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

I love fine art black and white images, but I don’t make many of them personally.  The removal of color opens up many creative opportunities.  Long exposure color casts aren’t an issue (the original image below has some color issues that would need correcting).  A black sky can easily be made interesting with gradients or by significantly darkening it beyond what would look appealing in color (such as the gradient I applied to the top of this blue sky).  And images that might otherwise be worthless in harsh mid-day sun can be turned into interesting works of art (which lets me shoot much throughout the day).

I’ve held back from doing more of these mostly due to the amount of time it takes to create images I love.  Luminosity masks can be extremely useful, but there are typically elements of B&W architectural images that still require hard edged masks (to isolate the sky, edges of buildings, etc).   I’ve been experimenting with ways to edit these B&W images without having to use the pen tool.

Buckingham Fountain Chicago - Black and White

As I typically do, I processed this image using multiple tools:

  • Lightroom was used for distortion correction, global tonal adjustments, and color noise reduction.  It was a hot Chicago morning, and the hot pink and blue pixels were popping up like crazy after multiple 4-minute exposures.  I’ve generally been happy with the a7Rii for long exposure work, but I don’t think it yet stands up to the relatively noise-free results I see from my D810. Thankfully, you can push the color noise reduction slider pretty hard in Lightroom to help reduce some of this.
  • Photoshop was used for black and white conversion, and content aware fill / patch / healing / cloning to remove the fountain foreground.
  • Lumenzia was used for detailed contrast adjustments to bring out detail and depth, dodging and burning to bring out better water detail, and refinement of the sky selection around hazy edges that the Quick Select/Wand tool couldn’t quit get.


For reference, here is the original image:

before luminosity masks and black and white conversion

I recently headed down to a great photography conference called Out of Chicago.  It’s been growing pretty quickly, from 300 attendees last year to 400 this year.  I credit that to a mix of excellent organization by the conference leaders and a great lineup of educators.  I had a great time meeting many other passionate photographers.  A bunch of us headed down to the River Walk one night to shoot the skyline.  Getting this shot was actually fairly tricky because I was situated on the Lake Shore Drive bridge, which almost never stops shaking from all the cars and trucks passing by on both levels of the bridge.  With all the vibration and long shutter speeds, I was concerned that I the shot was too blurry.  So I came back a second night.  That turned out to be very fortunate, as there was not only less traffic on the bridge, but several river cruises.  The boats were like a floating parties with music blaring, and I thought they added a lot of energy to the scene.  And it was a fun way to pass a lovely summer evening, with smiling people waving to me as I watch the sun give way to the lights of the city.

Chicago skyline and river at sunset


It’s been three hotly contested years since Adobe launched Photoshop CC, the subscription version of Photoshop.  There were a lot of confused, concerned, and angry photographers when Creative Cloud was first announced.  The switch from owning to renting the software created numerous questions.  Would it ultimately cost more than the previous standalone upgrades?  Where the new features in CC meaningful enough to buy?

The answer to the cost question was “no” for many photographers, including me, at least initially.  Then I got on board when Adobe dramatically reduced the cost and threw in Lightroom and other goodies into the Creative Cloud Photography Program for only $9.99 a month.  In other words, that’s 25 years worth of Photoshop and Lightroom subscriptions for the price of one Nikon D800 body.  Which is not to say that $120 a year is trivial, but that it is probably a worthwhile investment if the new features are relevant to your work.

It’s been over three years since CC was originally launched.  The differences from CS6 have continued to grow with the 2014, 2015, and last week’s 2015.5 upgrades.  So I thought I’d ask, “Is now the right time to upgrade from CS6 to CC?”  I believe the answer still depends on your personal needs and budget, and I put together the following lists to summarize the benefits you might get from upgrading.  Note that this is not an exhaustive list of all CC enhancements, just the ones relevant to photographers.


