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October 11, 2011

Advanced Photoshop Contrast Application

Update 2014/01 – I have gone to great lengths to revise, update and improve my series of tutorials on HDR blending with luminosity selections. The new tutorials are available on the CapturEarth blog.


This tutorial builds on the ones before it. If you’ve never worked with luminosity masks then you will have absolutely no idea what’s going on below. Click on the tutorials link to the right to see the previous ones.

I don’t charge money for my tutorials and I don’t get any direct compensation for them. It takes vast time and effort to create them and all I ask in return is that you share my site or link to it in relevant posts.

I feel that sharing this knowledge without crediting Tony Kuyper wouldn’t be right. It is quite different from his tutorials, but without it I wouldn’t have known any of this.

The Theory

In my standard workflow, RAW processing aside, there’s not really that much that I do in Photoshop if I list it point wise. It’s usually HDR blend, contrast application, selective colour enhancement. The previous two tutorials have dealt with the blending of images, so the next step would be contrast application. If you know how to selectively apply contrast to the correct areas of an image, it can make or break that image. Darkening a highlight area or brightening a shadow often makes all the difference to a photo.

To explain why the discussed method is so great, I first have to show what the problem is with conventional contrast application. My learning path with applying contrast went something like this.

The first thing I did was to explore the ‘image>adjustments’ menu and at the very top sits ‘contrast and brightness’. This is about as basic as it gets, it applies a constant amount of contrast to the whole image, meaning that if you’ve got sensitive highlights or shadows then it’s going to blow them.  This makes it relatively useless as good landscape light always has a broad dynamic range, usually requiring ND filters or HDR blending to get your entire range of tones into one image. So what’s the point of doing so much effort to get all that detail in your shadows and highlights, if you’re just going to blow them again when applying more contrast to the photo?

Brightness/Contrast Tool

The next thing I discovered was levels, it gives you separate control of your three main tonal spectrums (shadows, midtones, highlights) as well as the ability to set a parameter to the output levels. So you can apply a specific amount of contrast to each of those tonal areas and tell photoshop not to blow them by using the output level fields. You’ll need to do your own research on what exactly output level adjustments do, but a quick google revealed this to be a straight forward answer. This still wasn’t nearly good enough as it affects the whole photograph and was still quite ‘primitive’ because it only gives you the ability to make shadows darker and highlights brighter.

The Levels Tool

Then came curves…my favourite definition of curves is that it’s just levels on steroids. While offering a tad more control and the ability to apply stronger contrast, it shares the same basic problems of the levels tool.

The Curves Tool

Then I learnt about layer masks. Suddenly I could make these contrast changes to specific areas by brushing out the areas that I don’t want to be affected. The problem is that it’s very difficult to brush along fine edges.  Whilst you can brush larger objects like rocks or the sky, you’ll be utterly frustrated trying to brush out a tree against a sky. Some people say that you can get very far using a drawing tablet and fine brushwork…true. If you want to spend two hours on a mask, enjoy! There is one technique that was a slight work-around on the brush problem. The gradient tool allows you to get a near perfect transition between two layers, but only in situations where that transitional area is very linear. In simpler terms, images with a straight horizon and a well exposed foreground and sky. As soon as you have dark corners or a an odd shaped blown highlight, the gradient tool becomes pretty much redundant as well. I’ve shown in my earlier tutorials how the radial gradient can be used to blend circular areas, but that also has its limitations

The shapes and tonal transition between different areas in an image like this make it impossible to exclusively affect specific parts using things like the brush or gradient tool.

So even with tools like curves and layer masks, you still can’t quite apply contrast to very specific areas and if you apply too much you’re still going to blow your highlights and shadows.

The Magic Midtones

Then came the great wizard of tonal control, Tony Kuyper with his luminosity selections. The feathered selections of specific tones makes it possible to brush very specific areas like the branches of a tree or that bright sliver of sunset light in the clouds. You could also apply a lot of contrast to an image and then recover your shadows and highlights using layer masks and selections. It is however a ton of effort to apply contrast, select your highlights and brush out that contrast, then select your shadows and brush that out as well. Tony presented an absolutely brilliant solution to this… what if you can get a selection that excludes the sensitive highlights and shadows?

If you’re already comfortable with luminosity selections it’s easy to get the above mentioned selection. Select the whole image and just subtract the highlights and shadows from that selection, all you are left with is the midtones. Whilst there is obviously a limit to the amount of contrast you can apply to the midtones of an image, it has a much higher contrast threshold than the far ends of the histogram. So you can apply contrast to the midtones and also darken or brighten it to suit your photo better, but because you still have your highlights and shadows intact the photo maintains a rich range of tones.

