Luminosity selections and masks

I use luminosity selections and luminosity masks in all my blending and editing, and today I will try to explain to you what they do and how to create them in Photoshop. But before I start, there is one requirement for understanding this guide. That is, you need to understand how layer masks work in Photoshop, as I will not go into their basics here. Please check this post about the basics of layer masks here to understand those.

Understanding Luminosity selections

In short, Luminosity masks are masks created from luminosity selections. These are selections based on brightness of pixels. The most basic luminosity selections would be then:

  • Bright – This selection selects every white pixel by 100%, every black pixel by 0%, and everything in between based on their brightness. So the brighter a pixel is, the more it is selected. So 25% grey pixel would be selected by 75%, 50% grey pixel would be selected by 50% and 75% grey pixel would be selected by 25%.
  • Dark – This is the inverse selection to the bright one. A white pixel is selected by 0% and a black pixel by 100%. Everything in between is selected based on how dark it is. So 25% grey pixel would be selected by 25%, 50% grey pixel would be selected by 50% and 75% grey pixel would be selected by 75%

These two selections split an image into two parts. The part that is mostly dark and the part that is mostly bright. A pixel with a 50% grey color, would be right in the middle, selected by 50% in both. I know it’s a bit hard to get the understanding of this, so let’s look at a very basic image, that illustrates this. This is a just a gradient from black to white.

Understanding Luminosity selections and masks

If we do the Bright and Dark selections here, there results would looks like this (this is already shown as a mask, as you can’t display opacity graduation in a selection, white means 100% selected, black means 0% selected).

Bright selection
Understanding Luminosity selections and masks
Dark selection
Understanding Luminosity selections and masks

As you can see on the Bright one, everywhere where it was bright in the original image, there is a shade of grey up to white. On the Dark one, you get the inverse, and it affects the areas that were dark. Let’s looks at one more example, this one with a regular photo.

Original photo
Understanding Luminosity selections and masks
Bright selection
Understanding Luminosity selections and masks
Dark selection
Understanding Luminosity selections and masks

You see the same effect. The Bright selection selects only the bright areas (clouds, snow), the Dark selection only the dark ones (mostly mountains).

There are also Midtone selections, which are created by subtracting Bright and Dark selections from a photo, but I will get to those in a separate article.

Refined Luminosity selections

You often here these selection being referred to as Bright 1, Bright 2, Bright 3 … Dark 1, Dark 2, Dark 3… and so on. In this context, the Bright selection I mentioned would be equal to Bright 1, the Dark to Dark 1. All others are refinement of these selection. By creating an intersection of a selection with itself, you create a new, more restrictive selection. So the higher the number here, the less is selected. On the gradient image I shown you earlier, the restricted masks would looks like this:

Bright 1
Understanding Luminosity selections and masks
Bright 2
Understanding Luminosity selections and masks
Bright 3
Understanding Luminosity selections and masks
Bright 4
Understanding Luminosity selections and masks

Creating Luminosity selections and masks in Photoshop

Ok, now that you hopefully at least have an idea on how luminosity selections look, let’s go into Photoshop and create some.

Open you image in Photoshop, and go into the Channels window. Here you will see 4 layers. The RGB, Red, Green and Blue. We want to work with the RGB one. Hold down Ctrl and click on it. This will create the Bright selection. Click on the Save selection as channel button in the bottom right (white square with black circle in the middle) and this will create a new channel. Let’s rename it to Bright 1.

Understanding Luminosity selections and masks

We will now work with this one. You should still have your selection active. Hold down Ctrl+Alt+Shift (a small X should be next to your cursor) and click on this new Bright 1 channel. The selection will change. Save it again as a new channel. Name the new channel Bright 2.

Understanding Luminosity selections and masks

You can now continue like this and create further, more restrictive selections, Bright 3, Bright 4, … and so on. If you ever loose your selection, just Ctrl+click on the one you want to restrict further, and the Ctrl+Alt+Shift+click on the same one again. Doing so on Bright 1 will create Bright 2, on Bright 2 will create Bright 3 and so on.

Understanding Luminosity selections and masks

Now onto the Dark selection. Go back to the RGB channel and Ctrl+click on it. This will create a Bright 1 selection. Now hit Ctrl+Shift+I on your keyboard (or select Select/Inverse from the menu). This will change the selection to the Dark 1 selection. You can create a new channel from this selection and call it Dark 1. To create all the other ones, just follow the same steps as when creating the Bright selections.

