How To Apply Tonal Adjustments With Luminosity Masks

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Continuing my quest to convince you on targeted local adjustment from this article, let’s move on to tonal adjustments! Similar to color, tonal adjustment is one of the commonest adjustments one apply to an image. But do you actually know what tone means?

We often use tone and contrast interchangeably. When someone says tonal adjustment, our brain immediately thinks increasing or decreasing the contrast of the image.

Tone in photography refers to the range of brightest to darkest part of the image. Contrast, on the other hand, refers to the difference between the brightest and darkest part of the image.

When you increase contrast, the darks get darker and the brights get brighter – it stretches the tone of the image. The issue with that is, although the image now has more contrast, the darkest darks or the brightest brights may be clipped. You don’t always get to achieve a balanced tonal effect with a global contrast adjustment.

In this tutorial, you’re going to see how easy it is to apply targeted local tonal adjustment using luminosity masks. You can achieve good tonal balance more efficiently without having to worry too much about clipping.

Although I use Photoshop in my workflow, the post-processing steps are generic and the principles can be applied to other software that supports layer masking.

Tonal Adjustments With Curves or Levels?

That’s a really common question (and a good one)!

If you search the internet, I can guarantee you’ll never find a straight answer. That’s because both Curves and Levels deliver the same result. Both adjust the tones of the image but in different ways.

curves or levels for tonal adjustment

Which one to use? I think it’s the matter of preference.

I use Curves a lot but sometimes I have to use Levels just because I want to use the middle grey arrow for the midtones.

You can use either tool to achieve tonal balance with luminosity masks. For the purpose of this tutorial, I’m going to use Levels. But remember, you can do exactly the same with Curves too.

Levels Adjustment Tool

I’m sure you already know how to use this but I’m just going to highlight a few points.

levels adjustments tool
Levels adjustments tool
  1. When use (1) and (3), move it toward the center and stop before touching the graph. Use (2) to fine tune with the midtones.
  2. You can reduce the overall darkest dark by moving (4) to the right. Use this to shift the darks to very dark grey instead, which can give your image a contemporary matte look.

On the top left corner, you have the Eyedropper tool for correcting the white balance. Select the black, grey or white eyedropper and click on the color on the image that is suppose to be black, grey or white.

2 Ways To Apply Luminosity Mask With Levels Adjustment

You can use either way, depending on the image you have and what you want to achieve. I’ll show you how to do it in both ways.

Applying A Luminosity Mask To A Tonal Adjustment Layer

One of the two ways of using a luminosity mask for tonal adjustment (or any adjustment really) is by selecting a luminosity mask first.

Here’s what you do:

  1. Create luminosity masks for your image.
  2. Select a luminosity mask in the Channels panel targeting the areas you want to apply tonal adjustments.
  3. Go back to the layers panel and click to add a Levels adjustment layer.
  4. The luminosity mask will automatically be applied to the layer mask for the Levels adjustments layer.
  5. Hide the marching ants with cmd (Mac) or ctrl (Win) + H.
  6. Make your adjustment in the properties panel.
tonal adjustments luminosity mask first
Applying a luminosity mask first

Applying Adjustments Using Painting-A-Mask Technique

In this technique, you add a black layer mask first before selecting a luminosity mask.

Here are the steps:

  1. Create luminosity masks for your image.
  2. Add a Levels adjustment layer and apply adjustments. Focus only on the areas you want and ignore the rest because it’s going to be masked out.
  3. Click on the layer mask for the Levels adjustments layer and fill it with black to conceal all the adjustments you’ve just made.
  4. Go to the Channels panel, select a luminosity mask targeting the areas you want.
  5. Go back to the Layers panel and click on the black layer mask for the Levels adjustment layer.
  6. Select the Brush tool, set it to white and paint on the black layer mask where you want the tonal adjustments to be revealed.
tonal adjustments first
Painting-a-mask technique

Levels Your Way To Better Tonal Range

I know this sound kind of cheesy, but it’s true!

One thing I realized is that multiple subtle Levels adjustments with luminosity masks, each targeting a specific tonal range produce the best result.

What most people often do is to pick a luminosity mask and apply the changes they want. Maybe they do a couple more to try boosting the contrast or the color.

They shouldn’t have stopped there:

There’s so much tonal information recorded in a Raw file. You’re not exploring the full potential of the tonal range if you only apply tonal adjustments through a few luminosity masks.

Multiple Tonal Adjustments With Luminosity Masks To Bring Out The Color

I’m going to show you how multiple tonal adjustments via luminosity masks can really make a difference to your image.

This is a photo that was posted as the official Raw editing challenge on Reddit. The image was taken by Michael Shoquist. I like this image because it has a lot of potentials.

Here’s the before and after.

I know it looks a bit oversaturated. It was done on purpose so you can appreciate the effect of adjustments through multiple luminosity masks.

Here are the layers of the image.

layers panel with multiple levels adjustments
4 Levels adjustment layers

I used four Levels adjustments targeting different tonal range to tease out the contrast and color of this Raw image. The layers highlighted in orange are for the reflection.

Another Example

Here’s one of my images on Flickr.

This is the before and the after comparing the base image after blending two exposures and the result with multiple levels adjustments via luminosity masks.

Here’s how the layers panel in Photoshop looks:

layers panel
6 Levels adjustments layers

As you can see, multiple Levels adjustments with luminosity masks can really tease out the tones and color stored in the Raw image. The key is to apply small adjustments each time for the effect to stack up.


Targeted tonal adjustment is the best way to create an image with a balanced tone and contrast. When you start editing this way, your image will look more natural and professional!

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

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