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Boosting Contrast And Color With The Luminosity Mask In Photoshop

Written by Steve Patterson. In this photo retouching tutorial, we’ll learn how to boost the contrast and color saturation of an image in Photoshop using what’s called a luminosity mask, a little-known trick for selecting pixels in an image based on their luminosity, or lightness, values.

We’ll see how to copy the luminosity mask to its own layer and combine it with one of Photoshop’s layer blend modes to increase contrast, bring out the colors and give your photo more visual punch.

I’ll be using Photoshop CS6 for this tutorial but any recent version of Photoshop will work.

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Here’s the image I’ll be starting with. At the moment, it’s looking a little flat and dull:

The original image. Image © 2013 Steve Patterson, Photoshop Essentials.com.
The original photo.

Here’s how it will look when we’re done:

Boosting contrast and color with a luminosity mask in Photoshop. Image © 2013 Steve Patterson, Photoshop Essentials.com.
The final result.

Let’s get started!

Step 1: Load The Luminosity Mask As A Selection

The first thing we need to do is switch over to Photoshop’s Channels panel which you’ll find grouped in beside the Layers panel. Click on its tab at the top to select and open it:

Switching to the Channels panel in Photoshop CS6. Image © 2013 Steve Patterson, Photoshop Essentials.com.
Opening the Channels panel by clicking on its tab.

Since my image is using the RGB color mode, and yours most likely is as well, the Channels panel displays the Red, Green and Blue channels for the image, with each channel representing one of the three primary colors of light. It’s also showing me what appears to be a fourth channel at the top named RGB, but this one isn’t really a channel. It’s the combination of the Red, Green and Blue channels below it, and it’s what’s giving us the full color image we see on the screen.

If all this talk of color channels is beyond your current Photoshop skill level (or your interest level), don’t worry. You don’t need to understand any of it for what we’re doing here. All you need to know is that to select pixels based on their lightness values, simply press and hold the Ctrl (Win) / Command (Mac) key on your keyboard and click anywhere on the RGB channel at the top:

Switching to the Channels panel in Photoshop CS6. Image © 2013 Steve Patterson, Photoshop Essentials.com.
Clicking the RGB channel while holding down Ctrl (Win) / Command (Mac).

This loads a rather crazy looking selection inside your image. What’s happened is that Photoshop has gone through the image and selected pixels based on how bright they are. Pixels that are pure white are selected 100%. Pixels that are pure black are not selected at all, and pixels that fall somewhere between white and black are partially selected based on how close they are to white:

Switching to the Channels panel in Photoshop CS6. Image © 2013 Steve Patterson, Photoshop Essentials.com.
The pixels in the image are now selected based on their luminosity values.

Step 2: Copy The Selection To A New Layer

We’re done with the Channels panel, so switch over to the Layers panel by clicking on its tab:

Switching to the Layers panel in Photoshop CS6. Image © 2013 Steve Patterson, Photoshop Essentials.com.
Switching from the Channels panel to the Layers panel.

We need to copy our selection onto a new layer above the image, and we can do that by going up to the Layer menu at the top of the screen, choosing New, then choosing Layer via Copy. Or, you can press Ctrl+J (Win) / Command+J (Mac) on your keyboard to access the same command with the handy shortcut:

Selecting the New Layer via Copy command in Photoshop CS6. Image © 2013 Steve Patterson, Photoshop Essentials.com.
Going to New > Layer via Copy.

Photoshop copies the selected pixels onto a new layer named Layer 1 above the original image that’s sitting on the Background layer:

The selected pixels have been copied to a new layer. Image © 2013 Steve Patterson, Photoshop Essentials.com.
The selected pixels have been copied to a new layer.

To show you what I mean about pixels being only partially selected, click on the Background layer’s visibility icon (the little eyeball icon) to temporarily hide the original image from view in the document window:

Clicking the layer visibility icon for the Background layer. Image © 2013 Steve Patterson, Photoshop Essentials.com.
Clicking the Background layer’s visibility icon.

With the Background layer hidden, all we see in the document window is the contents of Layer 1. Notice that most of the pixels on the layer appear semi-transparent, and that’s because they were only partially selected:

The pixels that were selected by the luminosity mask. Image © 2013 Steve Patterson, Photoshop Essentials.com.
A view of only the selected pixels from the luminosity mask.

