How to Use HSL for Beautiful Sunsets and Avoid Color Banding

There’s nothing like a gorgeous sunrise or sunset full of color… unless your image shows a bunch of horrible color banding in the sky.

The HSL (hue, saturation, lightness) tool in Lightroom and Photoshop is an excellent way to boost the saturation of a colorful sky, but it needs to be used correctly. Simply boosting the color saturation is likely to create artifacts in the sky known as “color banding”.

 

It’s unlikely that you’d ever create something that horrible without noticing, but it’s a problem even when it is too subtle to notice. Even if it doesn’t show up right away on your monitor, it might easily become more apparent after further processing in Photoshop or when you print the finished image. Or, you might run into it and decide to boost the sky a bit less to avoid the issue, when you could have gotten the color you wanted without banding.

Both Lightroom and Photoshop can run into this problem, and there are good ways to avoid the issue in both programs. While the tools are designed differently, the basic approach is to ensure some inclusion of adjacent colors. Temporarily over-saturing to identify and address any banding is a helpful technique, as issues that are subtle now may turn out to be more problematic after further processing or printing.

 

How to use HSL in Lightroom and avoid banding:

Lightroom offers 8 color saturation sliders in the the HSL panel. Each one covers a fixed range of colors, and that’s where banding becomes a problem. A colorful sky isn’t just one color, it’s usually a mix of blue, purple, magenta, red, orange, and yellow. Sometimes aqua.  Pretty much everything but green, unless you have a rainbow or storm. So almost any color might be relevant.  Typically, your sky probably has 2-4 colors. To avoid banding, you just need to make sure you adjust all the relevant colors.

When you look at the colors in the sky (or use the targeted adjustment tool to help pick the colors), you’ll probably see 1-2 colors that dominate the image. Those are the key ones to adjust, but you typically need to adjust the adjacent colors a little bit to allow a smooth color transition to avoid banding. So, if your sky is mostly orange (like the example above), you should tweak red and orange as well. When it bleeds deep in to the reds (like the top of the image), you should adjust magenta (red and magenta are adjacent colors, when you hit the top or bottom of the color sliders in Lightroom, you need to mentally jump to the other end of the list).

To identify if banding is an issue in your image, push the color slider you want to adjust to the far right. Go beyond the amount of color you really want, because it is easy to see issues when you push to the extremes. You can then adjust the adjacent sliders until you see no banding and a good balance. This will be oversaturated, but you will know the relative adjustments needed to avoid banding. Now just bring all the sliders down proportionally to get to the saturation you want to see in the image.

 

How to use HSL in Photoshop and avoid banding:

Photoshop also uses predefined color ranges, but the HSL tool in Photoshop is less prone to banding for a couple of reasons.  First, Photoshop splits the color wheel into 6 colors, so each one is a little more broad. That larger range of adjustment automatically helps minimize banding. Second, Photoshop lets you precisely adjust the color targeting and feathering at the edges of the color selection.

The easiest way to adjust in Photoshop is to use its targeted adjustment tool (hand icon) to click and drag from a color in the middle of the range you wish to adjust.  This will automatically select the right color. Bring up the saturation until the primary color looks a little too saturated, and then tweak the color selection range until you see no banding and a good balance, and then bring down the saturation slider until you achieve the desired saturation.

 

Ultimately, you can get excellent results and avoid banding with either tool. Photoshop is less likely to create banding when moving a single slider, and the ability to customize the targeting or use layer masks ultimately makes it a more powerful and flexible tool.

The Wizard

Last week I mentioned how the sun can make a powerful focal-point when you have a flat sky. On that same trip to Oregon, I took this sunrise shot of Wizard Island and Crater Lake. I would have loved to get some clouds in here, but you get what you get sometimes and need to make the most of it.

There are a few things to keep in mind when trying to shoot a sunburst image like this. First, be ready to shoot right when the sun is at the edge of the horizon or some other object that partially obscures it. Once the sun is in full view, things are just blown out. The magic moment where the sun is visible, but not too visible, is only about 30-60 seconds most of the time. You can try to get creative by moving the camera, using trees, or other objects you can place to keep moving the sun to the edge of an object. If you work quickly, you might get a few more shots this way.

Second, direct sun is very likely to create flare in your lens. Keeping the lens clean is important to reduce this. It’s the little dust and other impurities on your lens that create most of the flare when a bright light strikes. You can shoot an extra frame with your finger blocking the sun (but as little else as possible) to have an extra frame to blend without the flare. That’s what I did for this image. It’s a great trick, but not foolproof. When you block the sun, the color in the area around the flare may change, and it may be hard to blend convincingly. So, some amount of color work or healing/cloning is often required.

Third, if you want a big sunburst, use a small aperture like f/11, 16, or even 22. Even if you are shooting the image at f/5.6 or 8, you can take an extra frame at a smaller aperture to get the sunburst and blend it into the image. Be creative, when you’re using layers and luminosity masks, anything is possible.

