In October 2021, Adobe rolled out a software update that included a revolutionary approach to Lightroom masking. Previously, Lightroom had offered a basic but highly useful set of masking options, including the Radial, Graduated, and Brush filters, which were tweaked and refined over the years to meet the needs of most photographers.
However, these old masking adjustments still relied heavily on you, the photographer, to create masks and then refine them with a set of sliders and options. But thanks to the power of algorithms and artificial intelligence, the October update boosted these tools into the stratosphere, and the result is a profound and extraordinarily useful workflow that has the potential to fundamentally change your approach to photo editing.
In this article, I’ll explain everything you need to know about Lightroom’s updates, including a hands-on explanation of each new feature, along with plenty of examples so you can see exactly how powerful these adjustments really are.
For a comprehensive look at Lightroom’s new Masking tool, read on!
Lightroom masking, explained
When I first started out as a photographer, it didn’t take too long to learn basic photography concepts such as aperture, shutter speed, and ISO. It was the editing process, especially some of the tools and terminology, that sent me reeling and made me want to toss my camera out the window and never return.
One of those difficult concepts was masking.
While masking serves as the bedrock foundation for so much of the editing process, it seemed impenetrable to a newbie like me – at least at first. But in truth, masking is extraordinarily simple, and it’s based on a process that painters have used for centuries.
A mask is simply a cover, much like a mask you might wear on your face. Have you ever used blue tape to make sure paint doesn’t get onto windows and wall trim when doing a bit of home remodeling? Congratulations! You have used the real-world equivalent of the Lightroom Masking tool. The digital version is far more flexible than its real-world counterpart, but the basic idea remains the same: masking lets you cover certain parts of the image, so that you can then safely target edits to specific areas.
Lightroom Masking: what’s new?
For years, the Lightroom masking tools relied entirely on you, the photographer, to indicate where you wanted the mask to be applied, to refine the edges, and to generally do a lot of the heavy lifting. Lightroom didn’t even use the term “mask” for most operations, instead opting for the word “filter” – which wasn’t really an accurate description of the work being done. The sheer power and flexibility of the Radial, Graduated, and Brush filters was amazing, but the workflow was often slow, especially when editing dozens or hundreds of images.
Adobe’s October 2021 update to Lightroom changed all of that by moving these editing tools under a single umbrella of “masking” while increasing the amount of flexibility and customization at your disposal. Lightroom has also augmented your editing with a massive dose of artificial intelligence. Much like Dominic Toretto giving his V8 engine a shot of nitrous in a Fast and Furious movie, the new Lightroom Masking tool supercharges your editing to ridiculous levels and gives you the type of power previously restricted to Photoshop and other high-end applications.
Instead of offering a Graduated Filter, Radial Filter, or Adjustment Brush, all these options are now consolidated under one tool, called Masking. Clicking “Masking” brings up the same options as before, but they are now properly labeled as Masks. The best part is the addition of two entirely new features, Select Subject and Select Sky, both of which have the potential to transform your entire approach to photo editing.
Masking feature 1: Select Subject
Have you ever used Lightroom to apply certain edits just to the subject of your image and not the rest of the shot? This process used to involve the Adjustment Brush and a lot of patience – but the new Lightroom Masking tool simplifies everything to a single click.
Click “Select Subject,” and Lightroom will use advanced algorithms and computations to analyze your image and find your main subject. While the results aren’t always perfect, it’s far easier than doing it manually.
After you tap Select Subject, a color overlay will appear atop what Lightroom assumes is the subject, along with a small pop-out Masks floating palette. If you can’t quite discern the mask from the rest of your picture, use the small colored square at the bottom of the floating palette to choose a different overlay color:
Once this initial mask is created, you can adjust all the standard editing parameters: white balance, exposure, contrast, shadows, texture, saturation, hue, and more. Every slider and adjustment from earlier versions of Lightroom is present and accounted for, but now consolidated under one single Masking panel instead of three separate panels.
Masking feature 2: Select Sky
The Select Sky option in Lightroom is practically a love letter to nature and landscape photographers. Whenever I sit down to edit a picture of grand prairies or sweeping vistas, one of the first things I do is create a mask for the sky so I can adjust exposure and white balance. The Graduated filter had always been my preferred tool for this process, but it required a lot of fine-tuning with the Range Mask option and other manual adjustments. It was an effective but slow process, one that didn’t work well if you had more than just a handful of images to edit.
