Luminosity Masks Versus HDR Software For Creating Natural Looking HDR Images

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If you type the term ‘HDR’ into google images you’ll very quickly see why HDR photography has a bad reputation. While we all differ in our tastes, in recent years, those strongly saturated, blurry and noisy HDRs have fallen out of fashion, even amongst HDR photographers.

Pink seascape

Luminosity Masks Versus HDR Software For Creating Natural Looking HDR Images

The goal, among many, is now a clean HDR look. HDR programs are attempting to tidy up their processes to meet the needs of the demanding HDR photographer. However, a large number of photographers are beginning to take the blending process into their own hands, and produced beautifully balanced HDRs using luminosity masks, probably the cleanest alternative to HDR software.

In fact, luminosity masking has become an exciting buzz-term in the world of digital photography, and there’s good reason for that.

If you’re new to luminosity mask exposure blending, you can see a beginner’s tutorial on dPS in my previous article: Exposure Blending Using Luminosity Masks Tutorial

In this article we’ll take a look at the benefits and challenges of luminosity masks versus HDR software.

Benefits of Luminosity Masks

1. Image quality

We’ve all seen over-saturated, noisy, messy, HDR images. One guaranteed way to avoid the poor image quality we normally associate with HDR is to manually blend your exposures in Photoshop using luminosity masks.

When exposure blending with luminosity masks, you’re working only with the RAW files to restore highlights and shadows. You do not affect any other part of the image. In other words, your final blended image will be, more or less, exactly the same image quality as your RAW files.

You do not affect any colour changes, you retain absolute sharpness, you don’t flare up noise (which means you can shoot at a much higher ISO), and you will not exaggerate chromatic aberration.

This is the major reason why so many are turning to luminosity masking to create natural, balanced HDRs.

Chilean sunset

Sunset at Puerto Natales, Chile

2. Complete control over what we blend

Artists of any genre fight for complete control over their ability to express themselves. And so it is in photography. One of the problems with using HDR software is that we have very little control over the blending process.

We rely on an algorithm to choose which areas to blend with which exposures. Then we’re given some sliders to adjust. Although this gives us greater control over the process, it isn’t giving us 100% control.

Through luminosity masking, we begin with a base exposure, and we then decide for ourselves which exposures we wish to use in the blending process, and which areas we wish to adjust, and at what opacity.

The image below is a good example of how you can make very precise changes with luminosity masks.

Hong Kong Light Trails

Hong Kong Light Trails

This image is made up of 11 exposures; six of which were used for the light trails, four were used for exposure blending, and one was used as the base exposure. You can learn how to create light trails like this here: How To Add Dramatic Car Trails To Your Photos In Photoshop

Below you’ll see the RAW file used for the base exposure.

HK Light Trails

Base Exposure

The only highlights I wanted to control in the image were the street lights, and even then I still wanted them to be bright. Through bright lights like this night cityscapes are able to give off a lot of energy and dynamism.

I very gently blended in three darker exposures to gain a little bit of control in those areas, without darkening them too much. If I ran my exposures through an HDR program, all of the highlights in the image would have been affected to some degree, which is exactly what I didn’t want.

For the darker areas, I only wanted to bring back information in one area, the side building to the right, which is noticeably dark. I used an exposure two stops brighter and, with luminosity masks, I easily painted details back into this area.

#3. No more halos and fewer ghosts

Halos simply don’t exist in luminosity mask exposure blending if you’ve done it correctly.

As for ghosts, you will rarely encounter a moving object that is difficult to blend. Since you use a base exposure, which will be done for most of your images, and simply reduce specific highlights and shadows, there shouldn’t be any ghosting.

The only challenge you may have, which is also a challenge when using HDR software, is if you have moving leaves on trees, for example, between exposures. Then the blending process is a little bit trickier.

#4. Become a better photographer

Mesa arch

Mesa Arch, Before and After Exposure Blending With Luminosity Masks

In my early days I was a die hard tone mapper. I’d approach a scene and think, “this would be a cool HDR subject”. I’d fire off some brackets and take them into Photomatix when I got home. I had a predefined routine of what to do, what result I wanted, and how to get there. I had tunnel vision.

When I began exploring luminosity masks, everything changed. I began to read a scene, not as an HDR subject, but in terms of its unique beauty and mood. I started to grasp more fully the use of light in controlling mood, whereas previously I was simply relying on getting the ‘HDR effect’ each time.

Rather than shooting off a set of automatic brackets, for a complex scene I will often bracket manually, changing the aperture, ISO and shutter speed to capture different elements of the scene. Then I’ll blend in each of the elements to hopefully get the best out of that scene.

In the Hong Kong Light Trails image above, the base exposures and brighter exposures, the light trails, and the darker exposures were all shot manually with different settings to achieve different effects.

It is through using luminosity masks, and taking my imagery into my own hands, that I have pushed myself in the field to achieve more.

