Luminosity With Elements

Modifying the luminosity with Elements is an outstanding selection method that allows us to change an image based on the brightness of the image.  Making adjustments based on luminosity is a professional level, outstanding adjustment that you'll use over and over again once your understand how to use it with Elements. 

You may wonder why you should spend time learning another selection-adjustment technique and that's a good question.

Think about this - every time you do an image adjustment the whole image is adjusted by the same amount.  For instance, if you make a 10% change to a Levels Adjustment Layer then the whole image is changed by 10%.  If that adjustment is too much for one part of the image then a Layer Mask can be used to decrease the affect of the adjustment.

Wouldn't it be great if there was a way to make an adjustment based on the brightness of the image?  

There is - and it's a fabulous adjustment that's based on making a selection that's based on brightness.  Despite the apparent complexity of the adjustment, it's surprisingly easy to modify luminosity with Elements.

This is a technique that's regularly used by professional photographers and professional digital editors as a valuable part of their post-processing and the starting point is to make a luminosity mask.  I learned about it years ago and became a fan of the technique because of Tony Kuyper - this is a link to his original Luminosity Masks for Photoshop tutorial. It's an in-depth, thorough study of the subject and well worth your time.

What is a Luminosity Mask?

The question you may be asking is this "what's the difference between a normal mask and a luminosity with Elements mask"?

A normal mask is generated from a selection by one of the Lassos, the Magic Wand, the Quick Selection Brush or one of the Marquee tools.  The typical mask generated from one of these selections is a simple black and white mask with hard edges and feathering can introduce some softness to the edge of the selection.

A Luminosity with Elements mask is a greyscale positive of the original color image.  The mask is shades of grey that exactly match the brightness values of the original image.   A fabulous feature of the mask is that it's self-feathering so there are no hard edges or strange borders - just fabulous transitions based on the brightness changes in an area.

Below is a sample picture, a normally selected mask and a luminosity mask.  The Luminosity with Elements  Mask is substantially different from the Selection Mask, isn't it?  Creating one of these fabulous masks is what you're going to learn in this tutorial and how to modify your image using the mask - exciting, huh?

The Original
Color Photograph

A Layer Mask
From A Selection

A Luminosity
Layer Mask


Some Examples

The fabulous thing about doing an adjustment to the luminosity with Elements is that the adjustment makes subtle changes that produce an overall fabulous improvement that you cannot achieve with any other adjustment.  

Here are a few examples - in each case the image on the left is the original and the image on the right after a relatively easy adjustment with the luminosity technique ...

Original Mountain Photograph

Mountain Photograph After
Luminosity Adjustment

Original Steam Whistle Photograph

Steam Whistle
After Luminosity Adjustment

Original Soup Guy

Soup Guy
After Luminosity Adjustment

In the first part of the tutorial you'll learn how to make a Luminosity with Elements mask and in the second part you'll discover a couple of different adjustment methods once the mask is created.

It's fun and very, very effective!

Luminosity with Elements
in Point Form

Surprisingly, the steps to modify an image by using luminosity with Elements is quite straight forward.

  1. A good place to start is to duplicate the Background Layer - just because.

  2. Now add a Levels Adjustment Layer.

  3. Select the Background Copy Layer and then Ctrl-A and Ctrl-C (Cmd-A and Cmd-C on a Mac).

  4. Select the Levels Adjustment Layer and then Alt-Click on the Layer Mask.  The main image will disappear to be replaced by the white layer mask.

  5. With the Layer Mask active Ctrl-V and the Ctrl-D (Cmd-V and Cmd-D on a Mac).  This pastes the copy you made in a previous step into the Layer Mask as a greyscale representation of the brightness levels.  Click on the Levels Adjustment Layer to bring back the color image.

  6. Place the cursor over the Layer Mask and Ctrl-Click on the mask - this will create a selection and the marching ants will be visible.

  7. Select the Background Copy and then Ctrl-J.  This places the selection made on the Layer Mask onto its own layer - the convention with Luminosity Masks is to name this Layer "Lights"..  If you turn off all of the other layers (Alt-Click on the Layers eyeball) then you'll see the selection for what it is - these are all of the pixels that fall in the range of pure white down to 50% grey and these are the ones that will be adjusted


At this point you've got the fabulous Luminosity Mask on a layer by itself and there are two things you can do now.

