Mastering luminosity masks is just like mastering any skills. First, you need to learn and understand the principles behind the process. Then, rehearse as many times as possible until you develop muscle memory to your new found skill. The more reps you do, the better you’ll become.
Moving from theoretical to the practical stage of learning can be a huge step for some, which is why case studies are useful as a transition between the two. For you, seeing how luminosity masks are used in post-processing at this stage helps you put everything you’ve learned so far into perspective.
In this tutorial, you're going to see how a "shoot into the sun" image is edited with luminosity masks. We'll walk through each step of the decision making process with you so you get to see the "behind the scene". You’ll also see the comparison of the before and the after following each adjustment using luminosity masks.
Just to emphasize this again - although I use Photoshop in my workflow, the post-processing steps are generic and the principles can be applied to other software that supports layer masking.
Shoot Into The Sun
I thought about what kind of image I should use in this tutorial. I wanted something that is common so you can relate to it more.
One of the ideas that came to my mind was how to shoot against the light. I remember some of you have mentioned that you wanted to learn more on how to shoot into the sun. So, I thought this is the perfect opportunity to do so!
I’ll be focusing on the post-processing part of the image. This means not going into too much technical details on how to shoot into the sun but on how to retouch the image in post-processing.
Shoot Against The Light Is A High Dynamic Range Scene
When you shooting the sun, you have to bracket exposures because you simply won't get a decent image with a single exposure. This means you’ll have multiple exposures that need merging into HDR. If you’ve read my other tutorials, you know I’m an advocate for exposure blending. That’s what I’m going to show you here - blending with luminosity masks.
Another option to shoot into the sun without using the HDR technique is an ND filter. You can learn more about HDR and ND filters in this article.
Phase 1: Exposure Blending
The bracketed exposures for the scene were -1EV, 0EV and +1EV. After going through the images, I decided I only need 0EV for the foreground and -1EV for the background. I didn’t need +1EV because the foreground in 0EV already has a good exposure.
To blend the images, I place 0EV in the first layer (base layer) and -1EV in the second layer (blend layer) in the Layers panel. This forms my blending set, which I’ve explained thoroughly in this tutorial about the building blocks of exposure blending.
I generate a full set of luminosity masks based on the base layer (0EV) and add a black layer mask to the blend layer (-1EV). Then, I choose Brights 1 which targets predominantly the sky, load it onto the black layer mask and paint it with a white brush to reveal the darker sky from -1EV.
Learn more: Exposure blending with luminosity masks
Phase 2: Tonal Adjustments
The next phase in my workflow is normally tonal adjustment. Instead of a single full blown adjustment, I prefer multiple, localized and subtle adjustments. I feel this is the better way to tease out all the information in a Raw file.
To begin with, I want to accentuate the contrast in the foreground. I really like the details in the frost and I want the visual effect to pop. Instead of applying a conventional contrast adjustment with Levels or Curves, I do so via a Midtones luminosity mask.
This technique allows me to boost contrast in the midtones without worrying about clipping the highlights or the shadows, which can happen when you increase contrast globally to the image.
There's something magical with the the midtones luminosity masks in bringing back contrast where Tony Kuyper has also explained on his blog. On this occasion, I use only one midtones mask but I've experimented with multiple midtones masks before with great result.
Choosing A Midtones Mask
Looking through the midtones masks, I thought Midtones 2 is the most suitable one for the job.
Why Midtones 2?
Because it looks greyish in general, this means not too much or too little selected. One thing with midtones masks is that it's almost always Midtones 2 or 3 that works the best.
True enough, when I color sample the grey area in the foreground, Photoshop tells me it's about 55% in Lightness.
Essentially, once I have Midtones 2 selected, I apply it to a Levels adjustment layer and play with the dark, bright and midtone arrow until I like the result. Usually, I start with the midtone arrow first before moving on to the dark or the bright arrow.
If you look at the Midtones 2 mask again, you'll notice part of the sky is lightly selected. To avoid the sky being affected by the Levels adjustment, I group the layer with the Levels adjustment and Midtones 2 mask (yes, grouping a single layer!) and add a layer mask to mask out the sky.
Darkening The Sky
I often shoot into the sun by bracketing exposures for exposure blending. One of my aims in post-processing is to accentuate the rich color of the beautiful sky. Over the years, I've developed an interest in creating dramatic scenes with parts of the image in extreme bright and parts in shadows without losing details in both.
In this image, I apply three Levels adjustments layer via three different brights luminosity masks, each with a subtle adjustment. This helps to tone down the sky and make the colors appear more naturally saturated.
For this part, I choose Brights 1, Brights 3 and Brights 5 luminosity masks (images below).
You must be wondering why I do that. Why use three luminosity masks?
I'm afraid I don't have a scientific way to explain this! This is the way I do it - like I mentioned earlier, I like the effect on each layer to be subtle. These all add up in the end to shape the overall aesthetic of the sky.
In the last bit of tonal adjustment, I want to brighten up the boulders for just a little bit. To do that, I have to choose a darks luminosity mask. This is because the boulders are dark and would only be selected by a darks mask.
Going back to the Channels panel, Darks 3 appears to be targeting what I need. But it also has much of shadows in the foreground selected and I don't want that.
So here's what I do.
Select Darks 3, apply it to a Levels adjustment layer to brighten the boulders. Yes, this brightens up the foreground but I'm going to ignore it for now. Next, I group the layer, add a black layer mask and reveal the brightened boulder with a white brush.
Phase 3: Color Adjustment
I don't know if you've noticed, I have applied quite a few tonal adjustments to darken the highlights, midtones and now the shadows. When you adjust contrast, color saturation will inevitably be affected. In this case, the image becomes overly saturated for my taste.
To reduce the overall saturation and brighten up the image a little, I select Midtones 1 and apply it to a Levels adjustment layer. Now all I do is move the middle arrow to the left, thereby brightening up the midtones and lower the overall saturation. This also gives the image a very subtle matte effect which I quite like it.
One of the beauty of shooting into the sun in the morning is you get this backlit effect where the subject(s) is outlined by a rim of soft light. If you look at the image carefully, you'll see this effect in the frosty foreground.
At this point, the image looks great to me already but I just want to push it further. I thought the color of the light could be more saturated.
I need a mask that selects these rim of light only. Looking through the Brights masks, The closest I get is Brights 1 mask because it has the selection I need and it's fairly white. But when I apply this to a Vibrance adjustment layer, the effect isn't strong enough to come through the luminosity mask.
To increase the opacity of the selection (make it more white), I select the mask and fill it with white (twice) by using the keyboard shortcut Shift + Backspace and choose white from the drop down menu. Then, I use painting a mask technique to paint the effect in.
Fine-Tune Adjustments In Lightroom
When I'm done with major editing, I saved the image back to Lightroom and did further fine-tune editing. I change the color temperature, apply sharpening and a vignette to direct focus to the center of the image.
Because it's a "shoot into the sun" image, I want to convey that feeling of warmth and serenity, like the way I feel when I was there shooting the scene. This is why I made it look warmer in the final version.
Master Luminosity Mask By Experimenting
Many of the above that I've just shared with you are the result of multiple failures.
For example, when choosing a brights luminosity mask, I didn't know which one is going to deliver the best result. I give it a few attempts with different brights masks before deciding on the one that I should be using.
I think the key to post-processing with luminosity masks is not afraid to experiment and fail. I agree, this takes time but I feel the results are often worth the time invested.
Once you start experimenting with luminosity masks, you'll get the hang of it really quick and start developing your own routine. Just like how I use multiple masks with subtle adjustments.
Keep on playing with it and you might discover a new way of using luminosity masks, like this one!