How To Choose Which Photoshop Mask Color To Start With

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Image before selective adjustment.

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Image after selective adjustment (dodging).


It takes fewer white strokes than black strokes to make this mask.

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So, instead of starting with a white mask, start with a black mask.


The layer stack.

When you’re making masks in Photoshop, you can get the job done more quickly and easily by starting with the right color mask. When you make a mask, you can start with one of two colors – white or black. What’s the difference? A white mask shows everything on a layer as if it were at 100% opacity. A black mask hides everything on a layer as if it were at 0% opacity.
So use this simple strategy when you’re brushing in image adjustments with masks.
If you want to affect most of the image, start with a white mask and add a few black brush strokes to reduce the effect in smaller areas.
If you want to affect just a few areas of an image, start with a black mask and add a few white brush strokes to show the effect in only the areas you paint on.
For even more control, you can vary the opacity of the brush strokes you make to reveal or reduce effects partially. (Keep the Opacity of the layer being masked at 100% and then you can make the opacity of different areas vary based on the brush strokes you make.)
How do you make choose the color of the mask when you make it?
You can get a white mask when you target a layer and go to the menu Layer > Layer Mask > Reveal All. Or, simply click the mask icon at the bottom of the layers palette.
Alternately, you can get a black mask when you target a layer and go to the menu Layer > Layer Mask > Hide All. Or, hold the option/alt key before you click the mask icon at the bottom of the layers palette.
A mask is automatically created when you make an adjustment layer. By default an adjustment layer mask is white. If you want to start with at black mask instead, hold the option/alt key before you make an adjustment layer.
To make masking even more efficient, you can start with a simple selection (made with any selection tool, including the Lasso, Marquee, Magic Wand, or Quick Selection tools) and then, while the selection is still active, make a mask. If you do this, the selected areas will appear in white and everything else will be blacked out on the mask. You can then brush the mask to refine it further.
But wait, there’s more! Remember, you can always invert a mask (making black white and vice versa) by going to the menu Image > Adjustments > Invert or pressing the keys Command I. So if you forget to start with the right color mask, just invert it.
These simple techniques will save you a great deal of time.
Read more about masking here.
View more in my DVD Drawing With Light.
Learn more in my digital photography and digital printing workshops.

Photoshop’s Quick Mask Combines All Selection And Brush Tools


Edit In Standard Mode (Press Q) shows selected areas inside an active selection outline.


Edit In Quick Mask Mode (Press Q) shows masked areas with a red overlay.


Quick Mask Options can be activated double-clicking it.


Quick Masks appear temporarily in the Channels palette.

Consider Photoshop’s Quick Mask feature as an easy to access nexus point that allows you to make and modify selections by efficiently moving between all selection and brush tools.
In addition to being fast and flexible, Quick Mask makes it easy to see both the image and the mask at the same time – and this view can make it easier for you to make more precise selections and masks. When you’re in mask mode, you’ll see the mask as a transparent red overlaying the image. You can change the color of the overlay and its opacity with the window activated by double-clicking on the Quick Mask icon. This is particularly useful when masking images with red colors.
When you use Quick Mask you can start with either a selection or a mask.
To start with a brush tool, click on the Quick Mask icon and you’ll see a temporary (It’s title will be in italics.) alpha-channel appear in the Channels palette. Use a black brush and you’ll see the masked areas appear over the image in a transparent color. When you’re finished brushing, click once again on the Quick Mask icon and the mask will become a selection; the temporary alpha-channel will disappear, so if you want to save your work click the Save selection as channel icon or use the menu item Select > Save Selection; you can tell the resulting alpha-channel is permanent because its title is not italicized.
Or, you can start with a selection before clicking on the Quick Mask icon and using a brush to make modifications. When you’re done click on the icon again to return to selection mode and save the results.
You can move back and forth as many times as you like between selection tools and brush tools to create any result you desire. That’s the beauty of Quick Mask feature. When you hit the limits of one tool you can move to another.
Just remember, after you finish refining a selection, if you want to use it later, save it. And if you save many results along the way to a final solution, delete the ones you don’t plan on using again, so that you don’t get confused with too many choices.
Read more about masking here.
View more in my DVD Drawing With Light.
Learn more in my digital photography and digital printing workshops.

8 Useful Tips For Brushing Masks In Photoshop


Some tools in Photoshop make the marks for you, like the Gradient Tool and Paths.