Understanding Luminosity selections and masks

If you want to avoid having to do this all the time, you can make it easier on yourself. Create actions that makes these masks, or buy Raya Pro or TK actions. Both of them create all the masks for you in one button press.

Once you have these channels, just choose one you want to work it and create a selection of it with Ctrl+click. If you want to make it into a layer mask, go back to layers with the selection active, choose the layer you want to use and click on Add layer mask (button looks the same as the one we used to create channels, in the bottom right of the layers window)

That’s all for today, next time I will show you how to use this in editing and blending of images.

Evening and night photos

When you do late evening and night photos, you very quickly run into the 30 second exposure time limit. For some reason camera manufacturers still insist on sticking to this stupid limit, that should have no place in modern digital cameras. But they do. So once you hit this limit, but your photo is still dark, what do you do? You have to change the aperture or the ISO. Today I will share with you my thoughts on which way to go and also possible solutions how to get around it. Please note, this is mostly for landscape and cityscape photos. Photos where you want to keep the depth of field high.

Higher ISO or bigger aperture?

So which one? Both approaches have their problems. When you use a bigger aperture (smaller F number), you loose the depth of field and sometimes also sharpness. When you use higher ISO, you are getting more noise and sometimes, when you go too high, you may loose small details completely.

I look at it this way. You can remove noise in post-processing, you can’t change a blurred area into a sharp one (OK, Topaz Sharpen AI can partially do it, but the results are not the same). As cameras are getting better and better and have less noise in higher ISO, the approach here is quite obvious.

Try different ISO settings on your camera, to determine the highest one you are still comfortable to use. I prefer not to go more than 400 to 800 ISO on my camera. I know that a higher one would still give a nice result, but I prefer to stay a bit lower. So once you can no longer use ISO 100 or lower, stick to the F stop you want to use first. Then raise your ISO until the ceiling you determined for your camera, and only after that start going to bigger apertures.

This photo was underexposed by around 3 stops when it was taken.

Different solutions

  • Manual focusing. If you focus manually on exactly what you want, you can get away with using a bigger aperture, without loosing the depth of field you want. Having a look at focusing using Hyperfocal distance will also help you to maximize it.
  • Underexposing a photo. A way to get over the 30s limit, is just to underexpose the photo. When you shoot in RAW, you can get few exposure stops from it. So you can take a photo that is 2 stops underexposed and then just overexpose it in post-processing. Can save you a lot of time in the field.
  • Bulb timer. You can stick to your ISO and aperture, and just use a very long exposure. Some cameras have bulb timer build in, for some you need a remote. Bulb timer is a great solution if you have a lot of time to spare. But that’s often not the case. For instance, taking photos during a short blue hour. It’s just over so quickly. If every photo you take takes you 5 minutes, you take only very few.
  • Focus blending. Depending on the scene you are capturing, you can try doing focus blending. Instead of one long exposure, do multiple shorter ones, with bigger aperture and different focus points. Then blend them into one in post-processing.
  • Tilt-shift lens. One of the ways one can use a tilt-shift lens, is to tilt the focus plane. It’s mostly used to get a shallow depth of field, but you can also go the other way. You can use it to get a bigger depth of field, while still using a bigger aperture. Like that you can use a shorter shutter speed and lower ISO.
  • Magic Lantern firmware. If you have an older Canon camera, you can use the Magic Lantern firmware on it and so remove some of the camera’s limitations. It provides a build in bulb timer and also allows for longer than 30s shots when doing bracketing. Overall, it gives so many features, that’s it’s worth a try.

Blend of two photos with different focus points.

So these were my thought on this topic, and I hope you find them interesting and maybe helpful.

Photoshop shortcuts

Photoshop has a shortcut for almost everything you can do in it. But there are some that you should definitively know and use when photo editing. They just make the work so much faster and easier. I have been using these so much, that I can no longer even find some tools in the menus. I always just use the shortcut :)