#5. Combine with other HDR processes

One of the beautiful things about luminosity masks is that you can combine them with other exposure blending methods to complete the blending process. 32-bit processing is becoming an interesting way of blending exposures cleanly, but we are a long way off before the process is good enough and our monitors can handle true 32-bit files.

However, we can overcome the limitations of 32-bit processing by combining it with luminosity mask exposure blending. The tutorial below will show you exactly what I mean. The video is taken directly from the Art of Digital Blending course:

Challenges with Luminosity Masks

HDR software is simpler

Luminosity masks require more patience and a steeper learning curve than HDR software. The concept takes a little bit of time to get used to, and it will certainly challenge you to re-learn a few things.

While HDR software will take all of the leg-work out of it for you, luminosity masks require you to really think about your exposures and deepen your workflow.

Luminosity Masks don’t work on every occasion

Every now and then you’ll come across an image where luminosity masks won’t create a smooth blend between exposures. This happens because there isn’t enough contrast between the areas you wish to blend and the areas you don’t wish to affect.

In which case, using 32-bit processing or HDR software would be a good alternative.

Luminosity masks work in 8-bit mode

Like all live selections in Photoshop, luminosity masks work in 8-bit mode. They don’t affect the bit depth of your image, so if you’re working at 16 bits that won’t change. But there may be a chance of posterization in some cases.

A quote from Photoshop staff on the Adobe forum claims:

“The selection mask is 8 bits, regardless of the document precision. That fact has no affect on the precision of the image.

No, it won’t change the image or cause future posterization — the image data is still the same precision as it always was.”

So while this shouldn’t be an issue, it is something to be aware of.

Hong kong the peak view

Conclusion

HDR images don’t have to be messy, garish and overdone. There are many ways to cleanly blend exposures to create a beautifully natural and balanced HDR. Having luminosity masks in your arsenal, will give your workflow a superb cutting edge, that can quite literally change your imagery over night.

It will require a little bit of extra work on your part, but often the best things in life do.

Read more from our Post Production category

Jimmy McIntyre is travel photographer currently undertaking a 2-year project is Asia, writing two photography guidebooks for China and South Korea. He has taught digital blending workshops on 3 continents, and also offers online training. You can download his free Easy Panel for Photoshop, which will create Luminosity Masks for you at the click of a button. If you'd like to take your Luminosity Mask mastery to a new level, check out his comprehensive Luminosity Mask video course.

  • Michael Owens

    Now…. If someone could make an action that would cut down the time required to make this excellent HDR alternative happen, one with editable masks to suit the images worked on, I’d use this more.

    As it stands right now, I’m quite happy with Photomatix Pro – which when tweaked right, has the same resulting imagery without the usual HDR casualty of noise and unrealistic looks.

    Great article though, does showcase Luminosity well!

  • mma173

    I wouldn’t compare this method to Photomatix. They are very different from each other.

    As for automated action, this method is more of painting-like and cannot be ‘fully’ automated.

  • Great article. The problem with HDR is that it’s usually quite difficult to get a natural result, and without noise. At least for me 🙂 It’s doable like here: http://pierrepichot.com/2014/08/08/glacier-du-geant/ but I must say I have a reject rate of HDR quite high in front of the ones I keep. The luminosity masks technique seems to be much more natural looking, it’s on my todo list 🙂

  • Nice writeup. I actually prefer a different method that achieves very natural results. If you take your bracketed exposures and merge to HDR Pro in Photoshop, it will blend all of your exposures together for you into a 32bit file. Then you have the option to tone-map that file in ACR.

    More detail can be found here around the 4:40 mark
    http://www.everydayhdr.com/photoshop-cc-32-bit-hdr-workflow/

    I find this gives great, natural results and you have total control over the tone-mapping process.

  • Michael Owens

    Well, as I said, as a workflow – Luminosity Masks is not good for people who do a LOT of HDR.

  • Michael Owens

    You need to watch Karl Taylor on YouTube editing a HDR photo, and then see what is capable IF you know what to do. If you are getting noise, and halos etc – then you are clearly not doing it right.

  • Hi Connor, thank you for the link! In the article I talk about 32 bit HDR and include a video on combining it with LMs. While 32 bit HDRs are extremely promising, they’re a long way from being great, struggling to handle high contrast scenes. But I’m sure that as software progresses and our monitors improve to handle these files, they’ll be a superb option for natural HDRs.

  • No halos, but noise, yes. Not every time hopefully, but much too often. I’ll give a look, thanks for the tip.

  • Michael Owens

    Do, you will be amazed at the clarity you can achieve! No noise! 🙂

  • Fair enough. But maybe we need to consider if fully automated is going to give you the image you want or be customizable? Sometimes there is a time for each I think.

  • I do a lot of HDR…it’s my job 🙂 And the only thing that is important to me in my imagery is quality, which is where luminosity masks reign supreme!

