NEW! TKActions Basic Panel–FREE!

I’m pleased to announce the availability of a new extension panel for Photoshop. The TKActions Basic panel creates luminosity masks and is meant to provide a simple way for anyone to add these techniques to their workflow.

The Basic panel incorporates the latest 16-bit method for making luminosity masks.  It’s essentially the “Basic” tab of the TKActions V4 panel with a new layout and added features.  The panel’s embedded scripts create Lights, Darks, and Midtones luminosity masks and also generate Curves and Levels adjustment layers with luminosity masks as the layer masks.  This makes it super easy to start using luminosity masks to confine adjustments to specific tones and to see how adjustments through these masks blend perfectly into the rest of the image.

The “Channels” section of the panel creates luminosity masks on Photoshop’s Channels panel AND also creates an active selection of the designated mask at the same time.  Active luminosity selections are the basis for luminosity painting, one of the most powerful methods for using luminosity masks.  It’s an excellent technique for localizing brightness adjustments when burning and dodging.  Painting through luminosity selections also provides precision for mask painting when exposure blending.

There is an integrated active selection indicator at the top of the panel. It’s a black and white scrolling bar that turns on anytime Photoshop detects an active selection. Since some luminosity selections do not generate selection borders (marching ants), this animated indicator informs the user when a selection is indeed present. Even if the marching ants are hidden in order to better evaluate painting through a selection, the indicator stays on and continues to provide a reminder that the selection is still active.

The white box at the bottom of the Basic panel provides rollover Help for any button.  Simply roll the mouse over a button and this area displays a message as to what the button does.

Clicking on the rollover Help window opens the panel’s settings.  From the settings dialog, users can control the panel’s color saturation and choose from five different languages for the panel’s interface.

The Instructions PDF is a short document that provides a more complete overview of the panel and what it does.

The TKActions Basic panel is free and can be downloaded here. It works on Mac and Windows computers and there are versions for Photoshop CC and Photoshop CS6 in the download folder. Four videos by Sean Bagshaw are also included to insure users are able to get the most benefit from the new panel.

Infinity Monochromes

NOTE: A folder of smaller PSD documents for the images used in this blog can be downloaded here.

Like many photographers, I love good black and white images.  Not only do they create a connection with the earlier incarnation of the art form, but there is also a certain elegance to monochrome images when they’re done right.  The lack of color creates immediate abstraction since a color-free world is not what we normally see.  Texture, form, and line are elevated and so we engage with the composition at a different level.  Black and white images remind us that color can sometimes be a distraction.  There is deep beauty in the monochrome world, though it is often hard to see with our color-adapted eyes.

Unfortunately, my skill in making black and white images does not match my appreciation for viewing them.  I struggle to get the tones properly balanced in my prints.  There seems to be two competing problems.  One is too much gray.  The image may have a full range of tones, from black to white, but if the midtones predominate, then the image frequently looks gray . . . and quite dull.  The solution to “too much gray” is to increase contrast.  But this then leads to the second problem:  textureless shadows and highlights.  As contrast is increased, detail is lost in the shadows and highlights.  Texture is critical to black and white.  If the shadows are blocked or the highlights are merely light gray without definition, the image has a posterization quality with large areas of uninteresting dark and light tones.  So it’s a fine balance with black and white, and it can take some effort to avoid too much gray in the midtones while maintaining appropriate texture in the shadows and highlights.

I’ve dabbled in black and white processing from time to time, experimenting with the different methods offered by Photoshop and Lightroom.  Recently I’ve started using the “Pixels” output of from the TK Infinity Mask panel as another alternative.  This “Pixels” button creates a pixel layer of the black and white infinity mask on the Layers panel, which basically constitutes a conversion of the color image to black and white.  As I’ve started to understand it better, it’s provided some unique opportunities.  Originally, I saw the “Pixels” option as an interesting feature to include in the panel, though I wasn’t sure how useful it would be.  The panel, after all, was designed to make masks to aid other developing tasks; it wasn’t meant to actually create images.  However, the panel’s sliders turned out to have some direct correlations to black and white images, and they provide an interesting approach to solving the problems listed above.


