Updated: Mar 10, 2022
Your ultimate overview of the powerful Lightroom Masking tools, with a full deep-dive Lightroom Masking tutorial video
Table of Contents
Lightroom Masking Overview & Tutorial
The Lightroom Masking updates that released in October of 2021 make up some of the biggest changes we've seen to Lightroom in roughly a decade. I've covered all the major updates in a separate post but, for this guide, I'm focusing only on masking.
I cannot overemphasize how much of a change - and improvement - Lightroom Masking is!
While I could, in theory, cover every little detail with step-by-step instructions in this blog post, it would be extremely lengthy, and Lightroom Masking is something you really need to see in action to best understand how it works.
I explain the key points here to help you understand the differences and improvements masking offers over the previous local adjustment tools, but I strongly encourage you to watch my deep-dive Lightroom Masking tutorial video.
In the video, I teach you everything you need to know to jump in and start using masking, from the basics of the new interface and layout of the tools to how you can create complex combinations and intersections of masks quickly and easily.
Click or tap on the thumbnail below to watch now!
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Lightroom Masking FOR ALL
The first thing to recognize is that, although I used Lightroom Classic to create the tutorial video, this new masking enhancement is available across all versions of Lightroom, including the cloud-centric desktop app and mobile. It's also included in Adobe Camera Raw.
This update closed a major gap in functionality between Lightroom and Lightroom Classic, as Lightroom did not previously have the options for color, luminance, or depth range masks as part of the old local adjustments toolset.
Not sure what the differences are between Lightroom and Lightroom Classic? Check out my in-depth comparison of Adobe's Lightroom desktop apps to learn which app is right for you!
A Reimagining of Local Adjustments in Lightroom
The familiar graduated, radial, and brush tools that were first introduced way back in 2008 still exist: If you're already familiar with them, you'll be comfortable using them with Lightroom Masking.
That said, masking is so much more than simple updates to those tools; it's a complete reimagining of local adjustments that gives you far more control over editing targeted areas of your images.
You may see some screenshots that make you think of layers in Photoshop. It's important to note that masking isn't just using the same Lightroom local adjustments in the same way... but it's also not layers.
In the next section, I introduce you to the concept of Lightroom masks and mask groups. The latter, mask groups, is how you can now create complex combinations of the familiar local adjustment tools. You're no longer limited to working with a single tool to adjust a specific area of an image you're working on.
Understanding how mask groups work is critical to getting the most out of Lightroom Masking.
Lightroom Masks & Mask Groups
Anything you do to edit a specific portion of an image is done within the masking interface. If you want to apply a simple brush adjustment, you'll do so within the Lightroom Masking panel. One of the biggest differences from the previous local adjustment tools is you can now apply multiple adjustments within a single mask group.
In the screenshot above, Mask 1 is a single (unnamed) mask group that includes three individual masks: a radial mask, a brush mask, and a linear gradient mask. The same slider adjustments will be applied to all those masks as they are part of that single mask group.
In this case, however, the brush mask is actually being subtracted from the overall mask group... more on that below.
Here's another example that shows just how creative you can get when fully using the concept of mask groups in Lightroom:
Create a mask group that includes a brush adjustment to boost the saturation of a common element in your image (let's go with trees)
You can then also add in a luminance range mask to your brush adjustment to control which luminance range of the trees you want to adjust (perhaps just the brightest trees in the scene)
If you wanted, you could also further refine the mask group by adding in a color mask to help you avoid impacting anything that's not green
You can then name that mask group to help you stay organized and remember what you used it for if you come back to the image days, weeks, or months later (perhaps call it "Trees Highlight Saturation")
It's not just the mask group to which you can set a custom name; you can do so for each individual mask within the group, too!
Artificial Intelligence & Smart Selections in Lightroom
For the first time, Lightroom Masking allows you to create incredibly complex masks with just a couple clicks of your mouse with the introduction of AI-powered Lightroom masks called Smart Selections. You'll see two options to choose from:
Those are fairly self-explanatory, right?
Select Subject will scan your image to try to identify the person, object, or element that is the clear subject of the frame. Provided there is something that stands out, it will automatically create a mask for it.
Select Sky scans your image for, well, the sky... and creates a mask for that. Pretty straightforward.
Even better - and just like the brush, radial, and linear gradient masks - Select Subject and Select Sky masks can be combined with other masks within a single Lightroom mask group. They can also be inverted! Keep reading...
Lightroom Color, Luminance, & Depth Range Mask Updates
Previously, these range masking options existed but only in Lightroom Classic, and only as part of one of the local adjustment tools (graduated or radial filters, or a brush).
If you were using Lightroom Desktop (also known as Lightroom CC, or Lightroom "Cloud") or the mobile version of Lightroom, you were completely out of luck, and you were missing out on one of the most powerful tools that I use on a significant majority of my own images.
