A well thought out workflow is essential in digital photography editing. There are many tools in software and we need to learn where to start, what tool to use, and in what sequence. In general, whether in Photoshop or Lightroom, the workflow goes from global to local. Fix the issues that impact most of the image and the smaller issues may disappear anyway. However, when all is said and done we may need well-controlled local adjustments to materialize our vision. In this tutorial, I will explore the Lightroom Adjustment Brush to push the background exposure down and push the person more towards the front. Meet my uncle Sureyya who will help me in this tutorial!
In the opening image above, the original photograph is on the left. As you see, no amount of global adjustment would tone down the bright opening on the back and bring him forward. So, the carefully painted (masked) image in the middle shows the area that would be affected by the adjustment brush. After adjusting the global and brush sliders, I can end up with a result on the right.
The adjustment brush is on the tool panel tucked between the histogram and the Basic adjustments panel. You will recognize it by its long handle and funky looking brush head.
When the adjustment brush panel is opened it may or not fully expand. If it is not fully expanded you will see a cryptic panel with no adjustments visible like the image on the right. If that is the case, simply click on the “disclosure triangles” highlighted by the red circles to expand the panel in full. Then you will see the set of adjustment sliders as well as the brush adjustments section.
The first thing we need to get comfortable with is controlling the brush attributes to make the selection mask. The rest will be a visual affair to apply the desired effect in the “Effect” block of the panel. If you look at the fully expanded adjustment brush panel you will see that you can set three brush types, A, B, and Erase. Each can have different attributes depending on your work habits. Here are the functions of each attribute slider:
Size: Well, how big a brush do you want? This slider controls the diameter of the brush covering larger sections with each stroke or click.
Feather: Adjusts the softness of the outer edge of the brush and it varies from 0 to 100 percent. It controls how the edge fades from full stroke to a set value. Keep in mind that as you paint over the feathered areas the mask will get more and more solid with each additional stroke.
Flow: This slider controls how much mask area to paint. If the flow is set to 40 percent, the first stroke will apply a 40% mask and each additional stroke will keep building it up to a maximum of 100%. I find it easier to paint at 100% flow and erase at lower levels for better control.
Auto Mask: When this box is checked, Lightroom will try to do its level best to include only the areas that are similar to the tone and color of the center cross-hair. Just make sure you do not drag the crosshair to unwanted areas in the mask.
Density: This slider will prevent the masked density from building above a particular level, say 75%, no matter how many brush strokes we may apply to an area. Its main purpose seems to be to retain a level of transparency of the adjustments independent of the amounts. Although you may think you can achieve similar results by controlling the adjustment slider, say exposure, this slider can be changed from stroke to stroke, where the adjustments are for each adjustment pin. An undocumented feature of the density attribute is that it can be selectively applied at lower density levels over areas that were previously painted at 100% density. This will lower all the adjustments in the brushed area to the new density level, say 75%. As strange as it may sound, it is easier to lower the density after applying it 100%, the same thing goes for the erase brush.
In this particular session what needs to be done is fairly straightforward:
- Mask the figure, or the background, depending on the image and expected adjustments
- Adjust the overall exposure to control the background
- Adjust the brush effects to control the exposure on the figure
- Tweak if necessary
Mask The Figure
The critical parts of any masking, whether in Lightroom or Photoshop, are the edges. I have decided to mask the figure rather than the background.
- Since masking relies on edge detection, I have made some crude initial adjustments to make selection easier. I increased the exposure and contrast, pulled down the highlights and whites. I have also changed the mask color to green to make it easier to see against his skin. Here are my settings for the brush for getting the edges cleanly: Size = 15, Feather = 80, Flow = 100, Density = 100. Starting on the back of his shirt, I painted upwards towards the back of his neck and head, which went mostly cleanly. There are a few stray areas but I will clean them out later. (Figure 1 and Figure 2)
- When I came to the top of his head to include more of his hair, I increased the brush size (which may be counter-intuitive) to keep the cross-hair well inside his hairline but the brush reaching into the hair strands and clicked once or twice. It neatly included the hair on top of his head. (Figure 3 and Figure 4)
- When I arrived at his left eye and clicked on it, it included a good amount of the background since they are the same tone. Pressing Ctrl-Z, I voided that stroke and went around the eye leaving it unselected. (Figure 5)
- Having selected the edges mostly cleanly, I noticed several areas where the mask spilled into the background. Now is the time to switch to the Erase brush, click on Erase and remove the spillovers. For this, I used a brush size of 7 and a feather value of 70. I lowered the flow to 60% to erase at a slower rate. Then I went all around the figure and removed the spillovers. (Figure 5)
- The final step in the masking was to pick up the brush B set at a smaller size and with auto mask turned off and go over the inside of the figure, including the left eye I had left untouched. The finished mask is the final figure, I removed the temporary basic adjustments to make the mask stand out. (Figure 6)
Apply Desired Adjustments
Now I can adjust the background, which will impact the figure as well. Then go to the adjustment brush and make the adjustments I want on the figure until I have the result I want. Here are the steps to arrive at the final result shown in the final photograph.
- Reduce overall Exposure = -1.25, Highlights = -25, Shadows = -40, White = -80. These would significantly tone down the image overall
- Lower clarity to -60 to reduce presence, and lower saturation to -30 to go along with that. Now the overall image looks quite dark and dull
- Click on the adjustment brush, and then click on the adjustment brush pin to activate it. Then set Exposure = 2.75, Contrast = 45, Highlights = 50, Shadows = 25, Saturation 100, Sharpness = 10. These would provide a nice balanced exposure for the figure yet separate it from the background
- I also decided to click on the Color patch and pick a warm hue to simulate the afternoon sun coming from the window Hue = 25, Saturation 15.
The final photograph shows the finished work. It is important to have a vision for the finished work, even though its finer points may emerge later on. The tedious part of the masking may discourage some users from getting into using this tool to its full advantage. However, once the basic functionality of the brush is clearly understood its application will become easier with each use.
As useful as the adjustment brush tool may be in Lightroom, for some photographs requiring better-finessed masking of more complex selections a visit to Photoshop may be necessary. The masking and selection tools available in Photoshop are far more capable of handling even finer detail than in the photograph I used in this example.
Also keep in mind that like in most tutorials, I am trying to transfer some knowledge and have selected an image that lends itself for me to show the subtle points. Not all photographs are this easy to mask with the adjustment brush. But then, I am not trying to give you a fish, I am trying to show you how to fish.
Try it, you will see it is simpler to do than to explain!