Sunrise Over Wizard Island in Crater Lake National Park, Oregon

Coalescence

I spent a couple of weeks photographing Oregon this summer. I hadn’t really picked the time of the trip, as I was trying to coordinate around a family trip. I wouldn’t call it a mistake, but I hadn’t given enough thought to the weather. It turns out Oregon summers are pretty sunny.  Really sunny. Like 10 days in a row without a cloud in sight sunny. Not one cloud.

That’s great for vacation, but it really isn’t ideal for landscape photography. An ideal sunrise or sunset has a mix of sun and clouds. Without both, color in the sky tends to be fairly minimal. Forest fires in the area threw enough particles in the air that there was some color in the cloudless sky, but I still needed to be creative.

There are many ways to deal with a clear sky. One is to minimize it, as I did here by shooting in the forest. It wasn’t a shot I’d planned in advance, but by working with the weather instead of against it, I was able to get a really nice shot when the sky wasn’t fully cooperating.

There are many ways to work with open skies. Another is to shoot the night skies. If the moon is minimal, it’s great opportunity to shoot the Milky Way. If there’s a larger moon, it can make a great backlight or side light.

Another option is to make the sun a strong focal point in the image. The best way to do that in clear skies is to shoot with the sun right at the edge of an object, so that you get a sun star (and not a blown out sun). Try shooting a frame with a small aperture like f/11 or f/16 if you want to really bring out the sunburst.

By shooting around your lighting and weather, and not getting too focused on a specific subject, you’ll get many more great shots with the time you have on your next trip.

 

Twin Waterfalls cascading through a forest at sunset

 

End of an Era

It’s easy to take for granted that the giant rock formations we encounter will be around “forever”. After all, they’ve probably been around for centuries, millenia, or longer. But they’re more fragile than you might think.

This photograph shows the famous sea stacks at Rialto Beach in Olympic National Park. If you Google it, you’ll found an endless list of this stunning location. But if you go there, you won’t find this seen anymore. The giant stack on the left collapsed.

There are many other examples like this. The Tettegouche arch collapsed, which was famous in my home state of Minnesota. The duckbill rock at Cape Kiwanda was destroyed by vandals. And there are surely many more examples.

If there’s a lesson in all of that, it’s probably to make the most of every moment. Don’t take anything for granted. The sky and waves change by the minute, the vegetation by the day, but your favorite might change next time you visit too. Which is probably what makes landscape photography so great, you’re saving a moment you might not ever experience again.

The Now Destroyed Sea Stacks at Rialto Beach in Olympic National Park

Luminosity masking in Lightroom?

Lightroom now has luminosity masks?

There’s been some buzz the past few weeks around the new range masking feature in Adobe Camera RAW. While I haven’t seen Adobe refer to it as “luminosity masking” a few others have, and it seems to be causing some confusion.  Is it a great new feature?  Yes!  Does it replace the need for luminosity masking in Photoshop?  No, not even close.  But that wasn’t the intent, and it’s a nice addition to Lightroom. Let me explain…

The general idea of “luminosity masking” is that you can create a mask based on the luminosity values in the image.  There is no real definition of the term, but most users of this technique would probably include masks/selections based on luminosity and other pixel values (such as saturation or color).  Beyond that, there’s probably no real agreement on what is required to be considered “luminosity masking”, and that’s where the confusion sets in. In a way, Lightroom always had luminosity masks.  When you adjust the shadows, you are essentially adjusting exposure for a certain range of tones.

The range of capabilities within that vague definition is massive. Don’t get confused by the name.  Comparing different “luminosity masking” tools based on that generic description is like comparing a paper airplane to a jet plane because they are both “planes”. Or in this case of luminosity masking in Lightroom vs Photoshop, it would be more appropriate to compare an SUV vs a sports car. Like an SUV, luminosity masks in Photoshop are built to do almost anything, but they may not be the fastest way to get you to every destination.  And a bit like a sports car, luminosity masks in Lightroom are only built to do a few things, but they can get you there very fast. If you only need to transport two people.  With no luggage. And your destination is on a smooth asphalt road.

One isn’t necessarily better than the other, both approaches have merits. Just like my iPhone is very convenient, while my Nikon D850 usually takes better pictures – and I’m glad I have both of them. So what exactly is new in Lightroom?

 

“Range Masks” in Lightroom

The new “range masks” are an option at the bottom of the brush, radial filter, and graduated filters. It limits the effect you apply to certain colors or luminance ranges. In a nutshell, it isn’t adding new tools, instead it lets you protect certain areas from being damaged by the tools you already had in Lightroom. It makes the old tools more precise.

There are two types of range masks. The luminance range tool is lot like BlendIf in Photoshop (but with less control over the sliders). The color selection is like a simplified version of the “color range” tool in Photoshop. Either can be great for more advanced application of certain RAW tools in Lightroom. For example, you can now apply a warm yellow color to the highlights in the clouds with a gradient filter. Or apply clarity to midtones in your subject with a radial filter or brush. That’s a great way to quickly apply those RAW edits more precisely. For photos were almost good enough in Lightroom before, you might be able to simplify your work in Photoshop or skip it entirely. However, there are some huge differences that still make Photoshop the best tool for highest quality results.

