How to Create Beautiful Portraits with Luminosity Masks

A great question I hear pretty often is whether luminosity masks can be used to enhance portraits. Luminosity masks tend to have an association with landscape photography (and they are awesome for it), but they can be a great tool for any type of photography. In fact, any time you use a mask or selection in Photoshop, it’s worth considering whether a luminosity mask or selection might get the job done faster or with more natural results.

Luminosity masks are great for a range of family, wedding, sports, composite and other portrait images such as:

  • Restoring sunset color (as you’ll learn in the tutorial video below). This is a great way to create unique shots that keep the beauty of the moment, without blown white skies. Multi-processing and exposure blending with luminosity masks help bring out extreme detail that RAW processing software struggles to restore in a natural way.
  • Dodging and burning. I’ve used luminosity masks to help deal with less than ideal light on fast-moving toddlers, as well as on photos of weightlifters to help accentuate their muscles by dodging highlights and burning shadows. Luminosity masks help make this work both faster and more accurate. In the tutorial below, I show how to tame some distracting highlights by dodging with BlendIf (a form of luminosity masking built into Lumenzia).
  • Color grading. The techniques I showed on landscapes for color grading with BlendIf (which is really just a simple form of luminosity masking) can be applied just as well to portraits. When you want more control, use similar techniques with luminosity masks instead of BlendIf.
  • Targeted adjustment of skin tones. By cleaning targeting your subject, you can adjust tone or color for perfect results, without affecting the background or clothes.
  • The possibilities are nearly endless. If want to adjust some part of a portrait that is differentiated from its surrounding pixels by brightness (luminosity) or color, a luminosity mask is a great tool to help do the job.


Here’s a quick demonstration of just one way you can use luminosity masks on portraits, to help restore a colorful sunset:


The basic workflow is:

  • Shoot in RAW and expose to the right. This is critical. If you blow the highlights in the sky, then there is nothing to recover. Bracketing your shots isn’t typically an option because your subject is often moving. Even if that isn’t the case, shooting on a tripod and bracketing the images is a quick way to lose the energy you need in the shoot to capture your subject at their best. So it pays to learn how to nail exposure to get the detail you need in one shot.
  • Multi-process the RAW file. This means creating virtual copies so that you can use one set of Lightroom settings for the sky, an another virtual copy processed for your subject. This is something I cover in great detail in my Exposure Blending Master Course. Once you’ve done this, you now have a perfect sky and a perfect subject (something that is nearly impossible to do with one version in any RAW editor) and just need to blend them together to get the best of both.
  • Export the different versions to Photoshop and blend them together with luminosity masks. As you see in the video, you should put the sky image on top, add a black mask, create a luminosity selection targeting the sky, and then paint white on the black mask to reveal the sky. The luminosity selection acts like a stencil to help you paint in the sky layer just where you need it. In Lumenzia, click a preview button (such as L2-L5) and then “Sel” to create the luminosity selection.
  • Once you’ve blended, you can then do any extra processing you would normally do (such as dodging and burning or adding a vignette).

New in Lightroom 2018: HDR Panoramas in a single step

Adobe just released a bunch of updates to Lightroom Classic CC v8.0. This includes improved high ISO noise reduction, improved negative dehaze (which adds haze), and my favorite: the ability to create HDR panoramas in a single step.

This creates enormous time savings. Previously, I showed how to stitch a multiple exposure panorama in Lightroom using the legacy Merge to HDR and Panorama tools. When I did the first tutorial using the old method (on a 2016 Macbook Pro), it took about 45 minutes to complete the entire 9-step process (8 HDR merges and then 1 panorama combining them).

When I did this updated tutorial with the new HDR Panorama method (on a 2018 Macbook Pro), it took a bit under 5 minutes to complete the process and only required my response 1 time. That’s incredible. I can’t say how much of the improvement is based on my laptop upgrade, but I can definitely say that the new Lightroom process is dramatically faster. The ability to tell Lightroom what to do once instead of “nine” times is a game-changer all by itself.

In the following tutorial, I’ll show you how you can merge your source images into a DNG. Once you create that DNG, you can then edit it like any other RAW file in Lightroom and Photoshop. In other words, you don’t have to learn anything new other than the incredibly simple steps I show in the tutorial. And I’ve got a written summary of the full process below.


Camera Workflow (not shown in the video):

  1. Set your camera on a tripod (ideally using a nodal slide if you any part of your image is within about 10 feet of the camera).
  2. For each camera position in the tripod, shoot the same bracket sequence (ie, if you use +/- 1 stop like I did, do the same for each camera position in the panorama). Your brackets should be no more than 2 stops apart, and the darkest and lightest frame should be selected to deal with the darkest shadow and brightest highlight you wish to retain across the entire panorama (because you should use the same bracketing sequence for all camera positions).

Merge to HDR Panorama in Lightroom:

  1. Select all of the images you wish to merge by or -clicking on the files in the Library. You can use images you have already adjusted, but I just use the unadjusted RAW since anything you do to it before the merge is ignored.
  2. Right-click and choose Photo Merge / HDR Panorama.
  3. Select spherical or cylindrical projection, whichever looks best for your image (spherical is typically best for a multi-row pano, and cylindrical for a single row).
  4. Turn on “auto-crop”. (or leave it off if you want to keep more of the image, but you will need to clone or use Content Aware Fill in Photoshop to deal with blank pixels at the edges).
  5. Adjust the Boundary Warp to get the best image (generally you should slide to the left for less distortion, to the right for less cropping of the image).
  6. You can toggle “auto-settings” on or off, as you can make any desired changes in the Develop module later.
  7. Turn on “Create Stack” if you wish to keep the source images and conveniently hide them behind the final DNG file in the Library.
  8. Click Merge.