When it comes to masking, there’s no reason to fear drawing in Photoshop. Often, it amounts to little more than tracing. Plus, the History palette gives you an unlimited number of undo’s and redo’s. Still, there a number of painting strategies that can help you make masks more efficiently and precisely.

Use colors other than true black and white only when you want to reduce opacity.

Keep it black and white.
Before you start painting masks, use the reset icon to make sure you’re painting with a true black and a true white. It’s not uncommon to find out too late that you’ve been painting with some other shade of gray. If you find out too late, you may be able to modify the contrast of the mask by applying an adjustment like Levels or Curves.

Watch for unevenness created by scrubbing with too small a brush.

Check for uniformity.
It’s a good idea to check masks (Option click the mask to see it. Do that again to hide it.) for uniformity and to eliminate (Fill, brush, or filter.) unintended gaps between brush strokes (black specks in a white field, white specks in a black field) and unintended unevenness when brushing with opacities lower than 100%. Remember, this speckled appearance can happen not only when brushing but also when the Magic Wand Tool or Color Range has been used as the foundation for a selection.
Fill broad areas.
Avoid painting broad areas. Instead, select and fill them. Filling an area ensures that it will be uniform, where building up multiple overlapping brush strokes sometimes leads to uneven results. You don’t have to precisely select the edges of broad area you’d like to fill; after the lion’s share of the work is done, you can refine areas that require more care with a brush.

Paint with the edge of the brush except for those rare occasions you need to paint with its center, then use the caps lock cross hair .

Be mindful of the edge of a brush.
The appearance of a brush will help you better see the marks you make. Normal Brush Tip (Preferences > Displays and Cursors) will show you the circumference of a brush allowing you to see the placement of its edges. You can press the Caps Lock key to change this to a cross hair that will pinpoint its center when necessary.
Use soft-edged brushes when you’re painting general areas. The feathered edges will blend into one another. Use hard-edge brushes when painting along specific contours. You’ll see the accuracy of your marks as you make them. When you’ve finished, you can soften them more precisely (Favor using Properties > Feather; you can reset the values at any time. Use the Blur tool for local effects.)

Key commands make repetitive actions quicker and easier.

Use key commands.
Key commands make repetitive tasks easier. You’ll use these a lot. Use the X key to reverse foreground and background colors. Use the bracket keys to make a brush smaller ( [ ) or larger ( ] ). Use the Shift and bracket keys to make a brush softer ( [ ) or harder ( ] ). Use the number keys to change the opacity of a brush; press 1 for 10%, 2 for 20%, 3 for 30%, etc.
Get a list of useful masking key commands here.

The History palette is great for multiple global undos.

The History Brush tool is great for undoing just one portion of an image.

Use the History Brush for local undos.
The History Brush tool can be very helpful when you want to undo changes in one area only. In the History palette, step back in history states to find a state you’d like to return to in one area; check the icon to the left of that state to set the source for the brush; return to the most current state; and use the History brush to paint back to a desired state in your file’s timeline.

Painting masks with a series of successive straight lines yields surprisingly good results quickly, even for contours that aren’t straight.

Start rough, then refine.
Draftsmen often “block in” a contour, using a series of straight marks that cut around a contour in progressively finer increments rather than trying to draw it perfectly the first time. It’s highly efficient. It also takes the wobble out of handmade marks. You can draw a straight line with any brush by clicking once, letting go, moving to another point, holding the Shift key, and clicking a second time.

Mask_Corner_425 Three strokes can fill a corner precisely; start by overpainting with the first stroke, then erase the excess with two more strokes.

Paint over corners, not into them.
Avoid painting yourself into a corner; instead, paint over a corner. It’s challenging and inefficient to paint into corners with a series of increasingly smaller brushes.
Instead, you can cut a corner with three strokes; with the first stroke paint over the area broadly; using the edge of an eraser (or a brush with the inverse color), make a second stroke to paint away the overspill on one side of the corner and finish the job with a third stroke for the overspill on the second side of the corner.
Adopt these simple practices and you’ll find that you’ll make better masks and make them faster too.
Read more about masking here.
View more in my DVD Drawing With Light.
Learn more in my digital photography and digital printing workshops.

