HDR vs Luminosity Masks

A lot of photographers ask me about the differences between HDR and luminosity masking. HDR is “High Dynamic Range”, which includes programs like Photomatix, Aurora, and Lightroom. It is meant to allow you to combine multiple exposures to get dynamic range beyond the limits of your camera, though it can also be used to extract detail from a single RAW file. Similarly, luminosity masks can be used for “manual exposure blending” to increase dynamic range.

While that makes an exposure blending comparison between HDR and luminosity masks a great topic, this post is about something bigger. I’ll be happy to discuss that in a follow-up post if there’s interest in comparing the results of exposure blending.

What is far more interesting are all the things you can do with luminosity masks that HDR simply cannot do. Even if you use Photoshop as part of your HDR workflow, you’re missing out if you aren’t using luminosity masks. In the following video, you’ll see several examples of powerful ways you can uniquely use luminosity masks to benefit your images. And at the end of the video, you’ll find links to tutorials for many of the images shown in the comparison. All before images are untouched RAW images, and all after images were created using the Lumenzia luminosity masking panel for Photoshop.

A quick note before we begin. I’ve deliberately chosen images which show a dramatic before and after comparison, to make it clear what is possible. That might not suit your preference to keep changes to a minimum, and that’s perfectly fine. Any of the techniques below can be used as much or as little as you like. What’s important is to know the potential of the tool, and then you can make it your own. Even a very minor enhancement, the type that no one would consciously notice, can often dramatically improve a photograph.



Advantage #1: Local Adjustments

HDR algorithms are generally global adjustments. They offer a lot of control, but primarily across the entire image. That’s a huge part of the advantage luminosity masks offer for manual blending. But that local control can be used for much more than the blend.

Any adjustment you want to make can be applied precisely with a luminosity mask. Changing the color of a car, brightening a beautiful tree to make it stand out, or masking the output of Nik Dfine to reduce noise in the shadows of a starry night sky are just a few of the ways you can use luminosity masks to target your edits. Anything you do with Lightroom, Photoshop, or 3rd party plugins can be blended as precisely as you want by simply using luminosity masks in Photoshop to combine various layers.

Not only can this allow for better results, but it can save an enormous amount of time over other possible methods. For example, the shadow of the camera and tripod in this image would take hours to clone out in Photoshop. But I was able to eliminate the shadow in just a few minutes with luminosity masks. The adjustment is just a curve and a color adjustment, but it needs to be applied through an extremely precise mask. A custom luminosity mask is perfect for that task.

Local Adjustments with luminosity masks

Advantage #2: Dodging & Burning

I use dodging and burning on nearly every image. This is critical for creating eye-popping black and white images.  It can also enhance the color in an image. Luminosity selections allow you to work from the content of image to enhance it. This allows for a much more natural and stunning result. Imagine in the sandstone photo below trying to paint each crack by hand without a luminosity selection to guide the process. Not only would it be hard to achieve the same result, but it would take longer to process.

Yes, at least one of the HDR platforms has a “dodge and burn” option, but don’t get confused. It isn’t comparable in any way other than the name. It’s just “dodge” (no darkening), has no ability to target with selections, and doesn’t allow you to paint in color. The basic tools in Photoshop will take you much further, and luminosity selections much further than that. Unless you have the ability to create a wide range of custom selections and blend with layers and masks, you won’t be able to achieve the same results.

Black and white luminosity masks

Advantage #3: Compositing

Trying to add another frame to include fireworks, a boat, or other elements in HDR will create “ghosting” problems. It’s very hard to combine images with moving content in an HDR program, and typically something you’d want to avoid.

You could try to do the composite in Photoshop, by blending a background HDR with an image with the moving content. You’ll need to process both images to get a compatible look. If you’re using multiple frames to create the background, it’s difficult to match that result to the tone mapping from a single exposure. Additionally, HDR tends to bring out noise, which can be a problem if you need a faster shutter speed to catch the action. For example, I used an ISO that was 3X higher to get the shutter speed I needed to capture the boat. It’s not uncommon for me to blend an ISO 100 image with an ISO 800 (or faster) image to combine skies, waves, and other various elements in an image. So it’s important to process the images in a way where the noise is similar (and ideally minimal).