So how do you subtract one selection from another? It’s very simple… (NOTE: You must have a selection active, i.e you can’t subtract something from nothing)



You can perform your own experiments, but I’ve found that what works best is: [ENTIRE  IMAGE] minus [LIGHT LIGHTS] minus [DARK DARKS]

Those two mentioned selections take quite a sequence of steps to obtain, so if you don’t have Tony’s action that creates them as channels then there are two options.

1. Buy the action from Tony’s site

2. Create the selection channels yourself, which is very easy.

Creating the bright brights selection channel

  1. Open your desired image and go to your channels palette
  2. As explained in the highlights tutorial, get your basic lights by holding CTRL while clicking on the RGB channel icon |(APPLE+click)
  3. Intersect it once by holding CTRL+ALT+SHIFT and clicking the RGB channel icon again | (APPLE+ALT+SHIFT+click) ( In the channels palette it’s not the layer mask button, but if you did my previous tutorials then you should know it as that)
  4. Now simply click on the mask button at the bottom of the palette and the selection will be saved as a channel


The channel will be named 'Alpha 1' by default. You can rename it to avoid later confusion.


Creating the darks  selection channel

  1. Return to the layers palette and as explained in the shadows tutorial, create a reference layer by duplicating your image (CTRL+J | APPLE + J) as a layer and inverting it (CTRL+I | APPLE + I)
  2. Now get your basic darks and then intersect it to get the dark darks, exactly as explained in step 3 above.
  3. Click the layer mask button and your selection will be saved as a channel ( In the channels palette it’s not the layer mask button, but if you did my previous tutorials then you should know it as that)
  4. Delete your reference layer

The channel will be named 'Alpha 2' by default. You can rename it to avoid later confusion.

Obtaining the midtones selection

  1. Press CTRL+A | APPLE+A to select the entire image.
  2. Now subtract your two channel selections by clicking on each while holding CTRL+ALT | APPLE+ALT
  3. That’s it! If you look at your histogram while executing step 2, you’ll see that the sensitive shadows and highlights fall off the histogram as you subtract the channel selections from the entire image.
  4. Just to get you thinking creatively on how you can subtract and add selections for different results, you will also get the same midtone selection if you add those two selections and invert the sum of the two. The common mistake that a lot of people make though is they think [basic lights inverted=basic darks], [light lights inverted=dark darks]…etc. That is not the case, if it were then an inverted layer would never be necessary.

For a simple test to see the difference this selection makes, you can apply a standard amount of curves contrast to the entire image and then again to the selection. The results are pretty obvious. The 2nd image just has a nice punch to it, while the 2nd one is overdone.

RAW Image

'Strong Contrast' curves preset applied to midtone selection

'Strong Contrast' curves preset applied to entire image

Layer Blending Modes (LBM)

I used curves in the example above simply because it’s something that everyone is familiar with. My preferred tool for applying contrast is layer blending modes. If were to try and justify it technically then I would be sucking something out of my thumb…I just like it. Before I continue I need to state here that there is one major difference with my workflow compared to most people’s…I don’t like using 17000 adjustment layers. I’ll blend an image and save a TIFF of the blend without any extra enhancements, then do my contrast and color work and save a flattened final. I believe that the enhancement of contrast and color is just as much a creative process as the shooting and if I want to improve/correct it at a later stage then I’ll work from my blended TIFF again. Another factor is that my PS skills are always improving, so I might be able to do a better job of something at a later stage and then I’m going to start from scratch again anyway. This issue can be debated to hell and gone, but at the end of the day each person has to do what works for them.

If you don’t know what layer blending modes are, go to the layers palette and you’ll see there’s a tab that says ‘normal’ but you can’t access it. That’s because layer blending modes need two layers to work,  you’ll be able to access it by duplicating your layer (CTRL+J | APPLE+J). If you just quickly skip through them then you’ll see what each one does. Each mode is how two layers are blended into each other by different algorithms using the numeric values of each pixel. Don’t worry though, none of that technical gibberish matters and there are only three layer blending modes you need to familiarize with.