Painting The Simplest & Most Useful Masks In Photoshop

So often, it’s the simplest things that are the most often used and so the most useful. You may find that you use this very simple three-step technique for a majority of the masks you make in Photoshop. (I do.)
1 In the Layers palette, highlight the layer you want to affect.
2 Click on the mask icon. (It looks like a Japanese flag.)
3 Use a brush to paint over the areas you want to remove an effect from.
The marks you make with a brush will determine how broad or precise your mask becomes. While you can use any brush tool, a simple round feathered brush is the most useful. Vary the brush size as needed. (You can use the square bracket keys to quickly make your brush smaller or larger.) Zoom in or out as needed.

Brush marks can vary in size and shape.

To partially mask areas vary the opacity of the brush (You can use the number keys to quickly change a brush’s opacity.) You can stroke an area multiple times to build up a desired effect.

You can control the opacity of any brush.

If you make a mistake, step back in history with the History palette. Or, switch the foreground and background colors (Use the X key to quickly toggle them.) and paint with the opposite color; the Eraser tool, a brush, essentially paints with the current background color. Masks can be made of any shade of gray between black and white but they cannot contain saturated color; while you’re painting, if you see a foreground color that is a saturated hue you’re painting on a layer not a mask. Again, stepping back in time with the History palette will provide you with an easy do over.
While you’re brushing, favor soft-edged brushes; hard-edged brushes may introduce unwanted contours.

Mask_Brush_HardnessThe edges of brushes can be hard or soft.

If you plan to make a mask that eliminates a layer’s effect for a majority of an image’s area, it’s faster to start with a black mask and use a white brush to paint the layer’s effect into the other smaller areas. You can start with a black mask by holding the Option key when you click the mask icon. Or, you can use the menu command Layer > Add A Layer > Hide All. Or, you can fill a mask with any color – in this case black. All of these methods will achieve the same result.

Masks can start with a white or black base.

While there are many methods that can be used to modify a mask after it has been created brushing remains the most common and is often the most effective way.
You might be tempted to think that this technique is too easy and only for beginners – don’t. Simple is not simplistic. This is a go to technique everyone uses, beginner and master alike. Remember, you can achieve much greater precision with a mask and a brush than anything you can achieve in the analog darkroom.
Read more about masking here.
View more in my DVD Drawing With Light.
Learn more in my digital photography and digital printing workshops.

How To Make Masking Easier With Photoshop

Almost anything will become easier to select if you adjust it first. Photoshop uses color contrast to make many selections. So, if you increase the contrast in an image you make it easier for Photoshop to make those selections.
Using Photoshop’s adjustment layers you can temporarily increase contrast far beyond what you normally would. Be aggressive. Don’t worry about making the image look good; focus instead on making it easier to select the area you want to affect. After the selection is made, simply delete the adjustment layer and continue adjusting the image to improve its appearance.
There are three elements of color and so three types of contrast to choose from – luminosity, hue, and saturation. Which type of contrast you choose depends on what you want to select.
To increase luminosity contrast, choose Curves.
To increase saturation contrast, choose Hue/Saturation and/or Vibrance.
To increase hue contrast, choose Levels to neutralize a color cast and possibly use Hue/Saturation to increase saturation.
Temporary adjustments in Photoshop can make a majority of selections and masks easier to make.
Read more about masking here.
View more in my DVD Drawing With Light.
Learn more in my digital photography and digital printing workshops.



After Neutralizing Color






After Increasing Luminosity Contrast






After Increasing Saturation



Read more about masking here.
View more in my DVD Drawing With Light.
Learn more in my digital photography and digital printing workshops.

