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magic mid-tones tutorial

The Magic Mid-tones

©2008 Tony Kuyper


I recently revised several images, many that were originally made without the benefit of luminosity masks to help with the adjustments. These were images that I thought looked good at the time, but after several years and with more experience, I realized they could be improved. I didn't want to spend a lot of time on each image as I had several that needed updating. Given that the luminosity masks can easily target and adjust image tones, I generally wanted to create a mask or two, make the adjustment, and move on to the next picture. I quickly found that masks in the Mid-tones-series worked best for accomplishing my goal. While the Basic Mid-Tones mask was often my first choice, there were times that I needed to target different tones. To do this, I created several new mid-tones-like masks by different methods to meet my needs. This tutorial will look at how to create and use these alternate mid-tones masks.

Before constructing some of these special mid-tones masks, it's probably worth reviewing the spectrum of luminosity masks discussed in the Luminosity Masks tutorial. Luminosity masks are divided into three types: Lights, Darks, and Mid-tones. The Lights-series masks target progressively lighter tones, the Darks-series masks progressively dark tones, and the Mid-tones-series masks target the middle tones that lie between the Lights and the Darks. The diagrams below show a white to black gradient and the tones masked by each of the different luminosity masks. Figure 1 shows the selections of the Light-series masks filled with red. Rolling the mouse over the image shows the selections of the Darks-series masks filled with green.

Figure 1
Figure 1

Figure 2 shows selections of the Mid-tones-series masks filled with yellow. The weak yellow color in the Narrow Mid-tones, Basic Mid-tones, and even in the Expanded Mid-tones is the result of these pixels not being 100% selected, so the full yellow color is not present when the selection is filled. The Photoshop actions that create the luminosity masks make mid-tones selections that are symmetrical with respect to the light and dark tones, as can be seen here, but this doesn't have to be the case. Looking at the Mid-tones-series, it's easy to imagine that the mid-tones selections could be shifted either up and down the tonal spectrum creating mid-tone-like selections that favor either dark or light tones.

Figure 2
Figure 2

Curves adjustments filtered by mid-tones masks are some of my favorites because they are easy to control and usually look good. While I'm not entirely sure why this is so, I think it's related to the fact that mid-tone masks, in the way they are created, taper tonally into both light and darker values. This dual tapering helps insure that for the pixels being adjusted, contrast is either enhanced, maintained, or at least not degraded as badly as with similar adjustments with Lights- and Darks-series masks, as will be discussed a little later. Contrast is important in an image to keep it from looking dull, and adjustments though mid-tone masks seem to hold contrast better and make the image look stronger.

Before getting deeper into these mid-tones masks, I will mention that I use a Windows platform for Photoshop. Keyboard shortcuts are listed in this tutorial using the Windows keys; the corresponding MAC shortcuts are listed in parenthesis afterwards. Also, even though I've started using Photoshop CS4, the Curves adjustment dialog box in CS3 makes a better visual than the Adjustment pane in CS4, so the figures for this tutorial were constructed using CS3. This tutorial assumes some familiarity with the Luminosity Masks tutorial. Many concepts used here are explained in greater detail in that tutorial and readers may need to use it as a reference. Lastly, when this tutorial was written, different color space settings were used to produce the luminosity masks. At that time, the Lights-series consisted of Expanded Lights, Lights, Light Lights, Bright Lights, and Super Lights. The Dark-series consisted of Expanded Darks, Darks, Dark Darks, Shadow Darks, and Super Darks. The recommended color space settings for creating luminosity masks have since been updated. As a result, the Expanded Lights and Expanded Darks have been removed and the Ultra Lights and Ultra Darks have been added as explained in the Luminosity Masks tutorial. The concepts involving these mid-tones techniques remain the same; just the names of the Masks have changed.