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

The beauty of China is that things are pretty safe nearly everywhere you go (ok, well, the air can be a little questionable).  After shooting some of the modern architecture along the riverfront in Guangzhou, I decided to the the long walk home through this urban park.  Sometimes you get to a point where you feel like you’ve pushed too far, like when you stay at a party way too long and you really aren’t having fun.  I just wasn’t seeing much that inspired me (mostly because it was so dark).  Then all of a sudden, at the end of the park, I came across this amazing neon lotus sculpture in the water.  Only in China.

Flower of Guangzhou

I always enjoy photographing families with little kids – they have so much energy, the littlest things seem amazing, and they embrace the world without all the pre-conceived notions we build over time.  They also don’t like to sit still for photographs!  I always like to go with the child’s energy, but that means that I need to give up some control over lighting.  In this photo of Coleton below, he’s standing under an open cloudy sky.  Ideally, I’d have photographed him 10 feet back in the shade – so that the light  would be coming into his face (especially the eyes), more than straight down.  But ultimately I can’t have everything there, so I’d rather have a genuine expression than perfect light.

As I’ve gotten more and more familiar with using luminosity masks for landscapes, I’ve found myself starting to use them pretty extensively in portrait work.  The photo is a great example.  I retouched it this weekend to make a 12×18″ canvas for the family.  In the past, I would have used free-hand dodging and burning to lighten the eye-sockets and dark neck caused by the light coming from above.  But with luminosity masks, I was able to easily select the shadow areas of the face and quickly dodge (lighten) as needed.  Not only was this a lot faster, but probably a bit more accurate than working freehand.  When you look at a photograph, your eyes are drawn to lighter parts of the image, so I also wanted to burn the bright parts of the background (the green areas in the next patch of open light) as well as the trail right behind Coleton’s feet.  Dodging the green areas wouldn’t be too tough in Lightroom (just brush with a negative value for highlights to protect the shadows).  But dodging the trail around his arms and shirt is a different story.  I could have spent a lot of time carefully brushing around the arms or created some complex mask manually – but instead, I just pulled up the right midtones mask as a selection and was able to burn the trail easily (note that I also burned down his hands a bit, since they’re pretty bright).   See below for a little behind the scenes info on how I used luminosity masks here.

I see a lot of potential for luminosity masks with portraits.  You could use them to:

  • Create more depth and volume by selectively accentuating existing hightlights/shadows
  • Select teeth / eyes (highlights) for whitening
  • Burn down unwanted highlights such as oily skin or direct sunlight (always ideal to avoid these in the shoot if you can)
  • Lighten dark eye sockets, wrinkles, shadows under the chin, lines caused by a double-chin, etc
  • Basically, anywhere you want to retouch something that has different tonal values from the neighboring skin
  • And, of course, you can retouch the background with the same techniques you’d use for a landscape image.  This is a great option to minimize distracting elements, or enhance elements that add to the portrait.

Here’s the final image:

Final portrait after dodging with luminosity masks


Here’s the actual dodge/burn layer where you can see the specific adjustments I made.  I created a new blank layer, set it to soft light (my preferred blending mode for dodging and burning), and then painted white to lighten/dodge and black to darken/burn.  Note that 50% gray is neutral on a soft light layer (no impact to the image below).

Dodging and burn layer using luminosity masks


And here’s a short video showing the image before and after using luminosity masks to dodge and burn.  Note that prior to the “before” image, I had already done some minor retouching, color correction, vignetting, and sharpening for the canvas; the video is just showing the impact of the dodging and burning.


For more on dodging and burning, be sure to check out this great tutorial on Fstoppers.

There is this great pedestrian mall in the midst of central Guangzhou, China.  On one end is the Canton Tower, which looks like an enormous multi-colored Chinese finger trap at night.  On the other end is this nice 10 minute walk through a park.  There is activity all around the middle with people relaxing, kids playing, vendors fling light up toys.  And you are surrounded on all sides by these futuristic looking buildings.  This is the Guangzhou Opera House.  I have no idea what a Chinese Opera is like, but I hung around here for a couple hours just enjoying the architecture.

Post-processing notes:  Complete processes in Photoshop.   HDR processed in Camera Raw, followed by multiple luminosity masks to control the bright spotlights on the building.

