How to Edit Landscape and Nature Photos with the Lightroom Gradient Tool and Range Mask Features
22 / Feb, 2019
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How to Edit Landscape and Nature Photos with the Lightroom Gradient Tool and Range Mask Features
Lightroom has always had a rich set of tools to allow photographers to get the most out of their images. However, until recently the ability to edit landscape and nature photos was a bit lacking.

While, global adjustments, like changing white balance and exposure have always worked great in Lightroom, fine-tuning edits can be problematic. Recent updates have seen incredible improvements to the Filter tools in Lightroom. An added tweak called Range Mask makes all the difference for photographers who need complete control over the precise implementation of their edits.

Lightroom Gradient Tool and Range Mask

The three most common ways to edit specific parts of an image in Lightroom are through the use of the Graduated Filter, Radial Filter, and Adjustment Brush. If you want to smooth the skin on your portraits, increase the saturation of your skies, or change the color cast of your clouds these tools can be just the ticket. But what if you have a tree that sticks up into the sky or an uneven horizon dotted with buildings and power lines?

The usefulness of the filter tools is somewhat restricting when you want to limit your edits to particular sub-parts of a picture. Until recently the Auto-Mask option was the best way to confine your edits to certain colors or locations within an image. Landscape and nature photos are especially tricky because of the uneven edges and jagged borders that exist between sections of the photo that need editing. However, the Range Mask option solves almost all of these issues with ease.

How it works

To illustrate this, I’m going to walk you through the editing process of the following image. My brother Andy took it while he was on a tour of the swamps in Louisiana, USA, with his family last summer. The initial image has a nice composition but feels dull and uninteresting, which is a far cry from the real experience.

Adjusting White Balance with a Graduated Filter

One change to punch things up is altering the white balance of the sky to bring out the bright blues and make the image more vibrant.

The first step is to click over to the Graduated Filter panel. Dial in a white balance that skews more towards the cooler end of the spectrum and reduce the exposure just a bit. Next, click and drag from top to bottom on the image to put the filter in place.

The sky is now a rich blue, however, a big problem becomes evident: the color cast of the trees has changed too. This result is not what I want. Clicking the Show Selected Mask Overlay button in the bottom left corner under your image reveals that the graduated filter has been applied to everything including the trees as well as the sky.

Fine-tuning the Graduated Filter using the Range Mask

Fine-tuning a tool such as the Graduated Filter, used to involve a series of steps. These steps included brushing out the mask in places you didn’t want it in combination with the auto-mask feature. It worked, but results were often a little sketchy. They also required a great deal of tweaking and fine-tuning. That’s not to say the brush option is useless-far from it! I have an example later in this article that shows how useful it can be.

However, all this has changed in recent versions of Lightroom. You can now use the Range Mask to apply any of the three filter tools to specific parts of an image based on lightness or color similarity.

The default value for Range Mask is Off, but with one of your Filter adjustments selected you can then choose to enable Range Mask for Color, Luminance or Depth.

  • Color applies the filter to specific parts of the image based on how similar they are to color values that you select.
  • Luminance applies the filter to specific parts of the image based on how light or dark those parts are.
  • Depth works only with cameras that record depth information and applies the filter to specific parts of the image based on how close or how far away they are. Some mobile phones have this feature but most traditional cameras do not, so Depth will often be disabled unless you are editing images taken with certain mobile phones.

Range Mask – Color

For this image, I’m going to use the Color option, though Luminance works great in many nature and landscape photos as well.

With Color selected, you can either click and drag on your image to select a range of colors or can click multiple points by shift+clicking. This selection is where the mask gets applied. I find that shift+clicking generally works better, although your mileage may vary depending on your editing goals and the type of picture you are working with.

You can click up to five spots on the image to refine your color selection. Use the slider in the Range Mask panel to fine-tune things further. This slider hones the edges of your Range Mask. If you find that the border between the edited and unedited portions of your image is a bit stark, adjusting the Amount slider will help mitigate this issue.

The result of this one Gradient Filter, along with the Range Mask, is an image that is already much improved from the original.

Looking at a 100% crop of a portion of the image reveals just how precisely the Gradient Filter has been applied thanks to the Range Mask. Here is a portion from the top-right of the original unedited image.

Here is the same portion with the Gradient Filter applied, using the Range Mask to apply the Filter to only selected color ranges. In this case, the color of the sky.

Notice how precisely the edits were applied, and how intricate the edges around the tree leaves are. This illustrates why the Range Mask option is so useful for landscape and nature photos. There are many tricky edges and small parts of the image that can take a very long time to fix without it.

Range Mask – Luminance

Another way to use the Range Mask is with the Luminance option. This option only applies the mask to the brightest or the darkest portions of the Gradient, or other Filter, that’s applied.

The overall idea here is the same, but the implementation is a tad different. Instead of selecting colors where you want the Range Mask applied, you use the Range sliders to concentrate the mask on the lightest, darkest or mid-range parts. One of the most useful things here is the Show Luminance Mask box which gives you a real-time preview of where your mask application. This helps you as you are adjusting the sliders.

Here’s an image I shot while hiking in the mountains near Seattle. It’s not bad, but a few edits would help improve the picture. Edits may help it look a little closer to how it appeared when my wife and I were tromping around in the wilderness that day with my cousin.

I want to bring out the color in the foreground trees in this image. A Graduated Filter with Luminance Range Mask is perfect in this scenario because the edits can be applied just to the darker portions of the image. With the filter in place and the mask tweaked to be applied only to the darker parts, I can ensure my edits are going to show up just where I want them to by checking the Show Luminance Mask option.

Fine-tuning using Brush

As demonstrated above, the Range Mask is extremely useful for nature and landscape photographers. It applies the Graduated Filter to just the right portions of the image and not the entire picture evenly. If you want to customize your Graduated Filter further, click the Brush option (not the Brush Adjustment Tool) and proceed to add to, or erase, the Filter wherever you want.

In this case, I’d like to remove the Graduated Filter from the lake in the foreground. Even though I can tell from my Luminance Mask overlay that it’s not being applied too heavily to that area, removing all traces of it with the brush will help me get the exact picture I want.

The end result is a photo with much warmer green tones in the trees and a lake that reflects the blue sky above, which is just the look I was aiming for.