Photoshop CC offers the following enhancements (vs Photoshop CS6):

  • Support for new cameras (launched after July 2015).   As of July 2015, Photoshop CS6 will no longer be updated to support RAW files from new cameras. You can work around this by using Adobe’s free DNG Converter or a 3rd party RAW converter.  If you don’t want to use one of the options from Adobe, I would recommend taking a look at Capture One.  At $299, you won’t save money for a long time with Capture One, but it offers an extremely good RAW conversion.  Or you could pick up DXO Optics Pro for $99.
  • Camera RAW filter lets you keep adjusting RAW images when opened as smart objects in Photoshop.  You can additionally use this tool to make familiar Lightroom/ACR adjustments to any pixel layer (such as to add clarity).
  • Better support for extension panels (“plug ins”) As a software developer, I can attest that the latest versions of Photoshop offer the ability to create much more beautiful and powerful extensions for Photoshop.  As a small example of this, my own Lumenzia luminosity masking panel for Photoshop has an enhanced user interface when running on CC, and offers a few enhanced functions that aren’t possible on CS6.  And there are many other extension panels out there from other developers that require CC or later.
  • Face-Aware Liquify to easily retouch the size and shape of various parts of people’s faces.  This is truly an incredible tool if you shoot portraits.
  • Perspective Warp to fix distortions.  This tools is also incredibly useful for landscapes to increase or decrease emphasis on something by making it bigger or smaller within the image.  For example, you could make a distant mountain look larger.
  • Content-Aware everything…
  • Path Blur added to the Blur Gallery.  This is an incredible tool for adding motion and energy to an image.  I use it frequently to simulate a long exposure effect in my photographs.
  • Spin Blur added to the Blur Gallery.  This is perfect for making making a parked car look like it is in motion by spinning the wheels.
  • Updated Smart Sharpen adds noise reduction and a better interface.
  • HiDPI support on Windows.  This allows you to make the Photoshop user interface larger so that it is easier to read on high resolution monitors.
  • Camera Shake Reduction to salvage handheld images that should have been shot on a tripod.
  • Real-time healing brush.  This offers a fast and accurate (live) preview of the healing brush.  Note that some users (especially people retouching skin on portraits) may prefer the results of the legacy brush.  You can switch to the legacy healing brush by checking Preferences/Tools/Use Legacy Healing Algorithm.
  • GPU acceleration for certain tasks (healing brush, sharpening, enlarging).  Note that many older computers cannot take advantage of these GPU features.
  • Focus Mask allows you to create a selection based on areas of the image that are in or out of focus.  While I love the concept, this tool creates a hard-edged mask for which I have yet to find a use.
  • CS6 Extended Features (video and 3D, which are not in CS6 Standard).
  • And the list grows if you’re using a version of Photoshop older than CS6.


Lightroom CC offers the following advantages (vs Lightroom 6):


If upgrading doesn’t make sense for you, I believe you have the following options:

  • Stick with the old versions and keep waiting.  The CC Photography Plan is very popular and unlikely to go away.  If you upgrade cameras or decide you want to get new features in the future, you will probably have the same options.
  • Get another RAW converter and keep using an old version of Photoshop.  This is a good option if you value quality and want to save money.  I would recommend either using Adobe’s free DNG Converter or buying DXO Optics Pro.
  • Switch to another editing package.  Note that you should investigate whether you will additionally need to buy another RAW conversion program, as many alternatives to Photoshop either do not support RAW or do not offer sufficient quality for RAW conversion.  I have dabbled with a few commonly-mentioned options, but I find they fall well short of my needs.  I cannot endorse any of them at this time.  There’s a reason why people say they “Photoshopped” an image, it’s the gold standard.


Those are just my thoughts.  I’ve been extremely happy with CC, but everyone’s needs are different.  I’d love to hear your comments below if you use another solution (and please comment on the types of photography you do with it).  And if you’ve made the switch to CC already, are you happy with the choice you made?


[Disclosure:  This post contains some affiliate links.  If you purchase through these links, a small percentage of the sale will be used to help fund the content on this site, but the price you pay remains the same.  Please see my ethics statement if you have any questions.  I have been personally using Photoshop and Lightroom CC for years and would not endorse any product I do not believe would be highly valuable to my readers.]

Adobe just released Photoshop CC 2015.5 today with several new features (update:  I’ve created a list for photographers of all new features in CC vs CS6).  The best of them for photographers is the “Face-Aware” Liquify tool.  Adobe previously introduced facial recognition in Lightroom to help find photos, and now they’ve taken a massive leap forward to use facial recognition to help you retouch portraits in Photoshop.