Before getting started with this discussion, there are a couple important points to cover.  The first is the necessity of properly setting the RGB and Gray working spaces in Photoshop’s color settings dialog (Edit > Color Settings).  In order for the “Pixels” output layer to match the panel’s preview infinity mask, the RGB and Gray working spaces must be properly aligned.  The two most common pairings are as follows:

  • RGB: ProPhoto RGB needs to be paired with Gray: Gray Gamma 1.8.
  • RGB: Adobe RGB (1998) needs to be paired with Gray: Gray Gamma 2.2.

If the RGB and Gray working spaces are not matched, there will be a brightness shift between the mask previewed by the Infinity Mask panel and the “Pixels” output on the Layers panel.

The second point is a reminder that the “Pixels” output option is bit-depth neutral.  If the original image is 16-bit, then the mask generated by the Infinity Mask panel is also 16-bit.  But even more important is the fact that the pixel layer created via “Pixels” output is an identical 16-bit copy of the preview mask (provided that the RGB and Gray working spaces have been properly set).  The process of converting the mask to pixels does not involve an intervening 8-bit selection that compresses the grayscale data.  So even though the grayscale mask discards the color information in the image, the bit-depth of pixel-level brightness data is maintained.

Below is the first image I experimented with using “Pixels” output for conversion to black and white.  Rolling the mouse over the image shows the final result. (NOTE: It may take a couple of seconds for the rollover image to load, but once it does, flicking the mouse back and forth across the image edge instantantly changes the image. Also, rollover images might not appear in the email feed but do work on the blog website.)  I did not record the settings I used to create this, and it’s largely unimportant.  The Infinity Mask panel is meant to be a place to experiment so see what works.  Different color channels, different tones, and different slider settings can all be easily tried to achieve the best outcome.  The “Pixels” output was really just a foundation in this case.  It provided the initial color-to-black-and-white conversion.  From there, additional masks and layers were added to arrive at the final image.  But the conversion step was pivotal in guiding the image to its final form.  The key in this case was using the Infinity Mask panel to find a TONE that looked best as white in the image, and then using the other sliders to manipulate the brightness values of the other tones and, in the process, remove the distracting background elements.

The second experimental image is shown below.  Again, a rather uninteresting color image but one where the repeating lines and shapes might work well in black and white.  The rollover shows the final presentation.

This image helped me better understand some of the fundamental relationships between the Infinity Mask panel’s controls and the monochrome image.  Specifically the sliders.

The TONE slider determines which tone in the image will appear as white in the mask and therefore also white in the “Pixels” output.  A “Lights-1” setting (TONE = 255) is a good starting point, but TONE values from 180 and up can be useful as experiments.  The lower numbers help to open the highlights in the image which can then be further manipulated by the other sliders.

RANGE  =  Black Point.  The RANGE slider determines the tonal width of the mask with the chosen TONE value as the center, whitest value.  By decreasing the RANGE value (pulling the slider left), tones more distant from the chosen tone go to black.  Some pure black in a black and white image often provides a good tonal foundation.  The RANGE slider can help determine where the black begins.

FOCUS = Midtone Contrast.  The FOCUS slider was designed to decrease the sometimes excessive feathering that is a natural part of luminosity masks.  It does this by increasing tonal slope around the 50% gray value in the mask.  In practical terms, this means that increasing FOCUS (pulling the slider to the right) is very good at eliminating midtone grays while maintaining shadow and highlight texture.  This is probably one of the most desirable features when using the Infinity Mask panel to convert color images to black and white.  The FOCUS slider provides a way to simultaneously control the two competing problems (too much gray and textureless highlights/shadows) mentioned earlier.

STRENGTH = White Point.  The STRENGTH slider determines the whiteness of the chosen tone and similar tones.  A value of 100 means that just the chosen tone is pure white.  Values less than 100 gray-down the whites, and values greater than 100 white-out nearby tones.  Leaving this slider set close to 100 is usually best.