Select And Mask Hue With Photoshop's Color Range

When you want to make a selection based on hue, start with Photoshop’s Color Range. (It’s located in the Select menu.) It’s an invaluable selection tool that’s easy to master.
The heart of this tool is the default setting for the Select drop-down menu – Sampled Color. Once you learn to use it, you’ll find you’ll use it often. For Sampled Colors it’s an oversight to activate the slider for Fuzziness (the number of related hues included) and not Range (targeting specific lightnesses). Hope, no request, that Adobe activates both Fuzziness and Range sliders for all drop down settings. For now, you can overcome this limitation to some extent and customize any range of color with surprising precision by using the icons on the right of the dialog box Eyedropper Tool, Add to Sample, and Subtract from Sample icons as well as the Invert checkbox. It is also the only setting that activates the Localized Color Clusters check box, which essentially adds a radial gradient around the point you sample a color from. You can master this tool in a few minutes.
You’ll probably find that you’ll use the other settings in Color Range’s Select drop-down menu sparingly, some not at all.
Skip them. The color choices in the Color Range drop-down menu – Reds, Yellows, Greens, Cyans, Blues, Magentas – are almost useless. They’re not as accurate as you’d like them to be and they don’t offer Fuzziness or Range sliders to control them with. It’s all or nothing, usually nothing.
Use them occasionally. The Highlights, Midtones, and Shadows options have improved by activating both Fuzziness and Range sliders. Curiously, if you Invert the Highlights setting you get a slightly different result than simply choosing Shadows setting and vice versa. But don’t worry, the Fuzziness and Range sliders will give you all the control you need to compensate and much, much more. Color Range’s selections of luminance yield different results than making luminance selections by loading channels as selections (See my article Masking Luminosity.); for better or for worse, they tend to produce fewer gray values and so they yield more generous selections with quicker less smooth transitions into surrounding values, as if you added contrast to a channel selection.
Consider it. While it offers only the control of the Fuzziness slider and not the Range slider but adds a Detect Faces feature, Skin Tones can be quiet useful – at times. It is clearly biased towards Caucasian skin tones as it picks up whites before darker browns but it does a good job of avoiding very saturated warm hues. If Skin Tones fails, use the default Sampled Colors instead and choose a custom base color you’d like to start with.
Forget about it. Be careful about the Out Of Gamut feature. It works based on the profile loaded for an output device, usually an offset press. It’s designed to help you prepare files for printing by selecting and subsequently desaturating colors that are too saturated to be printed accurately. Using color management and good output profiles is a better way to control gamut compression.
Finally, if you want a larger preview of the selection/mask being generated, the Selection Preview drop-down menu offers four settings that will change the appearance of the image window Grayscale, Black Matte, White Matte, and Quick Mask. In most cases, the generously sized icon in the Color Range window will be all you need.
Photoshop’s Color Range is an indispensable selection tool that continues to improve. When you want to make a selection based on hue, start here.
Read more about masking here.
View more in my DVD Drawing With Light.
Learn more in my digital photography and digital printing workshops.

Selecting The Unselectable With Photoshop's Saturation Masking

Incubation X


Incubation X

Increased saturation in high ranges of saturation only

Incubation X

Red and blue added to high ranges of saturation only

Wouldn’t it be great if you could selectively adjust colors based on how saturated they are in Photoshop? You can! How? With a free plug-in Adobe provides called Multiplugin; it hasn’t been updated since Photoshop CS5 but it still works with current versions.
Why would you want to do this ?
Do you have images where semi-neutrals not saturated enough, but you don’t want other colors to get too saturated? Select the less saturated colors before adjusting them. Do you have images where you’d like to reduce the saturation of very saturated colors without affecting other levels of saturation? Select the more saturate colors before adjusting them. You can even select colors with medium saturation, separating them from both the high and low range of saturation. Using this technique, you can produce subtle color effects that aren’t possible with any other method.
You might ask yourself, “Isn’t relative saturation adjustment what Vibrance does?” Yes and no. Yes. Vibrance does saturate the less saturated colors more than the more saturated colors and it prevents clipping in the most saturated colors. No. Vibrance offers no control over which ranges of saturation are affected; it can only adjust saturation but not lightness or hue; and it limits how strong an adjustment you can make – it won’t produce effects as strong as Hue/Saturation.
Saturation masks aren’t for saturation adjustments only. This simple selection / mask can be used with any color adjustment tool in Photoshop, greatly expanding your ability to adjust color. Imagine adjusting the lightness and/or hue of high, medium, or low ranges of saturation independently of one another.
Semi-neutrals not interesting enough? Try selecting the low levels of saturation and shifting their hue. Cool them with cyan and/or blue. Warm them with yellow and/or red. Or, try a Renaissance painting technique and add brown.
Throughout the history of photography, most people didn’t think about color this way because they didn’t have the ability to do it. Now you can. It’s well worth your time to explore this new way of seeing, thinking about, and adjusting color.
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What Are The Differences Between Lightroom and Photoshop’s Curves, Clarity, Dehaze, High Pass, Texture, and Sharpening ?

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Lightroom and Photoshop offer an impressive array of tools for adjusting an image’s contrast. At some point luminosity contrast adjustment tips over to affecting image detail (contour and texture) more than overall lightness. Deciding exactly how you want to affect lightness, contour, and texture is the key to deciding which tool to use and how to use it.
The following progression moves from the smoothest to edgiest tools – Curves, Clarity, Dehaze, High Pass, and Sharpening. The differences between these tools can be found in the way they handle frequencies of detail; low or smooth, medium or broad lines and moderate texture, and high fine lines and grain.


