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A few tricks with layer masks

Higher dynamic range than your eyes can handle

December 7th, 2011

Theme of this week was "Lit", and my submission is shown to the left. I simply put the plastic penguin on top of the light bulb and shot it using fill flash. At first, I was not particularly satisfied with the results, but after some playing around with the colors in GIMP using layer masks, it looked much more appealing. Read on for some tips on how to use layer masks to make dark areas brighter, and bright areas darker - a sort of HDR, you could say.

Start super-short tutorial!

I use GIMP for this, but the same principle can be used in most image editing programs, including Photoshop. I also use a JPEG. You can get better results using RAW format.

Tip: Also check out my other, more detailed tutorial on layer masks and the levels tool.

Let's start with the original image.

Color from the light bulb feels uninteresting, and the penguin is underexposed.
Color from the light bulb feels uninteresting, and the penguin is underexposed.

Duplicate the layer and work with the copy (right-click on layer, select Duplicate). By using the Levels tool, we can make the image darker and bring out some of the warmth from the light.

The light looks warm and nice, but the penguin is now even darker than before.
The light looks warm and nice, but the penguin is now even darker than before.

Make another copy of the original layer and move it to the top. Use the Levels tool again, but make the image brighter instead, so that the penguin looks right.

Penguin looks good. But now the light bulb is too bright.
Penguin looks good. But now the light bulb is too bright.

To remedy this, add a layer mask to the top layer (ie. the penguin layer). When asked, select to create it with Full Transparency.

After clicking ok, only the layer behind, with the dark penguin will be visible. But fear not! Paint with a white brush (a fuzzy, big one is usually good) and the brighter penguin shines through.

The layers in the original image. From the top: Bright penguin with layer mask (painted white on the penguin), dark image, and the original.
The layers in the original image. From the top: Bright penguin with layer mask (painted white on the penguin), dark image, and the original.

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Erik Moberg  2019