A Better Way To Create Luminosity Masks

I see a lot of techniques floating around the interwebs on how to practice ancient art of Luminosity Masks for landscape photography in Photoshop. I’m pretty sure most of these techniques literally date back to the 1990’s before there were layer masks.

Adobe has recently in the last ten, twenty years made a lot of new and great tools for us that makes our workflow more intuitive, quicker, and easier.

I’m going to show you the very powerful method I use to create luminosity masks that doesn’t predate the digital photography era. 🙂

The method uses Apply Image mixed with Layer Masks.  You can also get this Action in my Free Panel by subscribing to my newsletter. See below.

Using Apply Image For Your Luminosity Masks

The purpose of using Luminosity Masks like this is to target very specific areas of luminance for you to work in.

Step 1.)

Create a few folders. For the sake of this tutorial we’ll only use three.

Name one Shadows, Mids and Highlights. These will be your masks.

Next apply a layer mask to each folder.

It should look something like this.

Create Folders With Layer Masks

Step 2.)

Select your Highlights layer mask. We’ll start with highlights first.


Next, go up to Image, Apply image.

Apply Image

Copy the settings shown here.

Apply Image Settings

This applies the image onto the layer masks splitting the tones.

You can alt click the layer mask to see the effect.

Apply Image Effect

It sets the highlights to white, and the shadows to black so any effect you put into that folder, like the curves adjustment tool, or an alternate shot from a bracketed sequence, will only effect the highlights with a nice gradient into the shadows.

This is powerful because it allows you to apply additional effects within that folder that will only be effected by the target luminosity mask.

Step 2b.)

Now, Apply Image a few more times to that same layer mask. The effect will stack up. Keep doing it until you’re only isolated the extreme highlights.

Apply Image Effect Extreme

I like to create a few different folders with different levels of the effect to work with. But as you can see, you get a very powerful image of what you’re working with and you’ll have a nice isolated area to work in.

Step 3.)

Do the same thing on the Shadows Layer Mask, except this time click the invert button.

Apply Image Settings Invert

It will apply an inverted image onto the layer mask.

Apply Image Effect Inverted

Repeat until you get the desired shadow area selected.

Apply Image Effect Inverted Extreme

Step 4.)

Mid Tones. This is kind of a bonus. Select your mid tones layer mask, then Apply Image once with invert unchecked, then again with it checked.

Apply Image Effect Midtones

What this does is it creates a layer mask focusing only on the midtones. Why would you need this effect?

On those hazy days or shooting very vast landscapes, adding contrast to only your midtones will help punch through the haze and enhance midtone details. Many 3rd party plugins have this built in. But this is how you do it with Photoshop vanilla.

That’s it, now add any effect you wish to those folders and they’ll only be effecting the image within that preset luminance level. For instance, you might want to punch the saturation only on the highlights since that’s the way saturation works naturally. Or you might want to drop the exposure slightly on only the brightest area. Or you might want a different color shift from your highlighted region to your shadows, which again is how light falls off naturally in the real world.

Now work all that into an action and you’re good to go.

Using Blending With Underlying Layer

Other other trick which won’t work with folder group but will work on a single instance is found in your blending options.

A good example of when to apply this method is If you’re doing a landscape photo and you shot a second shot with a darker exposure to only capture the skies. You can quickly Alt Click on that layer to bring up your blending options.

Then hold down Alt, and drag out two underlying layer settings. Copy my settings here.

Underlaying Layer Luminosity Mask

This creates a luminosity mask on the fly that is completely user controlled.

By breaking the two control points you can adjust the darkest visible area, but also feather into the highlights to create a very smooth and gradual effect.

This is great to use with your curves, saturation or other tools where you want precise control over areas of different luminance. And you can always add a layer mask on top to tune further.


  • Brian Peixinho
    December 3, 2017, 1:10 pm  Reply

    Great INFO here and most over complicate this stuff and for newer photographers it can cause confusion. Wish I had this when I started out a couple of years ago!

  • December 3, 2017, 1:12 pm  Reply

    You know what’s cool, you can also now do luminosity masks in Lightroom with the gradient and brush tool. There is a little option called Range Mask you can select Luminance.

  • Brian Peixinho
    December 3, 2017, 1:25 pm  Reply

    yeah, funny you mention this. I was going to create a video before on the new Luminance and Color range sliders in LR. I don’t think a lot of people realize you can create a WHOLE image luminosity mask, in real time, with the (M) Graduated Filter tool.

    Just zoom way out, at 1:16 or or 1:8 and drag the filter all the way down, while holding shift to keep straight. As you can see here, the whole image is 100% selected this way and with the sliders you can then create custom luminosity selections and it’s great. I just wish there were a way to label the different adjustment points like layers! It can get confusing! https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/b9689ad85581a5fd536c6bdef81e62cc375ad0812476d4a4dc320de8bf7a93c6.png

  • December 3, 2017, 1:27 pm  Reply

    I know, I always end up with so many adjustment points and I have to click through them to figure out what they are.

  • Brian Peixinho
    January 15, 2018, 6:52 pm  Reply

    That’s the problem! lol! I am a Photoshop guy – love the endless control!

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