How To Apply Tonal Adjustments With Luminosity Masks

By YaopeyLuminosity masks, Tutorials

Tonal adjustmens is probably the commonest way how photographers use luminosity masks in their workflow.

It essentially means adjusting the contrast of an image or making the brights brighter and the darks darker.

A common way of applying contrast in Photoshop is by using the Brightness/Contrast adjustments layer. While that does the job but it doesn’t give you a whole lot of control over fine tuning the contrast.


The Preferred Tools

Levels or Curves adjustments layer are the preferred option in my opinion. For starters, the adjustments panel has more than just a few sliders.

I’m also going to show you how to apply tonal adjustments with luminosity masks to give the best result.


Tonal Adjustments With Curves Or Levels?

That’s a common question a lot of people are asking every day.

If you search around the internet, I can tell you that you won’t find a definite answer. Because both Curves and Levels do the same thing – adjusting the tones of the image but in different ways.

curves or levels for tonal adjustment

I think it’s the matter of preference. I use Curves a lot before but now kind of switching to Levels because it looks simpler (I try to keep things as simple as possible)).

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 achieve 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 – midtones slider) to fine tune the contrast.
  2. You can reduce the overall darkest dark by moving (4) to the right. Use this to shift the darks to very dark gray instead, which can give your image a different look.

And I’m sure you know how to use the eyedropper tool for color balance if you need to 🙂


Tonal Adjustments With Luminosity Masks

If you haven’t figured out yet, I’m a big fan of luminosity masks.

I like to take my time in post-processing and experiment with different luminosity masks in my image to see what it does.

If you’re not familiar with luminosity masks, you can read my tutorial on the complete guide on luminosity masking in Photoshop. It tells you everything you need to know as a beginner luminosity masks user and will also direct you to useful resources for in-depth learning of the technique.



2 Ways To Apply Luminosity Mask With Levels Adjustments

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

Applying A Luminosity Mask Straight Onto A Tonal Adjustments Layer

One of the 2 ways of applying a luminosity mask for tonal adjustments 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 on the Levels adjustment.
  4. The luminosity mask will be automatically loaded onto the layer mask of 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 With Painting A Mask Technique

Alternatively, use painting a mask technique:

  1. Create luminosity masks for your image.
  2. Select Levels to apply tonal adjustments. Focus on the areas you want and ignore the rest because it’s going to be masked out.
  3. Click on the layer mask of the Levels adjustments layer and fill it with black to conceal everything.
  4. Go to the channels panel, select a luminosity mask targeting the area you want.
  5. Go back to the layers panel and click on the black layer mask on the Levels adjustments.
  6. Use a white brush and paint on the image 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 small Levels adjustment with luminosity masks, each targeting a specific tonal range produce the best result.

What most people often do is 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 Colour

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.


Now here’s the layers panel of the image.

layers panel with multiple levels adjustments
4 Levels adjustment layers

I used 4 Levels adjustments targeting different tonal range to tease out the contrast and color of Raw image. The layers highlighted in orange are the reflection.

Another Example

Here’s one of my images on Flickr.

This is the before and after comparing the base image after blending 2 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 accentuate the pixels that are hidden in the Raw data. The key is to apply small adjustments each time and the result will stack itself.



Multiple tonal adjustments is not a quick way to achieve tonal balance. It does take some time but the result is worth every minute you spent.

I hope I’ve convinced you to try on applying multiple tonal adjustments to your image instead of a couple to boost your image’s contrast.