The Citadel

Landscapes are sometimes assumed to be best shot with wide-angle lenses. These days, I find myself reaching for my telephoto lens more and more. It’s a great way to change up the composition in dramatic ways, create an abstract, or isolate a subject from chaos.

This particular morning, I started shooting with a wide-angle lens. But as the sky evolved, the sun was quickly retreating to a small portion of the sky, leaving my wide composition with a lot of gray. I had been looking at this incredible pyramid shape the whole time I was shooting my primary composition for the morning. As soon as the sky started to turn, I swapped out the 14mm for a an 80mm to capture this stunning scene near Moab, Utah.


Sunrise over pyramid-shaped mountain

How to Create a Stunning Cityscape in Photoshop with Luminosity Masks (full workflow)

The canals of Amsterdam have a certain serenity at any hour, but there is nothing like strolling along them in the quiet early morning hours. After days of exploring and a few failed attempts to capture the beauty of Amsterdam, I found the composition I was after and perfect conditions. Just as the sky began to light up with beautiful clouds, the wind calmed for just a few seconds for me to capture the mirror-like reflection of these gorgeous old buildings. It was just a moment. Out of dozens of frames, only these four seconds had both the clouds and water I was seeking – but it was all I needed in the RAW image.

In the tutorial below, you’ll learn the complete complete post-processing workflow I used to finish the image. You’ll see the RAW processing in Lightroom and luminosity masking and other final edits in Photoshop and Lumenzia.



Here’s the original RAW:

Original RAW


And the finished image:

How to create a stunning cityscape in Photoshop with luminosity masks (Amsterdam full workflow)


3 Steps to Create a Super-wide Panorama

After I posted the image below on Instagram, I got a few requests asking how I created this wide-angle panoramic view…

I love shooting with a 14mm wide-angle lens. It allows for some breathtaking compositions. While it is very wide, there are occasions when you need something much wider. A 12mm or fisheye lens may be wide enough to deal with such situations, but that isn’t always an option. Even if you’ve bought such a lens and brought it with you to a particular location, it may not be wide enough. And the image quality with a fisheye can be very limiting. I’ve had great results correcting distortion using the Imadio plugin for Photoshop, but the resulting field of view isn’t much better than my 14mm lens.

Those challenges make wide-angle panoramas an attractive solution in many cases. The basic idea is that you shoot multiple overlapping views of the scene with your lens, and then combine them in Photoshop. It sounds intimidating, but it’s actually pretty easy to do.



Good source images:

A few quick words before the Photoshop work. The whole process requires good source images. Give everything more space than you think – you need extra pixels at the edges, and a lot of overlapping pixels in adjacent images for Photoshop to work its magic. Advanced users of this technique can get away with shooting fewer images, but the complexity goes up quickly. For the occasional scenes where I use this approach, I haven’t found it worth my time to obsess with the technique – I’m ok with a little bit of overshooting when it guarantees the shot.

An easy answer is to shoot with 50-80% overlap from one frame to the next, and use a tripod. If you have one, a geared head is much easier for shooting one or more rows of images than a ball head. I personally love the Arca Swiss “Cube”, which I used to capture the images in this tutorial.

If you have very close foreground objects (within a few feet of the lens), you should use a “nodal slide” to correct for parallax, or be sure to use substantial overlap in your images. I prefer to use a nodal slide, but did not have one with me when I shot this scene, so I used used heavy overlap. If you have no idea what I’m talking about, don’t worry about it – just use a lot of overlap like I show in the video.

And note that if you’re using a wide-angle lens like I did, you should not expect to see much increased resolution in the final image. Most of the pixels will be duplicates or tossed out. If you want to create a super-wide perspective in higher resolution, capture the scene with a longer focal length lens.


Step #1: Merge to Panorama

If you’re using Lightroom, select all your images then right-click to choose Edit In / Merge to Panorama in Photoshop. When the Photoshop dialog appears, choose “blend images together”.

If you are not using Lightroom, send all your images to Photoshop. You can use File / Scripts / Load Files into Stack to put all open images into the same document. Then select all the layers and choose Edit / Auto-Align Layers.

In either case, I recommend using images which have lens corrections enabled, and of course, do any critical RAW adjustments before you send the images to Photoshop. Also, the “auto” option typically works best, but if you have any issues just try cylindrical (for a single row of source images) or spherical (for multiple rows).

If the image does not properly align, check your image for overlap, missing frames, or moving elements. I’ve found that most of my failures have resulted from trying to merge images that were not suitable (for Photoshop, many dedicated stitching programs can do more with less, but they are also more complex to use).


Step #2: Put the merged content into a single layer

At this point, you’ll have a large image with a lot of funny distortion. Before you can fix that distortion in the next step, you’ll need to put everything into a single layer. There are two fundamental ways to do this.