After the merge is complete, you will now have a new DNG file which you may continue to edit like any other RAW file in Lightroom or Photoshop. If you’d like to learn the techniques I use to edit images like this using luminosity masks, be sure to check out my Exposure Blending Master Course.


For a full details on other improvements in Lightroom v8, see the Lightroom release notes.

How to Create Beautiful B&W Flowers with Luminosity Masks

I’ve had some requests lately for more black and white tutorials, as well as one for some still life. So in this tutorial, you’ll learn how to use luminosity masks to create black and white images of flowers. Using contrast and brightness adjustments through luminosity masks in Lumenzia, you can shape the light to give your flowers more depth and interest.



Conversion to Black and White

The black and white adjustment in Photoshop is very powerful, but you need to use it creatively to get the most out of it. Many times it is best to use different color conversions in different parts of the image. In this demo, the green tips of the flower should be lightened and the stems should be lightened. A single adjustment would cause one or the other to become a bit distracting.

To use different conversions, just use a layer mask to target a B&W layer to one part of the image. Once part of the image is in grayscale, additional B&W adjustments have no effect. So you can simply add another B&W layer to apply different color slider values to the rest of the image. You can use as many layers as you want, but a couple is probably all that is needed.


Adding contrast

The “contrast” tool in Lumenzia analyzes any active selection or luminosity mask preview (the temporary orange layers from Lumenzia) to automatically create an apply a contrast enhancing curve to those areas. The simplest way to use the tool is to use the lasso tool in Photoshop to select an area, click “Contrast” in Lumenzia, and then adjust the new layer’s opacity to get as much or as little of the effect as you like. This is a great way to start shaping the image based on the existing light.


Adding depth

Dodging and burning is a great way to bring out texture or depth in an image. When you want to adjust larger areas, using luminosity masks with a Brightness/Contrast layer offers another simpler way to get great results, and its perfect for an image like this. Use a combination of lasso selections and luminosity masks to target the specific areas of highlight and shadow you wish to adjust, and then tweak the brightness slider as needed.


This is of course just one way you can edit black and white photos. For an even more powerful technique that I use on nearly all my B&W photos, be sure to check out dodging and burning with luminosity masks.

Summer’s Last Breath

It’s so easy to take landscape photography for granted, as if the subject will be there anytime you want. I could come back to this lake for days on end in the fall and not get this shot again. There are so many dynamic elements that make it work. There’s the subtle fall color, that helps make the shoreline interesting. There is the gorgeous sunset and clouds. And most importantly, it was a dead calm night that left a mirror-smooth reflection on the water. Take away any of those three elements and this shot doesn’t work.

But that same dynamism also opens up so many opportunities. If you can envision a scene under different conditions, you can create much stronger compositions and get much more variety of images from the same place. There are of course seasonal variables to play with: spring may bring flowers, summer the Milky Way, fall colors, and winter’s snow can simplify or separate key elements of a scene. It’s likewise important to consider the weather beyond just the obvious sky: changing tides can completely change seascapes, wind can create beautiful sandstorms or prevent sharp flowers and trees, and recent storms can leave reflecting pools and full waterfalls.

How to Extract Enhanced Shadow Detail with Subtracted Luminosity Masks

Luminosity masks are a great way to help enhance shadows in your images for more detail. While it would seem intuitive to use a darks mask to target and lighten your shadows, it often isn’t that straight-forward. Using a simple darks mask like D3 can often result in muddy shadows that lack contrast.

The underlying problem is that when you lighten your image through a darks mask, you are lifting near blacks faster than other dark midtones. That creates a loss of contrast and leaves the shadows looking flat.

There are a few ways you can address the issue, but one of the easiest is to subtract a more restrictive darks mask from your initial dark mask. For example, you can subtract D6 from that D3 mask. The result is similar to a D3 mask, but near black tones are protected (removed from the mask). This allows you to lift the shadows, while retaining true black for a better result with similar or enhanced contrast. Watch the following video for a demonstration to see how to create subtracted masks.



In addition using the subtract feature in Lumenzia to create better shadow adjustments, you can also use it to reduce the size of your files. Simply lasso areas of the mask that you will definitely not use, then click “-” and “Mask”. This will remove that detail from the mask, which can substantially shrink the size of your files (an estimated 30MB in the demo above).



To create a subtracted mask in Lumenzia in Photoshop CC:

  1. Create your initial mask (such as by clicking D4 and then the Levels icon to create a Levels adjustment with a normal D4 mask).
  2. Create a preview of the mask you wish to subtract, such as D6. You may optionally customize the orange preview layers as desired for even more control.
  3. Click on the layer with the initial mask (this tells Lumenzia which mask you wish to adjust, and you won’t be able to click on the “-” icon if you don’t have a valid target to adjust).
  4. Click “Mask” to complete the subtraction.

If you are using Photoshop CS6

  1. See this older version of this demo (as your workflow is slightly different). The general workflow illustrated by the buttons in the older versions of Lumenzia for CC illustrate how the process works in CS6.
  2. Create your initial mask
  3. Create the preview or selection you wish to subtract.
  4. Click the “-” button next to the “Mask” button. The subtraction occurs immediately in CS6.

If you are using my free luminosity masking panel:

  1. Create the luminosity masking channels
  2. <ctrl/cmd>-click one of the channels to load it as a selection
  3. <alt/option><ctrl/cmd>-click the channel to be subtracted (note that in recent versions of Photoshop the cursor will show a tiny “-” while you hold these keys and hover over channels). This gives you a subtracted luminosity selection.
  4. Create a new layer or add a layer mask to an existing layer. This will convert the subtracted luminosity selection into your subtracted luminosity mask.


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