Midtones Masks: The Secret To Smoother Contrast Adjustment

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If you haven’t learned about luminosity masks, then you wouldn’t have come across midtones masks and what it can achieve in image post-processing.

In a typical scenario, when would choose Levels, Curves or Contrast adjustment when you want to improve the overall contrast in your image. That’s what most people do.

But if you do pay attention to details, you might notice something else. While it does a decent job, in most cases, you’d darken the darks and brighten the brights furthers to the point of clipping. This means you’d inevitably lose details in the highlights and shadows.

A solution to this is to apply a targeted local tonal adjustment. But there’s an alternative – in my opinion, a better and more elegant technique!

The midtones masks!

In this tutorial, you’re going to learn why midtones masks are better in adjusting image contrast and why you should consider it. I’m also going to share tips to improve the aesthetic of your image with this technique.

Although I use Photoshop in my workflow, the post-processing steps explained here are generic. You can easily apply the same principles to other image editing software that support layer masking.

The Seldom Seen Midtones Masks

As a beginner in luminosity masks, you might be concentrating on using the brights and darks masks only.

It’s easy to forget the midtones masks actually exist because they’re often found below the brights and the darks masks in the Channels panel.

But now that I’ve reminded you, I highly recommend you to get your head round midtones masks. I’ve gone into some details explaining each mask in this article.

The advantage (and the reason why I like it so much!) of midtones masks is that it doesn’t affect the highlights and the shadows.

It leaves the darkest darks and the brightest brights alone. This means no matter what adjustment you throw into midtones masks, you’ll never run into any problem with highlights and shadows clipping!

Transform Your Image With Midtones Masks

Here are 3 reasons why you should use midtones masks to apply contrast adjustment.

#1 Balanced Tonal Adjustment

Conventionally, we use Levels or Curves directly on our image.

This is what you were taught and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.

But the reality is…

The visual effect of a single, global tonal adjustment can sometimes look harsh.

Look at the example below.

The image was taken near midday. The light was strong and the image looks flat overall.

A single Levels adjustment was applied, the dark and bright arrows were moved toward the center. The resulting image has a good but fairly strong contrast because the darks have become darker and the brights have become even brighter.

Image below: Before = no adjustment; After = single tonal adjustment Levels.

Now check out the image below to compare single tonal adjustment (before) and multiple tonal adjustments via midtones masks (after).

The contrast is more gentle and balanced. The sky is not overly bright and the shadows (roof of the buildings) are not as dark as before.

Using Curves And Levels With Midtones Masks

midtones adjustment with curves
Midtones mask applied to a Curves adjustment layer

Because the midtones masks affect only the midtones, you don’t have to worry about highlights and shadows clipping.

…and that’s the beauty of it!

Here’s what I normally do with Levels adjustment layer on a midtones mask.

  1. I moved the white and the black arrow towards the middle, just before touching the foot of the histogram.
  2. Use the grey arrow to fine tune until I’m happy with the effect.
  3. If the shadows are too dark, I brighten it up with the black arrow in the Output Levels. I’ll explain this more below.

#2 Darkening Tones While Maintaining The Blacks And The Whites

Sometimes you’ll notice your image becomes too dark (but never to the point of clipping) after applying tonal adjustment with a midtones mask.

The shadows are not clipped but you just don’t like the image being darkened in general.

There Are Two Ways To Fix This

You can either choose a more restrictive midtones mask, or…

Fix it in the Curves or Levels adjustment layer.

I often like to use the latter and I’ll show you how.

brightening up the blacks
Shifting the blacks in Curves (left) and Levels (right) adjustment tool

It doesn’t matter which one you use, both deliver an equally good same result.

In the Curves adjustment layer, place your cursor on the white dot (circled in red). Now, click and drag the white point up to brighten the blacks.

In the Levels adjustment layer, click and drag the black arrow (circled in red) towards the center. Do it subtly to open up the blacks by just a little.

#3 Multiple Tonal Adjustment Layers For Smoother Contrast And Saturation

You may not see much difference in the image when you apply a single layer of tonal adjustment with midtones mask. The effect is subtle and that’s often enough to make a difference to the image.

But here’s another trick:

Apply multiple layers of tonal adjustment, each time with a different midtones mask.

For example…

Use midtones masks 1, 2 and 3, each on a separate Levels adjustment layer. You can experiment with even more midtones masks to see how the effect looks. Don’t go overboard with the number of masks because your image can be darkened significantly.

The “Before” image has a single Levels adjustment and the After” has four Levels adjustment layer with midtones masks 1 to 4.

The Steps

It’s similar to the one explained above.

Shift the black and the white arrow towards the middle just before touching the foot of the histogram.

If the darks are too dark, increase the Output Levels of the blacks and bring back the contrast with the midtones arrow.

I don’t know if you notice, in Levels adjustment, when you move the arrow for darks in the Output to the right, the image often has a dark grey shadow – there’s an advantage for this.

Before I explain further, let’s look at another example.

Image below: single tonal adjustment (before) and four tonal adjustment layers, each with a different midtones masks (after).

The Color Psychology of Grey

dark grey tones

In color psychology, pure grey is associated with unresponsive, depression and lack of confidence.

But there’s a catch.

When grey gets closer to black, it conveys drama and mystery.

When it gets closer to white, it represents illumination and livelihood.

I’m not a psychologist so I don’t know the reasons behind…but what I do know is that you should leverage the power of grey in your image. The trick is to move the dark arrow in Output

So, when you’re using Levels, move the dark arrow in the Output towards the right to lighten the darks. Too much of this can make your image look washout, it might suit a certain type of images so use it sparingly.

Have I Convinced You?

Personally, I think midtones masks are amazing.

I’ve been using it so much that it has become part of my routine in post-processing. So far, I haven’t found another way to use midtones masks yet, so if you have used it in any other ways, I welcome you to share it!

For more tutorials on luminosity masks, please check out the luminosity masks resource page!

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