Greg Benz Photography » Minneapolis based cityscape and landscape photographer; luminosity masking fiend

When I was an intern back in college, I worked at manufacturing plant that made plastic bumpers and fuel tanks.  It was a greasy, chaotic mess full of lessons about how not to live your life.  The extruding machines were sometimes left unattended so long that the engineers had an electric chainsaw in the office, just in case they had to cut apart a hunk of plastic on the floor that was too big to move.  And they once had to evacuate the plant after someone decided to celebrate 4th of July… with fireworks… inside a plastics plant.  There was this older guy in that crazy plant who was so surly that I assumed he wouldn’t have much to teach me about life.  One day, he said to me, “Greg, there are three phases in life: childhood, your working years, and retirement.  Never be in a rush to get to the next phase, just enjoy the one you’re in.”  And that lesson has stuck with me ever since.

When I look at photos taken with a long-exposure, I sometimes think back to that lesson.  You get an almost poetic sense of just how much of our world is constantly in motion.  Not just all of us “busy” people, but everything is changing all the time.  Take this photo of downtown St Paul, MN for example.  The clouds and water are blurred out after only 30 seconds or so.  And of course, that beautiful peach sunrise will be gone in a couple minutes, and so will the street lights.  Now that it’s winter, the boats are gone and green leaves have been replaced with brown tree branches and white snow.  There’s only a tiny sliver of concrete and glass that would look the same right now.  And of course, that really hasn’t been here all that long in the grand scheme of things.  I’m often excited about the future, but I also try to remind myself to just enjoy the moment.

A firey pink sunrise over downtown Saint Paul

I previously demonstrated the use of luminosity masks on this image to bring out color in a washed out sunset.  I decided to redo the video using Lumenzia (my new interactive luminosity masking panel) to provide a direct comparison of the two approaches on a simple image.  It doesn’t get into any of the advanced features (the zone picker, refining masks by color, etc), but I think provides a sense of how the Lumenzia workflow can speed up and simplify even simple retouching jobs.

Luminosity masking is one of the most powerful ways to create professional results in Photoshop.  But they can also be challenging to learn and use, so I’ve created the Lumenzia – a luminosity masking panel for Photoshop.  Lumenzia makes it dramatically easier to use luminosity masks, and at the same time offers new tools and complete flexibility to achieve results that aren’t possible with a channels-based approach to luminosity masking.

With Lumenzia’s interactive approach to luminosity masking:

  • What you see is what you get!  With Lumenzia, you get a full screen preview of the mask before you apply it.  This makes it faster and easier to select the right mask.  And if you use group masks to control luminosity masks, you can combine them into a single mask, which makes it much easier to visually understand the impact of multiple masks.
  • You can select what you see!  You don’t have to know which mask relates to the tone you want to select, just use the built in picker tool to click on a part of the image, and a custom mask is created for you automatically.  These custom masks have the same gradual transitions that make luminosity mask adjustments look so natural.  And they are custom matched to your image (there are over 500 possible masks with the picker tool, but all you have to do is click on the tones you want to select).  Lumenzia has a full range of luminosity masks, zone masks, and saturation masks.  And all of the masks can be tweaked, so the options are limitless!
  • Refine masks with ease!  You can refine masks with a simple selection (restrict the luminosity mask to areas you select and Lumenzia automatically feathers the result to create a natural result).  Or you can refine masks by color (which makes it a lot easier to make the sky more blue without any consequences to the green tree in front of it).   You can determine which tones or saturation values are selected and how much.  And you can determine how quickly the masks fade to black to protect other parts of the image.  Of course, you can still manually paint on the masks if you want, but you can often skip that step or finish the mask more quickly.
  • Swap masks with a single click!  Not sure if you should use a Lights(2) or a Lights(3) mask?  No problem.  If you’ve applied the wrong mask, it just takes one click to replace the mask on an existing layer mask.
  • Stay organized.   Mask names are automatically applied to new layers, so you can easily tell which luminosity mask you used (and you can always rename the layers however you like).
  • Minimize clutter.  You don’t need to use the channels pallet, ever.  Avoid flipping between panels and leave more room to see your layers.
  • Minimize file size.  Because you aren’t creating channels, file size is automatically significantly reduced (without the need to manually delete channels).  A TIF from my D810 grows from 200MB to 1.4GB when I create channel masks.  I can always delete them, but that’s one more step to do/remember.   And if you use group masks to restrict your luminosity masks, Lumenzia can combine those masks to significantly cut down on file size.  I find that this can often reduce the size of my files a further 20-50%!
  • Undo practically anything.  Every action in Lumenzia shows up as a single history step.  So undoing is always as simple as <ctrl>-Z.  And, because everything is listed a single history step, it’s easy to review what you’ve done and go back (even if you have Photoshop set to only save 10-20 history states).
  • Create beautiful vignettes with ease.  Just draw a quick selection around the target area and click vignette (or don’t select anything at all and you’ll get a standard vignette that works great for many images).  Off-center vignettes?  No problem.  Want to create a vignette that isn’t just a simple oval?  No problem.  Want to make the center lighter or the edges darker?  No problem.  Vignette but protect the shadows?  You get the idea.
  • Powerful sharpening tool.  If you’ve never heard of “surface sharpening” it’s an approach that can product some amazing results.  Lumenzia uses an approach that is optimized to sharpen 16-bit images 3-4 faster than normal.   And because it’s integrated with luminosity masking, you can easily apply masks to do things like sharpen the highlights (without increasing noise in the shadows).
  • Easy dodging and burning.  A single click creates a dodge/burn layer for you, with a luminosity mask if desired.

