‘Local adjustments’ is a bit of a catch-all term. It means picking out an area of an image for adjustment while leaving the rest unchanged. So how do they work and which software does them best?
In a traditional photo editor like Photoshop you would probably talk about making ’selections’ or ‘masks’ to edit specific areas, but with the rise of non-destructive editing, software no longer modifies image pixels so directly or so precisely.
Instead, in programs like Lightroom, Capture One, Exposure X and others, ‘local adjustments’ is probably a better description. You don’t have the same fine control over selections at a pixel level, but that’s often not what you want in photo editing anyway.
There is some increasing crossover between old-school selection tools in programs like Photoshop and the non-destructive local adjustments in Lightroom, for example.
- How local adjustments work
- Brush/Adjustment Brush tools
- Gradient masks
- Radial masks
- Control Points (DxO)
- Magic Brush (Capture One)
- Style Brush (Capture One)
- Sky Selection (Adobe)
- Subject Selection (Adobe)
- Selection Tool (Exposure X)
- Luminance masking
- Masks vs adjustment layers
- Best software for local adjustments
How local adjustments work
You can start by creating a mask and then choosing your adjustments, or you can choose your adjustments and then create the mask. Lightroom, for example, offers adjustment presets that are added at the same time as your mask. Either way, you can change both the mask and the adjustments after you’ve created them.
Unlike masks in Photoshop and other traditional photo editors, local adjustments in non-destructive editors are not pixel-based, so you can move masks and resize them at will.
So let’s take a look at the typical local adjustment and masking tools in non-destructive photo editors.
Brush/Adjustment Brush tools
This is the simplest kind of adjustment tool. It’s basically a freehand brush that you use to ‘paint’ an adjustment over your image. You can adjust the size, softness, opacity and ‘flow’ of the brush to control the size of the area you’re affecting, how your adjustments blend in with what’s around them and how quickly the effect builds up.
In Lightroom this is the Adjustment Brush, but in other programs it’s simply a Brush tool.
This is very much like the old darkroom technique of dodging and burning, where you hold some areas back to lighten them when making a print or expose them for longer – except that the range of adjustments available extends far beyond lightening and darkening to include color adjustments, contrast, sharpness, noise reduction and much more.
Some software offers an ‘Auto Mask’ option that attempts to limit the selection to the specific subject outline or areas of tone you’re painting over. This is often very successful, though it depends on the subject and the image.
Gradient mask tools create a soft transition between one area of an image and another. They work just like a graduated filter on a camera lens, and they are especially useful for toning down bright skies, for example.
You can adjust the length/softness of the transition, adjust the angle of the ‘horizon line’ and move it up and down, and you can do this at any time, even after you’ve added adjustments.
This is like a gradient mask but radiates outward in a circle from a central point. As with gradient masks, you can move the mask around after you’ve created it, make it larger or smaller and adjust the softness of the transition, or ‘feathering’.
Radial masks are very useful for creating vignette effects, but they are also very effective at subtly ‘relighting’ photos to add drama or concentrate attention on your subject.
Control Points (DxO)
DxO software offers a very clever hybrid of radial filters and auto masking called Control Points in PhotoLab 5 – though DxO also refers to this as U-point technology and tends to use those terms interchangeably.
Control points are circular and you can adjust both their size and their position. The control point creates an ‘auto mask’ within that circular area based on the colors and tones directly under its central point. It sounds complicated but it’s fast and simple to use.
DxO’s control point are also found in its Nik Collection plug-ins.
Magic Brush (Capture One)
The Magic Brush is a new kind of selection tool in Capture One where you quickly paint a few strokes over representative areas of your subject and the software then creates a selection for the whole object automatically. It’s like a brush tool with auto masking enabled, but you don’t need to follow the edges of the subject carefully – so the Magic Brush is much faster.
Style Brush (Capture One)
Style Brushes are a comparatively new feature in Capture One where you choose the adjustment you want to apply and then paint it ‘freehand’ over the areas of your photo that you want to adjust.
This is a fast, effective and intuitive way to work. Lightroom offers a similar approach with its adjustment brush presets. It’s like dodging and burning, but with a far wider range of adjustment effects.
Sky Selection (Adobe)
Like many software companies, Adobe is pushing ahead with AI-powered subject recognition. The latest versions of Lightroom and Lightroom Classic can now use Adobe’s Sensei AI technology to offer a Sky Selection tool that can automatically identify and mask skies in outdoor shots, ready for adjustment. It can be very effective, but does not always product an attractive or realistic transition from the foreground to the sky, so further adjustment and experimentation might be necessary.
Subject Selection (Adobe)
This Subject Selection tool uses the same Sensei AI as the Sky Selection tool, but this time it attempts to work out what the main subject is in your picture and create a mask automatically. If your composition is relatively straightforward and your main subject is clearly defined, it can be uncannily effective.
Selection Tool (Exposure X)
Exposure X7 introduced a new Selection Tool reminiscent of old-school subject extraction software – but brought right up to date.
With this tool, you use a broad polygon line to follow the outline of your subject and the software will then find the edges and fill in the mask automatically. It can take a minute or so to do, but the result is an excellent mask around objects with complex detailed outlines.
Many programs offer ‘luminance masking’ where the software masks the photo based on the brightness values in different regions, rather than on any mask you’ve drawn.
This can be effective on its own, but many programs now incorporate luminance masking into their other masking controls. Capture One lets you control the luma mask of any adjustment layer to control its effect on areas of different brightness, while DxO control points now have a ‘luma’ slider to fine-tune their effect in a similar way.
Masks vs adjustment layers
Different programs don’t always offer masking tools in the same way. Some, such as Lightroom and DxO PhotoLab, show multiple masks as a list in a palette, while others, including Capture One and Exposure X, use the idea of ‘adjustment layers’, where each set of adjustments is shown on its own layer and has its own mask and opacity settings.
The adjustment layer system will be familiar to Photoshop, Elements and Affinity Photo users, and offers a wider choice of adjustment settings and, arguably, more clarity.
Best software for local adjustments
This is not an exhaustive list, just programs I find particularly good.
- Capture One: Almost all tools available across multiple adjustment layers with powerful masking options.
- DxO PhotoLab: Very good local adjustment tools backed up with effective Control Point adjustments and now Control Lines.
- Exposure X: Simple and effective adjustment layers with a full set of tools for each and good masking controls.
- Lightroom and Lightroom Classic: Limited range of tools for local adjustments but new and more powerful masking with AI Sky and Subject Selection.