And if you get the HDR blend and extra source image to match, the blending still typically requires good control of edges. Luminosity masks make it easier to create a credible blend.




Advantage #4: Adding Sky Color

HDR is often used to help recover a white or nearly blown-out sky. But sometimes the original RAW files doesn’t contain detail to be recovered. Perhaps the colors were simply too weak. Or the sky might be so bland that you want to replace it with another. It would be great if we always had perfect weather or could return to a place as often as we want, but things aren’t so simple. Thankfully, you can use luminosity masks to enhance colors or replace skies.

In the this sunset image, you can see the faintest of pink color in the RAW. It’s there and can be brought out to a degree, but not enough to compare to the sky I saw that night. Part of the issue is the typical limits of the sensor, and a bigger issue is that I simply missed the peak color due to some tripod issues. Thankfully, my friend saved me from my tripod mistake, but I needed to do a little extra work in post to create some of the color that I couldn’t fully recover from the RAW. Using a luminosity mask targeting the highlights in the sky, I was able to paint in a beautiful pink color. You might not choose to push it as far as I have here, but this shows the potential to restore almost any amount of color you like.

Restore Sky Color with luminosity masks

Advantage #5: Sky Replacements

HDR wouldn’t know what to do with 2 different skies. You can replace a sky in Photoshop, but it can be tedious and leave tell-tale edges. Solutions like BlendIf only work for a small handful of images. The Quick Select or Magic Wand tools are certain to create edge issues. And even Refine Edge can struggle with many of these blends.

I’ve already printed this image below at 40×60″, and the sky edges look great. I simply could not create as smooth of a sky replacement without luminosity selections to control the process. Perhaps if I spent all day with a very tiny brush to manually paint the mask, but I suspect even that wouldn’t work.



Advantage #6: Perspective Blending

It can be incredibly difficult to get a good relationship between your foreground and background. Sometimes, it just isn’t possible. For example, I often find that getting the camera low enough to show beautiful flowers causes the background to be obscured behind the ground on which the flowers rest. Shooting one frame with the camera low can get beautiful flowers, and another frame shot with the tripod a little higher can then capture the background. Once you have those two source frames, you can then use luminosity masks to blend together these two different perspectives. It’s essentially compositing different elements from the same scene, with small camera movements between shots – and the results can be stunning.


Advantage #7: Focal Length Blending

Wide-angle lenses are great for foregrounds, leading lines, and capturing the expanse of a beautiful landscape. They can also warp your subject and make it look pitifully small. “Focal length blending” can be used to get the best of both worlds. In this example, 19mm was perfect for capturing streaks of foam bubbles on the beach, but I needed 35mm to keep the sea stack sufficiently large as my main subject. Luminosity asks were helpful to blend the larger rock into the 19mm frame, but they were critical for creating the false shadow of the larger rock. I couldn’t use the shadow from the original 35mm shot, because it didn’t match the waves. So I created a false reflection and then used luminosity selections to paint it into the shadows between the white streaks of the foreground.





And so much more.

The beauty of luminosity masks and selections is that they are just masks and selections. They can be used to execute just about any adjustment you can envision. What makes them special is that they are built from the image itself. What makes them amazing is your vision in using them, so try exploring new ideas. These examples are just a few of the ways you can use them to create beautiful photographs.

Warming the Ensemble

Fall color is such a funny thing. Entire mountains or forest can be green, and then just over the hill there is an explosion of color. A little change in altitude or proximity to water can make an enormous difference. It really pays to explore the area when you’re shooting during fall color, because you never know what you might find around the next corner.


The idea of laying down on ice for an hour when it’s 0 degrees (that’s -18C) never struck me as a peaceful one. But that’s exactly how this morning felt to me. The air was completely still. Lake Superior was glassy smooth and barely moving. I could see and hear a few bits of ice stirring, but that was the only sound.

Of course, it didn’t hurt that I was wearing long underwear, snow pants, 4 shirts, a thick jacket, neck gator, hat, double-layer gloves, and had some disposable heat packs in my boots. I didn’t feel cold, not one bit.