 

 

How to use “Range Masks”

If you want to use a range mask globally across the image, you’ll need to hack it a bit.  Create a gradient filter that is completely off the edge of the image. That will cause the gradient to affect the entire image. Since range mask works only with adjustments, you cannot use them with Lightroom controls like curves, split-toning, complex sharpening or noise reduction, etc.

Otherwise, look at the range mask as a way to erase part of a brush, gradient, or radial filter in Lightroom. You can protect pixels based on their luminosity or color.  Decide which is most appropriate, as you can use only one or the other for a given filter.

For luminance range masks, bring in the shadow and/or highlight slider until you best remove the effect from the pixels you wish to protect. Then move the “smoothness” slider to tweak the results. Watch out for detail and texture, as it is easy to flatten details with range masks. Consider when using the eraser may be a better approach to remove a specific area from the adjustment, rather than using aggressive range settings across the entire adjustment.

For color range masks, use the picker to select a target color.  To select a range of colors, click and drag. To select multiple colors, <shift>-click them. After selecting the color to protect, use the “amount” slider to tweak the result (amount is the tolerance). The logic here is the opposite of the luminance tool. Instead of declaring which pixels to protect, you are actively selecting the colors you want to adjust. So if you click on a blue object, you will only be adjusting pixels with a similar blue value.

 

So how are Lightroom and Photoshop different with regards to “luminosity masks”?

There is not a single feature/adjustment using range masks in Lightroom that cannot be duplicated in Photoshop.  But the reverse is not true.  Photoshop can do a lot of things with “luminosity masks” that Lightroom cannot.

What do you still need Photoshop for?  The list is very long…

  • Luminosity selections.  This is the most important, as it is the foundation of creating high-quality masks used for:
    • Exposure blending. Lightroom can do HDR, but nothing comes close to the quality of manually blended exposures for creating dramatic sunsets and other high contrast scenes.
    • Dodging and burning
    • And any thing else that requires precise local control.
  • Better organization and visualization.  Photoshop lets you clearly see the masks and name layers. A typical image edited with luminosity masks might have anywhere from 5 to 20 or more adjustments. Good luck navigating Lightroom when you get more than a few pins. And you’ll have to click through the three different adjustment types (gradient, radial, and brush) to see the pins.
  • Advanced custom masks.  The range tool in Lightroom is the equivalent of less-capable BlendIf and Color Range tools. Luminosity masks in Photoshop offer:
    • Much greater control over tonal-selection
    • Control over feathering of the mask.  The entire premise of luminosity masks is that they create natural transitions. Those transitions are based on the feathering of the mask. Lightroom’s tools are pretty simple, even BlendIf in Photoshop offers more (with its split sliders).
    • Advanced local targeting. In Photoshop, you can add a group masks and paint through selections to target a mask.  Lightroom just allows you to knock-out part of an adjustment created with a brush or gradient.
    • More advanced color-selection (though Lightroom’s Range Mask does pretty well in this regard)
    • Saturation masks
  • Work with layers of any kind. This includes:
    • Adjustment layers that support features that cannot be applied locally in Lightroom, including: curves, vibrance, a much better HSL tool (without the banding often found in Lightroom), specialized color effects (selective color, advanced color balance, photo filter, lookup tables)
    • Filters (like Smart Sharpen), complex effects (like Orton Effect), or 3rd party plugins (such as Nik Color Efex Pro)
    • Advanced image blending, such as focus stacking, perspective blending, or time blending (such as adding city lights to a sunset exposure). The list could go on quite a ways here.
  • Work with advanced Photoshop tools, including: cloning, healing, and content aware fill. Luminosity masks can be a great way to target these tools as well, such as for repairing blown-out highlights with the clone stamp.

As you can see from this list (which is by no means exhaustive), there are an enormous number of reasons why Photoshop is still relevant. The new range masks in Lightroom are a great way to quickly make some refinements to its legacy local adjustment tools (gradient, radial, and brush), but they are not intended to replace the need for luminosity masks or Photoshop. They are simply intended to help you use local adjustments more precisely in Lightroom.

So go check out the new “range masking” feature in Lightroom, it truly is a great new tool.  Just don’t get confused into thinking that it compares to luminosity masks in Photoshop. Or that the label “luminosity masks” makes anything really comparable. There are a lot of great editing tools these days, but there is a very good reason why Photoshop is the most universally used tool for high-quality post-processing.

In the end, most Lightroom users have access to Photoshop, so it’s probably more a question of how far you should push Lightroom until you use Photoshop. That depends on your artistic goals and the amount of time you’re willing to spend learning Photoshop. As has always been the case, Photoshop the potential to do much more, and Lightroom offers a faster and easier path to certain results.


See licensing for Commercial and Creative Commons (Non-Commercial, Attribution) Licensing terms.
Join my affiliate program.
See my ethics and privacy statement.