  • Guest

    IMO, LMs is the way to HDRs 🙂

    e.g. this shot is a result of three bracketed shots taken with my cellphone and combined using LMs.

  • mma173

    Sure

    but personally, for HDRs, I always use LMs and go from there.

    This shot is a result of three bracketed shots combined using LMs.

    Taken in Disney Land, Paris.

  • @MrXile:disqus, yes there are actions for this at http://goodlight.us/writing/luminositymasks/luminositymasks-7.html they really work great. I really prefer this method other than HDR. The author is spot on and results much more realistic.

  • Michael Owens

    Now, I’ll give this a go over the next week or so. If I am happy with the outcome, and how easy it is to add to my workflow compared to Photomatix – then it’ll come back grovelling. 🙂

    Thanks for the actions.

  • Very nice tones.

  • Xenya

    Hi, i am just a beginner, so apologize in advance for any flops. First of all thank you for all your tips – they are so helpful! I downloaded your luminosity action set (thank you) and loaded it into photoshop but unfortunately no matter how i try i can’t seem to understand how to apply it (play button is inactive), do you have any additional plug ins that you use ? Or may be i am just not doing it right? Thank you and all the best!

  • Julius Titak

    I read what was written above, and have watched Jimmy’s videos, but I need some clarification about Luminosity Masks. (I admit I am a bit slow in catching up with this technology…59 years old!) I have my camera set up for Adobe RGB, and edit in 16 bit color in Photoshop. Would I have to change the set ups in my camera and Photoshop to perform Luminosity Masks editing? Any other information that would help us who are a bit challenged by this would be greatly appreciated! Thanks!

  • Hi Julius! No need to change your settings. You’re good to go. On this site there are few articles about luminosity masks, including topics like how many exposures to use and how to make your own luminosity masks: http://www.shutterevolve.com/

  • Hi, thanks for downloading the actions. When you open the actions in Photoshop, are you selecting the action that says Generate Luminance Masks? If you have selected JM Luminance Masks then Play button won’t become available.

  • Well said. I’ve been reading your articles on LM’s for a while. I’m “thick” headed and unfortunately probably lazier than I should be. I love your results but haven’t fully grasped the process. I made a note to self … Take another run at this!!!

  • Gordon Bell

    Hi Jimmy, great feature and fully understood. One question on the 11 exposures for the Hong Kong light trails, what was the final file size after you had blended the 11 exposures with LM, it must have been enormous, isn’t this a drawback for us non professionals with out all the processing/storage power you probably have. Thanks Gordon

  • Xenya

    Easy as that and fixed! Thank you very much!

  • Hi Gordon, the final size was very large. However, if you have a slower system, you can break the workflow up into smaller chunks. For example, once you’ve blended the exposures, save the workflow as a PSD called Blended, and then flatten the image. That way you’re working with a single layer with less demand, but you still have a non-destructive workflow available to you.

  • Sascha Morard

    Hi,

    I’ve read a few of your articles and I got confused on some point:

    I understood that for a more natural look :

    1) you prefer Photoshop HDR Pro to Photomatix
    2) your prefer Photoshop luminosity mask technique to Photomatix

    But, what about the difference/preference/ between PS HDR Pro and PS luminosity mask technique?

    If some other readers have spoted the difference, I’m open to answers from anyone.

    thanks

  • you have control over the TM-Process, but NOT which areas are blended. THAT’s one of the greatest advantages of Luminosity Masks. YOU can decide what areas you want to take from other exposures. For example when you want to get a smooth water surface from a long exposure and blend it in your normal exposure. With a 32 BIT HDR you can’t do that, cause your image is already merged.

  • Clarke Warren

    Thanks to DPS for re-posting this. Jimmy McIntyre has a new interface (calling it that cause I don’t know what else to call it ) Called Raya Pro which fits right into Photoshop CS5 and newer. Works great, and takes the complexity out of the process… Lots of how-to videos also.

  • marg93

    I might be wrong, but I seem to often get “good results” (i.e. the ones that I seem to like) by taking just one photo exposed for the highlights and then “tone-mapping” it manually inside of ACR using sliders/curves, and adding a moderate amount of clarity. That way I don’t end up with garish HDR but a photo that actually looks more real than any single exposure you can take. (Of course, the photo should be taken at base ISO otherwise you won’t be able to raise the shadows effectively because of noise.)

    In the process of doing that I realized that my digital camera applies way too much contrast in a lot of situations. For example, if there is a rock that is in the shadow, and the part of it is sun lit, to my eye it seems not too big of a difference, but to my camera it’s like night and day. So now for any image I take I prefer to do it in RAW and then tone-map it manually. Before I was always like “why the hell everything looks not-as-it-is in my photos?”, now I realize it’s because my camera has it’s own way of interpreting light which is not necessarily the way my eye sees it.

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