Luminosity Masks Workflow Tutorial for Landscape Photography
A while ago I wrote a tutorial about my Lightroom 4 Landscape Workflow. While this still applies to a good part of my images, and especially those who are sold as stock photos on my website, using luminosity masks has been a game changer for me in many aspects. I am now not limited to the approach and editing capabilities of Lightroom and my basic photoshop masking techniques, which were cumbersome and very time consuming, but can use the full power of Photoshop in a new and fully non-destructive workflow. Now, some people refer to the technique with blending via luminosity masks as “HDR”, others to “manual blending” or “extending the dynamic range”. All of these would the suitable and you will see me using probably all three of them in this tutorial. However, the blending part again only applies to some of my images. For others a single raw file and luminosity masks is all you need. In this first part of the tutorial I will focus on how I use luminosity masks on a single raw file to extend the dynamic range in a non-destructive way. In addition to this first tutorial and one single exposure, I am planning on releasing also the more complex blending of images via luminosity masks. There are many different ways, which lead to the same result, so I encourage you to experiment and use the one you, which works best for you.
I find that luminosity masks give you the greatest creative power over your images and will help you in defining and developing your own unique style. Luminosity masks are more complex, require time and effort to edit and to learn. Luminosity masks have become an important tool for me to get the best possible quality out of my images. Same as the image, they are part of my creative approach to reflect the true scene in a sense that today’s DSLR cameras cannot reflect yet. Even my latest Nikon D800 with the highest dynamic range of 14-15 stops of light of today’s cameras cannot reflect the human eye, which has about 24 stops of light. Thus our images never reflect the true scene, no matter how good of a camera or lens we are using. With this tutorial I will try to help you to increase the dynamic range of your images. Here is what you need:
Camera + Lens
No matter which one you have. The best would be a DSLR which has a bracket function (BRKT), if you intend to blend multiple images, like we will do in a later tutorial. Professional Nikon cameras, such as the D800 can bracket up to 9 exposures. Consumer models might only be able to do 3 brackets. Even if you camera does not support bracketing at all, you can still take multiple exposures. Any other than that, most important is the capability to take RAW images. RAW files are meant to be processed, hence the name “raw”. No one likes a raw steak either. For me it has to be done medium-raw to medium-well, depending on the situation and meat. You also certainly don’t want to overcook your meat. Same goes for processing. Beginners tend to overcook and use all the tools they can find to process a certain image. It might look good to you at that moment, but I can almost promise you, that when you look back in a year from now, you won’t like it anymore. It happened to me many times and I have learned to be careful and use my tools wisely. As little as possible, but as much as needed to reflect what I want to show. I have successfully worked with images from Nikon D60, D7000 and now D800 files.
A sturdy tripod is essential for landscape photography, especially for those that are intended to be blended manually afterwards. 80% – 90% of my images are taken with a tripod. I currently use an Induro AT-114, but any tripod will do. If you in the process of buying one, I can recommend Induro, Gitzo, Really Right Stuff (RRS) and Manfrotto. There are many other good ones out there. Take something that suits you and your camera, without breaking the bank. Having said that, a tripod is probably the one item you should not cheapen out on. Nothing worse than getting home and see only blurry photos, because the tripod moved slightly in that heavy wind you endured for getting that one shot.
Not essential but very helpful. With a remote release (Wireless or wired. I prefer wired after I dropped my wireless in a lake on an early morning shoot) you don’t have to touch your camera during the process of taking multiple exposures. If you don’t have one, use your timer mode and set it as low as possible. Also, if you want to take it really far and impress all the other camera geeks around you, also use the “Mirror-up” mode ;). Honelsty, I have never noticed a real difference…
I think anything from CS5 and up (CS6, Adobe CC) will work. Maybe even older versions, but I cannot guarantee for that.
Tony Kuyper’s Actions
You can create the actions yourself by following Tony’s instructions here. I took the easy way out and bought the full package. If you are making a living of photography, I can’t think of a better ROI. You can buy the package of your choice here and read up on it on Tony’s website or watch Sean Bagshaws videos.
I use Adobe Lightroom as my base and main catalog, so this is where I will start. Import your photos and use the lens correction tool first to remove chromatic aberrations and any distortion. I personally find it easier to do it in Lightroom than in Photoshop. After this is done make a right click in Lightroom “Edit in…/Open in Photoshop”. Depending on your computer and file size this might take a moment and you will realize that the file size has almost tripled. The import process in Photoshop creates a new TIFF file of the RAW image (depending on your settings in Lightroom it may also create PSD files). Now before jumping into “editing mode”, consider what you want to achieve. What is your goal with the image? What is your style or what do you want to be your photographic style? In my case, I am usually intending to re-create the original scene, add some drama, increase contrast and correct color where necessary. I try to stick as close to the original scene as possible, simply because I have no interest in creating something that did not exist. Re-creating a scene also includes to reflect the feelings, sense and emotional connection to let the viewer take part in it. Translating all this in Photoshop language, the actions I use most frequently are lights masks, darks masks and mid-tones masks in combination with levels adjustment layers, curves adjustment layers, hue/saturation adjustment layer and color balance adjustment layer as well as different layer blending modes (normal, multiply, lighten, screen, hard light, soft light).
