The INCREDIBLE Power of Luminosity Masks In Photoshop

flower, perfume bottlePost-processing has always remained an integral part of photography and with digital advancement, we have more possibilities than ever before, regardless of how hard you want to manipulate the photos. Luminosity Masks are one of the possibilities and is such a powerful technique that it is worth considering for everybody working with Photoshop.

Though these masks are not direct adjustments and don’t change anything by themselves, they are blended with adjustments like color balance, curves and others for better enhancements. Luminosity Masks are generally used by landscape photographers to create a dynamic range image through digital blending. The power and benefits of this technique lie in its ability to create a highly focused selection and its self-feathering profile.

What are Luminosity Masks?

In simple words, they are tone-based selections which make it possible to alter particular tones in a photo by making use of luminance value of a pixel and assigning a grey-scale value in the mask. A Luminosity Mask is essentially a gray-scale version of a photo but it is possible to refine it further by targeting dark, bright or midtone pixels.

There are three basic kinds of Luminosity Masks – Darks (Shadows), Midtones and Brights (Highlights). All these three types of masks can be tuned to create restricted selections. The initial selection is basically a gray-scale image representation but we change the number of targeted pixels by refining the masks further.

Why Use Luminosity Masks?

There are several benefits of using selective refinement but one of the most important is the flexibility of altering just the parts you need. Those who work with Photoshop would know that there are many ways to remove refinement with a mask like Quick Selection and Lasso Tool.

Though such tools work, they are not as precise as the luminosity mask. This technique allows a precise selection which results in a seamless transition from adjustment to non-adjustment portions and vice versa.

Color Adjustment

One of the most common ways of using Luminosity Masks is to make targeted selection to apply color adjustments to only the areas you are interested in. As this selection is made on the basis of the pixel luminance, you should not directly apply the adjustment on the layer but paint the adjustments in.

When applying a saturation adjustment to parts of your photo using luminosity masks, target the required areas first as others will be masked. Once done, apply the luminosity mask to the black layer while painting the areas of your interest with white.

Tonal Adjustment

Another amazing way to use luminosity masks is making a focused selection to apply the tonal adjustment. Luminosity masks give you the ability to recover the details in shadows or highlights in particular areas of the photo without affecting others.


Everybody has his unique way to achieve sharpening, whether they are high pass filter or unsharp mask. Many of us often simply apply an overall sharpening adjustment to the photo. It is possible to mask out the areas you need not sharpen using a layer mask but the unmasked areas get a total sharpening effect, causing the image to look slightly unnatural.

Using a luminosity mask is an ideal way to solve this problem. Applying the mask to the sharpening adjustment layer lets you achieve the desired result.

Here are the steps to do this:

1. Apply a sharpening adjustment layer and add a layer mask then fill it with black.

2. Select a luminosity mask covering the area you want to sharpen and get it on to the layer mask.

3. Use painting on the layer mask with a white brush on the parts you want to sharpen.

Dodge & Burn

Though used frequently in the darkroom, this technique is not so popular in digital photography. Dodge and Burn use white and black to brighten and lighten image parts. It is applicable to black-white as well as color images. Dodging & burning with luminosity masks is an extremely artistic and easy way to improve contrast and make the image pop.

Firstly, you create two layers named ‘burn’ and ‘dodge’ and fill both with 50 percent gray and then change the blend mode to overlay for dodge and soft light for burn. There is no magic formula that works here. All you need to do is focus on a single tiny part at a time. Select the part you want to burn or dodge and ignore the others. Then, find a luminosity mask targeting the particular area of your interest, load it onto the burn or dodge layer and apply adjustments. Once you get satisfactory results, move on to the other portions. You can always return and adjust the same part.

Working with Luminosity Masks

Once you get the main Luminosity Masks created, you can start making the adjustments with them. To work with Luminosity Masks, first, select the mask you wish to work with using the Ctrl button and clicking on the thumbnail. After making the selection, open the Curves Adjustment Layer. If you have used the Brights mask, you will find that the Layer Mask resembles the Brights mask. This means the adjustments you make will be applied to only the white parts on the mask.

Next, you can drag down the curve to darken the highlights. You will note that only the bright portions of the photo are affected. Try using Shift+click on the Layer Mask to reveal and hide and see the difference in refinement with and without the mask.

Luminosity Masks offer an excellent way to transform your images while maintaining the natural look. It can be applied to any type of photographs. The possibilities with luminosity masks are limited just by your imagination.

Using luminosity masks may sound difficult and confusing if you are new to Photoshop but that should not discourage you from utilizing the power of this technique. You can explore and use some of the most comprehensive tutorials available online to take advantage of these powerful tools which would soon take a natural place in your workflow.

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