Using Masks to Rescue Highlights

I have been a product photographer for a over 10 years and been working as a photographer for almost two decades now.  I have found in this time that there are very many tools in this industry that are misused and not explained very well.  The biggest repeat offender is Layer Masks.  Many tutorials explain everything just short of what you actually need to get this concept.

Back in the days of film we would make use of cardboard with cutouts in them to work as a mask.  For example if I wanted to add light to a background to make it shift to black or make composites of multiple elements from different images. I would make a cutout of my model and mask (block) the light from the paper during the exposure in the darkroom.   Even the little icon looks like a cardboard cutout with a hole in it.

Masks in Photoshop work in the same way, when you duplicate an element to be enhanced you can add a layer mask to that element and with your brush or selection tool create a cutout to control the enhancement to a small focused spot.

My example today is a product shot of a computer fan.  It is a simple image to photograph but it does have some small issues.  To get the texture and tone in the blacks and shadow values just right I normally end up pushing the highlights in the white plastic connector a bit too far.  So I normally add a mask so I can bring the details back.

Images by: Douglas Lee Coon

As you can see the connector is blown out, just a bit.  I am not one to make broad adjustments I make adjustments to the actual problem.  The issue is that I need to bring the highlights back only; the other elements of this image are just the way I want them. I use Curves to make sure that the white background is in fact at 255 pure white.

From here I am going to select the background layer and then go to the channels panel as seen in the above image.  I then select the highlights by Ctrl click right on the RGB thumbnail.  You will see there is a selection made in many elements in your photograph, it looks confusing but what it has been done is all highlights in the frame have been selected.

Images by: Douglas Lee Coon

Now hold down CTRL and press J and you will move the highlights on its own layer. You can make a duplicate of the background layer but it is not necessary and it is a waste. On that note I will just say “NEVER, NEVER, NEVER save over the original RAW image.”  Always save the master files without any modification.  Now that you have a layer that is highlights only you can adjust the mid-tones so the details come back (gray slider in the middle goes to the right).

Images by: Douglas Lee Coon

Now you only want the white plastic connector to have the adjustment, so we need to block all of the effects of the levels adjustment so we can paint in the effect.  Click on the white box “mask” icon next to the highlights layer. And fill with black, this is (SHIFT, F5), or put black to background and then (ctrl, backspace).  There are a few ways to do this in Photoshop, whatever way you fill the mask with black is fine.  Don’t get scared that the image looks like it did before; you are now ready to paint on the black with the white paint brush.  I have done this in the below image but I used the white brush tool to paint the center of the plastic connector; you can see the enhanced area that is revealed matches the white spot on the mask icon.

I personally don’t like to use the brush tool alone here, I make a focused selection to the plastic piece, my personal favorite is the pen tool, and it makes the most controlled selections.  Use whatever you are most comfortable with.

Images by: Douglas Lee Coon

Once that is done you activate the selection and then fill, brush that area in so you see the plastic is darker and everything else is still the same.  There will be a clear shape on the mask icon of the masked area.

Images by: Douglas Lee Coon

After seeing the plastic now next to the original image I feel like it is a bit too dark so now I click on the actual image icon on the highlights layer and not the mask and adjust it until it looks balanced.  I want it to still be white but not blown out of course, the change should be subtle.  When this is done right you shouldn’t be able to tell anything was done at all.

Images by: Douglas Lee Coon

I have gone over a great many steps here and I know it sounds like a ton of work, the reality it that once you do this a few times you will find that this process takes only a few minutes from start to finish and the results are the difference between a professional image and  an amateur one.  After all I was doing this in the darkroom for years and Ansel Adams himself was famous for his crazy collection of dodging and burning tools as well as masks.  The work is worth the little bit of effort to get the shot right.  Go through this tutorial a few times and try it out I would love to see your before and after examples.  If I have been confusing and anyone wants more detailed explanations I would be able to help, I tried to make this as simple as possible.


Images by: Douglas Lee Coon

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