The way the calm water had created a glassy coating of ice over the smooth rocks was incredible. There was just this one little patch, but it was amazing. So I laid down, got my camera as close to the rocks as possible, and started focus stacking (taking multiple shots at different focusing distances to blend together for a perfectly sharp image from front to back).

Frozen Lake Superior shoreline

How to Easily Get your DSLR Camera Photos onto Your Phone

Mobile phones are the center of our personal and online lives. We use them to take photos, show photos to others in person, and to share online. Last week, I posted a YouTube review of Vero, an awesome new way for photographers to share their photos online. Many viewers were intrigued, but asked “how can I share my high-quality DSLR images from my phone?”

It’s a critical question. Over 50% of internet use is now done on mobile devices. If you aren’t engaging in mobile communities, you’re preventing an enormous number of potential viewers or buyers of your art from discovering your work. Which is why mobile-first services like Vero are the way of the future. At the same time, you don’t have to limit yourself to photos taken with a mobile device to take part. There are simple workflows you can setup to get your finished images from your computer onto your phone.

The basic workflow I use is: DSLR => Lightroom => export folder on computer => iTunes/iPhone

All I have to do is an image into a folder in Lightroom, click “Publish”, and then click “Sync” in iTunes to get the image onto the phone. And if you setup Smart Folders in Lightroom and automatic syncing in iTunes, all you really need to do is click “Publish” in Lightroom. Of course, you need to spend 5 minutes setting this system up, but it’s easy and you can learn how in the video below.


If you aren’t using Lightroom, the basic concept of a sync folder is the same. You can use exporting options in your favorite image editing software, or just manually put copies of the images into that folder.

If you are using an Android phone, I don’t know what steps you need to take, but there the process of syncing images should be similarly straight-forward.

If you use a different workflow that works well for you, please comment below so that others can learn from you.

Lumenzia v5

I’m excited to announce that version 5.0 of the Lumenzia luminosity masking panel for Photoshop is now available as a free update for all customers.

This update includes over 100 improvements, so there is only room to highlight a few in this post. Please see the release notes for a full list of new/updated features and bug fixes. And be sure to see the written manual and tutorial videos, as both have been updated and expanded significantly.


Create and visualize luminosity selections more easily than ever

While everyone uses the term “luminosity masks”, the real star of the show is actually “luminosity selections”. Luminosity selections are the foundation of exposure blending, dodging and burning, and many other advanced workflows. In the past, they’ve been difficult to customize and visualize. Not any more.

Lumenzia v5 includes a comprehensive set of new features and enhancements for selections, including:

  • “✓Sel” to visualize selections just like a mask!  No more confusion with invisible selections or marching ants.  You can now view the active selection as a full screen black and white preview (ie, just like a mask).  This is very helpful to see your exact luminosity selection, when trying to confirm edges of the current selection, modify selections, or other situations where the current selection is not obvious.  Click  once to see the preview, and a second time when finished with the preview.
  • “✓Sel” also allows you to refine any selection just like a mask!  Adjust the preview you see with “✓Sel” any way you want, and then click “✓Sel” again to re-load the selection.  You can brush, use levels, or make any other adjustment as you normally would if you were working on a mask.
  • A new Live Selection (LIVE-S) mode!  Make luminosity selections instantly, for faster dodging and burning, exposure blending, or other situations where you need to paint through a selection. Click on the mode button at the top of the panel to set LIVE-S mode and then  click any preview button to create a selection. Use the modifier keys to add, subtract, or intersect for advanced selections.  Note that the “hide marching ants” preference is ignored in this mode, as there is no preview step to visualize the selection. Live selections will ignore the new “zone map” if visible, so you may make normal selections while using the map as a guide. (Live Selections are available on CC only).
  • New: Add, subtract, or intersect selections!  The new +/-/* modal buttons at the top of the panel allow you to add, subtract, or intersect (multiple) luminosity selections.  So you can, for example, create an L3-L6 selection to target light tones without affecting near-whites.
  • The saved selection dialog in “Sel” now has dedicated buttons to add/subtract saved selections as well.
  • New:  Set a preference to “Hide Marching Ants” in the CC 2015.5+ panel.  When this is checked, selections created by Lumenzia will not show marching ants.  You may still use <ctrl/cmd>-“Sel” to temporarily use the opposite of the default.