Processing example using one single RAW image file and Tony Kuyper’s Luminosity Masks Actions
Step 1) Creating lights masks and darks masks
Now is the part where the creative editing process starts. There is no right or wrong from this point on. In this example, I’ll demonstrate how I processed my image “Remember Me“. The first step in my process, after opening the image in Photoshop is to create all the lights masks and all the dark masks as you can see in the Channels Panel on the right hand side. To do this I simply use the TK-Actions Panel, so I don’t have to re-create the masks every time I process a photo. The lights masks and darks masks are selections of the lighter respectively the darker tones in the image. This allows me during the editing process to target very specific parts of the image, while leaving others untouched.
RAW file with luminosity masks in the channels panel
Step 2) Creating magic mid-tone masks and curves adjustment layer
The first thing I did here is something more complex and would require a basic understanding of luminosity masks but something that I found to be really helpful. This is a so called off-center mid-tone masks. Let me explain what I did here. When you click on the lights, light lights or any other lights masks Photoshop shows you a selection of the lightest tones in the image. When you click on the “Lights” masks, Photoshop shows you the 50% brightest pixels, “Lights Lights” reflects the 25% brightest pixels, “Bright Lights” the 12.5% brightest pixels, “Super Lights” the 6.25% brightest pixels and “Ultra Lights” the 3.125% brightest pixels in the image. By selecting one of these lights masks (CMD/CTRL + click on the lights masks), Photoshop will mark the selection for you and you’ll see the marching ants. The same goes for the darks masks and its selections, but of course for the darker pixels in the image. It is exactly the opposite of the “Lights” selections. Now coming back to my off-center mid-tone masks in this example, I made a selection of the “Light Lights” (25% brightest pixels) and subtracted the “Super Lights”. This can be done by selecting the Lights Lights (CMD / CTRL) and then clicking on the Super Lights with CMD+ALT.
Off-center mid-tone mask from light selection
Now I have a very narrow selection which only affects a small part of the image, which I can use to increase contrast with the help of a Curves adjustment layer by creating a S-Curve (lighten the lights and darken the darks). If you compare this one with the original RAW file, you’ll notice slight adjustments to the lighter parts of the image, without affecting the brightest parts or any of the darker parts. Lighten through a lights maks increases contrast, as well as darken through a darks mask.
S-Curve Adjustment Layer from off-center mid-tone mask
Step 3) Increasing contrast with darks mask
Having increased contrast using a off-center mid-tone lights mask, I also want to increase contrast with a darks masks. The RAW file still appears to be pretty flat and needs some further adjustments to pronounce darker and lighter areas better. To find the best suitable darks mask, I start by clicking on the darks mask in the channels panel and work my way through. With a little bit of experience you’ll notice pretty quick, which one will do the job. In this case, I have settled for the “Shadow Darks”, which gives me a nice narrow selection of the 12.5% darkest pixels in the image. Again, I create a curves adjustment layer and use a slight S-Curve to darken parts of the image. By doing so, I can effectively increase contrast by darkening through a darks mask and only affect the darker areas of the image. The screenshot below shows the very narrow selection of the “Shadow Darks”. These areas are highlighted by the marching ants.
Shadow Darks Adjustment Layer
The tonal separation between lighter and darker tones increases, which means, I have increased contrast, without touching any pixels or effecting the quality of the original photograph. In fact, through the pronunciation of shadows and lights, the image has suddenly increased in its dynamic range and depth. This looks like a good start, but we are not done yet. Noticed how the file size keeps creeping up? We are already at 974MB with just two layers and the original RAW file.
Levels Adjustment Layer after adjustment with Shadow Darks
Step 4) Adjustment layer for lighter tone separation
My next step is to work on the white foamy part of the water. There is already a nice separation between the darker beach area and the water, but it could be more pronounced especially the white foam against the water itself. Now the foam is a lighter part of the image, which leads me to choose one of my lights masks if I want to increase the brightness. The “Bright Lights” mask seems to nicely separate the foam from the rest of the water, but I also notice, that it selects other parts of the image, such as the bright parts of the shelter on the pier, where I don’t want to increase brightness. This time, I decide to create a “Brights Mask” with a levels adjustment layer and afterwards paint with a black brush over the areas, I don’t want to affect. In this case, I simply paint carefully over the areas on the shelter. You can see in the screenshot below, that the shelter is almost completely black and only the white foamy areas of the water remain white – meaning only these will be affected by my levels adjustment layer.
Levels Adjustment Layer for lighter tone separation
It is a small adjustment and barely noticeable in the screenshot, but it’s one of those things that will make a difference when you see the image printed large. Compare the image again to the one in Step 3 and the increase in contrast and separation of darker and lighter tonal values.