Ready to take luminosity masking to the next level?  Get Lumenzia.

 

Some people may completely disagree with me on this, but I firmly believe that shooting in MANUAL exposure mode is actually EASIER than any auto mode (program, aperture-priority, shutter-priority, etc).  Why would it be easier to learn how to turn all the dials when the camera will do it for you?  If the camera was perfect – if it created the most beautiful exposure each and every time – then auto would be a “no brainer”.  But it doesn’t.  I shoot primarily with the Nikon D810, easily among the most sophisticated cameras available in terms of being able to automatically set exposure.   But even though it is amazing in that way, it picks the wrong exposure quite a lot, probably 10% of the time overall and >50% of the time in the most beautiful light (because the most beautiful light is often the most tricky).  Which means that I have to use “exposure compensation” to get the right automatic exposure.  In other words, I not only still have to understand exposure to shoot auto, but I also have to understand how this incredibly complex camera thinks – so that I can fix it when it’s wrong!  That’s much more complicated!  And that’s only half the problem.  Even when the camera automatically picks the perfect exposure, it still can’t make creative decisions about how to make tradeoffs in shutter speed, aperture, and ISO.  So you can get much BETTER results in most situations once you get the hang of setting manual exposures.

The good news is that exposure is pretty simple.  Once you’ve gotten experienced in metering, you can often get it perfectly right on the first image.  But if you get it wrong, you can easily tweak one of the settings to shoot again with a lighter or darker exposure.  For all the camera’s complexity, there are only four camera controls that affect exposure:

  • Shutter speed – ie, how long the camera collects light.  Want a lighter image?, use a longer shutter speed.
  • Aperture – ie, the size of the hole that allows light to pass from the lens and onto the camera sensor.  Want a lighter image?, use a larger hole.  (aperture numbers may sound a little backwards, as f/2.8 actually means a larger opening than f/8.)
  • ISO – ie, the sensitivity of the sensor to light.  Want a lighter image?, use a higher ISO for greater sensitivity.
  • Flash – I’m going to skip over flash photography in this post, but you can obviously make a lighter image by using a more powerful flash or by putting the flash closer to your subject.

Ok, so if we have 3 knobs to turn, where do we start?  There’s no right or wrong approach, but here’s a general description of what I typically do:

  • Meter the scene.  I often use spot metering, as it’s a manual form of metering.  I also use “matrix metering” quite a bit, but this involves a lot of automatic decision making by the camera.  But I can offset it if I want (just like exposure compensation in auto-exposure modes).  And if I get it wrong, I just need to make an adjustment (image too bright?  I can use a shorter shutter speed, smaller aperture, or lower ISO).
  • When I’m metering through the camera, I typically set shutter, aperture, and ISO so that the meter 0’s out (no plus or minus values showing).  I will set aperture to my ideal setting (primarily to get depth of field), shutter to a reasonable setting (fast or slow enough to get the sharpness/blurriness I want), and ISO to the lowest setting I can (within reasonable levels of tradeoffs in aperture and shutter).

My mental model for making tradeoffs in shutter, aperture, and ISO is essentially:

How to select the right exposure

 

The difference between depth of field and sharpness can be a little confusing.  Steve Perry of Backcountry Gallery does a really nice job of explaining it in this video below.  For me, I basically shoot wide apertures when I want to isolate a subject (usually a portrait, especially when there’s just one person), and tend to steer towards f/8-f/13 when I want maximum sharpness.  I really try to avoid f/16-f/22 when I can due to loss of sharpness and the pain cave that is dust spots.  If I need to get to a slower shutter speed, I’ll often use a neutral density filter instead of stopping the lens all the way down to f/22.  And if I need more depth of field, I will sometimes use focus stacking or my tilt-shift lens instead of shooting at the smallest possible aperture.

 

But that isn’t the whole story.  I’m actually REALLY happy that my camera has an amazing auto-exposure and matrix metering system.  When I’m shooting in fast moving light (such as concerts), auto tends make less mistakes than I do.  And there are also times when I need to pay more attention to other details and the light is predictable (such as shooting kids on a cloudy day).  So auto definitely has a role in my photography, but I probably shoot manual 90% of the time.

I went to Luxembourg on a bit of a whim.  I was headed to Germany and figured I should go check it out.  I didn’t really know what I was getting into, but was blown away when I got there.  Luxembourg City is a fantastic mix of old and new architecture, and the Philharmonie is absolutely stunning.  It is surrounded by white columns and flowing metal shapes.  I had the whole place literally to myself.  Granted it was January, but I didn’t see another tripod anywhere in the city over the course of two days!  There were a handful of tourists (apparently many from China) shooting handheld, but that was just a few people.  I felt like I owned the place.

black and white architectural shot of teh Philharmonie in Luxembourg City