Use Adjustment Layers In Conjunction With Their Layer Mask To Fine Tune Adjustments

Adjustment layers are often underused to their full capability. They allow global changes BUT the modifications can be localized using their accompanying layer mask. At the bottom of the layers panel lives a half dark/half light circle. Click on that circle to access the numerous global options. They can also be accessed by going to Layer>New Adjustment Layer at the top of the Photoshop workspace. They are divided into sections based on overall exposure, color adjustments, or special effects. Accessing them at the bottom of the layers palette offers a few more options.

As stated above, an adjustment layer creates a global change but its power is found in the layer mask. The adjustment is applied to the entire photo but ERASED from parts you don’t want to impact. The effect becomes local. Additionally, it can be revisited anytime so the adjustment can be further tweaked. Just click on the layer in the layers panel and the dialog box with the applied settings reappears. Let’s demonstrate their power in two different ways:

Image #1 - Levels Adjustment Layer Used as a Graduated ND Filter:
This is the original capture exposed for the sky. The problem is the foreground water is too dark with exposure mergers between the sea stacks and ocean.

I clicked the half dark half light circle at the bottom of the layers palette and chose the Levels adjustment layer.

The Levels dialog box appeared as a fly out menu in addition to a Levels Adjustment layer above the Background layer in the layers palette. Note the three sliders in the fly out menu outlined in red. The slider on the left controls the shadows with a default number of 0. The slider in the middle controls the midtones with a default number of 1.00. The slider on the right controls the highlights with a default number of 255. The eyeball on the bottom toggles a preview when the sliders are moved.

To make the ocean sparkle I opened the highlights to 166, the midtones to 1.50 and darkened the shadows to 17 to restore black into the sea stacks.

The water looks great but the sky now suffers from the correction made to the water. To bring back the sky, click the brush tool found in the tool bar. In the options bar at the top of the PS workspace, set the hardness to 0% to create a soft edge and set the opacity to 40%. Make sure the mode at the top of the workspace in the Options Bar says Normal. Be sure the foreground color in the Tool Bar is set to black.

Paint over the top of the photo with smooth strokes to build up the restoration of the sky. You’ll know you maximized the effect when the mask in the layers panel is pure black.

This is the Finalized version:

Image #2 - Levels Adjustment Layer Used Locally:
This is the original capture exposed for the waterfall. Much of the rest of the photo is too dark. If I make a global adjustment to brighten the surroundings, the bright areas of the water will be overexposed. A Levels Adjustment layer solves the problem. I can brighten the overall image and then erase the effect from the water and other areas to restore their proper exposure.

As explained in Image #1, access the Levels Adjustment layer using the half dark half light circle at the bottom of the layers palette. Adjust the highlights, midtones and shadows sliders to obtain the look you desire. Ignore what happens to the water as this will be tweaked on the layer mask.

As explained in Image #1, to localize the effect, use the layer mask. Access the Brush tool. Make sure the Mode in the Options Bar says Normal, set the opacity to 40%, and set the hardness of the brush to a low number. Be sure the foreground color in the Tool Bar is set to black. Make passes over the water and watch the change in density as detail is restored. Keep erasing until you obtain the look you want. The amount you perform is reflected in how gray or black the layer mask gets. Vary the opacity of the brush to alter how aggressively you bring back the original values.

This is the Finalized version:

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