Click once again on the Background layer’s visibility icon to bring the original image back into view:

Clicking again on the visibility icon for the Background layer. Image © 2013 Steve Patterson, Photoshop Essentials.com.
Clicking again on the visibility icon.

Step 3: Change The Blend Mode To “Overlay”

Now that I have the brightest parts of my image on a separate layer, I’ll use them to boost the color and contrast of my image. To do that, all I need to do is change the blend mode of Layer 1 from its default mode of Normal to Overlay. The Blend Mode option is found in the upper left of the Layers panel:

Setting the layer to the Overlay blend mode. Image © 2013 Steve Patterson, Photoshop Essentials.com.
Changing Layer 1′s blend mode from Normal to Overlay.

The Overlay blend mode is part of the Contrast group of blend modes in Photoshop, and its purpose is to boost image contrast by making dark areas darker and light areas lighter. If you find that the Overlay blend mode is too intense with your image, try the Soft Light blend mode instead. Soft Light also boosts contrast but with more subtle results:

Setting the layer to the Soft Light blend mode. Image © 2013 Steve Patterson, Photoshop Essentials.com.
Try the Soft Light blend mode for a less intense contrast boost.

I’m going to stick with the Overlay blend mode for my image. Here’s what it now looks like. Notice that not only has the contrast been increased, but so has the overall color saturation:

The image contrast and color saturation have both been increased with the Overlay blend mode. Image © 2013 Steve Patterson, Photoshop Essentials.com.
The image after changing the blend mode to Overlay.

Related Reading: Five Essential Blend Modes For Photo Editing

Step 4: Duplicate Layer 1 If Needed To Enhance The Effect Even More

If you need to increase the contrast and color saturation in your image even further, you can easily do so simply by duplicating Layer 1. To do that, make sure Layer 1 is selected and highlighted in the Layers panel, then go back up to the Layer menu at the top of the screen, choose New, then choose Layer via Copy. Or, press Ctrl+J (Win) / Command+J (Mac) for the keyboard shortcut:

Once again selecting the New Layer via Copy command in Photoshop CS6. Image © 2013 Steve Patterson, Photoshop Essentials.com.
Going again to New > Layer via Copy.

Photoshop creates a copy of Layer 1, gives the copy the descriptive name Layer 1 copy, and places it directly above the original. Notice that this copy of the layer is automatically set to the Overlay blend mode as well (or Soft Light if that’s what you were using):

Once again selecting the New Layer via Copy command in Photoshop CS6. Image © 2013 Steve Patterson, Photoshop Essentials.com.
The copy of Layer 1 is also set to the same blend mode.

With two layers now combining to boost contrast and color saturation, the result is even stronger:

The image after duplicating Layer 1. Image © 2013 Steve Patterson, Photoshop Essentials.com.
The image after duplicating Layer 1.

At this point, you may find that the contrast is now too strong. If that’s the case, you can reduce and fine-tune it by lowering the new layer’s opacity value. You’ll find the Opacity option directly across from the Blend Mode option at the top of the Layers panel. I’ll lower mine down to 50%:

The Opacity option in the Layers panel. Image © 2013 Steve Patterson, Photoshop Essentials.com.
Lowering the layer’s opacity.

And now the contrast and color saturation are a little less intense:

The image after lowering the layer opacity to 50%. Image © 2013 Steve Patterson, Photoshop Essentials.com.
The image after lowering the layer opacity.

Step 5: Group The Top Layers

My image is now looking a lot better than it did when I started, but there’s a small problem. By increasing the contrast, I’ve lost all the detail in the sky along the top of the photo. In fact, the sky now looks almost pure white. I could just leave it like that since the sky isn’t the main focus of the photo anyway, but let’s see how to easily bring the sky detail back using a layer mask.

In my case here, I have two layers that are boosting the contrast and color saturation of my image – the original luminosity selection on Layer 1 and the copy of Layer 1 above it – so the first thing I’ll do is place both of these inside a single layer group. To do that, with my top layer (Layer 1 copy) already selected and highlighted in the Layers panel, I’ll press and hold the Shift key on my keyboard and click on the original Layer 1 below it. This selects both layers at once (both appear highlighted):

Selecting two layers at once in the Layers panel. Image © 2013 Steve Patterson, Photoshop Essentials.com.
Selecting the top two layers in the Layers panel.

