The Power of Luminosity Masks

  By Aaron Dowling

Photoshop provides a myriad of options when it comes to making selections in our images, some are smart, others are dumb. They range from tools such as the Marquee and Polygonal selection tools that don’t have any smarts and require the user to manually draw in their selections, to the smarter tools such as the Magic Wand and Quick Selection tools that make selections based on contrast and lightness and tools such as the Color Range tool that makes selections based on solid colours. The last three tools are much smarter selection tools, can be very accurate in certain situations, and definitely have their place in our editing workflows.

Where the selection tools that are readily built into Photoshop fail, is they make hard line selections and can require a painstaking amount of work to make an accurate selection and, even then, not give us what we’re looking for. Hard line selections have their place, but in many circumstances can lead to a very cut-out look to objects in our images. Fortunately, we have another tool that is a part of Photoshop but isn’t readily accessible, and these have been coined Luminosity Masks.

Luminosity Masks are a method of making selections in our images based on the brightness values of the pixels and are extremely accurate. Their selections provide us with feathered transitions between the tones, giving a much smoother and more natural look in our adjustments. These tools have been used predominantly by landscape photographers for quite a few years now, but are extremely powerful selection tools for any type of photography. Luminosity masks make selections based on light, which is what photography is all about. There are a few developers of plugins around the world that have created tools that make the creation of luminosity masks much simpler and quicker, including myself with ADPpanel+Pro.

Below are just a couple examples of how luminosity masks can be used to make powerful and accurate selection in your images.

Example 1
In this first example I show how I make an accurate selection to lighten the hairs on the cheeks of an orangutan without affecting the skin tones around the hairs. Using the dodging and burning tools built into Photoshop I could adjust the hairs on the upper part of his face by dodging in the highlights, but the problem comes at the lower part of his face, in the shadow areas. Here the hairs are close in tone to the skin tones and, using the midtones to dodge, I affect the skin and hairs. Also, using the dodging and burning tools in Photoshop require you to work on an image layer. Another selection option is to use the Color Range tool to select the Red/Yellow tones, but it picks some surrounding tones and is fragmented in its selection, which isn’t desirable. Now with a luminosity selection, I can easily lighten the hairs on the cheeks of the orangutan without affecting the skin.

Example 2
Here you will see two separate images, leaves taken against a background sky and a monk standing at a shorefront. In the first image I show the difference in making adjustments using the Magic Wand tool in Photoshop versus using luminosity masks to make the same selection. You will notice a massive difference in the artefacts that appear using the Magic Wand tool, especially around the out of focus areas.

In the second set of images I make a luminosity selection that allows me to make adjustments to the sky and lake, and the second allows me to make adjustments to the tree and monk without affecting any other part of the image. These selections have been made with luminosity masks in seconds and are extremely accurate.

I hope this hasn’t hurt too many heads. I trust that I have shown some of the powerful possibilities with luminosity masks in our workflow. Although luminosity masks are a very powerful selection and editing tool for Photoshop users, they are only one of the tools in our arsenal. I do use luminosity masks for one reason or another on all of my images, but, for the most part, they would be used on 20-30% of my layers. There are exceptions of course.

If you’d like to attend a 3.5 hour presentation on luminosity masks and get a copy of ADPpanel+Pro, or ADPpanel+Pro and a 7.5 hour luminosity mask video workshop, you can join us at our presentation on The Power of Luminosity Masks in Canmore on the 23rd of July, 2017