Lightroom 11’s Masking & Other New Features

Lightroom version 11 was released today and it brings quite a change to my favorite tool: local adjustments! It includes a couple of other new features as well, of course. In this article, I try to provide an honest and hopefully realistic evaluation and summary of them.

Despite the fact that I’ve added a few screenshots, this has somehow 😬 gotten rather text-heavy (my specialty). For useful screenshots of the new UI pieces (as well as a video), I suggest that you open Adobe’s own announcement, posted at the end of September, in a new browser tab: From the ACR Team: Masking Reimagined. (update: there’s also a video about the new masks from the always excellent Julianne Kost)

Catalog Update

Lightroom 11 requires, as most major version updates did in the past, an update of its database, the catalog. On first launch, Lightroom will open your existing v10 catalog, make a copy of it, and update that copy (in other words, the original v10 catalog remains in place, unchanged).

With Lightroom 10, Adobe began to add the version number to the catalog name, which was very welcome. Unfortunately, this is just a dumb “append” and if you want a neat catalog name, you’ll still have to manually intervene and remove the “v10” from the filename, otherwise you’ll end up with a name like “catalog-v10-v11.lrcat” (sigh).

System requirements: users of older Macs are out if they can’t run at least MacOS 10.15 (Catalina) on their system. Windows users must have Windows 10 v1909 as the minimum, or Windows 11.

I’ve made it a habit to try the newest version with my workflow as good as possible before adding any new work to the updated catalog, and thus committing myself entirely to the new version. I was particularly eager to play with the new v11 features of course, and after doing “my normal stuff”, I can say that Lightroom 11.0 runs stable on my 2019 iMac. I haven’t run into any showstopper bugs.

So, on to the meat of things!

Masking

Adobe announced late in September that a big change in Lightroom would come to local/selective adjustments, calling it “Masking”. It’s been called masking before, even though “local adjustments” was probably more common.

To help understand “new masking”, I found it best to think of “the mask” as the ENTIRE area that’s going to be affected by local adjustments, and that this entire area is comprised of “selections” made with the brush, a graduated filter (official term: linear gradient), a luminance mask — or a combination thereof.

The brush, filters etc. do not make adjustments. They are components that make selections to form a mask, and you make adjustments to the entire mask.

This is an expansion of the radial and linear gradient filters if you will, which had the brush tool to add or subtract from them since Lightroom version 6; or the luminance and color ranges that could be used “on top” of a brush or grad/radial filter since Lightroom version 7. Now, you can combine the selections of multiple grad/radial filters, brushes, and whatnot, freely.

If you used local adjustments before, this stuff is familiar but the changes require, at least for all those of us who already used them a lot, a bit of adjusting to “the new way” — and also wrapping one’s head around some of the new features and/or the changed “access” to existing features. It can be a bit quirky, as I’ll explain, going on. :)

In general, the existing features have been expanded, and open a lot of new possibilities. I think that the multitude of local adjustment features is much better organized now. It all feels more logical, more comprehensible, less “geeky”.

This will hopefully help to make these features more accessible to more users. Too many people still switch to Photoshop for relatively simply adjustments (take dodging and burning, for example) that could be done within Lightroom entirely, and much more efficiently so too: Lightroom is non-destructive, and all you have on disk is the raw file (instead of a huge TIF or PSD file).

New Masking Features

User Interface

The added complexity of “new masking” requires additional screen real estate — in an already crowded right-hand sidebar of the Develop module where, depending on the height and resolution of your screen, just an open Histogram and Basic panel might already require scrolling to see and access all available controls.

I guess it is for this reason that the new masks panel can either be docked inside the sidebar, or floating and placed freely (which is the default). In the “docked” state only, the height of the mask panel can be adjusted, but then you might not see all your masks at once.

The floating option on the other hand shows all masks, but may cover a part of the photo. The floating panel can be narrowed to a pretty thin strip though (see screenshot) — and thankfully, it also hides itself automatically when you work on the photo itself.

Narrowed mask list of Lightroom 11
Minimized view of the mask panel

The list of masks contains a lot of really nice additions to working with local adjustments: each mask can be named, making it a lot easier to remember what they were used for if you come back to a photo later. It’s also possible to turn each mask on and off quickly, to see its effect. This was not possible before: you could only turn ALL brushes or ALL graduated or ALL radial filters off and on at once (or, common trick, hit DEL to remove an active local adjustment, and then Ctrl/Cmd-Z to bring it back).

More prominent Luminance & Color based selections, but…

With the clearer separation of the masking process itself, both Color and Luminance masks are now separate “selection” tools, similar to the Brush, Gradient or Radial Filters they’ve previously been “attached” to — which was useful, but a bit too hidden to be used more widely, perhaps.

