Retouching Portraits with Luminosity Masks

I always enjoy photographing families with little kids – they have so much energy, the littlest things seem amazing, and they embrace the world without all the pre-conceived notions we build over time.  They also don’t like to sit still for photographs!  I always like to go with the child’s energy, but that means that I need to give up some control over lighting.  In this photo of Coleton below, he’s standing under an open cloudy sky.  Ideally, I’d have photographed him 10 feet back in the shade – so that the light  would be coming into his face (especially the eyes), more than straight down.  But ultimately I can’t have everything there, so I’d rather have a genuine expression than perfect light.

As I’ve gotten more and more familiar with using luminosity masks for landscapes, I’ve found myself starting to use them pretty extensively in portrait work.  The photo is a great example.  I retouched it this weekend to make a 12×18″ canvas for the family.  In the past, I would have used free-hand dodging and burning to lighten the eye-sockets and dark neck caused by the light coming from above.  But with luminosity masks, I was able to easily select the shadow areas of the face and quickly dodge (lighten) as needed.  Not only was this a lot faster, but probably a bit more accurate than working freehand.  When you look at a photograph, your eyes are drawn to lighter parts of the image, so I also wanted to burn the bright parts of the background (the green areas in the next patch of open light) as well as the trail right behind Coleton’s feet.  Dodging the green areas wouldn’t be too tough in Lightroom (just brush with a negative value for highlights to protect the shadows).  But dodging the trail around his arms and shirt is a different story.  I could have spent a lot of time carefully brushing around the arms or created some complex mask manually – but instead, I just pulled up the right midtones mask as a selection and was able to burn the trail easily (note that I also burned down his hands a bit, since they’re pretty bright).   See below for a little behind the scenes info on how I used luminosity masks here.

I see a lot of potential for luminosity masks with portraits.  You could use them to:

  • Create more depth and volume by selectively accentuating existing highlights/shadows
  • Select teeth / eyes (highlights) for whitening
  • Burn down unwanted highlights such as oily skin or direct sunlight (always ideal to avoid these in the shoot if you can)
  • Lighten dark eye sockets, wrinkles, shadows under the chin, lines caused by a double-chin, etc
  • Basically, anywhere you want to retouch something that has different tonal values from the neighboring skin
  • And, of course, you can retouch the background with the same techniques you’d use for a landscape image.  This is a great option to minimize distracting elements, or enhance elements that add to the portrait.

Here’s the final image:

Final portrait after dodging with luminosity masks


Here’s the actual dodge/burn layer where you can see the specific adjustments I made.  I created a new blank layer, set it to soft light (my preferred blending mode for dodging and burning), and then painted white to lighten/dodge and black to darken/burn.  Note that 50% gray is neutral on a soft light layer (no impact to the image below).

Dodging and burn layer using luminosity masks


And here’s a short video showing the image before and after using luminosity masks to dodge and burn.  Note that prior to the “before” image, I had already done some minor retouching, color correction, vignetting, and sharpening for the canvas; the video is just showing the impact of the dodging and burning.


For more on dodging and burning, be sure to check out this great tutorial on Fstoppers.

Greg Benz Photography