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Tones masking

A very common situation in editing is when you want to limit your editing to either shadows, midtones or highlights. For example you may want to bring out more contrast and detail in the bride's gown without blocking the bridesgroom's dark suit. Or you want to increase saturation in the midtones without highlights clipping.
The practical question is how to use the layers adjustments masks in Elements, and the layers masks provided by third parties.
The black parts of the mask hide, the white parts show and different shades of grey mask proportionnally. Is it possible, instead of painting into the mask, to 'paste' a mask prepared on a separate layer? The answer is yes. Simple example: a luminosity mask. In order to decrease contrast, you want the lighter parts of the image to be masked and the dark ones left unchanged. The mask will be a negative of the present image. This technique was used in the darkroom; by sandwiching a positive over the negative. You know how to create a negative, the shortcut is Ctrl I. Now let's suppose your mask is ready in its own layer (or in another file opened at the same time). You copy it (Ctrl C), and you want to paste it into the mask. Very important: to be able to do so, you must have the visibility of the mask turned on, by Alt clicking into the mask icon, not the layer itself. You should see a blank screen, confirming that you can paste: Ctrl V to paste. Please note that whatever your prepared mask, pasting will create a grayscale mask. So, for a simple luminosity mask, it is enough to copy any layer (Ctrl C), Alt click in the mask icon and paste (Ctrl V), then Ctrl I to invert.
You can tweak the mask afterwards, changing contrast or luminosity, levels, apply adjustment filters like threshold.
Back to our initial purpose: selecting tones. My suggestion is to use gradient maps adjustment layers to select tones. (You could use curves with add-ons like smartcurves instead). If you are not (yet) familiar with editing gradients, I'll provide you with 2 ways to use preset gradients. The first one is a gradient (grd) file to copy into the right preset folder depending on your Elements version and your platform. You can then load those gradients from the gradient editor menu. The second one is universal for any version of Elements or Photoshop. It is a small blank PSD file with a set of gradients which you can drag from this file to your working file.

1- Add the gradient map adjustment layer to your image.
2 – Edit the gradient if necessary
3 – Stamp visible (Ctrl Alt shift E) to put the mask in a new layer
4 – Select the new layer, Ctrl A + Ctrl V to copy
5 – Alt click on the destination mask icon (blank screen) then paste (Ctrl V)
6 – Erase the adjustment layer and layer created in steps 1 – 3 (or toggle visibility off if you want to use it for another layer mask)

Here is my gradients grd file:
and a blank PSD file with gradients adjustment layers to drag onto your file:
Michel B
PSE6, 11,12,13.1 - LR 5.7 Windows 7 64 - OneOne Photo Perfect Suite - Canon 20D, Pana TZ6 - Fuji X100S
Most used add-ons: Elements+

Mes Galeries
Thanks so much for the tutorial. I will work on it tonight.
Great Tut. I will have to give it a try. I have some shots of my daughter's wedding and some of the photos need this type of masking. Thanks for posting it.

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Tx Michel. i've added the file to my gradient collection(and I didn't even have to make these!). :thanks:
Absolutely brilliant! I loaded an old picture which was a little bright in the sky and quite dark in the foreground. The camera had done its best with the exposure problem but it would have required a lot of selecting, feathering, and different adjustments.

I used the new gradient and after trying out the various options, eventually found the "Shadows" version, which was perfect for the image. I set Blend Mode to Overlay and it immediately put details back in the sky and opened up a shadowy foreground, putting much more balance into the image. This is going to be fantastic for those portrait-shaped landscape pictures (if you see what I mean) with a wide angle.

Being a curious kind of person, I then used the same Gradient (Shadows) in a Gradient Map Adjustment Layer (underneath the Gradient Fill Layer). This gave a very strange appearance but I shifted Blend Mode to Overlay and then tried reducing the effect. Once I'd got to about 50% I had wonderful saturation and tones! It also worked in a slightly more subtle way by using Soft Light Blend Mode.

I have the BW Gradients PSD file as well, but have yet to try it - though I am absolutely delighted with the effects of the Gradient Fill.

I'd have to say that, apart from the Layer Mask Action (for which PSE has its own alternatives anyway), this looks like the best little download I ever added. I think Adobe should buy it from you immediately and put it into the next PSE and CS! Thankyou very, very much, Michel.


PSE6 on WinXP, Pentax K10d...... and now a Canon G10.

Thanks to all for the feedback!
I am fond of gradient maps adjustment layers but it was only recently that I found how to paste an image into a mask. This trick of Alt clicking into the mask icon really changed my editing life...
Teaching gradient masks is not easy, I think only a video can make it simple. Once you understand how to create, move or delete tabs, change color or tone of tabs, you get an amazing amount of control. The sample I gave are just starting points: please play with the sliders to see the changes! You'll be able to create your own custom gradients.
As stated in my post, if you use a curves add-on like smartcurves, you can use curves instead of gradient maps to select the tones. With smartcurves, you can save and load your custom curves just like in Photoshop.

And do not forget you can still paint black or white on the mask for more local (and manual...) control.
Michel B
PSE6, 11,12,13.1 - LR 5.7 Windows 7 64 - OneOne Photo Perfect Suite - Canon 20D, Pana TZ6 - Fuji X100S
Most used add-ons: Elements+

Mes Galeries
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