Photoshop shortcuts for photo editing

  • Ctrl+Z – undo. I’m only including this, as recently the undo behavior changed in Photoshop. Ctrl+Z is now a regular undo and you can press it multiple times to go back in editing history. Previously it toggled the last state instead.
  • Shift – restrict movement. Holding down Shift with most other tools in Photoshop will restrict what you do to only horizontal or vertical movement. So for instance when you are using a brush and want to do a straight line, hold down Shift and draw your line. It will be straight. You can use the same with Clone stamp tool, Gradient and other tools in Photoshop
  • Space – pan. The most basic shortcut. When you hold down space, you cursor will change into a hand and you can drag around your image. Using scroll bars or zooming in/out is just not as effective.
  • Ctrl+Space – zoom in. After moving around, zooming is the second most common thing you will do in Photoshop. When you hold down the keys, the cursor changes to a magnifying glass and you can zoom in by clicking. You can also hold Alt+Space for zoom out, but I never use that. The shortcut is not as comfortable to use. Instead, while holding down Ctrl+Space I right click, and from the menu choose Fit to screen. This makes for a very fast navigation overall
  • Ctrl – move. By holding down Ctrl, you will temporary switch to the move tool. It’s just for the time you holding it. So you can for instance be painting, and you notice you want to move something. Hold it down, move what you need, and just let it go and return to what you were doing.
  • B – brush. When masking photos, you will use the brush a lot. Not needing to go back to the tools panel will save you a lot of time
  • Alt+RMB+move mouse – change hardness/size. One needs to change the hardness and especially the size of a brush very often. To avoid having to go to the toolbar all the time, there is a simpler way. This works of course only when the brush tool is selected. What you do is to hold down the Alt key together with the right mouse button. A circle will shot up. Now move you mouse left to decrease the size of the brush, right to increase. Move down to increase the hardness, up to decrease it.
  • D – default colors. Hitting D on your keyboard will set the foreground color to black, with the background to white. Especially in masking you will use these two colors a lot, so this makes for a great and easy way to reset them. (btw. when you have a mask selected, it defaults to the opposite, so black foreground with white background)
  • X – switch colors. Using the X key will switch the foreground and the background colors. Again, really useful with masking, where you switch between white and black all the time.
  • Ctrl+T – free transform. Another one you will do all the time. This will let you transform your selection. Don’t forget, that you can change the way you transform by just right clicking the selection and choosing from the menu. Perspective, distort and warp are really useful in photo editing.
  • Ctrl+I – invert. Pressing this combination will create a negative of you photo. Not really that useful there, but much more with layer masks. For instance when you have a mask that selects all the light parts of a photo, just press it and you have a mask that selects all the dark areas of a photo.
  • Ctrl+D – deselect. Everybody knows Ctrl+A is select all. But you will not use that that often in Photoshop. Instead, especially if you work a lot with selections, you will need to deselect quite a lot. And going through the menu all the time is just too much of a hassle.
  • Ctrl+H – show/hide extras. Things like marching ants, guidelines and grids are very helpful when editing. But sometime there are just in the way. You need to see what you are doing without any distractions. In this case, just hit Ctrl+H to hide them all. But when you can’t find them afterwards, don’t forget to turn them back on :)
  • Ctrl+Alt+Shift+E – merge visible. Often during the editing, you need to merge all the layers you already worked on, into one. For instance when you are using a plugin and you want it to work on more than just the last layer. Pressing this combination will merge them all and create a new layer on top.
  • Shift + Backspace – fill dialog. Another one that you will use all the time. This shortcut opens the fill dialog, where you can fill a selection with a specific color. But the more important use is that you can choose content aware as the fill option here. Like this you can use Photoshop to quickly fill in missing parts of a photo, or to remove objects or people from it. Just do the selection around them, open the dialog, choose content aware and confirm.
  • Ctrl+click on layer – select layer content. Another useful shortcut when working with layers and layer masks. If you hold down Ctrl and click on a layer in the layer window, the whole content will be selected (which with photo is mostly the whole image). But when you click on a layer mask, everything that is white is selected. This is very important in editing and the creating of luminance masks. You want to restrict your selection, and this is how it’s done.

Let’s end here so this does not end up like a Photoshop manual :) There are many other shortcuts and the ones you use will mostly depend what you do there. But in photo editing, I think these are the ones you will use all the time. After a while, you will even stop thinking about them and just use them automatically.

Photoshop shortcuts for photo editing

Brightening a photo in Photoshop

When I take my photos, I tend to underexpose them. This is because one can usually recover shadows from a RAW file, but not really highlights. Once something is burned out in a photo, it’s gone for good. But then I have to brighten them in the end. So today I will show you a way, that I apply almost to every one of my photos. It does not only brighten it, but also gives a bit of contrast, color and overall pop to the photo. Works well on most of my photos.

This is more for the ones that are less familiar with luminosity masks, as those who use them probably do this all the time :)

Using levels to brighten a photo

So what I do, is to create a selection of only the shadow areas in a photo and then add contrast and brightness to those. I don’t want to change anything with the bright areas of the photo, just the dark ones. One has to:

1. Open a photo one wants to edit
2. Go into the Channels window. If you don’t see it, you can turn it on under Window/Channels
3. In this window, hold down Ctrl and click on the RGB channel. This will select all the bright areas in a photo and you will see the selection marching ants on your image.

