Color Grading with BlendIf

One of the best ways to give an image more emotional impact is through color grading. “Color grading” generally refers to any alteration or enhancement of color for artistic purposes (unlike “color correction”, which is about accuracy). In practice, it can mean a lot of things. Punching up sunset colors. Toning a portrait to give it a hipster look. Adding a color theme to a movie to convey a subtle message.

From a more technical standpoint, you can think of color grading as remapping colors and tones to create an effect. Photoshop includes several tools that enable this, including Color Balance, Selective Color, HSL, Lookup Tables (LUTs), RGB curves, Solid Color layers set to overlay blend mode, etc. However,with the exception of LUTs, these tools aren’t very precise. Color Balance adjustment layers are a great example.

With Color Balance layers, you get an option to target “shadows”, “midtones”, and “highlights”. Sounds perfect for split-toning, right? Not so fast. This tool probably doesn’t work at all like you might think. There are several important things to know about Color Balance:

  • For the most part, it really doesn’t target shadows, midtones, and highlights – unless you adjust a few of these at the same time. For example, adjusting the “shadows” will create significant changes well into bright highlights, and adjusting “highlights” will affect very deep shadows. You can, however, adjust shadows and highlights in opposite directions in the same adjustment for greater control (ie, you can set blue shadows and yellow highlights and you’ll see better targeting). But the key thing to know is that shadows/midtones/highlights are NOT giving you very precise control. The simplest solution here is to use BlendIf, which we’ll cover below.
  • The same adjustment values can create very different colors when set under shadows, midtones, or highlights. For example, using 100 Red and -100 Yellow will cause a shift toward yellow when set under shadows, orange under midtones, and red under highlights. You can make some adjustments to the sliders to try and match results, but it can be an exercise in frustration. I generally take the approach of making adjustments first in the most relevant area (ie, highlights when targeting highlights) and then tweaking as needed. Also note that negative adjustments in shadows affect highlights more than making the same adjustments in the highlights. So if you really want to push yellow or magenta into your sky, try using those adjustments in shadows in addition to in the highlights section. Or just duplicate your layer for twice the effect.
  • “Preserve luminosity” is very unpredictable, and often causes MORE change in luminosity. It can cause significant changes in color as well. I almost always leave this option off. If you want to avoid luminosity shifts, just set the blend mode on the layer to “color”.

You can make some great enhancements with a Color Balance layer on its own, but using a more precise targeting by shadow, midtone, or highlight will allow you to properly split-tone and color grade your images. There are two basic ways to do that targeting: luminosity masks and BlendIf. While luminosity masks offer more control, they are generally overkill in this situation. And they have some drawbacks: you may need to re-create them if you change underlying layers and they can increase the size of your file substantially. BlendIfs produce great results that dynamically update as you change the image and add nothing to the file size. I do nearly all color grading with BlendIfs.

In the video tutorial and written instructions below, you’ll learn how to use BlendIf to use Color Balance with greater precision. Once you get comfortable with that, try using the technique on other types of layers, this is just one example of how to color grade with BlendIf. You can apply the same general workflow to any adjustment layer, including: Solid Color layers (probably using a blend mode like soft light or overlay), Selective Color, Color Lookup, and HSL.

If you want to take things further, be sure to check out my new Exposure Blending Master Course, where I go into great depth on many ways to get incredible color from your images using more techniques like this.

 

I’ve built advanced BlendIf support into my Lumenzia luminosity masking panel. If you have it, here’s the workflow you should use to color grade with Color Balance layers:

  1. Click the Color Balance icon in Lumenzia
  2. Either switch to “BlendIf:under” mode or hold the key while clicking on any of the preview buttons such as L2, D4, or Z8. If you want to see what areas of the image are being targeted with the BlendIf, click the “If” button at the bottom of Lumenzia for a green overlay (and click “If” again to clear the visualization). You can do this after adjusting the color balance layer, but it often helps get to the right settings in Color Balance more quickly if you have some rough targeting to start.
  3. Adjust the Color Balance layer. If you are targeting highlights or shadows, you may get better results by adjusting the sliders in those sections, as you’ll probably find the colors respond more the way you would expect.
  4. You keep iterating by adjusting the Color Balance layer, by trying different BlendIf buttons, or double-clicking the squares icon on the layer to manually customize the BlendIf further.