  • Soft Light – Contrast
  • Screen – Lightens
  • Multiply – Darkens
By using those three LBMs on various selections, you can make very specific and significant changes to your images in four simple steps
  1. Activate necessary selection
  2. Create layer of the selection(CTRL+J | APPLE+J)
  3. Set LBM
  4. Adjust opacity
There is just one decision you need to make now for your workflow before you continue. Will you get your selections using Tony’s action that creates all the channels for you…or manually obtain the selections? I still stick with manual, but the choice is yours!  I’m not going to show every single detail from here on. If you’ve done my previous tutorials and had a look at TK’s material then you won’t need it anyway.

Example 1

In this image, those storm clouds above the dunes are just a tad too bright for my liking. All I do is get the right selection of it, which in this case was bright lights, make a layer of it, set the LBM to multiply to darken it and then adjust the opacity.

Original Image

Layers Palette

Final image with darkened highlights

Example 2


Suppose I want to lighten up those shadows behind the bushes and in the mountains…Get the right selection, which in this case was shadow darks, make a layer of it, set the LBM to screen and set it to the right opacity.

Original Image

Final image with lightened shadows

Example 3


By using the blue channel you can increase the contrast between your sky and land which will add more impact to the shot. This technique is however quite reliant on an already good amount of contrast between the two(sky and land). Get the right selection, which in this case was the primary intersection (light lights) of the blue channel, make a layer of it, set it to multiply and adjust the opacity. This will create a slight halo on the boundary of your selective areas (mountain/sky edge in this case). You can soften it using the refine edge tool, but that is something that I’m still trying to master myself.

Original Image

Final image with darkened sky

You can also do the inverse of this in order to make the foreground brighter against the sky.

Example 4

The last tip is that when you lighten or darken either the midtones, highlights or shadows, it may often require extra contrast. You can add the contrast by simply creating another layer of your selection and setting it to soft light. I’ve found it helps a lot if you make three layers of your selection. One for the lightening/darkening, one for the contrast and one between your original layer and the first tow. I call it a buffer layer. Fine tune your amount of contrast and lightening/darkening and then merge the three selection layers (Select all three by using SHIFT+CLICK and then hit CTRL+E | APPLE +E). Now you’ll have a layer on top of the original that comprises the total adjustments of all the LBM layers and you can fine tune the opacity of that in case you applied to much or too little.

The three selection layers

The final adjustment layer

Final Word

Before you skip ahead to download the actions, please read the paragraph below.

I can teach readers how to affect these changes, but it’s never about knowing how to do it…It is about knowing what to do. If you have the skills to make a certain area darker, lighter or give it more punch but you don’t have the judgement to determine which part of the photograph needs which change…then it’s absolutely useless. There are no shortcuts  in photography and spending 70% of your time on processing is no substitute for shooting a lot and looking at plenty of good images. You have to develop your judgement by studying the work of respected photographers. If you’ve got a bottle of whisky it doesn’t mean you have to drink the whole thing and the same applies to processing. The fact that you know how to apply a ton of contrast doesn’t mean you have to. Moderation is the key and the judgement to know what is sufficient comes only with practice and time.

The examples that I’ve shown here are only a few of the potential selections and adjustments that can be achieved using the theory behind this. If you play around with increasing the contrast on which your selections are based and you really start thinking about what can be subtracted or added to what, then the potential is vast.

I don’t charge money for my tutorials and I don’t get any direct compensation for them. It takes vast time and effort to create them and all I ask in return is that you share my site or link to it in relevant posts.


The Actions

Right click me and select ‘save link as’

Writing an action that utilizes the theory of the tutorial and works equally great on all images is impossible. These actions will however give you some of the awesomeness with none of the channel and inversion efforts. The actions are of course no substitute for understanding how it all works and being able to apply it all by yourself. There are 6 actions in the set and below is a short description of what each does.

  1. Advanced LBM Contrast – I programmed this over a year ago and I can’t quite say that I remember 100% what it does, but you’ll like it! It uses a combination of the midtones and the blue channel to give midtone contrast and darken the sky slightly.  It adds the contrast as a layer so you can fine tune it by reducing the opacity.
  2. Above mentioned action can sometimes be aggressive on  the shadows, this action recovers the shadows. It works ONLY on the layer that action #1 creates.
  3. Slight Glow Brush – This creates a layer that is slightly brighter and has extreme contrast. It adds the layer with a reveall/black mask. By painting with a white brush on the mask you’ll reveal the contrast in the layer, but subtlety is the key. Use a brush opacity of 5%-15%. This works great to give depth to ‘flat’ areas.
  4. Midtone Contrast – This selects the midtones and creates three layers of it namely ‘contrast, lighten and darken’. What each does is pretty obvious. It sets all three layers to 0% opacity, so you have to increase it to see the effect! Play around until you’re happy, then flatten!
  5. Lighten Dark Areas – It makes three layers of the dark darks selection, sets one to screen, one to soft light and leaves one as a buffer.
  6. Darken Light Areas – It makes three layers of the light lights selection, sets one to multiply, one to soft light and leaves one as a buffer.
Any feedback is appreciated. I’ll update the actions accordingly. These actions work great on any genre of photography, except humans. Too much midtone contrast is bad for skin tones!
Filed under: Tutorials — Tags: , , , , , , , — Hougaard Malan @ 4:55 pm