You can select all layers, right-click, and “Flatten Image”. This creates a small file that can be viewed in Lightroom. However, it prevents you from going back later if you find any problematic edges from the merge that might need to be fixed. And if you don’t convert it to a Smart Object, it also prevents you from having some important flexibility after the next step.

The other option is to select all layers, right-click , and “Convert to Smart Object”. This will allow you to go back and fix any problem edges you might find later, and this has saved me from a lot of re-work on more than one occasion. The downside to this approach that it creates very large files. In most cases, it will require saving in the PSB (Large Document) format, which will prevent you from seeing the image in Lightroom (since it does not support the PSB format). It can also take a very long time to open and save such a complex document.

If you are a Lumenzia user, you have an easy third option which I would recommend. Click on the Lumenzia menu and choose to “Convert layers to linked PSB”. This will put your layers into an external PSB as a Smart Object. This offers several advantages: you’l have the ability to edit the Smart Object at any time, you can view the parent image in Lightroom, and the parent document can be opened and saved very quickly (with my demo image, save times dropped from 90 seconds for a regular PSB document to 5 seconds for the parent document created by Lumenzia).


Step #3: Adaptive Wide-Angle

Select your layer and go to Filter / Adaptive Wide Angle. This awesome tool is designed to remove distortion not only from wide-angle lenses, but also from wide-angle panoramas.

There are only a few controls you need both with in this dialog. The correction should be set to “panorama”. At the top-left are the “Constrain Tool” and “Polygon Constrain Tool”, which are the key tools to let you correct the image.

The polygon tool is great for subjects like buildings that need to be straighten in two dimensions at once. Most images just need the basic constrain tool, which lets you define lines that should be straight.

To use the constrain tool, click and drag between two points that should be on a straight line. Reference points like horizon lines are the best place to start. Watch the “detail” window at the right to see precise cursor alignment with important edges. Once you’ve added a constraint to straighten, you can click and rotate the lines as needed to correct the image. A very helpful option is to -click the rotation handle, which will force the line to be horizontal or vertical.

Keep adding more correcting lines until you have fixed the image. If you are unsure which elements should be straight, just make some guesses and then try manually rotating them to improve the image. If you make a mistake, you can use <ctrl/cmd>-Z to undo (or <ctrl/cmd>-<alt/option>-Z to undo multiple times). You can click on an adjustment to make it active and then hit <del> to remove it.

If important image detail moves outside the preview window’s borders (the true edges when you zoom out, not the limits of the screen when zoomed in), you should use the move tool (at top left) to drag the content back into the window.

It is generally best to avoid using the “scale” slider, as this will resample the final image. Don’t worry about whether your image fills the preview or not, you can easily crop after you’re done.

When ready, click OK to finalize the adjustment. If you are working on a Smart Object, you can double-click the Adaptive Wide Angle filter on the layer at any time to continue refining from where you left off. This is much easier than starting the process over from scratch, which you’d have to do if you aren’t using Smart Objects.

At this point, you’ve got a wide angle view and can proceed to process it like any other image. You will likely want to crop it at this stage (bear in mind that “delete cropped pixels” option has no effect on a Smart Object). If there are any small areas missing pixels after cropping, you can select them with the magic wand, then go to Select/Modify/Expand and choose 2 pixels, and Edit/Fill/Content Aware to help complete the image.

The thumbnail shown on the video above is my final image after further processing with Lumenzia to bring out more color and detail in the scene.


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Temporal Loop

It’s hard to appreciate what windchill really means until you stand in 20 degree weather, absolutely freezing in a breeze so slight you could hardly tell it exists, and then move toward a cavern and find yourself so warm in the stillness you start pulling off your gloves.

My friend Joe and I left Moab around 4 in the morning heading towards Arches National Park to shoot the stars over Double Arch. After some time, I looked to the horizon and thought I must have gotten something on my glasses. It looked like to headlamps approaches with a faint smear of light between them. After a few moments, I got this feeling of Déjà vu.

I’d seen this before, a crescent moon rising over rock. The tips of the crescent appear first, like two small stars. In between, the dark face of the moon is actually lit so subtly you can barely tell, but it’s there. Soon, the rest of the moon appears to resolve the mystery. I’m not sure I’ll ever get used to that experience. And so the morning continued to move on like that, one incredible moment after another until this beautiful morning glow washed over the whole scene.

I rarely shoot panoramas in the traditional sense, but sometimes a scene calls for some creative shooting. A 14mm wide-angle wasn’t even close to capturing the grandeur of these arches. And I didn’t have a “nodal slide”, which would have allowed me to shoot more efficiently without distortion. So I needed an extreme amount of overlap to make sure I’d be able to blend everything. 44 photos, that’s what it took to make this image.

Edited with Lumenzia.

Double Arch

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.

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