With both layers selected, I’ll click on the small menu icon in the top right corner of the Layers panel:

Clicking the Layers panel menu icon. Image © 2013 Steve Patterson, Photoshop Essentials.com.
Clicking the Layers panel menu icon.

Then I’ll choose New Group from Layers from the menu that appears:

Selecting the New Group from Layers command. Image © 2013 Steve Patterson, Photoshop Essentials.com.
Selecting the "New Group from Layers" command.

Photoshop will pop open the New Group from Layers dialog box, giving us a chance to name the layer group. I’ll name mine “Contrast”. Click OK when you’re done to close out of the dialog box:

Selecting the New Group from Layers command. Image © 2013 Steve Patterson, Photoshop Essentials.com.
Naming the layer group before it’s added.

And now if we look in the Layers panel, we see that both layers are now inside my "Contrast" layer group. You can click the small triangle to the left of the group’s folder icon to twirl the group open and closed, showing or hiding the layers inside it:

The top two layers are now inside a layer group. Image © 2013 Steve Patterson, Photoshop Essentials.com.
The top two layers are now inside a single layer group.

Related Reading: Photoshop Layer Groups

Step 6: Add A Layer Mask To The Group

Now that both layers are inside the group, I’ll add a layer mask to the group by clicking on the Add Layer Mask icon at the bottom of the Layers panel:

Clicking the Add Layer Mask icon in the Layers panel. Image © 2013 Steve Patterson, Photoshop Essentials.com.
Clicking the “Add Layer Mask” icon.

A white-filled layer mask thumbnail will appear on the layer group, letting us know the mask has been added:

The layer mask thumbnail in the Layers panel. Image © 2013 Steve Patterson, Photoshop Essentials.com.
A layer mask thumbnail appears.

Step 7: Paint With Black On The Layer Mask To Reveal The Original Image

With my layer mask added, I’ll grab Photoshop’s Brush Tool from the Tools panel along the left of the screen, or I could select it by pressing the letter B on my keyboard:

Selecting the Brush Tool in Photoshop CS6. Image © 2013 Steve Patterson, Photoshop Essentials.com.
Selecting the Brush Tool.

I’ll need to paint on the layer mask with black to reveal the original photo in the areas I paint over, and Photoshop uses the current Foreground color as the paint color, so I’ll press the letter D on my keyboard which will instantly reset my Foreground and Background colors to their defaults, making the Foreground color white and the Background color black. That’s actually the opposite of what I need, so I’ll press the letter X on my keyboard to swap them so the Foreground color becomes black.

We can see the current Foreground and Background colors in the color swatches near the bottom of the Tools panel. The Foreground color is the upper left swatch and should now be set to black:

The Foreground and Background color swatches. Image © 2013 Steve Patterson, Photoshop Essentials.com.
The Foreground (upper left) and Background (lower right) color swatches.

With my Brush Tool selected and my Foreground color set to black, I’ll simply paint over the sky along the top of my image to reveal the original photo hiding underneath the layer group. You can change the size of your brush as you’re painting from the keyboard. Press the left bracket key ( [ ) repeatedly to make the brush smaller, or the right bracket key ( ] ) to make it larger. To control the hardness of the edge of the brush, press and hold your Shift key, then press either the left bracket key ( [ ) to soften the edges or the right bracket key ( ] ) to make them harder.

Here, I’m using a fairly small, soft-edge brush to paint over the sky. Notice the detail from the original image underneath showing through the areas I paint over:

Painting with black on the layer mask to reveal the original sky. Image © 2013 Steve Patterson, Photoshop Essentials.com.
Painting with black on the layer mask reveals the original sky.

Related Reading: Understanding Layer Masks In Photoshop

Once you’ve brought back any lost details in the image, you’re done! Here’s my original once again for comparison:

The original image. Image © 2013 Steve Patterson, Photoshop Essentials.com.
The original image once again.

And here’s my final result:

Boosting contrast and color with a luminosity mask in Photoshop. Image © 2013 Steve Patterson, Photoshop Essentials.com.
The final result after bringing back the original sky.

And there we have it! That’s how to quickly boost the contrast and color saturation of an image using the luminosity mask and a layer blend mode in Photoshop! Check out our Photo Retouching section for more great image retouching and editing tutorials, or see below for tutorials you may be interested in!

Download our tutorials as print-ready PDFs! Learning Photoshop has never been easier!

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