Once these relationships between the Infinity Mask sliders and the black and white image are understood, some additional techniques become possible.  One of the most useful is to combine different infinity masks using different TONE settings into the final image.  While it’s sometimes possible to find one infinity mask that does a good job converting all tones in the image to black and white, it’s not always practical.  Different tones in the image may require, or at least work better, with a different black point, white point, and midtone contrast settings.  The Infinity Mask panel makes it possible to quickly make new masks that might work better for specific tones at specific tonal locations in the image.  The “Pixels” output of these masks can then be blended into the final image, sometimes using the “Pixels” output as a mask or selection to do the blending.  It’s even possible to create negative masks of the image and blend these into the positive and have them look completely natural.

This multi-tone blending technique was used to better control tones in two parts of the above image.  Alternate infinity masks starting with different TONE settings were created from the original color image, and these were then blended in using the “Pixels” output as a selection stencil for painting white on a black layer mask to reveal these tones.  The image below shows the final image without these additional blended masks and the rollover shows how the image looks more balanced with them blended in.

Starting to better understand how infinity masks could be used convert color images to black and white, I decide to try the technique on some finished color images.  This turned out to be somewhat easier since the tonal relationships had already been properly established in the developed color image.  It was relatively easy to make an initial “Pixels” output of an infinity mask of the image and then blend in a couple of additional infinity masks with different TONE settings to get the effect I wanted.  The image below shows the “Pixels” output of the original conversion of a color image to black and white.  The rollover is the final image with two additional infinity masks blended in.  The additional “Pixels” output layers help create better contrast in the grays in the canyon and the cloud.

The last image is another finished image that was converted to monochrome using the Infinity Mask panel.  This image illustrates the power of the color channels in the Infinity Mask panel.  The plug-in that runs the Infinity Mask panel has its own recipe for creating luminosity masks.  As a result, the color channel masks created by the panel don’t completely match the Red, Green, and Blue channel masks of Photoshop.  In fact, for black and white conversion, I think the Infinity Mask panel’s color channel masks are superior.  The Lights-1 versions of these channels offer some uniquely different interpretations of the image with higher contrast than the Photoshop color channels.  If the color image has some strong color elements and/or strong color differences, the Infinity Mask color channels nicely separate these colors into different tones. The R (Red) Infinity Mask channel was used to make the initial conversion of the image below.  The rollover shows the final image after some additional adjustments.

In summary, the TK Infinity Mask panel’s “Pixels” output option is a unique method for converting color images to black and white.  The sliders have some direct parallels to monochrome image processing.

  • TONE − Selects the image tone to display as white.
  • RANGE − Sets the black point.
  • FOCUS − Adjusts midtone contrast.
  • STRENGTH − Sets the white point.

Multiple “Pixels” output layers can be created to enhance specific tones in the image, and these can then be easily blended together to create the final monochrome image.  The color channels of the Infinity Mask panel also offer a surprisingly useful starting point to effectively exploit color variation for monochrome conversion.

Classic Luminosity Masking

Since writing the first luminosity mask tutorial I’ve found countless uses for them and there are always new options to explore. For new users, though, it can sometimes be a bit daunting to know where to start.  Understanding the basics of using luminosity masks can be a good stepping stone to more complex applications. A recent image provided a straightforward example of why luminosity masks can be so valuable.  I’ll use it to review some basic concepts both in words and pictures.

Here are three important things to remember about luminosity masks:

  1. They select tones in the image, not individual elements. It helps when using them to start thinking “tonally” about what will be selected with a luminosity masks instead of trying to use them to make a precise selection of a specific part of the image. Luminosity masks work best in situations where tonal differences are well-defined instead of in situations where there are obvious pixel edges.
  2. The edges of luminosity masks are perfectly feathered for blending. These masks are created from the brightness values of individual pixels. Just as a photograph is a continuous-tone image, luminosity masks provide continuous-tone blending. Sometimes this feathering can be a bit too perfect, especially in the initial masks, bleeding an adjustment into even weakly selected tones. But it’s easy to narrow the tonal range selected using techniques in the original tutorial or using calculations for 16-bit luminosity masks. Some feathering is necessary and highly desirable for insuring perfect blending of any adjustment or other Photoshop maneuver into the rest of the image.
  3. They are incredibly precise when properly used. Tonal selection and perfect feathering make it possible to use luminosity masks to make extremely targeted adjustments. Painting through an active luminosity selection is perhaps the best way to take advantage of this since multiple brushstrokes can be applied to the same area, slowly building up the desired effect, while also insuring it blends flawlessly into the image.

