Create Custom Mask With Color Range

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Color range is one of those tools in Photoshop that doesn’t get used or mentioned very frequently, a bit like the Blend If in Layer Style.

Maybe this is because most of us use common tools in the Tools Panel or luminosity masks for targeted selection. But, there will be times when none of these work for your image.

Knowing how Color Range works gives you another option to work when all others fail.

Color Range

It’s a way of creating a color based layer mask to apply adjustments to specific areas of your image. This is different from luminosity masks, which is a luminance based layer mask.

To open the color range panel, go to the menu on the top, choose Select > Color Range.

colour range panel
Colour Range panel

The first thing you might notice – it’s not very complicated compared to some other stuff in Photoshop!

The panel can be divided into a few sections (numbered in red) and I will go through each of them with you.

  1. You can decide how you want Photoshop to pick a color. Click on the drop down menu to select sampling colors with the eyedropper tool, choose a color from the menu or use highlights/shadows/midtones to make a selection. If you’re editing skin tone, choose skin tone in the menu.
  2. If you are editing a portrait and want to apply adjustments to just the skin tone, you can check the box for Detect Faces for Photoshop to auto-detect faces in your image (it does a pretty decent job). I normally keep the box checked for Localized Color Clusters.
  3. Fuzziness is like tolerance in the selection tools – you can increase or decrease it by moving the slider bar. Range determines how much in a color is being selected – I usually keep it at 100%.
  4. Selection – preview the layer mask in the color range panel; Image – view the image itself in the panel. Selection Preview – choose how you want the selection to be previewed on the image (it doesn’t apply any changes but only to show you how the selection looks).
  5. Use the eyedropper tool to sample a color (far left). You can also use the + eyedropper to include as many color as you want into the selection, or subtract a color with the – eyedropper.
  6. You can invert the selection if needed.

Tip: Select the eyedropper tool (the one on the far left of all 3 eyedroppers), click and drag around your image. You can see how the selection is changing depending on where you drag the eyedropper.

Color Based Layer Mask

The major advantage color range has over other methods of making selections is that it makes a selection based on color.

Now think about what you can do with that? Let’s take a look at a few examples.

Example 1: Color Adjustment

Imagine you have taken a long exposure with some awesome light trails. But the effect is too strong, or maybe you want to change the color.

trail of lights

It will be time-consuming to use the magic wand tool or the quick selection tool to select the light trails one by one. Luminosity masks won’t work because it won’t be able to separate the red and the white lights.

Use color range in this case!

Open up the color range panel, select the + eyedropper tool and click on all the red light trails. If you accidentally click on the road or the white lights, subtract it with the – eyedropper tool.

Click OK and you will see the marching ants on the image. Now apply an adjustment layer, in this case, we’re going to use the hue/saturation.

Once you click on the hue/saturation adjustment tool, the selection will automatically load onto the layer mask. This is how the layer mask looks like (picture below).

layer mask for red light trails
Layer mask for the red light trails

Now make the adjustment you want. Here’s what I have done.

I know the color isn’t pretty but the point is to show you how color range works 🙂

adjustment applied to light trails

Example 2: Tonal Adjustment

Color range can also be used to select a specific area on the image for tonal adjustment. This works particularly well when you have a colorful image.

colour range tonal adjustment example

Although this looks pretty much perfect already, but for the sake of demonstration, I’m going to apply tonal adjustments to the sand dune behind and the foreground.

I have tried the magic wand tool but it keeps including the tree branches into the selection.

With color range, I was able to make a clean selection of the sand dune in a matter of seconds.

layer mask sand dune
Layer mask created with color range

I have also applied tonal adjustments to the foreground to bring out some of the details in the sand. This is how the final image looks.

tonal adjustment final
Tonal adjustments with color range.


Color range is a way of creating a color based layer mask. It works particularly well for colorful images and you can apply any adjustments to the selection you made.

You might not use it frequently but knowing how and when to use it will save you time in tricky situations.

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

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