More ways to keep your files small and use a more non-destructive workflow

Vector Masks and expanded support for BlendIf Masks now offer even more options to keep your files lean and flexible. Combined with existing support for BlendIf masks, “Combine” and Lumenzia’s non-channel based workflow, you can dramatically reduce the size of your saved files.

  • Vector masks!  Just like BlendIf masks, these new masks are designed to keep your files very small and let you make further refinements.  And you can use them on the same layer as a layer mask, which gives the same results as a group mask, but without the clutter.  They’re an excellent new alternative to using lasso selections.  Just -click “Mask” to render any path or selection as a vector, or check the preference in CC 2015.5 or later (under the three bars icon at top right where all preferences are set).  Setting the preference allows vector mask to be used with all the orange buttons (curves, levels, contrast, vignette, sharpen, etc).  Support runs throughout Lumenzia as much as possible (when combining masks, vector masks will automatically be rasterized to layer masks).  Note that if you’d like the luminosity mask (orange preview layers) rendered as a vector mask, use “Sel” to convert it to a selection first, and then use “Mask” to apply it as a vector mask.
  • BlendIf Masks can now be automatically created when using “Contrast”. This provides a similar contrast adjustment, but with the space saving and dynamic updating capabilities of BlendIf.



Zone maps:

Many of you have asked for more options to help visualize the tones in your image. With zone maps, you can now more easily see if your image is heavy in the shadows or highlights, pick the right zone mask, etc. And it is built to be interactive, so that you can see the zone mapping of your image update live as you make changes in your image.


Other enhancements:

  • Zone map visualization.  Click the new “Map” button to show or hide a spectrum showing the various zones in the image (red = zone 0 through violet = zone 10). While the zone map visualization is on screen, the zone buttons in Lumenzia will turn colors to help serve as a reference for the color mapping.
  • Linked PSB support allows you to create files of nearly unlimited size, and still see them within Lightroom.
  • Several operations are up to 3X faster when working with large files.
  • Smart Object Sharpening.  Use a completely non-destructive workflow with this new option.  The current layers are converted to a smart object, and sharpening is added as a filter (with settings designed to help minimize halos along bright sky edges).  I find that this approach generally yields better results than high pass sharpening for landscapes.
  • Edge protection for smart filters.  When you sharpen a smart object (using the new object sharpening in Lumenzia, Nik Sharpener, etc), you now have a simple way to help reduce any halos you may find along edges.
  • Panel tips!  See helpful tips immediately at the bottom of the panel as you hover over the buttons.  This is available on CC 2015.5 or later only.  This option is disabled by default (the legacy tooltips remain the default, but may be turned off by the user).  Just click the three bars icon at the top-right of the panel and choose “Tool Tips” to change preferences.
  • Local Refine Edge.  When you click “Edge”, you will now see a new option to “paint in the refined edges via brush”. This allows you to target exactly where to refine edges, so that you don’t alter edges that are already good. It also allows you to apply different refine edge radii to different parts of the image. [Note that this feature requires Photoshop CC]
  • Support for Paths throughout Lumenzia. You can now use paths the same way you’ve always used lasso selections in Lumenzia. This is a great option for black and white architecture or other work where you need to use both luminosity masks and hard-edged masks. And your paths can be converted directly to vector masks (when the preference is enabled in settings) to give allow you to revise your path at any time.
  • New:  Lumenzia actions.  Need to create a light or dark mask/selection?  Lumenzia now includes actions you may incorporate into your own automated actions.  Great for batch processing or other repeatable/repetitive workflows.
  • A new “Optimize Photoshop” utility which runs a check on several Photoshop settings and makes recommendations that may help improve performance of Photoshop for luminosity masking and Photography in general.
  • 10 new tutorial videos showing how to make the most of new features, with many more to come over time.


And so much more.  There are over 100 enhancements to Lumenzia and the Basics panel. For a full list of changes, please see the release notes.

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