The image below of a cloud from a clearing storm against a mountain background is the example I’ll use to illustrate these principles. This is the nearly finished version of the image. The main problem left to fix is that the cloud isn’t as well defined as it could be. It’s an accurate depiction of what was captured, but it lacks good textural quality because the tones, especially in the brightest areas on the left, are too close together to provide meaningful definition for the viewer. The cloud still needs some work to bring out the tonal texture that is present, but hidden in the brightest tones.


But how to isolate the cloud for additional development? It doesn’t have any good edges. The wind-blown wisps along its outer portions would be a challenge to select with any standard Photoshop tool. And the hard edges created by these tools would be equally difficult to feather into the image. However, thinking tonally, the cloud is distinctly separate from its background, so the tonal selection provided by a luminosity mask would be ideal.

While there are an infinite number of luminosity masks, it’s usually easy to spot the right one. It’s the mask that is whitest in the areas of the desired adjustment and very dark in areas where no adjustment is required.  In this case, it was the Lights-3 mask (shown below). With this mask, the cloud clearly stands out from the background.


The red-overlay “view” mode (below) shows even more clearly how perfect this mask is. Not only is it more selected in the whitest areas of the clouds (darker red), but it also feathers very nicely to the edges of the cloud (lighter red). And, to top it off, there is no red in areas immediately adjacent to the cloud. So an adjustment using this mask will affect the whitest cloud areas most and feather perfectly to the wispy edges. There will also NOT be any haloing around the cloud caused by a poorly feathered selection. The luminosity mask will confine the adjustment to only those pixels where it’s needed. NOTE: The snow-covered mountain tops and upper cloud are also showing a small degree of selection (pale red) but it is a simple matter to paint these areas black in the final mask to exclude them from the adjustment made to the cloud.


Once the mask is decided on, it can be added to an adjustment layer. For this image a Levels adjustment works well. It takes the targeted tones and easily adds contrast to create more texture in the cloud, especially the blob-like, white areas. The Properties panel for this adjustment is shown below.


The image below shows the results. Rolling the mouse over this image shows what it looked like before this adjustment. (The rollover might not be visible in the email feed, but is visible on the blog website.)  It’s easy to see how the cloud (and only the cloud) has had its texture significantly improved.  This result displays one of the ideal qualities of luminosity masks, namely that they can separate tonal differences present at the pixel level which is nearly invisible to the eye. This is exactly what I was looking to do here, and the luminosity mask made it very easy.

This is a good start. The cloud shows improved tonal separation and is more congruent with the textural qualities present in the rest of the scene. However, this adjustment also had the unintended effect of graying-down the cloud. The tonal separation has been significantly improved, but some of the brilliance has been lost.

This now is a good example of a situation where painting through a luminosity selection (Luminosity Painting) makes a huge difference. This technique lets me selectively restore the crisp whites to the cloud by painting white onto a “Dodge” layer exactly where I want to add brightness. The luminosity selection controls which pixels receive paint and how much they receive.

LUMINOSITY MASK PEARL: The “7½” and “2½” zone selections are my initial go-to masks for removing this type of midtone grayness from an image. Painting white through a Zone-7½ selection lightens the lighter grays, but, because the very lightest tones in the image are subtracted off, it prevents blowing out the whites. The Zone-2½ selection does the same for the midtone darker grays. Painting black through the Zone-2½ selection darkens these grays, but, because the darkest blacks have been subtracted off, maintains enough texture to keep the details from going black. A 30% opacity brush is a good starting point, and plan on using multiple strokes to slowly build up the desired effect.

Painting white through a Zone-7½ selection in this case nicely targets the cloud without leading to a loss of texture in the brightest whites. It also prevents spilling paint onto the darker tones in the mountains behind the clouds. Some care is taken to use a brush size that allows paint to mostly fall on the gray clouds that need to be brightened and to allow selectively painting some areas multiple times.

The “Dodge” layer for this luminosity painting is a blank pixel layer set to Overlay blend mode. This painted layer, placed against a gray background, is shown below. It demonstrates how the Zone-7½ selection very nicely confines the white paint to the cloud and how I was able to add more paint to some areas to increase the effect exactly where I wanted it.


