The Best Tutorial For How to Use the Masking Tool in Lightroom

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The Best Tutorial For How to Use the Masking Tool in Lightroom

We’ve all had this happen.  It’s frustrating when you’re in a gorgeous setting and snap some fantastic photos of people you love, only to get back to your computer and find that they are entirely shadowed and the background is perfectly lit.  So, is it too late?  Can these photos be saved?  With Lightroom’s new features and the new masking tools, you can save so many images!  Today we’ll review some options you have when editing in Lightroom Classic.

I have a new friend who is just beginning to learn photography.  She showed me the image and asked how to fix it, so let’s work on it together.

Before we walk through the exact steps of editing the image, let’s discuss what we’ll be doing.  At first glance, I notice that the background is very bright, and the people are very dark.  So, we’ll need to use some of the new tools to lower the brightness in the background and brighten up the people.  Masking can accomplish all of this, so let’s make it happen!

Step 1 – Open Develop Module

The first thing we need to do before getting to how to use the masking tool is to get your image into Lightroom.  Then you’ll need to open the Develop Module.  Develop is where you’ll make edits to your images.

To go there, click on the word “Develop” in the upper right of your screen.

Screen shot of how to open the Develop Mode in Lightroom

Step 2 – Open the Masking Menu

Next up, open the masking menu by clicking on the small circle at the top of the develop menu.

Screenshot of how to open the masking menu in Lightroom

Step 3 – Choose Your Layer Mask

Once this menu opens, you’ll see a list of options.  Notice that two of the options are to select your subject or use a radial filter.  We could use either of these, but in this case, let’s begin with a radial mask.  We’ll use select subject later.  I am choosing a radial mask because in an image like this with very few shadows cast by sunlight, choosing “select subject” may end up causing your image to look like your subjects are stuck to the background like a sticker.

Click on Radial Gradient.  Note that another way to create a radial gradient is to click on shift+M.  Using this shortcut saves extraneous clicking with your mouse to get to this point.

Screenshot of where to find Radial Gradient tool in Lightroom

Once you’ve selected radial gradient, you’ll see this little black box pop up.

screenshot of where to see a preview of the radial gradient in Lightroom

Click and drag your cursor to create the specific areas where you’d like to make edits.  You’ll see on the tiny square a mini-image of where your masking area is on the image.

On the image itself, you’ll see the shape you just created.  While your gradient area is open, the sliders on the right side of your screen control only the areas highlighted in red.

screenshot of what a radial gradient looks like in Lightroom

Toggling the Overlay

You’ll notice the red overlay area toggles on and off as you slide your cursor on and off the gradient area.  If you’d like to leave it red to see where you’re working as you move the cursor, click the tiny checkbox below the mini image to toggle the mask highlight off and on.

screenshot of what a mask looks like on screen in Lightroom

Now is a great time to talk about the feather feature.  Notice when you make your radial gradient that there are two lines around it.  These two lines represent the feathering feature.  You can change how far of a reach your edits have by adjusting the feather slider.

As a general rule, feathering is an excellent tool for keeping your local adjustments subtle.  No feathering at all will give you a hard line around your area.  Go ahead and try it.  Adjust that slider and see what happens.  The best way to learn what the sliders in Lightroom do is to play with them.  Because your edits are non-destructive, you can go ahead and try everything!

Small side note:  Previous versions of Lightroom and Lightroom CC called some features by different names.  For example, we used to have range masking, a graduated filter, luminance range masks, and a range mask tool.  It feels like terminology is constantly changing in photo editing.

The new masking panel in the updated Lightroom has even more functionality but now uses different terminology to do the same thing.  Don’t let all these fancy words intimidate you.  The first thing to remember is that you can do this!  Once you learn how to use the tools, you can do amazing things with your images!

screenshot of how to use the feather tool in Lightroom
Pink background with "Hip Grandma Merch" available on front

Radial Gradient Adjustments

In this image, I put the radial gradient around the couple, with the main area centered around the parts of the image showing their upper bodies and faces.  I adjusted the sliders until the couple looked clear and I could see details.  You can see how I increased exposure, adjusted the white balance by warming them up a touch (blue-yellow slider), and raised shadows and contrast a smidge.  When you’re working and editing, try adjusting all the sliders back and forth to get a feel for what each one does.

screenshot of sliders moved for adjustments in Lightroom

I wanted to see more detail in the gentleman’s face, so I created a second brush mask by using the plus symbol and selecting the Brush tool.

screenshot of the plus button and the brush button in Lightroom

Use your cursor to make brush strokes, paint over the man’s face, and adjust the sliders just as you did with the radial gradient.  When you feel great about your adjustments over the people, it’s time to work on the background.