Using levels to brighten a photo

4. Now, we need to inverse this selection, so instead of the bright areas it selects the dark ones. Hit Ctrl+Shift+I (or Select/Inverse from the menu). The selection will change to the inverse one.
5. Go back to the layers window. Choose Create new Adjustment layer in the bottom right (circle icon that is half white, half black) and from the menu choose levels.

Using levels to brighten a photo

6. A new levels layer will be added with a mask already applied to it. In the levels window, you will see, that the histogram is towards the left and not the right. That means no highlights are select and will not be modified.
7. To add brightness, start dragging the white triangle on the right side of the histogram to the left. Until it touches the histogram, you are no overexposing any parts of the photo, so you can safely move it as much as you need.
8. To add contrast, move the middle triangle to right. I would not overdo this, usually staying between 1.0 and 0.9 works best.

Using levels to brighten a photo

You can repeat this process multiple times, as after each edit, the selection changes. If you are getting very saturated colors afterwards, you can just change the blending mode of the layer to Luminosity and then it will have no effect on the color saturation at all. Yo can also use this only on part of your image, depending on what you need.

One can get a similar result by using Curves or the Brightness/Contrast adjustments. Mostly depends on which one are you most comfortable to use.

And here are few before/after comparisons. The changes are subtle, but noticeable. Maybe a bit harder with the photos next to each other, but much more when you can flip between the two versions in Photoshop. Most editing is just these subtle changes used multiple times.

Using levels to brighten a photo
Using levels to brighten a photo
Using levels to brighten a photo

This is a very simple edit, but once one gets used to it and luminosity masks, one can get really great results with it. I have some photos, where all of my edits were just levels with different masks applied :)

Time of day

Sunrise and sunset are the most popular times to take photos at. And it’s not really a surprise. The low sun can give you great color and makes for some wonderful photos. But which one to choose? Let me give you my thought on that :) Btw. most of the points are the same for morning vs. evening blue hour.

Sunrise vs. Sunset

At sunrise you have the place for yourself – Most of the places are empty very early in the morning. No cars, no people, no tourist and mostly not even other photographers. Nobody will stand in you way, nobody will photo-bomb your photos. Even very busy tourist spot (Eiffel tower, Tower bridge and similar) are empty in the morning. Of course there are exceptions. For instance there are always people at the Charles bridge in Prague. At any time.

The sun position is more unique at sunrise – Not many people do photos at sunrise. And there are probably even some that never seen one. As the sun is in a different position as for sunset, this makes for a more unique photo.

Sunrise vs. Sunset

Sunrise in Amsterdam

The air is clearer at sunrise – As it’s usually colder during the night than during the day, the moisture in the air condensates and it results in a more clearer view. Like this you will get more sharper photos. This does not work always and everywhere, but mostly it does.

Better water reflections at sunrise – If you ever been in Budapest, Amsterdam or any other city with a lot of water traffic, you would seen how hard is to get a reflection in a lake that is always being disturbed. But if you go in the morning, there is not traffic, and the water is perfectly calm. Like this you can get the most beautiful reflections.

Sunrise vs. Sunset

Sunrise in Cesky Krumlov

You can use a tripod at more locations during sunrise – There are places where normally you cant use a tripod. But if you are there very there is usually nobody to bother you, so nobody will mind if you use one.

Not everything is accessible at sunrise – This is sometimes a problem when taking sunrise photos. Some areas may be closed off and not accessible at all. A nice example here is a viewing platform in the middle of Cesky Krumlov, that has the best view of the city. It’s not open at all before 8am, so no luck if one wants sunrise photos.

Sunrise vs. Sunset

Sunset in Paris

It’s much easier to be up at sunset – Of course the biggest problem of sunrise is that it’s so early. Especially if you have been taking photos until lat at night. I sometimes don’t even go to sleep, as it easier than waking after only few hours.

Street and decorative lights are mostly on – Street lamps and decorative lights in the cities come on closer to the sunset, and usually turn off quite before the sunrise. So it you want the light in the shot, you are better of with sunset. Most decorative light are turned off in the middle of the night and you will not have them at all in the morning. This can be a positive in few cases too. Some landmarks have very strong lights on them.

Sunrise vs. Sunset

Sunset at the Neusidler See

Either way, you should get great photos at both times, just don’t forget that there are also other times in the day :)

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