If you do not have Lumenzia, use the following workflow:

  1. Create a new Color Balance layer in Photoshop
  2. Adjust the Color Balance layer. You’ll need to do this first, or you won’t see what you are affecting when you adjust the BlendIf sliders. If you are targeting highlights or shadows, you may get better results by adjusting the sliders in those sections of Color Balance, as you’ll probably find the colors respond more the way you would expect.
  3. Double-click the right-side of the layer (the blank area right of the name) to open the “layer style” dialog, where you’ll see “Blend If” at the bottom.
  4. Adjust the black and white sliders for the “underlying layer” to roughly target the shadows, midtones, or highlights.
  5. The initial result will have some rough edges, so you need to split the sliders (which creates a transition from areas which are included or excluded in the mask). To do that hold and click and drag on the sliders.

Soft Warmth on the North Shore

There’s nothing like watching the sun rise over Lake Superior. The skies are spectacular. The water feels pure and clean. And you almost always get the view to yourself.

I created this image primarily with luminosity masks using techniques shown in my Exposure Blending Master Class and dodging and burning.

Waves from Lake Superior crash into a small rocky island of evergreen trees and the North Shore of Minnesota during a golden yellow and cloudy sunset

Into the Ether

Everyone should see the Aurora Borealis at least once in their life. It honestly does not usually look like most of the photos you see, unless it is exceptionally bright and overhead. But even when you don’t see it the same way the camera does, it has this way of making you feel alive and reconnected to the earth to see the night sky start to dance with fiery color. It has an eerie mysticism about it that defies any real description, much like seeing the center of the Milky Way for the first time in a truly dark location. The movement is so continuous that you have to shoot with very short shutter speeds to capture any detail.

If you want to see it yourself, you’ll need a few things:

  • A clear night with minimal clouds
  • A very dark sky, far from the lights of cities (and long days of summer)
  • A very northern or southern location. For example, the northern continental US can be good on a few rare nights, but northern Canada and Alaska are better in general.
  • Solar activity. There are websites and apps that predict this. The most basic thing to look for is the “kp-index”, which measures the strength of geomagnetic storms. In northern Minnesota, a kp-index of 7 indicates a good chance of seeing something in the northern sky, though you might see something with as little as a 5. The higher the number, the higher the likelihood of not only seeing something, but also of seeing more brilliant displays and overhead displays (vs the displays you see only on the horizon more typically limited nights). If you were up in Yellowknife, Canada, you’d see much more at lower numbers. It depends largely on your latitude.

Aurora Borealis - exposure blending with luminosity masks

This image is a blend of two RAW images using Lumenzia. One of the exposures was a short shutter with wide aperture to capture the ever-changing Aurora, and the other was a longer shutter with lower ISO and smaller aperture to capture the foreground with more detail and less noise. So truly a blend on multiple levels to pull this one-off. I used many techniques from my new course to pull it all together.

Below is the original RAW for the sky. The RAW foreground looked very similar, it just has a lot more latent detail that I then recovered in the shadows. While is isn’t obvious in the images, the foreground detail was helped a bit by the moon behind me (though it was largely obscured by clouds).

Before

How to Use Luminosity Masks with ANY Photography Software

A lot of photographers ask me how they can use Lumenzia or luminosity masks with software other than Photoshop. In many cases, a 3rd party filter might make part of an image better while making other parts worse off. This is a perfect opportunity to use luminosity masks to combine the best parts of the original image with the best parts of the adjusted image. It would be nice if luminosity masks were a part of every photography program, as they make any photography software by allowing you to use that particular platform in a much more precise way.

However, we’re unlikely to ever get comprehensive luminosity masking options in every photography program, given the complexity and development it would take. In fact, I have yet to see anything that approaches the full capabilities of Photoshop. While there are some 3rd party programs which include “luminosity masks”, most do not include any support – and those that do typically offer only a tiny fraction of the luminosity masking capabilities available in Photoshop (ie, you’re often getting more of a marketing gimmick that real luminosity masking support). Thankfully, you don’t actually need native support for luminosity masks to do this, and that’s a good thing given limited native support.

There’s a simple way to extend the power of luminosity masks from Photoshop to ANY 3rd party software: Luminar, Topaz, Nik, OnOne, etc. All you need is Photoshop, and then you can use the workflows below to enabled dramatically more powerful and targeted ways to use 3rd party programs, plugins and filters. This is probably the ideal scenario, as it lets each of these companies focus on what they do best, and you can then put everything together to post-process your photos exactly the way you’d like.

In this tutorial video, you’ll see how Luminar’s Artificial Intelligence filter can be used to create an interesting effect in the ice, but it also causes problems in the sky and a strong blue case in the shadows. Using Lumenzia to create luminosity masks, you can easily blend that filter into just the highlights of the foreground ice – which increases the ice detail in a much more beautiful and natural way.