Blend Mode

Turn off the visibility of the Levels adjustment layer, select the Luminosity Mask layer and change the Blend Mode to Overlay (Overlay increases contrast - the whites get whiter and the darks get darker).  If this change is what you want then you're done.

If it's not then make a copy of the Luminosity Mask layer by dragging it to the new layer icon - this will create a new Luminosity Mask layer with n Overlay Blending mode.  At this point you can do it again or simply lower the opacity to taste.

Adjust Levels

Select the Levels Layer and then place the cursor on the line between the Levels Layer and the one you just created and Alt-Click.  This will clip the Levels Layer to the " layer so that any Levels adjustment will only affect that layer.  Now start moving the sliders around and watch the effect on the image.  It may be subtle and it may also be profound.  Do some before and after checks by Alt-Clicking the Background Copy eyeball and prepare to be amazed.

With this technique you can chose to modify the lightest areas of the image, the darkest areas of the image or both.  It's a versatile and powerful technique with absolutely no tiresome and generally inaccurate selecting required.

Once you become adept at the Luminosity with Elements process then your images will pop and you will be recognized as a fabulous photographer and digital editor!

That's it - two nice straight forward techniques.  Now let's see them in action ...

Luminosity With Elements
Blend Mode

This method is quick and easy.  Open the image and then follow these steps ...

  1. Create a new Adjustment Layer above the image layer - it doesn't matter which one as long as it contains a Layer Mask (every Adjustment Layer contains a Layer Mask).
  2. Select the Background Layer and then Ctrl-A and Ctrl-C to copy the color image.
  3. Select the Adjustment Layer and Alt-click on the Layer Mask to display it in the work space.
  4. Ctrl-V to paste the color image as a black and white image into the Layer Mask.  Click on the Layer Mask to bring the full color image back into the work space.  Ctrl-Click on the Layer Mask to generate the Luminosity Mask.
  5. Select the Background layer and press Ctrl-J to paste the Luminosity with Elements Mask onto its own layer.  Name this layer - Lu Mask might work.
  6. Turn off the Adjustment Layer eyeball or simply delete it.
  7. Change the Blend Mode of the Lu Mask Layer to Overlay.  If it's exactly what you want then stop.  If it needs more work then copy the Lu Mask again and modify the Opacity as needed.

Here's an example of this method ...

Packard Eight Spare WheelPackard Eight Spare Wheel

And here's the Packard Eight wheel after following the preceeding steps and then changing the Blend Mode to Overlay ...

The changes to an image are subtle yet powerful.  In this image (I copied the Luminosity with Elements Mask Layer once) the silver parts are much - silverer - if that's even a word and the area behind the spokes is much brighter.  That's a nice change for such a small amount of effort.

Luminosity With Elements
Levels Adjustment



Here's the original image for the second adjustment in this tutorial.

Overall it looks quite nice with no glaring problems or shortcomings.

The question is this - will the luminosity with Elements adjustments improve the image? 


Step One

Duplicate the Background Layer and then add a Levels Adjustment Layer at the top of the Layers stack.

The Adjustment Layer doesn't need to be a Levels Layer, although with Elements this is the most effective way to modify and image - the only thing that's necessary is to have the Layer Mask which is important in the next step. 

Step Two - Luminosity with Elements

Select the Background copy layer and then Ctrl-A (Cmd-A Mac) to select all and then Ctrl-C (Cmd-C Mac) to copy the Background copy layer.

Now select the Levels Adjustment Layer and then Alt-Click (Option-Click Mac) on the Layer Mask to display the Layer Mask in the work area.  It'll be white because there's nothing in the Layer Mask.

Ctrl-V (Cmd-V Mac) to paste the copy made earlier into the Layer Mask - it'll be a nice black and white image that you'll likely just sit and admire. 

To complete Step 2, simply click on the Levels adjustment layer and the Layer Mask will contain the black and white image and then de-select (Ctrl-D and Cmd-D on a Mac).

