TKActions V5 Quick Tip #5: Dodging, Burning, and Luminosity Painting

Luminosity painting has always been one of my favorite methods for using luminosity masks. Painting through luminosity selections has significantly more power to influence image tone than using luminosity masks as layer masks, especially when it comes to burning and dodging. Not only does luminosity painting target specific tones in the image to receive paint, but paint can be applied repeatedly with multiple brushstrokes to enhance the effect. Luminosity layer masks limit what can be achieved by what the mask will reveal. Luminosity painting does not have this constraint. Paint can be applied repeatedly even through partially selected pixels until maximum white or maximum black is achieved if necessary. Plus, the active luminosity selection insures it all blends in with the rest of the image regardless of how much paint is applied. So there is much greater effect possible with luminosity painting on burn/dodge layers compared to using layer masks. Not all images need the enhanced effect that luminosity painting can achieve, but using it instead of a luminosity layer mask insures that dynamic control isn’t throttled by what a layer mask can reveal.

Sean’s newest quick tip video shows how easy and precise luminosity painting can be with the V5 panel. Highlights with contrast and shadows with depth can quickly be painted into an image using this technique. I particularly like the way Sean uses the “Pick” tool to find the best off-center midtone (Zone) mask to paint through. This is definitely one of my favorite tips so far since it’s something I use on almost every image. I hope you enjoy it too. Be sure to subscribe to Sean’s YouTube channel to keep up with his latest technique videos.

V5 Quick Tip #5: Dodging, Burning and Luminosity Painting
V5 Quick Tip #4: Off-Center Midtone Masks
V5 Quick Tip #3: Luminosity Mask Basics and the V5 Intro Module
V5 Quick Tip #2: Modifying Masks
V5 Quick Tip #1: Basic Luminosity Mask Tasks

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.

Inverted Masks, Masked Luminosity Painting, Blurred Masks

In a previous post I described how luminosity painting is one of my favorite techniques for balancing the light in an image. The technique can be effectively used to burn or dodge specific parts of an image while maintaining tonal contrast in the areas being painted. In this post I’ll expand on the technique a little more and show some variations in the procedure that can be useful.

Unlike black and white images where a full tonal range from delicate whites to detailed shadows is often desirable, color images usually look better with the highlights retaining some good color instead of going to light or pure white. In fact, I’ve developed a preference for a left-shifted histogram for color images–no whites at all and mostly composed of mid-tones and quarter tones as seen in the histogram below.


Even though there may not be many of them in an image, getting the brightest values correct is still important. This is difficult to do sometimes because simply darkening white values yields gray, which really has no color either, and doesn’t contribute to the richness that may be desired. A good place to start to achieve the proper light tones is with RAW conversion, making sure there are no clipped highlights and that the light tones are already left-shifted and retaining color. This allows them to be further developed to the proper brightness and contrast in Photoshop.

The image below is one that I consider nearly finished. Color, brightness, contrast, and saturation had been addressed during processing, and on-screen it seemed nearly as good as I could make it. I usually let the print help make the final call as to when an image is actually finished, and the light values in this image looked a little weak in the print. They had too much tonal whiteness and not enough color richness. The rollover of the image (it may take a few seconds to load) shows the final version after the light tone had been further addressed. These tones have been darkened in the rollover and have richer color, but the contrast in these light values has been retained to bring out the texture.

There are, of course, many ways luminosity masks could be used to make this adjustment. What I’ll illustrate here is a way to do it with a combination of techniques, each of which may also be useful in other situations.


The first thing that will be done is to luminosity paint through an inverted luminosity mask. I’ve previously written that these inverted masks aren’t too useful. They tend to include a lot of tones and don’t isolate specific tones as a result. However, there is a dictum with luminosity masks that point to a way in which inverted masks might be useful:

To increase contrast in an image when luminosity painting, paint white through a Lights-series mask or paint black through a Darks-series mask.

Because of the way luminosity masks are generated, each series concentrates the selection progressively towards one end of the tonal spectrum. The Lights-series masks, for example, have fewer and fewer tones as the masks progress from Lights to Light Lights to Bright Lights and finally to Super Lights. The tones that do remain in the progression are the whitest and lightest with pure white being selected in every mask. Luminosity painting through a Lights-series mask, therefore, deposits more paint on the less-masked light tones than on the relatively more-masked darker tones. So painting with white means that the light tones get more paint and get lighter faster than the darker tones, which receive less paint. The end result being increased contrast in the area being painted. The opposite happens when painting with black through a Lights-series mask—the less-masked light tones receive more black paint and darken faster than the more-masked darker tones, which in turn decreases contrast in the area being painted.

Any inverted mask switches to the opposite series. An inverted Light Lights mask, for example, is effectively a Darks-series mask. Even though the inverted mask doesn’t have a name, it’s character is decidedly that of a Darks-series mask, namely that the parts of the image that show in the mask are a gray-scale negative of the original image with the darkest tones being 100% pure white in the mask. This is demonstrated in the Light Lights mask for the above image which is shown below. The rollover shows the Darks-series inverse.