This is just one simple example, you can extend this approach to work with any 3rd party software to blend its results naturally with the original image to make much more targeted adjustments.

 

Workflow #1: Smart Objects / Smart Filters

If you’re using a plugin that appears under the Filter menu in Photoshop, you can apply it as a “Smart Filter” on a Smart Object. This has the advantage of allowing you to change either the original layer(s) or the filter settings at any time, and is my preferred workflow. The steps to use this workflow are:

  1. Convert your layer(s) to a Smart Object (you can put a Smart Object into a Smart Object if you need to).
  2. Use your 3rd party plugin on the Smart Object, which will be applied as a Smart Filter.
  3. Click the eyeball icon on the new Smart Filter mask to hide the new Smart Filter. This allows you to make your luminosity mask based on the original image, which is typically the best approach.
  4. Create and customize your luminosity mask preview (such as by clicking on L2 to select highlights).
  5. Select the Smart Object and click “Mask” and choose to have the preview applied to the Smart Filter. Do not apply it to the Layer Mask, as this would simply make parts of the image invisible. The goal is to selectively reveal the Smart Filter, not the layer itself.
  6. Click the eyeball icon on the new Smart Filter mask to finally reveal the new Smart Filter through the new mask.

If you are using my free panel, replace steps 4-5 with the following:

  • Create the luminosity masking channels.
  • Click on the filter mask to make it the target (should have white brackets around it).
  • Image / Apply Image: set the channel to the desired mask and blending to “normal”, then click OK.

 

Workflow #2: Layers / Layer Masks

If you have software that does not support the first approach, or you simply prefer not to use Smart Objects, you can use layers and regular layer masks instead. To do that, use this workflow instead:

  1. Use the software (Nik, Luminar, etc) to create a new layer or document. If you create a new document, you’ll need to import it as a layer on top of your image. Just open both in Photoshop, then right-click the newly adjusted image and duplicate it to the other document with the original image.
  2. If it isn’t already, move the new layer above the original layer(s).
  3. Hide the new layer, so that the luminosity mask is based on the original content.
  4. Create and customize your luminosity mask preview (such as by clicking on L2 to select highlights).
  5. Select the new layer and click “Mask” to have the preview applied as a layer mask.
  6. Click the eyeball icon on the new layer to reveal the adjustment through the layer mask.

If you are using my free panel, replace steps 4-5 with the following:

  • Create the luminosity masking channels.
  • Select the new layer and add a layer mask to it.
  • Click on the layer mask to make it the target (should have white brackets around it).
  • Image / Apply Image: set the channel to the desired mask and blending to “normal”, then click OK.

Exposure Blending Master Course

I started blending exposures with luminosity masks years ago in an attempt to get the dynamic range that HDR promised, but without the compromises in quality. At first, my results were pretty embarrassing and I kept using HDR for a while. Then I started to get some better looking results, but was still frustrated with bad tree edges and other blending issues. And then finally everything started to click. It took me a long time because I was figuring most of the process out on my own. There’s no reason you should go through the same struggles.

To help you benefit from years of hard work in just a few hours, I’ve created a comprehensive course to help you tackle those challenges, the Exposure Blending Master Course.

How to blend exposures with luminosity masks in Photoshop

This comprehensive course includes:

  • Over 7 hours of training videos showing how to blend single or multiple RAW files to expand dynamic range and extract maximum detail from your RAW files.
  • Chapters focusing on blending technique, sky replacement, subject-specific considerations, fixing common issues. See the course page for a full outline.
  • The RAW files used in all the videos. This includes 9 different scenes to address a variety of challenges in landscape, cityscape, and real estate interiors/windows.
  • Written course material designed to augment the videos, as well as provide links to numerous additional free resources and videos.
  • Written summaries of all the videos with time-codes to make it easy to follow along, no matter what style of learning you prefer.
  • Quizzes to help ensure understanding and retention of key concepts.
  • Access to the course via iOS app, including offline viewing of the videos.
  • Lifetime access to the course.
  • Hosting on a professional learning management system to facilitate learning. This helps tie all the various aspects of the course noted above into a navigable interface.

And to help you make the most of the course, it comes with several great bonuses:

  • Bonus #1: Complete luminosity masking workflow video and written outline. This is designed to help show exposure blending in the context of a complete workflow, as well as provide a generalized approach you can use when working with luminosity masks. This addresses one of the most common requests I receive.
  • Bonus #2: Lightroom Develop presets to facilitate RAW processing for blending.
  • Bonus #3: Keyboard shortcuts reference for luminosity masking.

Please see the Exposure Blending Master Course web page for more details.

 


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