Even if you were using Lightroom Classic, color and luminance masking also had some frustrating limitations.
You couldn't create one or the other for the entire image without "hacking" one of the local adjustment tools to cover the whole frame (see my video on creating the Orton Effect in Lightroom Classic for an example) and, for color masking, there was no way to exclude one or more colors.
For instance, you could "hack" your way into creating a color mask for the entire image and select a color that you wanted to adjust but you couldn't create a color mask and set it up to let you adjust everything except, for instance, the blues in the image.
With the Fall 2021 updates across all the Lightroom apps, all that changed. As already noted above, every single Lightroom app is getting the new masking functionality. That closes a huge gap between Lightroom Classic and the other versions.
Additionally, color, luminance, and depth masks now work by default on the entire image, and you can then combine them with other masks to refine which specific areas you want a color, luminance, or depth mask to apply (more on that in a bit). They're no longer greyed out until you apply one of the traditional local adjustments.
Lastly, and most impactful for color masking, you can now invert these masks so, using that same example as above, you can now easily tell Lightroom you want to adjust every color in the scene except the blues. Finally!
Be sure to watch my deep-dive Lightroom Masking tutorial video to see specific examples that explain how these range masks work in greater detail, and in combination with other Lightroom masks.
Add, Subtract, & Intersect Lightroom Masks
This is where things can start to get really crazy!
For example, let's say we create a Smart Selection of the sky. By default, you'd start out with a mask that includes the entire sky.
But what if you also wanted to tell Lightroom that you want to adjust anything else in the entire image that is red?
Simply use the Add option to add a color mask for reds and you'll end up with a mask that includes the sky and anything in the entire image that is red. That was certainly never possible before but now it can be done with a few clicks.
Alternatively, let's suppose you've added a linear gradient adjustment to a portion of your image but you decide you want to exclude the brightest parts of the image that fall within that gradient mask.
Simply use the Subtract option to tell Lightroom you want to exclude the highlights from within your gradient mask. To do so, you would subtract a luminance mask that only accounts for the highlights. Since you're subtracting that luminance mask from the linear gradient mask, it's only applied to the luminance within the gradient (confused yet?). Trust me, it's actually really easy!
Now let's imagine we have an image that includes a person as the main subject, and you've created a Smart Selection mask for the person but you want to adjust only the saturation of their yellow shirt without impacting their skin or their blue jeans.
You can use the Intersect option to tell Lightroom you only want to adjust the area where the mask of the person intersects with the yellow of their shirt.
That would then exclude their skin and the jeans, even though they were included in the original Smart Selection mask.
Note: If you're using one of the Lightroom mobile apps, you won't find the Intersect Mask With option... but don't worry, you can create intersecting masks manually with just a couple simple clicks. Learn how HERE.
These concepts can be hard to wrap your head around by just reading about them or looking at screenshots. This is another great example of where my deep-dive Lightroom Masking tutorial video will really help you understand how these new tools work.
Feeling lost? Consider signing up for an online 1-on-1 lesson to walk through the new Lightroom Masking features together!
Inverting Masks in Lightroom
In the previous versions of Lightroom you could invert your graduated and radial local adjustments but nothing else. I've already referred to inverting color masks with the new Lightroom Masking tools and you can also invert Smart Selections.
Have a landscape photo where you want to adjust the landscape itself without impacting the sky? Simply use the Select Sky feature to create a complex mask for the sky and then invert it. As easy as that you now have a complex mask that will allow you to edit everything except the sky.
In the screenshots above I used a white-on-black overlay mode so the white areas represent the areas that will be adjusted while the black areas will be left alone (somewhat similar to the concept of "White Reveals, Black Conceals" in Photoshop).
The same concept applies to Select Subject. If you have a portrait photo and you want to darken the background without impacting the person, simply hit Select Subject and invert it. Super easy!
In the screenshot below, it took me only two quick clicks to select my subject and then invert that AI-generated Lightroom mask in order to start editing the background instead of the person.
I'm guessing right about now you may be realizing why watching the video tutorial is so key to truly understanding how Lightroom Masking works. The new masking tools are incredibly powerful and game-changing, but they can be a bit intimidating at first.
It's also entirely possible to just use the basics of Lightroom Masking while missing out entirely on all the power they can give you when editing your photos.
It's one thing to read about it and see some screenshots... but seeing Lightroom Masking in action will really help you wrap your head around the concepts and amazing possibilities that are available as part of this powerful Lightroom toolset.
I was feeling pretty lost when I first got to play around with masking, and I tried to keep that experience in mind as I drafted the outline for the tutorial. So, if you want to start using these Lightroom Masking tools to their fullest, start watching!