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).


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