Happily, the new Select Sky masking feature changes all of that.
To use Select Sky, first navigate to a picture in the Develop module that contains a view of the sky. Then select the Masking tool, and click Select Sky. Lightroom will automatically analyze the image:
The process only takes a few seconds, and you’ll ultimately see an overlay showing the masked-out sky portion of the shot. As with the Select Subject feature, you can change the color and opacity of the overlay, and you can perform additional edits, as well:
This automatic process for selecting the sky offers a great starting point, and it will speed up your landscape editing like flooring the pedal on a Tesla Roadster. It’s not always perfect and you might need to make some tweaks to the mask in order to get your edits just right, but it’s much easier than the old method of using a Graduated filter.
Masking feature 3: Mask display customization
Adobe added some incredible quality-of-life improvements to masking in Lightroom, and while they won’t necessarily make your workflow faster, they’ll give you much greater control over how you create and edit your masks.
Regardless of whether you use computational tools like Select Subject and Select Sky or you prefer to create masks on your own without the help of algorithms and automated processes, the enhanced display tools will certainly make your life easier.
Masks in Lightroom now have an overlay color that can be customized simply by clicking the color in the Masking panel, but there’s a lot more you can do than just change the color. You can alter the opacity of the mask overlay by using a slider, which can help your mask stand out against a crowded foreground or background. You can also tell Lightroom to show the overlay color on the mask (affected areas) or on everything except the mask (unaffected areas). Neither the opacity nor the overlay affects your edits, but they are incredibly useful to help you see where your edits are being applied.
Lightroom doesn’t stop there, though. Showing an overlay color is nice, but what if you want to see only the mask? Or only the unaffected areas? Or the mask against a black-and-white version of the image? You now have these options and more:
The Overlay Mode menu offers six choices for how your mask is displayed, and this is like manna from heaven for weary photo editors. None of these options change your edits, but instead give you a lot of useful visual information for seeing precisely where your mask is located on the image.
These overlay modes have the potential to truly transform your editing in Lightroom. Until now, the only tool at your disposal was a color overlay, but with the ability to see exactly where your mask is (and is not) applied, you can create masks that do exactly what you want.
Masking feature 4: Add and Subtract
While you have always been able to add to and subtract from masks and filters in Lightroom, the new Masking tool makes this process easier than ever.
With the masking panel visible, choose Add or Subtract to adjust the mask area. This is great if one of the automated masking processes like Sky Selection or Subject Selection doesn’t quite give you what you are looking for, or if you just want to create your own precise custom masks.
I created an initial mask to lighten up the fly in the image below, but then I created another mask using Select Subject:
The results of the automatic Select Subject option were spot on, with two notable exceptions: the green protrusions on the top-left side of the leaf, and the brown leaf on the right. You can easily see this using the White On Black mask overlay:
Fixing this issue is simple with the Subtract tool. Click Subtract to bring up several options that’ll let you subtract parts of your mask. I chose the Brush option, and then carefully brushed out the parts of the mask I did not want.
Previously, you could do these types of operations in Lightroom, but it involved a few more steps and you didn’t have six different mask overlay options to help you refine your edits. The new system is significantly improved, and it makes the editing process fast, simple, and much more enjoyable.
The Lightroom Masking tool: final words
Several years ago, Adobe renamed Lightroom to Lightroom Classic and launched a redesigned Lightroom to appeal to photographers who prefer a more mobile-friendly workflow. There was some degree of trepidation among photographers, myself included, because it seemed like Adobe would leave Lightroom Classic behind and focus all their efforts on the revamped Lightroom.
Thankfully, that has not been the case; Lightroom Classic has received a steady stream of updates, bug fixes, and improvements, including the brand-new Masking tool. This makes me excited for what the future holds, and I can’t wait to see what’s next from Adobe. If you haven’t tried the new Lightroom Masking tool, I encourage you to give it a shot. You might be very pleasantly surprised by what you find!
Now over to you:
What do you think about Lightroom’s new Masking tool? Have you tried it? Do you plan to? Share your thoughts in the comments below!