not just small areas. With the ACR filter being used to adjust the image and then using this as the basis for a snapshot that serves as the paint source, the whole image is now in play. It’s time to think big.

Alister says he has more videos coming on these methods. Be sure to subscribe to his YouTube channel to see what’s next.