Using Masks in Lightroom

Using Masks in Lightroom

In this post, I’m going to discuss using masks in Lightroom, how this feature stacks up against DxO PhotoLab and whether it is easier to use than masks in Photoshop. I must own up to only ever using the Radial and Linear Gradient tools with any frequency in Lightroom, preferring to use a combination of Lumenzia and Photoshop for all other adjustments, but I’m sufficiently impressed with one new feature in Lightroom to save going into Photoshop at all with some images. Read on to find out which!

What are Masks in Lightroom?

Masks allow us to move away from the global controls and “mask” off an area of an image in order to apply an effect to it. This is a step forward for Lightroom, bringing it closer to Photoshop and addressing the advantages that U-Point technology bring to the principle competitor, DxO PhotoLab. The new masks are non destructive, they can be edited after the fact and Intersection allows us to combine two masks to great effect – essentially it reduces a multistep process that has been available for some time to a one click process about which more, later.

What Masks are Available in Lightroom

Selection Tools (AI Powered)

  • Select Subject
  • Select Sky
  • Select Background
  • Select People
  • Select Object

These tools pretty much do what they say on the tin. Powered by AI they make a pretty decent stab at creating accurate masks around types of object that are recognisable in the image.

Application Tools

  • Brush
  • Linear Gradient
  • Radial Gradient

These are the traditional tools that have been available for ever. The Brush allows the user to paint in a selection, setting the Feather, Flow and Density values to appropriate levels.

  • Feather – fades the brush stroke into the adjacent pixels
  • Flow – the opacity of the stroke, if set to 20, then five strokes will take it to 100%
  • Density – The maximum opacity value for the brush

The Linear Gradient allows the user to mask off a section of the image and apply different tone controls to it. Radial Gradients allow the user to draw a circle or ellipse around any object in the image and apply different tone controls.

Linear Gradients and Radial Gradients benefit from a smooth blending of the effect with the original.

Colour & Luminance Tools

  • Colour Range
  • Luminence
  • Depth

Colour Ranges and Luminance are very powerful selection tools that can be applied in the first case to a specific colour or range of colours and in the second to areas of selected brightness or dark. The Luminance tool in particular is invaluable to Landscape Photographers as it is able to pick out complex silhouettes along a horizon.

The Hidden Gems

Mask on Sky

What I want to do here is select everything except the sky. Now that is going to be a challenge as the pine tree is difficult thing to mask. So, I have used the tool to select the sky. It’s not perfect, but I can use the Subtract tool to brush out the spill over next to the tree on the right and the cloud on the left is below the horizon, but that doesn’t matter so much.


This flips the mask around. If I have selected the sky, the Inversion tool will select the land. I can then duplicate and rename the mask and work on one or other separately.


Does exactly what it promises. Simply duplicates the mask so that you can apply a different effect.

Duplicate and Invert

Lightroom Mask Inverted

Let’s say I wanted to apply controls to the sky and to the land. How to avoid overlapping two masks? Simple. Duplicate and Invert!

How to separate the sky behind the tree from the selection?

Choose Colour Range to capture the greys and delete the rest of the Mask – outside of the tree

Here, I used the Colour Range tool to select the greys and then deleted everything outside of the tree.

So far, so intuitive. These are perfectly logical steps forward in the quest to make Lightroom as simple and straightforward to use as its competitors. The real magic is found in the three little dots next to the mask title which are invisible until you select a mask that you have applied to the image.


Almost Complete

So the last thing to do is take a little bit of luminance out of the cloud at top left – it’s slightly too dominant, but I don’t want to affect the rest of the sky. I could try to do this directly with a brush, but there would be no gradient and would look unnatural. This is where intersection comes in. I need a linear gradient, but not across the entire sky or the land.

Intersection is a very powerful tool indeed – it allows you create a second mask overlapping the first where the effect is only visible in the overlapping area. This is best visualised by imagining a whole sky selection or a linear gradient as the primary mask and a brush as the secondary mask – this allows us to paint the gradient onto the areas of the sky where it is needed, avoiding other area where it is just fine as it is.

Selecting the mask and holding the option key down (on the mac) reveals the Intersect button. From there you choose what tool you want to use for the overlapping mask. Equally, hovering over the primary mask reveals three dots and the visibility icon to the right. Clicking on the three dots invokes a menu of which “Intersect with” is one of the choices.

Linear Gradient intersect with Brush

This control is what is getting everyone so excited. In this photo I applied a linear gradient to the top left of the frame, angled so that it would cover the clouds. You can see in the picture above that it also crosses the hill in the foreground.

