Photoshop: Applying Fixes using Adjustment Layers and Masks

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before_after.jpg

In a previous post I showed how to fix this image by creating duplicates of the background layer, fixing one copy focusing on the shadows and fixing the other focusing on the highlights and then blending the two layers using masks. If you find masks tricky to use or if you have never used masks before then this post: https://digital-photography-school.com/photoshop-applying-fixes-using-masks is a great way to get started.

However, as many readers pointed out, working with duplicate image layers results in the file growing in size at an alarming rate. Each time you duplicate the background layer of a photo you add the approximately equivalent of the image size back into the image. So an image that contains three copies of the background layer is around triple the original image size.

If you save your images in a format that saves the layers such as PSD or a layered TIFF, using duplicate image layers also results significantly increases the image size. In contrast, if you perform the same fix using adjustment layers and masks, the increase in file size is negligible. So, when faced with a choice, it is better to perform fixes to an image using adjustment layers and masks rather than duplicating layers where this is practicable. Not only does this keep your file sizes small but adjustment layers are editable so, if a fix is too strong, you can double click the adjustment layer and change its settings.

So, here’s how to perform the same fix as I did last time – lightening the sign in the foreground and darkening and adding contrast to the background – using Adjustment Layers and Masks.

Step 1

To fix the background of the image, choose Layers > New Adjustment Layer > Levels and adjust the levels to improve the contrast in the lighter areas of the image. Ignore the darker areas of the image as they are not part of this fix.

step1.jpg

If desired, you can also adjust the saturation using Layers > New Adjustment Layer > Hue/Saturation.

Step 2

To bring detail out of the darker area in the sign you will use an additional adjustment layer. In the original blog post I used the Shadow/Highlights tool but this is one fix you cannot apply using an Adjustment Layer so you will have to use a different adjustment for this image. I will use a Curves adjustment layer here.

step2.jpg

To do this choose Layers > New Adjustment Layer > Curves and adjust the darker end of the curve –on the left side. Drag upwards on the curve line to lighten the shadows.

If you prefer to use another tool, you can do so. However, the important thing is to fix the shadows and ignore any changes to the highlights.

Step 3

The top adjustment layer contains the adjustment for the darker areas of the image and the bottom adjustment layer(s) contain the adjustment for the lighter areas of the image. To blend these layers, you will use the layer masks attached to the adjustment layers to selectively add the fixes to the image.

step3.jpg

Unlike the adjustment layer’s Opacity slider which sets every pixel to the same opacity value, a layer mask lets you adjust the opacity selectively so one area can be 100% opaque and others can be partially or fully transparent.

For this image, as I want to lighten the sign but not anything else, it will be quickest if I start by selecting the sign on the background layer.

Step 4
Select the mask on the Curves layer. When you are working with masks remember that “black conceals and white reveals” so painting with white on the mask reveals the adjustment on this layer and painting with black on the mask hides the adjustment.

step4.jpg

Press Control + Shift + I (Command + Shift + I on the Mac) to invert the selection so now we have everything except the sign selected. Set the foreground color to black and press Alt + Backspace (Option + Delete on the Mac) to fill the mask except where the sign is with black.

Press Control + D (Command + D) to deselect the selection.

Step 5

If the fix looks too intense, you can adjust the opacity of the top Curves layer down a little.

step5.jpg

When adjusting opacity you may find it easier to judge an ideal value if you drag the Opacity slider to zero and then increase the value until you find a good fix rather than dragging it down from 100% looking for the ideal setting.

Step 6

If you want to remove the sign from the Levels adjustment you can do so using an inverse of the layer mask you have already created.

step6.jpg

To copy and invert the mask, press Alt + Shift (Option + Shift on the Mac) as you drag the mask from one adjustment layer and drop it on top of the mask on another layer. When prompted to replace the mask, answer Yes. (If you simply want to copy a mask use Control + Alt or Command + Option instead).

If you do this, you’re removing the Levels fix from the pole and you may need to adjust the Opacity of the Curves adjustment layer to compensate for this.

Step 7

You can also adjust masks by painting on them in black, white or a shade of grey. Painting in black hides the fix on this layer, painting in white reveals the fix on this layer and painting in grey partially hides the fix.

step7.jpg

Here I have Control + Clicked on the mask on the top Curves adjustment layer to select the white areas of the mask, then painted in grey on the mask to hide some of the lightening effect on the pole. By selecting the white area of the mask before painting I limit the paint to only the selected area which lets me work quickly.

If you go too far, switch colors and paint back the effect back.

To finish, I rotated the image to straighten the sign and cropped it to remove the distracting elements on the left side of the image.

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Helen Bradley

is a Lifestyle journalist who divides her time between the real and digital worlds, picking the best from both. She writes and produces video instruction for Photoshop and digital photography for magazines and online providers world wide. She has also written four books on photo crafts and blogs at Projectwoman.com.

  • I absolutely LOVE layer masks. They are a great way to slightly adjust things without distorting other parts of a photo and keep the photo looking natural and untouched. Great tutorial!

    Cabin Fever in Vermont

  • Great post about one of the many uses of photoshop. Sometimes no matter how good of a photographer you are, you need a little help from photoshop.

  • Haven’t we already seen this article? Its even suggested at the bottom as an article we might like if we liked this one. The only difference seems to be that in the old article, you used shadow/highlight whereas in this one, you used curves to bring out the detail in the shadows.

  • Nope …. this is a better version of her last tutorial using the same image. Both ways work, but using adjustment layers allows you to do a lot more tweaking later on. When you make masks, remember you can invert them by holing down shift+alt and dragging them to another layer, or just alt to copy the mask.

    \ shows your mask in quickmask mode.

    and x switches between black and white when you edit a mask….

  • Mike S

    I have not learnt layers and masks yet but I have gotten pretty good with curves adjustement. Would it be possibly to get a copy of the untouched original so I can see what I can do with just curves. I have had some pretty good results with anchoring the midtone and highlight portions of the curve and just adjusting the shadows for a similar effect.

  • al;sdjkf

    i left this page immediately the needy popup interrupted

Some Older Comments

  • Mike S May 11, 2010 11:36 pm

    I have not learnt layers and masks yet but I have gotten pretty good with curves adjustement. Would it be possibly to get a copy of the untouched original so I can see what I can do with just curves. I have had some pretty good results with anchoring the midtone and highlight portions of the curve and just adjusting the shadows for a similar effect.

  • tyler April 5, 2010 01:40 am

    Nope .... this is a better version of her last tutorial using the same image. Both ways work, but using adjustment layers allows you to do a lot more tweaking later on. When you make masks, remember you can invert them by holing down shift+alt and dragging them to another layer, or just alt to copy the mask.

    \ shows your mask in quickmask mode.

    and x switches between black and white when you edit a mask....

  • eric April 5, 2010 01:21 am

    Haven't we already seen this article? Its even suggested at the bottom as an article we might like if we liked this one. The only difference seems to be that in the old article, you used shadow/highlight whereas in this one, you used curves to bring out the detail in the shadows.

  • Shannon April 5, 2010 12:53 am

    Great post about one of the many uses of photoshop. Sometimes no matter how good of a photographer you are, you need a little help from photoshop.

  • Jen at Cabin Fever April 5, 2010 12:47 am

    I absolutely LOVE layer masks. They are a great way to slightly adjust things without distorting other parts of a photo and keep the photo looking natural and untouched. Great tutorial!

    Cabin Fever in Vermont

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