Portrait, beauty, and fashion retouchers have been using the Liquify filter in Photoshop for years to enhance photos of people.  But the new Liquify filter recognizes people and gives you simple ways to adjust facial features.  You can now just move a slider to add a smile, make the nose slimmer, or open up the eyes.   You can even interactively click and drag on control points right on the face.  Want to make the lips look more full?  Just click and drag on the lips. In this demo, I’ll show  you how it works.



How well does it work?  I’ve tested it with a variety of scenarios, and I’ve been very impressed:

  • The quality of the adjustments is very impressive.  Facial hair, skin texture, and other details continue to look natural after adjusting.   I don’t think I could make some of these adjustments with the legacy liquify tools.  And if I could, it would take much more time.  It’s a game changer.
  • It generally handles glasses very well, even when making adjustments to the eyes.  Not perfect necessarily, but truly quite impressive.
  • It will detect multiple faces in a group photo.  I’ve pulled up photos with about ten faces and had great results and accurate detection.   When you want to work on a different face, just use the drop-down to control which face the sliders will adjust.  I have found a couple of minor areas where the tool falters a bit.  If someone has their head tilted quite a bit, Face-Aware may fail to detect that face (but it should work if you rotate the layer to make the face vertical).  And if someone’s face is partially blocked by another face, you probably won’t be able to select it either.

There are a couple of scenarios where you may have problems with Face-Aware adjusting things that should be left alone.  For example, you may need to prevent glasses from getting warped when adjusting eyes.  Or you may have a subject with one eye larger than the other and need to independently change the eyes (something Face-Aware does not support).  There are a few ways you can help address these issues:

  • Convert your layer to a Smart Object and mask out the areas that should not be warped.
  • Use liquify on a copy of your layer and blend it with the original.

I’ve never seen a skyline quite like Vancouver’s.  When we drove into the city in mid-day, it didn’t yet seem special.  Most of the buildings have a lot of steel and glass.  They’re mostly very similar, and not entirely remarkable.  But as you begin to move around the city, you begin to realize that it’s actually a very special place.  You can see it from so many different vantage points that it’s overwhelming.  The Vancouver seawall is the longest urban waterfront path in the world.  From almost anywhere on that path, you’re looking across a small stretch of water back at the city skyline.  And as night begins to fall and the city lights up, you suddenly begin to realize what an amazingly beautiful place this is.  Even the similarity of the buildings begins to fade into this beautifully cohesive urban cityscape.  One of my favorite vantage points was from on top of the Granville Bridge.  You can look down into a harbor full of boats, right into the artsy Granville island, or left towards the Yaletown and Downtown skyscrapers.

Vancouver Blur Hour skyline and the skyscrapers and sailboats along False Creek

Want to clean up water stains or other dirty metal surfaces in your cityscape and architectural images?  If you photograph modern buildings, you’ll inevitably run into this tough issue.  Cleaning up the metal can make the finished image look stunning, but can also be a painfully long process using standard cloning and healing techniques.  Thankfully, there’s a much easier way…


Here’s a quick summary of the process to clean metal surfaces in Photoshop:

  1. Duplicate the image and apply the Surface Blur.  This will blur the metal surface, and keep natural looking edges (if the metal blends with the surrounding areas, we’ll get funny effects at the edges).  The goal here is to remove as much dirt as possible, but you probably can’t get it all without starting to create other problems.  That’s ok, just do as much as you can in this step and we’ll get the rest in the next step.
  2. Create a new blank layer above the surface blur layer.  Use the clone stamp to fix remaining dirty areas that couldn’t be removed with Surface Blur.  Use a lower opacity to help blend as you work.
  3. Add a 50% gray layer above the clone layer, set it to overlay blend mode, and then Filter/Noise/Add Noise.   This will add back “grain” to the image that was lost in the previous steps.  This will help the retouched areas blend with the rest of the image.  Reduce the opacity of this layer as needed to get a natural result.
  4. Put these three layers into a group, add a black layer mask, and paint white over the areas where you want to clean metal.
  5. If needed, put the group into another group with a white mask and black out areas you want to protect.  Using a combination of masks can make it much easier to use selection tools (such as luminosity masks or the magic wand) to protect certain parts of the image.  And using a non-destructive workflow gives you more flexibility to fix any mistakes you find later.