I adjust the gradient until the area I’m interested in looks the way I want it to. At this stage the gradient is applied as normal, crossing the screen at around 40° – I choose intersect on the mask and choose brush. The whole effect disappears and I can now paint it in so that it only affects the clouds.

Using Masks in Lightroom

It’s a very subtle effect, but that’s the point. These controls bring levels of subtlety to Lightroom that match anything in Capture One or PhotoLab, subtlety that was only previously available Photoshop.

How do Lightroom Masks compare with DxO Local Adjustments?

It seems to me that Lightroom has just moved ahead in terms of functionality. The control points offered by DxO PhotoLab are nowhere close to being as easy to use as the masks offered in Lightroom.

It will be interesting to see how DxO respond. My thinking is that DxO are ahead of the game in terms of RAW conversion, Noise management, Colour management and Demosaicing technology. This, combined with their unique database of lens/camera combinations gives them an edge. The creative tools that build on these core advantages are undeniably better than their competitors. But what I’m suggesting is that DxO is better at the early stages of the editing workflow than the later stages where Lightroom just improved.

Currently I have DxO PhotoLab 6/Pure Raw occupying the space between ingest and output in what would otherwise be a Lightroom dominated workflow. I think it’s probable that will still be the case. However Lightroom has raised the game quite considerably.

How do Lightroom Masks compare with Photoshop Masks?

I have to admit, the intersection tool is the difference here. It is very powerful and opens up so much more opportunity to apply nuance in Lightroom, without going into photoshop. This is a huge timesaver but there is a ‘gotcha’. Of course there is.

It has always been very clear to me exactly where I leave Lightroom and move into Photoshop. I don’t use Photoshop on every picture, some are processed entirely in Lightroom. The gotcha is two fold.

  1. The point at which I move to Photoshop has become fuzzy.
  2. The Lightroom masks don’t transfer to Photoshop in a non destructive way. The effect is baked into the version that opens in Photoshop. So if I find I do want to tweak the editing in Photoshop I either have to forgo the Lightroom masks or bake them into the base image.

Advantages of Lightroom Masks

Very quick, very powerful and very easy to work with. These will appeal to all types of user from beginners to experts. There is another walkthrough, focusing on Dodging & Burning here: Dodging and Burning Using Adobe Lightroom. There are a couple of features that are easy to miss.

Firstly the Brush Tool. In addition to the usual controls allowing the user to blend the effect in to the rest of the image, there is the Auto Mask tool – this is a checkbox just below the controls for Feather, Flow and Density that modifies the range of the mask automatically. I have to say I prefer to get it right myself, but it seems reasonably effective.

The second feature is the Reset Sliders Automatically checkbox. check ths before moving on to create a second mask. It’s basic, but all the sliders will be neutralised (set to 0) for the new mask.

Disadvantages of Lightroom Masks

Not transferable to Photoshop in a non destructive way, meaning that you can’t refine the mask once you move away from Lightroom. This suggests that the Lightroom version of masks acts more like DxO U-Point technology rather than maintaining the Photoshop layer based editing model.

You can’t edit the mask itself as you can in Photoshop by painting white or black on it to make areas of the mask opaque or transparent.

Using Masks in Lightroom for Landscape Photography

I think it’s a given that I will find myself using Lightroom to edit a higher percentage of my photographs. That being said Photoshop has the superior tools and although Adobe has done a great job of making luminance and colour masks more accessible, they haven’t done enough to move me away from luminance plugins like Lumenzia that simplify the Photoshop inteface and still offer more powerful effects than Lightroom.

Who would benefit most from Lightroom Masks?

My initial reaction was that this was a move towards photoshop lite, but I was wrong. I’m still finding combinations that work really well for landscape photography, that take minutes to implement and are easily reversible. Many landscape photographers will say the same. There is a massive benefit in speeding up the workflow and enabling experimentation for even the most seasoned professional.

Newcomers to Lightroom will find the business of masking much less intimidating than it is in Photoshop and will therefore use it more frequently.

I think this is that rare feature that benefits almost everybody. If Photoshop has a problem it’s simply that coming to a product as complex as it is, presents a very steep learning curve that some people may not want to attempt. Lightroom has always been very user friendly. I have a couple of gripes (why hide the lens corrections so far down the panel) but they’re not showstoppers. It is very very good at organising pictures and acceptably good to a great many pros at editing them.

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