Add dramatic contrast to selected areas

Discover just how quick and easy it is to apply localised editing with Lightroom’s brilliantly effective Adjustment Brush tool.

You find a creative composition, expose for your subject and shoot with high expectations... only to end up with disappointingly flat results. Even when taken with consideration, some images can end up looking frustratingly dull. Increasing exposure and contrast can help to improve a lifeless shot, but for a more controlled and dynamic boost to your images it’s time get to grips with masking.

Masks can be used to apply very localised adjustments to shots, correcting exposure and creating contrast in selected areas, to dramatically improve an image as a whole. Washed-out skies can be brought back without affecting well-exposed subjects, and clarity can be more selectively increased. Essentially, using Masks means one setting change during processing no longer has to affect the whole image.

Follow this six-step guide to Lightroom’s powerful masking features, find the shots in your portfolio that need a boost, then turn them all into winners with a very simple treatment.  


1. Make basic setting changes
In the Develop module, navigate to the Basic editing menu. Drag the Highlights slider to the right to increase brightness in your image’s lighter areas or to the left to reduce it, for a more evenly exposed subject. Use the Shadows slider in the same way for darker areas. Set Blacks to -40 to increase the blacks in the darker areas of your image, and set Whites to 40 to increase contrast in lighter areas.

2. Increase clarity and contrast
Push the Clarity slider to +100 to dramatically increase the level of midtone contrast and accentuate detail. Scroll down to the Tone Curve section and click on the Point Curve drop-down menu. By default this will be set to Linear. Select the Strong Contrast option to give your image a boost of contrast. This area of Lightroom is similar to the Curves menu found in Photoshop, and offers a slightly reduced level of control.

3. Mask the overexposed sky
Select the Adjustment Brush by pressing K, or clicking the brush icon found just underneath the Histogram at the top right of the Lightroom window. The Mask menu will now open. Select a Brush Size of about 5.7 and set Feather to 60. Press O to reveal your mask and then paint into your overexposed area by clicking on the image. If you make a mistake, press and hold Alt, and repaint over the red mask to deselect it.

4. Find a more even exposure level
Press O again to hide your mask so that you can monitor the live affect of the adjustments as they’re applied. To reduce the brightness of the masked area, slowly drag the Exposure slider to the left.  For our shot a new exposure level of -2.00 helped to recover lost detail and reveal a sky that was much more dramatic. Once you’re happy with your changes, click Done to apply.

5. Increase area clarity and sharpen
Now mask your correctly exposed subject using the Mask tool. For a really striking image increase the clarity by moving the Clarity slider to 45. Tap Done to apply the adjustment and close the Mask menu. Scroll down to the Detail section and in Sharpening, increase Amount to 60 and Detail to 40. These changes will help to make your image really pop by creating crisp subject edges.

6. Add a split toning effect
We want to warm highlight areas while maintaining cool shadows, so it’s time to use Split Toning. In the Highlights section, set a Saturation of 20 and use the Hue slider to select a warm colour. In the Shadows section, set Saturation to 20 and select a cool colour. Leave Balance set at 0 for an even distribution of these new colours across your image’s shadows and highlights.

This article was first published in the October 2014 issue of Practical Photography magazine - download back issues here.