Curves creates the smoothest effects. It simply affects light and dark values. With it, you can fine tune the relationships between different values with unparalleled precision. Curves ignores texture and contours. If either is affected it’s simply because those areas are lighter or darker, not because they have been targeted. Along with contrast, Curves also boosts saturation somewhat. (If Curves is applied in Photoshop, this saturation shift can be removed by using a blend mode of Luminosity.)


Clarity offers the second smoothest effects. It pays significant attention to contours. The contrast it adds to contours is smoothed or broadly feathered. Think of it as a local vignetting, not for the frame, but for areas within contours. To make the effect more realistic, it darkens the dark side of contours more than it lightens the light side of contours edges, greatly reducing visible bright halos. Clarity makes images look clearer for two reasons; one, because the overall contrast appears to remove haze; and two, because the edge contrast makes images appear better focused or sharper. Clarity, particularly strong applications of it, will accentuate texture affecting medium frequency detail even more than high-frequency detail. Strong applications of Clarity will boost saturation significantly, which can be removed with the Saturation slider. Clarity does not exist in the Photoshop Image > Adjustments menu but can be applied in Photoshop with the Camera Raw filter.


Dehaze offers the third smoothest effects. It creates effects that are similar to Clarity, only stronger. Dehaze darkens shadows and rather than brightening the highlights it simply pulls out more separation by darkening the lower values in these areas. Strong applications of Dehaze may even reveal detail you can’t see with the naked eye. Dehaze affects larger areas of contrast, sometimes losing the ability to distinguish between smaller areas. While Clarity boosts saturation somewhat, Dehaze boosts it more and often creates color non-uniform shifts. (There is a cure for this, which I cover in a separate article.) Dehaze does not exist in the Photoshop Image > Adjustments menu but can be applied in Photoshop with the Camera Raw filter.


High Pass High


High Pass Low

High Pass filtration drives contrast into edges. It produces significantly different effects at low and high settings. At low settings it affects contours most, only slightly affecting texture and having little or no effect on overall contrast. At high settings it produces localized vignetting similar to Clarity but with less feathering, making it an excellent tool for emphasizing planar contrast. Be careful, it does not have the halo suppression built into Clarity. Only high settings create saturation shifts, which are localized not uniform. Remove this by desaturating the layer you apply the filter to. The High Pass filter is only available in Photoshop and is usually applied on a duplicate layer set to a blend mode of Overlay.


The Texture slider produces effects that lie between the Clarity and Sharpness sliders.
When compared to Clarity, the Texture slider does not increase saturation and it produces an effect significantly more targeted to edges. With little or no localized vignetting, it has less effect on overall contrast (Think of it as a micro-contrast.) and will not produce planar or volumetric accentuation. While it does produce more of an overall contrast effect than Sharpness, Texture is much more suited to detail enhancement. Think of it as a broader softer Sharpness rather than a finer edgier Clarity.
When compared to the Sharpness slider, the edge it produces is not as pronounced (It’s more feathered.) nor does it increase artifacts or noise as much. Texture increases or decreases apparent sharpness in mid-frequency detail. Its effects on smooth (low frequency) and fine (high frequency) detail are minimal. Think of it as producing an entirely different mask that removes effects from low and high-frequency detail rather than the one produced by Sharpening’s Masking slider that removes effects first from smooth areas and then gradually converges on edges at higher settings.


The Detail Panel’s Sharpening sliders aggressively target edges. It offers four sliders – Amount, Radius, Detail, and Masking. Amount determines the increase in contrast. Radius accentuates contours in thinner (lower setting) or thicker (high setting) areas. Detail targets the effects of the previous two sliders into lower (less texture) or higher (more texture) frequencies of detail. Masking creates a mask that removes the effects of the other sliders from smooth areas at low settings and from all areas but contours at its highest settings. These sliders produce no overall contrast effects and little to no saturation shifts. (These detail sliders don’t exist in the Photoshop Image > Adjustments menu. Photoshop’s filter Unsharp Mask offers identical Amount and Radius sliders but it lacks the Detail and Masking sliders. Instead, it offers a Threshold slider that allows you to remove the effect from adjacent areas that have less contrast than the Threshold you set.) These tools are the ultimate tools for accentuating texture and contour.
Experiment. Develop your eye for all of the possibilities these tools open up for you. You’ll be amazed by what they can do. And when you master them, your viewers will be amazed at how good your images look.
Read more on Color Adjustment here.
Learn more in my digital printing and digital photography workshops.
View test files with maximum applications of these tools below.
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A Quick Cure For Dehaze Color Shifts With Photoshop