Color Image Pasted into Layer Mask
Luminosity Mask Layer Palette

Step Three - Making the Mask

Luminosity with Elements HistogramLuminosity Histogram

Move your cursor over the Layer Mask and Ctrl-Click (Cmd-Click Mac) directly on the Mask.  This creates a selection based on the Luminosity in the image.  The lightest areas are fully selected and areas of lesser lightness are selected in proportion. 

If you've got the Histogram Palette open (with the Channel set to Luminosity) you'll see that only pixels in the top half of the brightness range are included in the selection - basically the pixels from middle grey to pure white.

If it's not open then open the histogram so you can admire it - this is a really neat histogram curve that's true to the technique.  By Ctrl-clicking  (CMD-clicking) on the Layer Mask only the lightest pixels are selected.

After Ctrl-(Cmd) clicking this is how the image will look with the lightest areas selected. 


This is a very complex selection that you cannot create in any other way with Photoshop Elements. 

There's somethings to know about this selection.  Despite the fact that the marching ants are only visible in parts of the image, all of the image is selected.

With Adobe only pixels that are 50% selected will show the marching ants.

Step Four - Creating The Mask Layer

With this totally awesome selection active, click on the Background copy layer and then Ctrl-J (Cmd-J) to add a new raster layer that contains the selection.  Name this layer "Lights".

If you Alt-Click (Opt-Click) on the new layer eyeball then all of the other layers will be turned off with only this new layer visible.

What you'll notice is that the promoted selection is very faint and hard to see.

The darkest areas are not included on this layer and everything above middle grey in lightness value is included to one degree or another.

What that means is that some pixels are fully selected and others are selected to a lesser degree.  What you see here is that the Luminosity Mask in Elements is self Feathering.

Now turn all of the layers back on by Alt-Clicking (Alt/Option-Clicking Mac) on the new layer.

If you started off with a Levels Adjustment layer then you can start adjusting the Luminosity.  If you used another Adjustment Layer then throw it in the Trash and add a Levels Adjustment Layer above the Lights layer.

Now clip the Levels layer to the Lights layer by placing the cursor on the line separating the two layers, pressing the Alt (Option) key and clicking your left mouse button.

The Levels layer will jump to the right.  What this does is limit any adjustment done on the Levels layer to the the Layer directly below it, in this case the Lights layer. 

Step Five - Adjusting the Light Areas

This is where the magic of this technique comes into play.  You've got three sliders on the Layers Adjustment layer to play with.

  • Move the Shadows slider (Left) up will make the image darker
  • Move the Highlights slider (Right) to the left will make the image darker.
  • Adjust the mid-point slider to brighten or darken the mid tones.

If the light areas are two light then you can move the mid-point slider of the Levels Adjustment to the right.  This will darken the light areas on the image, like this ... 

Is There A Difference, Really? 

You bet there is!

If the same Levels adjustment was done on the whole image without a Luminosity Mask being created then the end result would be quite different, and the image to the left is how it looks.

When you compare the image to the left with the one modified earlier then it's easy to see there is a big difference.

The light areas in both are the same with the big difference being in the dark areas.

The darkest areas in the image to the right are way too dark with some areas losing any detail at all.

With the Luminosity Mask version the dark areas are protected because they are not included to the same degree as the lighter pixels. 

The Next Step
Decreasing Selection Size

On occasion you may find that the first selection of the lightest part of the image is far too wide - there's a way around that and it's quite easy.

After you've pasted the copy of the Background layer into the Layer Mask the normal thing (as stated earlier) is to Ctrl-click (Cmd-click Mac) on the layer mask which will select the lightest pixels.  Now the selection is copied to a new layer and the adjustment is completed.

If you wish to select smaller areas of luminosity everything stays the same - except - after the first Ctrl-click on the Layer Mask you are going to to it again using an Alt-Ctrl-Shift-Click.  Each time you do it the range of  light pixels selected becomes smaller and smaller.

When you're satisfied with the selection simply carry on with the rest of the adjustment - a nice simple method to produce a wonderful yet subtle modification.

Here's some examples using the church picture.  I made five different Luminosity masks and then put a black layer below each one to make it easier to see the mask.