The final image is shown below. The rollover is the image before luminosity painting.

In summary, this image, with its poorly separated cloud texture, is a classic situation for using luminosity masks. Three important luminosity principles were applied:

  1.  Think tonally−Choose luminosity masks in situations where there is adequate tonal separation which can be exploited to create a useful mask or selection.
  2. Find the right mask and feathering−Look for a mask that is clearly lighter in the areas that need adjustment compared to areas that should not be adjusted.
  3. Paint for precision−Use luminosity painting to precisely burn and dodge the image to create the proper tonal balance.

These concepts can be applied to other situations where luminosity masks are being considered as a tool for image development.

If you’d like to experiment with these techniques, a downsized-size jpg of this image without the adjustments described in this tutorial can be downloaded here.

Luminosity Masks for Black and White

Being mostly a Nature photographer producing color images, I occasionally get questions about the applicability of luminosity masks to other genres such as portraits, wildlife, autos, and black and white. I always respond that luminosity masks work equally well on any continuous-tone image regardless of the subject. Luminosity masks select specific tonal ranges in the image, and since all photographs are composed of tones, they all can use luminosity masks to adjust these tones. It’s just a matter of finding a way to select the desired tones and then making the necessary adjustment.

Along this line, I thought I’d provide examples of a few adjustments from a recently developed black and white image. The before image (straight RAW conversion with no adjustments) is shown below. A mouse rollover shows the final image. (NOTE: Depending on the speed of your Internet connection it may take a few seconds for the rollover image to appear.)

I did a basic conversion to black and white in Adobe Camera Raw and then brought the image into Photoshop where I did the rest of the processing with luminosity masks. There were three adjustments that made the biggest difference for this image. The first was a luminosity painting layer. I wanted to improve the cloud texture and enhance the contrast between the clouds and the background in the lower part of the image. To do this I made a new layer, filled it with 50% gray, and changed the blending mode to Overlay. This became the “Dodge” layer for selectively lightening the clouds. Brushing white paint onto this layer has the effect of lightening anything on the layers below. In order to target just the clouds, a Zone 8 luminosity selection was created (mask shown below). It selects the tones in the clouds (lighter areas) without selecting the non-cloud parts of the image (darker areas).

Zone 8 mask

As I painted through this selection, the clouds (lighter areas) received white paint and are lightened, but the adjacent non-cloud (dark) areas receive no paint and remain unaffected. The Zone 8 selection guides the paint onto the layer so that it is perfectly applied to lighten the clouds without spilling onto the non-cloud areas. The effect this has on the image is shown in the before and after (rollover) images below.

The “Dodge” layer is reproduced below. It shows that the Zone 8 selection was extremely precise in depositing paint exactly where it was needed. Even the delicate fringes of the clouds are properly painted without straying onto the mountains behind. Luminosity painting through a luminosity selection can provide this “automatic accuracy” when burning and dodging. In addition, the effect can be built up to the degree that looks right for the image by varying brush opacity and applying multiple brushstrokes. So it’s highly customizable and the results often look completely natural.

Zone 8 mask

A second technique that helped this image involves the use of a quarter-tone mask. These are narrow tonal range selections that have their midpoints near the quarter tones of the image. The highlight quarter tones selection peaks around a gray value of 200 and the shadow quarter tones selection around 56. These are off-center midtone selections, so they aren’t locked into the lightest or darkest tones in the image. They feather tonally into both lighter and darker tones and their use is often accompanied by a favorable contrast change.

In this case, the shadow quarter tone mask (which I refer to as “3/4”) was used on a Curves adjustment layer. The layer’s blending mode was changed to Multiply, which darkens the image. This 3/4 mask served as the layer mask and controlled which parts were darkened. It is shown below.

3/4 mask

The before and after (rollover) images for the change provided by this layer is shown below. It’s subtle, but the adjustment definitely strengthens the darker parts of the mountain without dragging down the highlights.

When I want to do selective tonal lightening or darkening of an image, these quarter-tone masks combined with either Screen (to lighten) or Multiply (to darken) blending mode are something I try because it often produces a pleasing result. I actually find using the Screen and Multiply blending modes effective in many situations where a luminosity mask is the layer mask on a Curves or Levels adjustment layer. Instead of bending a curve or positioning a slider in this set-up, the layer’s opacity is simply adjusted to achieve the desired effect.

