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.
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.
Select your Highlights layer mask. We’ll start with highlights first.
Next, go up to Image, Apply image.
Copy the settings shown here.
This applies the image onto the layer masks splitting the tones.
You can alt click the layer mask to see the 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.
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.
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.
Do the same thing on the Shadows Layer Mask, except this time click the invert button.
It will apply an inverted image onto the layer mask.
Repeat until you get the desired shadow area selected.
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.
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.
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.