So according to the dictum, painting black through the inverted Lights Lights selection, which becomes a Darks-series selection, should darken and increase contrast in the areas that receive paint. That’s what was done in this case. The process is as follows:

  1. Create the Burn/Dodge layer (new layer > fill with 50% gray > set blending mode to “Soft Light”)
  2. Create a Light Lights selection (and save a copy as a mask on the Channels panel).
  3. Invert the selection.
  4. Hide the marching ants.
  5. Make sure the foreground color is set to black.
  6. Paint black onto the Burn/Dodge layer through the inverted Light Lights selection (a 33% opacity soft brush was used)
  7. Deselect the hidden selection when done.

After luminosity painting through the inverted Light Lights mask, the Burn/Dodge layer looked like the image below. The areas darker than 50% gray cause darkening in the image.

Luminosity-painted layer

The resultant image is shown below. The too-light areas have been made darker and painting through a luminosity mask has blended the darkening into the rest of the image, but it’s overdone. There is now a blackness in some of the areas that were painted as well as some dark haloing along the center ridge. This is because the broad, inverted selection allowed the paint to be applied in a very imprecise manner. Too much black paint reached the darker pixels in the image because they are substantially revealed by the inverted selection. While this is expected, the image has taken on a color “gloppiness” as a result. For reference, the rollover is the original image.

It may be hard to notice, but within this heavy-handed paint job the desired darkening of the light tones has been achieved along with a slight boost in their overall contrast. Black paint applied through a Darks-series mask (the inverted Light Lights in this case) insures this. Now it’s just a matter of fine-tuning the painting to separate the properly-painted pixels from the poorly-painted ones.


A luminosity layer mask on the luminosity-painted Burn/Dodge layer is the way to reveal the good parts of this bad paint job. Interestingly, the Light Lights mask, the one that was inverted for luminosity painting, can now serve as the correct mask to reveal the desired darkening in the pixels that were originally too light. While simply adding the Light Lights mask as a layer mask does a pretty good job, I prefer to actually paint the mask through the Light Lights selection so as to create a more precise reveal and to augment it with multiple brush strokes in specific areas. The procedure is as follows.

  1. Create a Hide All layer mask on the Burn/Dodge layer (a “black” layer mask).
  2. Create a Light Lights selection. (NOTE: It’s best to use the original Light Lights mask from the unpainted image instead of creating a new one from the now gloppy image. The original Light Lights mask can be stored on the Channels panel when it’s created and reselected at this point.)
  3. Hide the marching ants.
  4. Make sure that the mask is selected for painting and that white is the foreground color.
  5. Paint white onto the layer mask (100% opacity, soft brush) in the areas where the darkening effect of the luminosity painting needs to be revealed.
  6. Deselect the hidden selection when done.

Imprecision in painting this time has a much less deleterious effect on the image. The Light Lights selection is much narrower than its tonal inverse. As such, it’s harder to paint outside the lines because the selection is more confining as to where paint gets applied. Some care needs to be taken in smaller confined areas or where multiple brush strokes are used, but overall a few wide strokes of the brush creates the painted mask that reveals the darkening in just those areas where it’s needed. The remaining dark areas of the painted mask effectively conceal the gloppiness of the original paint job. Below is the painted mask that was created. The whitest areas are where multiple brush strokes were applied to create greater reveal of the luminosity painting.

Painted mask

The image that results after painting the layer mask for the Burn/Dodge layer is shown below. The rollover is the unmasked layer with the gloppy luminosity painting that was visible without the layer mask.

The painted mask effectively selected the right pixels to reveal in order to achieve the desired darkening effect in the light tones of the image. This is a good example of how luminosity mask selections, when employed in painting, can correctly select tones and seamlessly blend the desired effect into the rest of the image. What’s most remarkable in this case is that even after the grossly overdone luminosity painting through the inverted mask, painting a layer mask through the Light Lights selection was still able to reveal just the right amount of tonal adjustment for each pixel that received paint and almost effortlessly facilitated the desired adjustment to the image.

The blue highlighted layer below shows how this Burn/Dodge luminosity painting layer with its painted layer mask looked in Photoshop’s Layers panel when the procedure was complete.

Layers panel


While I don’t often feel it necessary to blur luminosity masks, this is one time that it helped. Light tones tend to blend together visually. Blurring the mask provides a bit of increased sharpness, which causes what texture there is in the light tones to become a bit more visually separated. When I apply blur to luminosity masks, it’s usually a 21-pixel Gaussian blur. That amount was chosen to “correlate” with my 21-megapixel camera, but I’m not really sure if there is any correlation at all. For whatever reason, the 21-pixel Gaussian blur seems to provide a good result when used to blur a luminosity mask. The blurred mask is shown below.

Layers panel

Below is the final image after the blur was applied to the layer mask. The rollover is the image with the unblurred layer mask. The difference may be hard to see in this size image, but it has a nice effect on a larger jpeg and the actual print.

In summary, three steps were used to make this adjustment:

  1. Paint through an inverted luminosity mask to maintain/enhance contrast.
  2. Create a painted layer mask by painting through a luminosity mask selection to reveal the luminosity painting to the appropriate degree in the appropriate pixels.
  3. Blur the layer mask if it helps to improve textures/contrast.

If you’d like to practice this technique on this image, a larger version with a prominent copyright symbol is available for download here.