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.