4 – Masking the Background

Even though it may seem counter-intuitive, this is the perfect time to use the Select Subject tool.  Click on the Plus button, and when the menu pops up, choose Select Subject.

screenshot of how to use select subject in Lightroom

Lightroom will go ahead and pick what it “sees” as the subject of the photo.  This feature works best when one main subject or group stands out from the rest of the pixels in the image.  This image makes the perfect example.  The technology is impressive.  Notice that another choice is the select sky option.  Adobe Lightroom outdid itself with these features.  Give it a try when you have a photo that needs sky adjustments.  You’ll be dazzled!

Here’s what it selected for our image.  A+ Lightroom!

screenshot of view of subject selected in Lightroom

Now click on the Invert checkbox above the sliders

screenshot of where the invert checkbox is located in Lightroom

See how the red mask switches from the subjects to everything around them?  Perfect!  Now everything you adjust with those sliders will affect the background, not the people.

Go ahead and play with the sliders.  For this edit, I chose to lower exposure and highlights and bring down the texture and clarity to smooth the background and allow our subjects to stand out a bit more.  The background of this image is a touch blown out, so you won’t be able to recover all of the details in that waterfall.

screenshot showing blownout background

5 – Linear Gradient

Now we’re starting to see our subjects pop!  But one thing is still standing out to me.  I want to brighten up the bottom portion of our image, which gives us the perfect opportunity to use a Linear Gradient.

By now, you should be good at adding a mask, so go ahead and click on the Plus button again, and this time select Linear Gradient.

screenshot showing the linear gradient tool in Lightroom

Now use your cursor to press and drag from the bottom up.  If you hold the shift key, your Linear Gradient will stay straight.  If you want a tilt, as we do here, note that the angle will change as you drag.  Go ahead and play using shift and not shift.

screenshot showing a preview of a linear gradient in Lightroom

Caption – see how the tiny images on the top right show your various masks.

Now go ahead and make your selective adjustments with the sliders.  I bumped up the exposure and raised shadows slightly to get more detail in the rock and the jeans.

screenshot showing a linear gradient on an image in Lightroom

Now that you’ve spent some time using these cool Filter Masks, you can exit back to the main image, where everything you do with those sliders will affect the entire image.  Note that you will remain in mask mode until you click the DONE button on the bottom right.  Don’t stress about making everything perfect before clicking done.  You can go back into this menu anytime by clicking on the Mask Menu (as shown in step 2).

screenshot of where to find the DONE button on Lightroom

6 – Final Details

It’s time to look at our overall image to see if there’s anything else we’d like to adjust.  Because Summer originally intended this image to be centered, I’d give it a little crop to ensure the subjects are lined up in the center (link to cropping post).  Then I would warm up the image by clicking on the BASIC menu and using the blue-yellow slider.

screenshot showing where to access the CROP option in Lightroom

And with that, I think this image looks great!  Time to export!

Bonus Tip – H3

One of my favorite little Lightroom features is the before/after comparison tool.  You’ll find this little button on the bottom left of your workspace.  You can cycle through different views, but this tool allows you to see the image you worked on from when you imported it to what you have now.  I like to peek in now and then to see how far I’m pushing an image.  Sometimes the edits are subtle, and it feels like you’ve accomplished nothing until you take a look at this! 

screenshot of an image before and after on the Lightroom screen

7 – A Note About RAW and OCF

Because Summer shot this image in RAW, we could make some pretty dramatic changes and recover a lot of detail that we would have lost in a JPG image.  (LINK TO 10 TERMS).  As a beginner photographer, it’s terrific that Summer was shooting in RAW.

Moving forward, you can use a flash to capture a much clearer image of these beautiful subjects in front of a bright background.  If you’re learning, pick up an inexpensive flash unit that will attach to the top of your DSLR camera.  If you’re using an iPhone, then enable the manual flash.

Using a flash in a brightly lit outdoor area may seem unusual, but your camera will meter (LINK TO METER) for the bright background, and you’ll get this result.  When you add a flash, your camera can meter to its heart’s content, and the quick pop of light will illuminate your subjects.  Voila!  Your foreground and background will both be brightly lit!

Wrapping it All Up!

Lightroom is becoming more versatile every day!  I also use Photoshop when editing, but as Adobe Lightroom continues to add to the features available, I find myself using more Lightroom and less Photoshop.  Many of the features we used here today used to be only available in Photoshop through Adobe Camera Raw.  But with so many new masking features, the intersect mask, selective adjustment tools, and the ability to make global adjustments or adjustments in specific areas of your image, Lightroom is more versatile than ever!

You don’t need to be a professional photographer to take great images and edit them to perfection.  A select edit or two can make a substantial difference in one of your images.  And don’t think you need to devote much time to this type of editing.  Once you get the hang of how to use the masking tool in Lightroom, you’ll pop in and make minor edits as part of your regular workflow.

A great big thank you and photo credit to Summer Hindman, who generously shared her work as a perfect learning example.  She has a bright future as a photographer.  Keep learning!

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