First Luminosity Selection
Second Luminosity Selection
Third Luminosity Selection
Fourth Luminosity Selection
Fifth Luminosity Selection

First Luminosity Selection

Second Luminosity Selection

Third Luminosity Selection

Fourth Luminosity Selection

Fifth Luminosity Selection

From left to right it's apparent that each time the Alt-Ctrl-Shift keys (Cmd-Opt-Shift - Mac) are pressed and the layer mask is clicked then the highlight selection becomes smaller and smaller.  The histograms below each thumbnail also become narrower and narrower.

What this means is that any adjustment (either Levels or changing the Blend Mode) will have a narrower and narrower effect on the image because with a layer mask Black conceals and White reveals.  

The effect on the pixels will be ...

  • Black pixels (level 0 on the Histogram) - no affect because Black Conceals.
  • Gray Pixels (level 1 to level 254 on the Histogram) - from very little affect at the low end to almost total affect at the highest range.
  • Pure White Pixels (level 255 on the Histogram) - maximum affect because White Reveals.

The Dark Pixels

Here's another scenario that you may face – what do you do if you want to modify the dark pixels in an image using Luminosity with Elements? I've actually found this quite useful for fixing up overexposed images especially if it's an overexposed old photograph that needs some tender loving care.

Here are the steps…

  1. Open your image and make a copy of the background layer and Add a Levels Adjustment Layer.
  2. With the background copy layer active, go to Enhance > Adjust Color > Hue and Saturation. Move the saturation slider all the way to the left (-100) – this removes all color from the image.
  3. Now invert the black and white image, Ctrl-I a [Cmd–I on Mac] and then Ctrl-A (Cmd-A Mac) to select the whole image and then Ctrl-C (Cmd-C on Mac) to put a copy of the inverted black and white image on the clipboard.
  4. Move the cursor over the Levels Adjustment Layer mask and Alt–click (Option–click on Mac) on the layer mask to put it in the work area. Paste the copied black-and-white inverted image into the layer mask, Ctrl-V (Cmd-V – on Mac).  Select the levels adjustment layer which will return the view of the inverted black and white image.  It's no longer needed so you can delete it.
  5. Ctrl-click (Cmd-click on Mac) the layer mask - this creates a selection which can be seen in the work area.   
  6. Select the background layer and Ctrl-J (Cmd-J on Mac) to promote the selection to a new layer. This is your luminosity mask.  It's probably good procedure to give this layer a name - darks might be a good idea
  7. Clip the levels adjustment layer to the luminosity mask layer by placing the cursor on the line between the Levels Adjustment layer and the Darks layer and then alt-click (Opt-Click on Mac).  Now any adjustment you make with the levels adjustment layer will only affect the mask layer.
  8. Now move your levels adjustment layer around or alternatively, change the blend mode of the mask layer.

Here's how it works out with an old picture.  I took this with a film camera way back when and processed it in my darkroom.  The print I made from the negative (which I scanned into my computer) is a bit too dark and needs some TLC with a Luminosity with Elements Mask.

I like the tractor image just as it is, however there are far too many black areas that need some taming.

Here's how the Luminosity with Elements project looks after adding a Levels Adjustment Layer, copying the Background layer and inverting the Background Copy.

After Ctrl-Clicking (Cmd-Click on Mac), the Luminosity Mask is created. The next step is to Delete the inverted layer, highlight the Background and Ctrl-J (Cmd-J on Mac) to place the Mask on its own layer. 

Now it's time to make the (almost) final adjustment and there are two choices - change the Blend Mode or modify the Levels.  Let's look at both.

Blend Mode Change

Because the goal with this picture was to lighten the shadow areas then the Blend Mode that will do that is the Screen Blend Mode.  After the Tractor Mask was created, the Levels Adjustment Layer was deleted and the Blend Mode of the Mask Layer was changed to Screen.

This is how it came out - looking OK!

Levels Adjustment

And this is how it worked out by adjusting the Levels ...

That's it for Luminosity with Elements for now but check back often because the Luminosity with Elements technique is so versatile and so powerful that there's always new things to discover and learn!

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