Midtones Masks: Fine Tune For Better Contrast

By YaopeyLuminosity masks, Tutorials

When we post-process images with low contrast in Lightroom or Photoshop, we often apply Levels or a Curves adjustment layer.

Maybe you prefer the Brightness/Contrast adjustment layer.

The result?

You regain some good contrast, but sometimes too good that the darks becoming too dark and the brights becoming too bright.

In this tutorial, I’ll show you how to boost contrast in a better way with luminosity midtones masks.


How to use midtones masks to create a tonal-rich image.

I’ll also show you the three reasons I use midtones masks:

  • Balanced contrast adjustment.
  • Darkening the tones without affecting the blacks and the whites.
  • Create a more soothing contrast and saturation.



The image below compares a single layer of tonal adjustment (before) and multiple tonal adjustments, each with a different midtones masks (after).



The Color Psychology of Gray

dark grey tones

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

But there’s a catch.

When gray 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 gray in your image.


The Seldom Seen Midtones Masks

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

I know that because I was like that.

It’s very convenient and easy to forget that midtones masks exist because they’re often found below the brights and the darks masks.

I highly encourage you to experiment with midtones masks the next time you use luminosity masks.

No Shadows Or Highlights Clipping

As the name implies, midtones masks only affect the midtones of your image.

It leaves the darkest dark and the brightest bright alone.

Say good bye to shadows and highlights clipping for now!


Use Midtones Masks To Transform The Mood

Here are 3 reasons why you should use midtones luminosity masks for contrast adjustment in post-processing.

#1 Balanced Contrast Adjustments

Conventionally, we use Levels or Curves adjustment tool directly on the image.

This is what you were taught as a beginner and there’s nothing wrong with that.

But the truth is:

The effect of a single, general tonal adjustment can be harsh.

Look at the example below.

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

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


Before = no adjustment; After = single tonal adjustment layer with Levels.


Now compare the image with a single tonal adjustment layer (before) and the image with multiple tonal adjustment layers via midtones masks (after).



The contrast is more balanced. The sky is not overly bright and the shadows are not as dark as before.


Use Curves/Levels Adjustment Tool With Midtones Masks


midtones adjustment with curves
Midtones mask applied to Curves adjustment layer

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

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 with the black arrow in the Output Levels. I’ll explain this more below.


#2 Darkening Tones But Maintain 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 haven’t been clipped but you just don’t like how dark it is.

There Are 2 Ways To Fix This

You can either choose a more restrictive midtones mask, or

Carry on and fix it in the Curves or Levels adjustment layer.

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

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

It doesn’t matter which one you use, both deliver the same result.

In the Curves adjustment layer, place your cursor on top of the white dot (circles in red). Your cursor will now changed to a move cursor. 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 centre. Do it subtly to open up the blacks by just a little.


#3 Multiple Tonal Adjustment Layers For More Soothing Contrast And Saturation

You may not see much difference in the image when applying a single layer of tonal adjustment with a midtones mask.

That’s ok, and in fact, that’s what you want – subtle and progressive adjustments.

Here’s the trick:

Apply multiple layers of tonal adjustment with a different midtones masks.

For example:

Use midtones masks 1, 2 and 3, each on a separate Levels adjustment layer.

Sometimes I even go up to 4 tonal adjustment layers with midtones masks.


The before image has a single Levels adjustment layer and the after image has 4 Levels adjustment layer with midtones masks 1 to 4.


I used the same technique I 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, I increase the Output Levels of the blacks and bring back the contrast with the midtones arrow.

As you can see, the image processed with midtones masks has a dark grey shadows.

Here’s another example:

Image with single tonal adjustment layer (before) and image with 4 tonal adjustment layers, each with a different midtones masks (after).


Midtones luminosity masks are often underrated especially among beginners in luminosity masks.

You can use it to increase contrast and change the mood by darkening the midtones progressively.


Learn More