Nature Notes

September 8, 2008

Photoshop Tutorial- Using a Luminosity Mask

Filed under: Photoshop Tutorial,Processing Tips — Tags: , , — Harold Stiver @ 9:08 am

Burrowing Owl

When Photoshop CS2 came out, it provided a new adjustment, the Shadow/Highlight feature. However, if you were familiar with Luminosity Masking, you would recognize it was a heavy handed version of this tool.

For our tutorial we’ll use this cute Burrowing Owl having a yawn in the early morning light of the Salton Sea. But the Salton Sea can be an oven even in the early morning, and on this morning the light was already causing a glare. No problem, it is a perfect opportunity to tame it with a Luminosty Mask.

First we create the mask. Here are a couple of alternative ways:

  • Alt-Ctrl-Tilde Hold down the alt and control on the keyboard and press ~ which is by the number 1
  • or make sure your channels menu is open, and while pressing the control key, mouse click on the RGB thumbnail of the Channel menu.

The “dancing ants” you see are selecting that portion of the image which is 50% of the lighter values of the image, while the unselected is, of course, 50% of the darker values. However this is only a guide because the mask is much more than that, it is perfectly “feathered” throughout. The lighter a pixel’s luminosity, the less it is masked, and the more it can be changed by image adjustments. A pixel which is at 80% luminosity will be acted on by 80% of an adjustment, while one at 20% will only have 20% applied to it.

Let’s adjust our image with a simple levels adjustment. Open the levels dialog and slide the small triangle at the left side toward the right. The image darkens, but because of our Luminosity Mask, the lightest areas receive the greatest effect.

Burrowing Owl Burrowing Owl


If you save this as an action; you will find a number of uses for it:

  • You can invert the mask to work on the darker areas.
  • You can adjust your image and then create a new luminosity mask to again finely adjust the result
  • You can use your selection tools to remove the mask from portions of the image you don’t want to work on

If you become comfortable with using a Luminosity Mask, I guarantee it will become on of your favorite techniques.

Index to Photoshop Tutorials.

This tutorial is a part of the Photoshop Workflow Series


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  1. Nice work…

    Comment by Mchilly — September 9, 2008 @ 10:11 pm

  2. Thanks,

    You have an interesting website.

    Cheers, Harold

    Comment by Harold — September 9, 2008 @ 10:47 pm

  3. Hi Harold,

    I saved your post about this tutorial for ages and finally got around to trying it. Wow! There is so much about CS3 I still don’t know so I really appreciate this lesson. I have been slogging through Scott Kelby’s 7-Point System for Photoshop and have gotten lost a couple of times because the lessons are so long and involved, so your shorter concise lessons are most welcome. I pulled up a grebe image of mine that was very contrasty and tried the luminosity for both the blown out whites and dark areas. One does have to be careful not to overdue the luminosity on the whites or they can become strangely colored. I sometimes use the CS3’s highlights/shadows function, but it can also affect the colour and make the image look a bit artificial.

    Comment by Laure Neish — November 16, 2008 @ 8:21 pm

  4. Thanks Laure:

    I find I use Luminosity Mask a lot with bird images. A lot of time a bright area surrounding the subject will distract. I usually do it in a layer so that I can reduce the effect by reducing the opacity of the layer.


    Comment by Harold — November 17, 2008 @ 4:42 pm

  5. Oh, I never thought of that. Reducing the distracting elements of a background with this. Will have to try that. It might make the bird subject really pop out.

    I tend to get in a rut with processing, because if it looks like too much work post-processing after minor contrast adjustments and colour enhancement then I just don’t even bother. Too time consuming. I try to get it right the first time or hit the delete button.

    At what point do you turn a layer into a smart object, rather than just keeping it a layer?

    Comment by Laure Neish — November 29, 2008 @ 7:23 pm

  6. “At what point do you turn a layer into a smart object, rather than just keeping it a layer?”

    I don’t at all because I’m not familiar enough with smart Objects. Its on my to-do list to learn, right after masks.

    Cheers, Harold

    Comment by Harold — November 29, 2008 @ 10:06 pm

  7. Hi again,

    OK I’m back to this…after I get the dancing ants on the screen, don’t I have to make it a layer to do the adjustments? Otherwise, doesn’t the levels bar adjustment change the darkness of the whole image?


    Comment by Laure Neish — January 20, 2009 @ 10:59 pm

  8. OOps I see up above that is what you do, but what kind of layer do you label it?

    Comment by Laure Neish — January 20, 2009 @ 11:00 pm

  9. You can label it anything that helps you remember it. I label it “luminosity”

    Comment by Harold — January 20, 2009 @ 11:37 pm

  10. the tutorial on how to create the photoshop project with luminosity mask is good. First step is to create the mask and then the level adjustments should be done.Thanks for this nice post.

    Comment by gambling feel — March 10, 2010 @ 4:37 am

  11. Thanks for sharing by the nice tutorial.
    I enjoyed it!!!

    Comment by Md.Saiful Alam — June 26, 2010 @ 5:46 am

  12. Thanks, I’m glad you liked it.

    Comment by Harold — June 28, 2010 @ 11:01 pm

  13. This is a very good post! Keep them comming!

    Comment by Preston Racette — December 24, 2010 @ 4:18 am

  14. Thank you prestron!!

    Comment by Harold — January 8, 2011 @ 10:32 pm

  15. Great tutorial. Thanks!

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    Comment by George — August 16, 2011 @ 5:30 pm

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    Comment by Melda Mclucas — November 15, 2011 @ 3:40 am

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