Guangzhou Opera House

Curves and Levels are some of the best tools in Photoshop to enhance your photos.  Both offer the ability to impact contrast, tone, and white balance.  Curves offers complete control, but can be a little confusing to understand initially.  On the other hand, Levels promises “simplicity” if you’re willing to give up some control.  I’m throwing the quotes around simplicity because I actually believe Levels is more difficult to use, which I’ll explain below.  But it’s good to understand both, especially if you’re familiar with Levels and want to try Curves.


Black/White Point

The black point and white point can be set in exactly the same way in both Levels and Curves.  Anything darker than the black point becomes pure black.  And anything brighter than the white point becomes pure white.  Photoshop will simply remap the remaining value between your black and white set points.  This is a nice way to boost contrast when your image doesn’t have a true black/white, which often occurs in low contrast scenes and under/over-exposed images.

Black Point Clipping in Levels and Curves

White Point Clipping in Levels and Curves


Output levels

Both Levels and Curves have options to remap the output to a smaller dynamic range by changing the black/white output to some gray value.  It’s easy to do this in Curves, but you have to drag the black/white curve point up/down (there is no slider like the one you get in Curves for this).  I rarely use these adjustments.  In fact, the only time I really use this is when I want to prepare an image for printing by a 3rd party lab (increasing your black output level from 0 to 8-10 works miracles with many vendors and avoids the common issue where the prints come back too dark).  I suppose you might use this to intentionally reduce contrast (if you wanted to simulate for, for example).

Limit Black Output in Levels and Curves
Limit White Output in Levels and Curves



The midtones slider

This is where the Levels adjustment falls apart for me.  It has a certain appeal – move one slider and make the image lighter/darker without causing clipping black or white values.  But you can do this by just sliding some mid-point in the Curves left or right.  The problem is that the midtones slider changes brightness and contrast at the same time.  Want to increase highlight contrast without darkening the image?  Move the midtones slider right (boosts highlight contrast, but darkens the image), and the white point to the left (lightens the image to offset the midtone slider).  How much should you move them?  It’s pure guesswork.  With Curves, you can use the visual adjustment tool to target tones visually from the image.  Oh, and when you make this double-move in Curves, you are probably going to blow out your brightest highlights.

Effect of Photoshop levels midtone slider


You may be wondering what Curves adjustment is equivalent to moving the midtone slider in Levels.  Moving the midpoint of the Curve is pretty close (ie, grab 127 and slide left or right).  However, Photoshop uses different math to connect the dots in Levels and Curves.  To get an exact match, you’d have to use the multi-point curve shown below.  I’ve overlaid them for comparison.  You can see that the simple curve is darker in the shadows and brighter in the highlights.  Personally, I believe the complex curve based on Levels is generally less useful, as it reduces midtone contrast to get more shadow contrast than you probably need (and eliminates a lot of the shadows).

Approximate Curves equivalent of Levels Gamma of 2

Exact Curves equivalent of Levels Gamma of 2

Approximation and Exact Curves equivalent of Levels Gamma of 2

Here’s a video that explains this in greater detail detail.  In the video, I go through the comparison above, and show how you can use Curves to easily adjust brightness and contrast.  I demonstrate how Curves can create better results.

This scene reminds me of the wormhole from Interstellar.  My girlfriend and some friends of ours went to see it on IMAX over the weekend.  It seemed like a great omen when we  (randomly) received a package of freeze-dried ice cream the day before.   I used to think IMAX meant “massive screen”, but I’m now under the impression that it means “some high school dude’s car with MASSIVE speakers”.  The movie was so insanely loud that several people were covering their ears.  But, hey, we still enjoyed it.

This image was taken in the main lobby of the Intercontinental Hotel in Hangzhou (pronouned like “hong jo”).  Hangzhou is one of those cities that epitomizes the massive scale of China.  It’s almost exactly the same size as Chicago (America’s 3rd largest city), but few American’s have ever heard of it.

And while it may not be well very known in the US (despite its massive size), Hangzhou is very famous in China for the “West Lake”.  It’s a beautiful historic area and an major inspiration for Chinese artists and poets.  It’s also the inspiration for posting about Hangzhou today.  I’ve been emailing back and forth with a new Chinese friend this week, Nelson.  He’s been using my luminosity masks this week to edit some lovely photos of West Lake that he shared with me.  Too bad I don’t have any photos of West Lake to share!

Intercontinental Hangzhou Elevator Lobby