The last adjustment that made a significant difference to this image is one where I’m not entirely sure what I did. It involves a Curves adjustment layer set to Multiply blending mode, so it was another darkening adjustment. The adjustment was selectively applied through what appears to be some type of hybrid painting technique of the mask. In this case, a hide-all (black) mask would have had white paint brushed on to reveal the darkening adjustment of the layer. The painted mask is shown below.

Hybrid painted mask

A luminosity selection was obviously painted through to reveal of the sky and the tops of the mountains since the outline of these are clearly visible. But there is also some painting around the lower edges that appears to been performed with no active selection. I don’t recall exactly what was done and have been unable to duplicate it.

Despite the uncertainty of exactly how it as accomplished, this adjustment did a nice job of strengthening the sky texture and providing better overall tonal balance between the clouds in the sky and the mountains. The before and after (rollover) images are shown below.

This last adjustment shows that there is a certain degree of spontaneity in using luminosity masks. Not every adjustment requires just one mask or one way of using that mask. The photographer responds to what the image needs and selects the tools they wish to use to accomplish the desired goal. It’s important to not get locked into thinking that there is one mask that will make everything perfect. Luminosity masks are simply tools that can be used in multiple ways. There is no prescribed path and experimentation is always an option. They offer a versatile tool set for working with tones in all types of images.

A small PSD file of this image showing the entire workflow can be downloaded at the bottom of this page.

1-2-3-4: Simplifying Luminosity Masks

The volume of information about luminosity masks and selections is a bit overwhelming . . . and I’ll admit that I’m part of the problem. I’ve written several blogs and tutorials about various luminosity mask/selection techniques, different ways to create and use them, and little tricks that I find helpful; and there are plenty other sources scattered across the Internet. It can be hard to know where to begin to actually start using them. The goal of this article is to review some basic concepts about luminosity masks and selections and to compartmentalize the various techniques so that users can more easily decide how apply these methods to their photographs.

One: Masks vs. Selections

The first thing to review is the difference between a mask and a selection. A “selection” usually has marching ants over the image enclosing the selected pixels. Whatever you do to the image, the selection determines which pixels experience the effect and to what degree. Selected pixels are affected by the action; unselected pixels are not.

A “mask” is how Photoshop saves a selection. In the mask, selected pixels are white, unselected pixels are black, and partially selected pixels are gray. A mask on an adjustment layer is called a layer mask, and does exactly the same thing as a selection. The lighter a pixel’s tone in the layer mask, the more it feels the layer’s adjustment. White pixels get 100% of the adjustment. Black pixels get none. Gray pixels experience an intermediate adjustment. The left image below shows a luminosity selection with the marching ants. The corresponding mask of this selection is on the right.

Selection plus mask image

The terms “mask” and “selection” are frequently used interchangeably. For this article, however, I will use “mask/selection” when the statement is accurate for both masks and selections, and use “mask” or “selection” when there is a need to be specific.

Two Primary Series of Masks/Selections

There are ONLY two (2) series of primary luminosity masks/selections: Lights and Darks. The masks of the selections are shown below. While there is an entire spectrum of possible luminosity masks/selections, there are still only two primary series: Lights and Darks. “Midtone,” “subtracted,” and “zone” masks/selections are NOT primary luminosity masks/selections. They are secondary masks/selections derived from the two primary series. The primary series only includes the Lights and the Darks.

Lights-series and Darks-series of luminosity masks

The Lights-series selects progressively lighter tones in the image and the Darks-series selects progressively darker tones. All the Light-series masks/selections are “anchored” in the very lightest tones in the image, meaning that the lightest tones are the most selected tones and will appear white in the mask. The Darks-series is anchored in the darkest tones. The darkest tones in the image are the most selected in the Darks-series and will appear as white in the mask of a Darks-series selection. This can easily be seen in the images of the two series of masks above.

Three-Step Workflow

A luminosity workflow is not based on a prescribed series of steps that are repeated with every image. Instead, the photographer evaluates the image on an ongoing basis and determines what adjustments the image requires as it develops.