  1. Really nice tutorial, explaining fairly tricky concepts in a very understandable manner.

    One think I can add is that when lightening or darkening, I’ll pretty much always remove the tones at the extreme end of the spectrum in order to not lose contrast. For example, say I want to bring down the light lights with a multiply layer, I’ll select light lights, but subtract either bright lights or super lights from the selection. So effectively you are darkening the bright areas, but leaving the extremely bright areas, which in turn adds contrast and detail. The same goes for shadows (inverse of course).

    This is just a rule of thumb for me though, it doesn’t always apply.

    Keep the tuts coming! Awesome stuff.

    Comment by Philip Perold — October 11, 2011 @ 8:38 pm

  2. Thanks for the tips and actions.. :)

    Comment by James Yu — October 12, 2011 @ 7:25 am

  3. Thanks for the great tutorial. I imagine it was a lot of work putting it together and I think it’s great you are sharing so readily.

    Just a comment – when I create darks, I simply select the lights and then invert that selection. It’s a little simpler than creating a new base layer and inverting that.

    Cheers! And you have awesome pictures in your gallery.

    Comment by Derrick — October 12, 2011 @ 8:08 am

  4. Thank you for the tips, the tutorial is totally great! Good to have you back to the blog again! Cheers!

    Comment by Elmar — October 14, 2011 @ 10:34 am

  5. I’ve just read Tony Kuypers tutorials, I am one step behind you, but it won’t be long ’till I’m one step ahead. Keep on your toes Mr Malan :D

    Comment by Alex Nail — October 14, 2011 @ 12:11 pm

  6. I might be mistaken, however I have the feeling that all of this can be achieved solely with curves layers.

    My reasoning is as follows:

    A curves layer is essentially a way to change every luminosity value to a different luminosity value according to a set rule, lets call this the ‘curves rule’

    Now let’s assume that whether a pixel is in the ‘bright brights’ selection is solely dependent on it’s luminosity. (this is where I might be wrong). In this case using ‘bright brights’ as a layer mask is simply applying the ‘curves rule’ to those pixels that have the luminosity to get into the selection. In effect, we get a new rule, lets call this the ‘composite rule’. My point is that this new rule still is a way to change every luminosity value to a different luminosity value according to a set rule. In other words, this rule can also be captured by a curves rule.

    I came up with this since I am studying mathematics. So here is the mathematical version:

    the curves layer Fc defines the new luminosity as a function of the old luminosity: Fc: L -> L

    the selection S defines a subset dependent only on luminosity: S = {X |luminosity(X) in A} where A is any set.

    we now define Gc as:
    Gc(x) = Fc(x) if x in S
    = x otherwise.

    Gc(x) remains a function of luminosity only and thus can be represented by a curves layer.

    Comment by Bart — October 24, 2011 @ 12:14 am

  7. Hi Hougaard,
    This might be of interest.
    Your tut is gratefully appreciated and well done.
    With many thanks,
    Mark Wiseman.

    Comment by Mark Wiseman — October 25, 2011 @ 4:12 pm

  8. [...] [...]

    Pingback by Good technical tutorials on increasing contrast and masking in Photoshop — November 7, 2011 @ 6:33 pm

  9. [...] based on the work of Tony Kuyper and Hougaard Malan. Some background info can be found here Advanced Photoshop Contrast Application Hougaard Malan Photography Blog and the Action can be downloaded here…bEFFd2Q3czlVag The [...]

    Pingback by Luminosity mask? - Page 2 — August 6, 2013 @ 1:48 am

  10. Hi, I was interested in the actions, but when I click to download it, it says that a password is required. Any help with that?

    P.S. great tutorial and help!

    Comment by Dvir — January 22, 2014 @ 8:00 am

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