Levels Adjustment Layer of the Adjustment
Step 5) Make it glow
One of those things, that can give your image a nice punch in color is the “Smart Glow” Action by Tony Kuyper. I have found that it works especially well with red color values but can also work well with any other image. In most cases, the increase in saturation is too strong for my liking and I use a lower opacity for the layer. Anywhere from 25% – 75%, avoiding the extreme at higher end. As this image, does not have a lot of color and came out pretty flat as a RAW file, I feel comfortable leaving the opacity slider in this case at 100%. The early morning light at this scene with the sun still low on the horizon gave a really nice saturated green on the hills in the background. What the camera could not capture in RAW format, I can change again here to reflect the original scene and give some of that warm early summer morning feeling from one of Kauai’s best locations. The technical aspect behind the “Smart Glow” option is a combination of increasing contrast in the mid-tone, a slight boost in saturation in combination with Gaussian Blur.
Smart Glow Adjustment Layer
Step 6) Focused use of color adjustment
The “Smart Glow” did a great job of further enhancing the dynamic range of my image. However, I am still not quite happy as I remember the scene to show even more of that lush green color, Kauai is so famous for. One way to achieve this result would be to simply create a new layer and paint with a brush over the areas, I would like to show more vibrant color. Instead of doing so, I refer back to Tony’s Actions and use a very focused mask, that really only targets the areas, I’d like to increase color values. The Actions allow me to create saturation or vibrance masks or both of them. I choose the vibrance mask, as I feel, this will be more helpful as it only targets the already more saturated areas in the image. I don’t want to saturate, where there was no color in the original scene. While creating the mask with the Actions from Tony, I have the choice between a “Regular Vibrance Mask” or a “Focused Vibrance Mask”. I opt for the focused mask, which seems to be the best fit for the job. The screenshot below shows you the marching ants and that they only mark the most saturated colors, especially on the green hill in the background.
Focused Vibrance Mask Selection
I want to increase vibrancy of the greens slightly. To do so, I revert back to my color image by clicking Alt+Layer. In the properties panel of the focused vibrance mask, I usually work with the finger tool to modify specific color areas of the image by moving the cursor of the green part of the image, click and drag, which will then move the slider either left or right.
Custom Color Value Adjustment
The difference is once again not significant but it is there and at this point, I am confident that I have achieved a realistic result of the original scene. And not only the scene in itself but also the warmth of an early summer morning, the dramatic clouds hovering over the beautiful lush green mountains in the background. Now, who doesn’t want to stand right there and right now? Have you noticed the file size? We are at 1.36GB with all layers.
Focused Vibrance Mask after the adjustment
Step 7) Sharpening the final image
One last step is necessary, before we release this image and hand it over to the printing lab. RAW files are not only pretty flat, when they come out of camera, they are also not the sharpest. If you only shoot JPEG, this step might not be necessary or even as noticeable, but with RAW files it is an important step of the process for me. There are multiple ways to finally sharpen the image. The most common way of sharpening is to sharpen through an “Unsharp Mask”. Yes, you have heard right. An unsharp mask. If you don’t feel comfortable to sharpen through an unsharp mask, you could also use the “Smart Sharpen” option in the filter menu. As I want to demonstrate the TK-Actions and Luminosity Masks Technique, I will go with the “TK-Cloud Sharpen” action. It does, as the name says, a particular good job with clouds, which tend to appear very soft in most images. I want to give them some structure and add to the mood of the strong mountains in the background. Whatever way of sharpening you choose, I highly recommend to create a new layer for sharpening, as you don’t want to alter any of the pixels in the original scene. The only downside is, that your file size keeps on creeping up even further. In this case, we have reached 1.6GB.
Back to the cloud sharpen action. The action has done a remarkable job with the clouds, mountains, pier and shelter. Again, I could have achieved the same or very similar result with any of the other two (un)sharpening masks. However, the cloud-sharpen action has also done something that I wanted to avoid – it has sharpened the water and honestly, sharpened water doesn’t look very appealing to me. I personally find water best when it’s smooth and silky and has some sense of implied motion. To restrict the sharpening action to the areas I want to, I simply create a new off-center mid-tone magic mask and additionally paint the areas I want to sharpen with a white brush on the mask. If you look closely in the layers panel, you will see that I painted with a white brush over the mask in mountain and sky area, as I did not want to restrict the sharpening only to the mid-tones in this area of the image.
Cloud Sharpening Action with a Custom Mask
Step 8) Export for web use
Depending whether or not you are coming from Lightroom, the saved image, will now also appear automatically in your Lightroom catalog. I have the made the experience, that a well processed image, can be either exported from Lightroom or Photoshop for the print lab. It does not make a difference. If you want to showcase your work on the internet, I recommend you open the image the image again in Photoshop and use the “Web Sharpening” Actions from Tony. They do the image more justice than a simple downsize in Lightroom or Photoshop. Bear in mind though to not print the web-sharpened image for your clients.
I hope you have enjoyed the insight into my creative landscape photography workflow using luminosity mask to extend the dynamic range of my images. It’s been fun to write this up and share it with you. In addition to this tutorial I am also planning on writing another one in the near future about blending images while using luminosity mask techniques.
I’d appreciate if you shared this tutorial on the web through your social network, so more people can make use of it.