If you have been around the HDR world for any length of time, you have probably heard of luminosity masking somewhere. It’s an incredibly powerful feature that gives you great control over your final image. But I think for many people it comes across as a challenging or even difficult technique to understand, much less master the use of. It is not a technique that everyone does and I am sure that many people don’t even know where to start with it.
But guess what? You can do this in Aurora HDR too, and it's rather easy! Aurora HDR really has everything you need to make stunning HDR photos. Luminosity masking is a very popular feature of the product, but I think it is overlooked a lot because Aurora just has so much other amazing stuff built into it. It’s crazy that the product is so good that a feature this amazing gets overlooked, but it does.
So what is luminosity masking?
It’s a technique that allows you to make edits to your photo based on the luminance or brightness of the image. The mask is created and applied automatically to your photo based on the light values in the image. Thanks to the wonders of Aurora HDR, you don't have to do anything to create it other than just a couple of clicks.
Using luminosity masks is something nearly every landscape photographer has in their toolkit (it's use seems to be most prevalent on landscapes). Now that you can do that right in Aurora, you can save yourself countless time and effort by skipping Photoshop. You create the Luminosity Mask by adding a new layer and then in the layer drop-down menu you just select Create Luminosity Mask. Aurora will create it for you automatically. You can then apply any edits specifically to the light areas of your image, or if necessary, invert the mask and apply it only to the dark areas of the photo.
Creating a luminosity mask:
Here's the mask displayed so you can see that the mask is at 100% opacity in the brightest parts of the photo (the sky in this case), and much less opacity in darker areas of the photo:
And for comparison purposes, here is the luminosity mask inverted in the image, resulting in low opacity in the bright areas and 100% opacity in the darker sections of the image:
To invert the mask, you just click on the same drop-down menu that you used to create the luminosity mask in the first place, and click on "Invert Mask". It just takes a second and it's inverted.
Using Luminosity Masks
Essentially what luminosity masks do is make an advanced selection based on light values in the photo. This helps overcome any shortcomings in the tonal values that were captured by your camera. You create the mask and then your edits are selectively applied to the image. It’s another unique way to control your creative vision for a photo.
This is considered an “advanced” sort of technique by most photographers, but I highly recommend that you experiment with it on some images just to see how it differs from your normal editing process. Try out some presets to see how they look on the photo. I believe that you will be able to see the difference.
I find that it results in a much more natural end result with any image, because of the nature of the mask. In other words, the mask is not at 100% opacity across the entire image, therefore your edits will vary across the image based on the opacity levels of the mask. Make sense?
How about a comparison, Jim? Sure, that sounds great.
Here is that same image from above. It's a street scene from one of my favorite European cities - Copenhagen, Denmark. I just love it there. It's an absolutely beautiful city. But, I digress.
In order to give a strong example of the power of luminosity masks, I am using a preset that basically looks horrible on this photo, at least to me. It's from the Dramatic preset category, and it's called Late Fall. There's nothing wrong with the preset - it's just that it doesn't look good on this photo. I have added it at 100% opacity to the base HDR image. In my opinion, the colors are way off, it's too saturated, and I just don't like it.
Now, in the photo below I have added a new layer and created a luminosity mask on that layer. Then, I apply that exact same preset, once again at 100% opacity, but just look at the difference in the end result. It's entirely different, and way better in my opinion. It's a much more subtle implementation that actually works for me here. You could never even guess that it is the same preset as above - it looks totally different. In fact, it looks great!
Here's another example, also done on this same photo. This time, I have chosen the "Landscape Deep" preset from the Landscape category. The first photo below is the preset applied at 100% opacity to the layer WITHOUT the luminosity mask. As you can tell quite easily, it is very colorful and basically unnatural looking.
I think anyone would look at that and think "wow, you really pushed the saturation sliders a bit". However, I then went in and added a luminosity mask to this layer, and applied the same preset at 100% opacity. You can immediately see that the result is much more natural looking, much more subtle, and much more believable.
I believe that luminosity masks are an incredibly powerful way to make subtle, realistic adjustments to your HDR photos. They make an impact that is visible, but not extreme. The results are very natural looking.
Of course, it seems like a video is the best way to demonstrate the power of luminosity masking in Aurora, so check this out:
But wait a minute - I have ANOTHER trick for you!
Do you remember a couple of pages back when I discussed using blend modes with your textures? Well, blend modes are NOT exclusive to textures. Technically, they have nothing to do with a texture. A blend mode just changes the way one layer interacts with another layer. If you notice, each time you create a new layer there is also a drop-down menu there for blend mode. The default position is NORMAL but I highly recommend that you experiment with various blend modes on your different layers, especially if you have added a preset to that layer. You can't possibly predict how any of it will turn out, but I find it can product some very different looks than the preset applied in NORMAL mode.
But here's another trick to try out - combine a luminosity mask with the preset (just like we did above) and then experiment with different blend modes. I have used this technique and it often results in a much more subtle and natural looking HDR implementation than I would otherwise have gotten.
Just to make it easy for you, I created a video about this, which you will find below. The bottom line is that you should not be afraid to experiment and try out different combinations of presets, luminosity masks and blend modes. It's highly likely you will find something that works really well for your photo.
Hopefully this shows you just how powerful luminosity masks are. I believe it is an essential tool in your workflow and one that I highly recommend you spend some time experimenting with. You can create very natural HDR photos by using luminosity masks and thus employ a very subtle touch of HDR to your final images.
Next we will cover a topic I am very much a fan of - color shifting your HDR photos. It's easy to do but very powerful.