For those of us who already used Color and Luminance masking, the new masking does require a change in thinking. Since they are selection tools on their own now, and not “directly” integrated into the brush/radial/gradient tools anymore, adding color/luminance based refinements to a Brush/Grad/Radial is done with a new “Intersect” option.

With the Color & Luminance ranges, Intersect will probably be the most used option, but it is available only in a pop-up menu (behind three dots in the mask UI) or revealed when you press and hold the Alt/Option key (in which case the two “Add” and “Subtract” buttons in the Mask panel will be replaced with the “Intersect with” button).

But it works the other way around now too: one could begin with a Color or Luminance mask, which will always include the entire image, to then use “Intersect” to refine/limit the initial selection, with a Brush or Grad/Radial tool.

It’s not awfully different from what we’re used to, but quickly switching from Color to Luminance based selections, like I used to when trying to figure out which one might work better for a specific adjustment, requires more clicks now. Navigate to the small pop-up menu, delete one “intersect”, create the replacement.

Detecting Subject or Sky

Together with “new masking” come two new selection tools that, AI-driven, detect either “subject” or “sky” in a photograph automatically, ie. without having to use a Brush/Grad/Radial filter, manually.

These new AI masks are bitmap-based, not vector based like all local adjustments used to be. The bitmap “helpers” are stored outside of the catalog. Similar to LrC’s Previews and Smart Previews, within the catalog directory is a new helper directory with the extension .lrcat-data.

This is the first time that information that is vital to rendering the photos with Lightroom is stored outside of the catalog. In the past, the most important file to backup was just the catalog itself. As expected, Lightroom’s built-in catalog backup includes the masks folder into the ZIP archive. As far as I can see, the new masks are stored in the XMP sidecar files (or embedded), which means those will still act as an “instant backup” if you have “automatically write changes to XMP” enabled in the preferences.

To store the AI-based masks outside the catalog was probably necessary from an engineering perspective, but as a user, I don’t find this a very elegant solution.


CAVEAT: Because the detection uses actual data in the image, these selection can NOT be copied/pasted from one image to the next, or synced across an entire batch of images. When auto-sync is on, Lightroom will show that such an edit has been applied to all selected images, but when you move to the next photo, you won’t see the edit until you update the mask:

Screenshot of Lightroom 11 mask UI warning
When syncing AI-based selections or using copy & paste, Lightroom will show this warning.

Similarly, when you manually use “Copy Settings…” in the Develop module’s “Settings” menu, a warning sign with a little exclamation mark will appear next to the “Masks” section if AI-based masks are used, with a text at the bottom: “AI-powered selections need to be recomputed on the target photo.”

The AI-based detection itself and their selections can be quite impressive: when I tried them with some portraits, they detected individual strains of hair against the background! 😮 You would never be able to create such a fine selection with a brush — at least not without losing your mind.

But the detection isn’t perfect either. A flower that is partially out of focus against a background that’s entirely out of focus wasn’t properly detected, for example. A detected sky that reflected in the ocean would lead to the selection extend into the ocean. (depending on what you want to do with the sky, this might be useful, or not.)

Either way, these selections can be manually adjusted with…

Add, Subtract… Invert!

All tools to create selections for a mask, AI-driven and conventional, come with the option to add to them, subtract from them, and new: invert them.

The “Add/Subtract” feature doesn’t sound that exciting at first, but consider again that all tools like the brush, linear and radial gradient now merely make selections that combine into a single mask for adjustment: you can combine three linear gradients via “Add” to create a mask around a triangular shape, or combine two completely different color ranges, for example. Yes, I feel like I’m only beginning to understand the possibilities here…

For the AI-driven tools, this can become a bit quirky though: say that your AI-based subject-detection left you with a selection that included a little bit too much in one place, and not enough in another. You can’t “select” the subject mask directly to adjust it — in order to do that, you need TWO additional brushes: one to REMOVE what’s too much, and another to ADD what was missing.

On the one hand, it’s a bit unfortunate that the “simple way” of using ONE brush to add/subtract from the linear and radial gradient filters like it used to be is gone, in favor of the new add/subtract system. On the other hand, now it’s always possible to revert to the original selection (shape) of these filters, simply by removing the brushes.

Then, add the new “Invert” option — this was previously only available for the Radial filter. Now ALL selections can be inverted. You can choose “Select Sky” and then “Invert”, et voila: all the ground is selected. Neat! Or select a color range, invert it — and then make adjustments to everything except for that color range. Sweet!

But “Invert” only works on the individual components of a mask. You can’t invert an entire mask (if you think of the individual selections as Photoshop “layers”, of which they remind a lot anyway, they can not be “flattened”.)

For example, if the initial AI-selection of the sky is too much, or not enough, it might be better to invert first, and THEN add or remove to/from it. If you ADD to the “sky” selection with say, a brush, and then would invert BOTH the sky and the brush, the inverted brush will cancel out the sky. This is logical, because the sky is NOT included in the brush.