In the video tutorial above, I created three group masks to control which parts of the image were cleaned up.  Using Lumenzia‘s “Combine” function, I’ve merged the masks from the tutorial into the single mask shown below.  This new mask is the functional equivalent of the three masks I created (but it’s a lot easier to understand what’s happening when you view it as one mask instead of three).  As you can see, there are a few areas that look sloppy.  Some of the sky is included in the mask (since I didn’t both to black it out).  The bottom right has a messy hand-painted area to paint in some missing parts in the mask.  And there are a few other funny looking areas.  None of these matter, because these are areas where the surface blur has no real detectable impact.  And that’s one of the benefits of this approach.  You don’t have to be overly precise, so you can work more quickly.  The surface blur and masking technique helped protect the image where needed, but we don’t often need to create a perfect mask to get an excellent result – so there’s no need to waste the time more precisely refining this mask.  If this image was to be printed (instead of just being used as a quick demo), I would put a little more time into a few of the edges – but it’s already very close to the result I would need.

Combined layer mask

You don’t see a lot of people deliberately drive their trucks into the ocean.  That is, unless you live  in Pacific City, Oregon – home of the Pacific Dory Fleet.   I stood on this sandy beach beach at Cape Kiwanda, where I could see this gorgeous sunrise sky over haystack rock in front of me – and fisherman frantically launching their Dory boats.   These little wooden boats have bows at each end and a flat bottom that’s perfect for launching on the boat.  It seems like a game of cat and mouse with the sea.  These guys would back up at high speed, dump their boats off the back, and then drive away before the waves could get a chance to bury their tires in the sand.  There are more than a few stories of these trucks getting stuck in the sand, leaving the owner to watch helplessly as the ocean slowly taunts them with the slow but relentless rise of the tide.  The lucky might get pulled out by a tow truck or with a winch, but many have been lost to the salty water.

As I stood on the beach watching the receding waves wash back over the perfectly flat sand beach back to the ocean, I couldn’t help but feel like haystack rock itself was launching into the sea.  Off to my right were the stunning sandstone cliffs and sand dunes of the cape, reminders that this must have all been one big piece of land eons ago.  And some day it will head out into the ocean, like so many Dory boats.

Technique:  I took two similar exposures at 1 second and f/16.  The first was a wide 16mm shot to capture the stunning wave action and clouds.  The second shot was zoomed into 35mm to capture the grandness of haystack rock.  I blended the zoomed haystack rock into the wide angle shot, using Lumenzia to selectively preserve the wave crests of the wide image in the merged image.  I then used Lumenzia to add targeted contrast/color, dodge and burn the waves/rock to give them more depth, and added a bit of vignette.

A cloudy pink runrise and streaking waves surround haystack rock at Cape Kiwanda in Pacific City, Oregon

I’ve always been a night owl.  4am used to be a reasonable Friday night bed time.  The notion of waking up at 4am to shoot sunrise always sounds just a little painful.  But as soon as I wake, I’m excited for the possibility of beautiful red and pink clouds.  So this sunrise shoot of the Rhine Tower in Dusseldorf was a treat for me:.  It was a late morning winter sunrise, a 5 minute walk from my hotel, and the sky was filled with gorgeous strands of pink cotton clouds.

Rhine Tower Dusseldorf sunrise

The first time I saw the Mississippi River in Minneapolis, I was kind of shocked.  I guess I half expected it to be some little creek or something.  More than a decade later, I never get tired of coming down to the riverfront.  There are all these great little restaurants, bars, biking trails, and lots of other activity around downtown.  But when I want to enjoy tranquility in the city, I come downriver to this out of the way bridge to watch sunset.  It’s close enough to really feel like you’re part of the city, but it’s also a bit off the beaten path.  There aren’t many people around, and you can just enjoy the beautiful waters of the Mississippi flowing past the city on a golden summer sunset.

Minneapolis skyline and Miississippi River at Sunse

I’m always fascinated by “do-overs”.  It’s a chance to improve, or to depart the past to become something completely new.  This Frank Gehry building is one of many interesting buildings in Dusseldorf’s “media harbor”.  A decade ago, this area was a grungy harbor area, apparently used for industrial steel tubes.  Now it’s this incredibly hip place full of media companies, fashion designers, and bars – not to mention a more than a few Ferrari’s.  It still retains the best of its harbor character, but it has become vibrant again.  I try to think of my art the same way.  Where am I getting stale?  How can I reinvent my technique or adjust my perspective to make my work better than ever?

Frank Gehry building in Dusseldorf Media Harbor