Without Dehaze


Dehaze may create color artifacts


Color artifacts removed

Color without Dehaze blended with luminosity with Dehaze


The top layer is set to a blend mode of Color

When you’re using Lightroom or Camera Raw, you’ll quickly find the Dehaze slider can produce marvelous contrast effects. Dehaze can dramatically exceed the contrast that can be produced with either Curves or Clarity. Sometimes it will reveal detail you couldn’t see with your eyes!

Often, there’s a price to pay for these great effects – color shifts. Neutral areas may turn magenta. Shadows may pick up strong blue or green casts. To make matters worse, these unwanted artifacts are rarely uniform, which makes them harder to fix.

If you’re lucky you can compensate by reducing Saturation after using Dehaze. When you do this, it’s likely that you’ll end up choosing the least objectionable version or making a compromise you’d prefer not to. Frequently, to avoid these side effects, you’ll be tempted to not to push Dehaze as far as you’d like to.
There is a cure that will help you go as far as you’d like, without producing color shifts. Render your image twice. First, render it with as much Dehaze as you’d like. Second, render it without Dehaze.

Then place the version without Dehaze in a layer on top of the version with Dehaze. Change the Blend Mode of the top layer to Color. This will give you a combination of the color of the top layer (without Dehaze’s color artifacts) and the luminosity of the bottom layer (with Dehaze’s contrast).

How do you make two layers from one Raw file?

If you’re using Lightroom, make a virtual copy and then double click on the Dehaze slider. Highlight the original file and the virtual copy and select Photo > Edit In > Open as Layers in Photoshop. Now in Photoshop, make sure to change the top layer’s blend mode from Normal to Color.

If you’re using Camera Raw, open your Raw file as a smart object, then select New Smart Object via Copy in the Layer menu, and finally double click on the top layer to return the Dehaze slider to 0. Remember, change the top layer’s blend mode from Normal to Color.

The technique of using the color of one layer to overlay another layer can be used for many applications. Here, it makes Dehaze even more useful.


Read more color adjustment resources here.

Learn more in my digital photography and digital printing workshops.

Smooth Moves With Photoshop's Gradient Masks


Image adjusted selectively with a gradient


Warm exposure


Cool exposure


Two exposures blended with a gradient mask

Smooth transitions. They’re the essence of continuous tone images. In most cases, you want to preserve them. On occasion, you want to modify them. Sometimes, you want to create them.
While gradients can be used as image layers, they are more frequently used as layer masks. Gradient masks can be used in two central ways, ways that differ from one another significantly. First, gradient masks can be used to selectively reduce the effects of any correction made as an adjustment layer. Second, gradient masks can be used to selectively reduce the opacity of any image layer.
Digital correction with gradient mask techniques replace and surpass using traditional graduated filters. Not only can you make more precise corrections digitally, with gradients you can control the placement of the gradient and transitions within it more precisely. The gradient is uncoupled from the exposure and is indefinitely and infinitely modifiable.
You can do much, much more with gradients. Here are a few of the things you can accomplish using gradient masks.
Transition between stronger and weaker settings of a correction – enhance contrast and color balance selectively, reduce fall off, neutral density filtration, color filtration, add or remove vignetting, etc.
Transition between dark and light exposures – extending dynamic range.
Apply filtration selectively – sharpening, blurring, noise, etc.
Transition between exposures with different points of focus – increasing depth of field.
Transition between adjacent exposures of the same subject – increasing format.
Transition between more saturated and less saturated renditions of an image – accentuating atmospheric perspective.
Transition between the same image with two different white point settings – accentuating or creating the appearance of mixed light sources.
Believe it or not, this is only the beginning of the possibilities gradients offer. Mastering gradients is an essential digital skill.
Although gradients can be extremely complex and can yield extremely sophisticated results, once the basic principle behind them is firmly grasped, they are actually quite simple to create and use.
Gradients are easy to create. You’ll find the Gradient tool (essentially a brush) midway down the Toolbar, below the Eraser and above the Blur tool. With the Gradient tool active click hold and drag a vector across an image, either on a layer mask or less frequently on a new blank layer. A gradient will be created between the start (where you click first) and end points (where you drag to). The start and end points may be placed anywhere on the canvas. Gradients can be drawn for any length at any angle. The shorter the distance between the two points, the tighter the gradient will be with more abrupt tonal transitions. The longer the distance between the points the softer the gradient will be with smoother tonal transitions. Favor longer gradients with smoother transitions. They can always be tightened and repositioned by adjusting contrast. (Reducing contrast will not produce the opposite effect; it will posterize the gradient.) There may be times when you want to place a start or end point outside the border of an image. You can do this by expanding the window around the image. Click and drag on the lower right hand corner of the window. Gray will be seen surrounding the image but inside the window. A start point, end point, or both may be placed anywhere within the window.


