Lightroom Ultimate Guide – Gradient Masks

The selective adjustment tools in Lightroom are a powerful collection of editing capabilities. They set Lightroom apart from many of the other photo processing platforms on the market. The Lightroom Gradient Masks form part of the selective adjustment arsenal.

When you apply a linear gradient to a digital image in Lightroom using the Graduated Filters tool, the gradient effect applies across the entirety of the gradient. This is great if for example you want to apply the gradient in this way. But in many cases, you have objects that don’t need a gradient, effect, but are protruding into an area of an image that does. sky. This is where Gradient Masks come in.

Lightroom Gradient Masks

Lightroom Gradient Masks

In our previous Lightroom article, we explained the use of Graduated Filters. If you don’t understand how to use these, then it will be worth reading this article first. When you apply a gradient to an image it does so in the way illustrated below.

Lightroom Gradient Filter

But lets say you have an image like the one below. The photo was taken hand held, and without the use of a graduated filter on the lens to balance the exposure. Consequently, the sky portion is a little bright. Brighter even that the Highlights setting in the Basic Panel will allow us to adjust. So, by applying a Gradient Filter we can lower the Exposure of the sky and reduce the Highlights to better balance the overall contrast.

If you globally apply a Graduated Filters, it will apply the effect equally across the image. Because we need to balance right down to the horizon; it will start to impact the exposure of the land and the boat. This is where a Gradient Mask comes in handy, because we can tell Lightroom to avoid these areas.

Lightroom Gradient Masks
Image Before Masking

Gradient Mask Panel

The Range Mask tool sits at the bottom of the Gradient Filter section, the short-code for which is just the key “M”. By default Range Mask is set to Off. By left-clicking the menu to the right of the “Off” text, you can select either Color, Luminance, or Depth*.

Lightroom Gradient Masks
Lightroom Gradient Masks

You can achieve very similar results with either Luminance Masking or Color Masking. We will demonstrate both of these methods. The bad news (at time of writing), is that; the Depth option is only available to images taken with iPhone 7+ or above, and with High Efficiency mode enabled.

Luminance Masking

Luminance Masking works on the contrast range of the image, whereby you can limit masking to a specific contrast range. There are two ways to select a contrast range. Firstly, you can use the Range slider in the panel. The left hand side of the slider represents the darker tones, and the right-hand side the lighter tones. For our example, we want to limit the application of the gradient to the lighter tones, and avoid the darker tones.

So, we move the slider to the right. When doing this on your own image, you will visually notice the difference in the image, and set the slider to where it works for your image. In this example, I set the range from 0 to 35. You can see from the image that the Mask Overlay is now only affecting the highlights and brighter midtowns, so we have achieved the desired result.

Luminance Masks

Here is the after image so that you can compare. The mask lowers the Exposure by 1 stop, and also reduces the Highlights. You can see that the Luminance Mask has avoided the background as well as the boat, which is the effect we wanted.

Lightroom Gradient Masks
Image After Masking

The second method to achieve the same adjustment is with the Pipette. You left-click the Pipette to select it, then select the areas of image that you want to mask by left-clicking on the image. You can select multiple Luminance hues by clicking the Shift key as you left-click.

So for our example, you can select one white hue and a blue hue, and Lightroom then only applies the mask to the tonal contrast within this range.

Color Masking

Color Masking works as its name suggests, by only applying the Gradient Mask to specific colours. After selecting the Color option, you use the Pipette to select the colours you want the mask to impact. As with the method above, you do this by left-clicking the Pipette, then left-clicking on the image to select a colour. You then add multiple colours by pressing Shift whilst you left-click with the Pipette.

To illustrate this, below is our example image with colour zones selected in the image. You can see the mask overlay has painted the areas of the image that will be impacted. Finally, the finished product, which you can see pretty much achieves the same thing as we did with the Luminance Mask method.

Color Masking
Color Masking
Color Masking
Image after Color Masking

If you enjoyed this article on Lightroom Gradient Masks, you may find the following articles useful. Also, don’t forget to check out our Lightroom Ultimate Guide.

Lightroom Graduated Filters
Lightroom Graduated Filters

This article explains the use of Graduated Filters into your digital image workflow.

Lightroom Histogram
Lightroom Histogram & Tone Adjustments

Understanding the Lightroom Histogram forms the foundation of all post-processing you will ever do in Lightroom

Mastering HSL & Color

The HSL & Color Panels allow you to perform targeted adjustments to specific areas in your photograph for Hue, Saturation & Color optimisation.


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