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.

Greg Benz Photography