Step 1−Decide what needs to be done. Look at the image and figure out what it needs. If it’s a brightness or contrast issue or if specific tones need to be adjusted for color or saturation, a luminosity mask/selection often provides a useful approach.

Step 2−Choose the correct luminosity mask/selection. Start with a primary mask as it separates the tones into Lights and Darks (and it’s usually pretty easy to make that decision). However, if the tonal range for adjustment is a midtone and not anchored in either the blacks or whites, start thinking about a midtone, zone, or subtracted mask/selection (see Method # 4 below). To help make this decisions, the “View” buttons on the new panel make it easy see what areas are selected. The image below shows the Lights-3 selection and the corresponding “View” mode equivalent that has a red mask over the selected pixels.

Image plus View mode

Step 3−Choose a method for adjustment from the options listed below. There are surprisingly few.

Four Ways to Use Luminosity Masks/Selections

While there seems to be a confusing number of ways to use luminosity masks/selections when developing an image, they mostly fall into just four (4) categories.

Method #1−Use a luminosity mask on an adjustment layer. This is the classic way to use a selection−make a mask of the selection on an adjustment layer, and then let the mask filter the adjustment to the correct parts of the image. An adjustment layer is usually a good way to make a more general or global adjustment. Even though a luminosity mask filters the adjustment to specific tones, the natural feathering of luminosity masks/selections allows the adjustment to spread beyond the confines of the selection’s marching ants. So when looking for a broader effect, a luminosity mask on an adjustment layer, like that shown below, is worth considering.

Layer mask method

Method #2−Paint through an active luminosity selection onto a pixel layer. Luminosity painting with black and white paint is the best example of this, and, in contrast to an adjustment layer, provides a high degree of precision. Not only can lightening and darkening be brushed onto an image exactly here it’s needed, but repeated brush strokes can further increase the effect. So if precision and control are the goals, painting through a luminosity selection onto a pixel layer, like in the image below, is the best approach.

Burning-Dodging method

Method #3−Paint through an active luminosity selection onto a layer mask. Exposure blending is one example of using this method where a layer mask is painted white or black through a luminosity selection in order to reveal or conceal tones on the current layer. The Hand-Blending HDR tutorial talks about this, but there are several YouTube videos and other tutorials on the Internet that demonstrate this technique (like this one). It’s also possible to use this method to paint in an adjustment to specific tones on an adjustment layer as in the image below. The Painted Masks tutorial discusses this.

Painted mask method

Method #4−Combine various primary luminosity masks/selections to make new (secondary) luminosity masks/selections. While this is not actually a method to adjust an image, it’s still a very important way to use the primary masks/selections. Midtone, zone, and subtracted masks/selection are all created by this method. These secondary masks are incredibly useful as they allow targeting tones that aren’t anchored in the image’s blacks and whites the way the Darks- and Lights-series are. Often, it’s actually best to create an appropriate secondary mask/selection from the primary masks/selections before employing one of the first three methods to actually make an adjustment. The left image below shows a Lights-1 minus Lights-3 selection. The subtracted mask of this subtracted selection is shown on the right.

Combining mask method

Thinking about using luminosity masks/selections in just one of these four ways makes the decision on how to accomplish a particular adjustment easier as it narrows the possibilities. In fact, sometimes the adjustment method will be ore obvious than the mask/selection. For example, if precise burning and dodging is the goal, then luminosity painting (Method #2) is the method of choice and it’s just necessary to find the best selection to paint through. Or if a large tonal area is going to be adjusted, then a luminosity mask on an adjustment layer (Method #1) might be the logical approach. So with the method decided, it’s just necessary to find the right mask/selection to target the desired tones and the “View” buttons can help.

While there are additional Photoshop techniques that can be employed with luminosity masks, they are mostly variations on the methods listed above. For example, the Edit > Fill command could be used instead of painting with a paintbrush, though painting provides much finer control. But don’t get too fancy to begin with. Using luminosity masks is sort of like learning to play a musical instrument. First learn to play the basic notes and before long you’ll see how to combine these into a melodic piece. Similarly, once you’re familiar with the basic processes for luminosity masks, you’ll be able to start using them with increased confidence to achieve the desired results.

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

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.