Linear gradient


Reflected gradient


Radial gradient


Star gradient


Angle gradient

There are five types of gradients to choose from. Two, Angle and Diamond are of limited use. Three, Linear, Radial, and Reflected are very useful. Linear uses the start and end points to define a gradient along a line. Radial uses the start and end points to define the radius of a circle. Reflected uses the start and end points to define the center (foreground color) and outsides (background color).
Of the sixty-six gradient presets you can choose from, the first two serve most purposes – Foreground to Background and Foreground to Transparent. (Most people can pretty much forget about the other sixty-four presets.) Classically, black and white or shades of gray are most frequently used.

Curves gives you more control

Gradients can be extraordinarily flexible. You can alter the characteristics of a gradient by checking the Edit button under the gradient Options palette. If you don’t get the precisely the effect you’re looking for, you can try again. Or, if you’re fine-tuning a monochromatic gradient there’s an easier way. After creating a gradient, slightly longer than you think you need, apply a Curves adjustment to the gradient (Image > Adjustments > Curves). Move the midtones; shift the midpoint. Move the highlights left and/or shadows right; shift the end points – quickening the transitions in between. Move the white point down and/or the black point up; change the end points to gray. Move the white point down to the black point and the black point up to the white point; invert the gradient. That’s control!

Linear and Reflected gradients combined

You can combine multiple gradients with one another in a variety of ways. Here are two. One, start with one gradient and use the Foreground to Transparent option to add a second. Two, start with one gradient and change the Gradient Tool’s blend mode to Darken or Lighten to add a second. The two methods sometimes yield different results.
Blend modes can be used to modify how a gradient interacts with the image it is drawn on in a variety of ways. For the most control, don’t use the blend mode with the brush; instead, draw the gradient on a separate layer and use the blend mode of the layer to achieve the same effect with more flexibility and control.
You can reposition any gradient using the Move tool. Moving a gradient mask on an adjustment layer presents few problems. You can easily tell if you are working on the image or the mask – its icon will be highlighted. Because and image layer and its mask are linked, to move a mask separately you must first unlink the two by checking off the link icon between them and then targeting the mask to move it separately. It’s likely you will want to relink the two when you are done.
Gradients can be transformed substantially (Edit > Free Transform).
Gradients can be created within active selections to affect only selected areas.
Some gradients suffer from banding. To reduce the effects of banding, add a small amount of noise (Filter > Noise > Add Noise); this will often break up the effect of banding. Be careful not to overdo it or you’ll simply trade one distracting artifact (lines) for another (dots).
But wait, there’s more! Here are three more ways to create extremely useful gradients.

Use a soft-edged brush to create a gradient

One, use a soft-edged brush; the feathered edge automatically creates a gradient.
Two, make a selection, then make an adjustment layer, double click on the mask to activate it’s properties, and use the Feather slider. I don’t like automatically feathering selections. I prefer this method over automatically feathering selections: you get a better preview; you get more precision; and you can modify the gradient by reactivating a masks’ properties.

Blur a shape to create a gradient

Three, blur a hard-edged shape and you can create a gradient. By the same token, if a gradient does not have sufficiently smooth transitions it may be blurred, in whole or in part; watch for posterization if you do this.
Remember, masks are black and white images. Anything you can do to a Grayscale image you can do to a mask – adjust it’s contrast, filter it, transform it, Liquify it, clone it, paint it, etc.
Learning to make good gradient masks is an indispensable skill for adjusting digital images. They’re power and versatility is simply unrivaled.
Read more about masking here.
View more in my DVD Drawing With Light.
Learn more in my digital photography and digital printing workshops.