So instead, you INVERT the sky, and you CONVERT the brush. In the context menu for each component of a mask is a “Covert to…” entry. If I used the brush to ADD to the sky, it’ll read “Convert to Subtract” — since I turned the sky selection into the opposite with invert, I need to turn the brush into the opposite as well.

It will take some time until this doesn’t make my aging brain hurt anymore. 😜

Updated Luminance Masks

In previous Lightroom versions, the smallest range for a luminance mask was 5 units out of the luminance range from 0 to 100. This has been reduced to “1” unit now. Sounds great! I’ve been waiting for this since Luminance masks were first introduced, because I never seemed to be able to affect really just the highest highlights in an image, for example.

A new “luminance” picker has also been added, allowing you to click an area in the image to select its luminance range. How far it will extend is anyone’s guess when you do a single click, but you can also click, hold the mouse and drag to mark a luminance range (similar to what the color mask range picker would actually do).

Screenshot of Lightroom 11 luminance range control UI
Lightroom 11’s new luminance range control. Fine adjustments to the controls are difficult.

Quite honestly: so far, I’m not a fan of the new luminance mask UI. It combines the previously separate luminance range and smoothing sliders into one — looks fancy, but it’s difficult to make fine adjustments with it, especially for finely targeted, narrow luminance ranges.

Now, one can press and hold the Option key while adjusting the width of the entire sidebar, to make it really really wide, which helps — but having to do that just to make fine adjustments to a luminance range? I found the separation of “luminance range” and “smoothing” sliders as it was in v10 was better, and didn’t take much more screen space either.

Unfortunately, existing luminance masks are not compatible with the new version. They render just fine, but you can’t make changes to their parameters unless you update/convert them.

When you select a v10 luminance mask Lightroom will show a requester, asking you to update it before you can make adjustments to it. You can go back and “Undo” the luminance mask “v11 update” of course, but I’d suggest that you very carefully inspect the adjustments before you proceed with any further edits.

Because, even more unfortunately, in my experiments, updating the v10 luminance masks to v11 led to sometimes significantly different looking images, and not just that: I found myself unable to adjust the masks to get the same result that I achieved with version 10! Ugh.

Screenshot of Lightroom 11 luminance mask conversion difference
Luminance mask conversion from Lightroom 10 to Lightroom 11 led to a significantly different (and unusable) rendition of the photo.

You see what happened to this adjustment in Lightroom 11. It’s completely different and unusable. This example is admittedly a very strong and perhaps unusual edit, on top of which I used the v10 luminance masks to reduce distracting highlights. Being married to a QA has taught me to test the fringe cases! 😉

This isn’t the only one, unfortunately. Here are two more before/after comparisons of luminance range based selections and adjusts in v10 versus v11 (big files so they’re links only). Tree, Sky. In the “Tree” image, the transitions are just ugly; in the “Sky” image, the adjustment has essentially lost its effect.

Adobe writes about the changes: “…we added more control over the luminance range’s falloff.”

This “falloff” appears to translate to the “Smoothing” slider in the v10 luminance range controls and indeed, you can control it separately for the darker and lighter parts of the range now. But I seem to be unable to get the results with it that I was able to produce in v10. So far, the v11 luminance masks often produce garish transitions, and not just when I tried to update existing luminance masks, but also when trying to create new masks altogether.

My advice would be: leave your v10 luminance masks alone. Do not update them. If you need to make further adjustments, just create a new mask. As far as I can see, v10 luminance masks that aren’t updated and v11 luminance masks can coexist.

Overlays

In addition to the previously available color overlays over the affected (masked) area, there are now options to show the unaffected area, freely choose the color for the overlay, adjust its opacity, and show the masked area in color on various alternative renditions of the image (like black & white). This will look very familiar to Photoshop users. These new overlay options will help a lot to create better selections and refine what the auto-selections (see above) manage to accomplish.

Screenshot of the overlay (visualization) options for masks in Lightroom 11
Plenty of new overlay (visualization) options for masks in Lightroom 11

What may be a bit confusing in combination with the new masks is that the overlays are available for the entire mask (affected area), and for the individual selections that make up the mask.

For example, a luminance-based selection as part of a mask will always show the overlay over the ENTIRE image — even when it is limited via “Intersect”, to actually only affect a part of the photo. Similarly, an overlay for the brush that may be used for this “Intersect” option will always highlight the ENTIRE brushed area. To see what area is actually affected by your adjustments, you need to look at the overlay for the entire mask. Again, it’s logical, but requires a little bit of getting used to.

Refined Linear Gradient & Radial Filter Controls

For the radial and linear gradient filters, the controls have been refined a little bit. It’s clearer now how and where to click in order to rotate the filters. For the radial filter, the feathering can be adjusted directly on the filter in the photo now, instead of having to move to the sidebar slider.

Excitement! 🤩

Above, I mentioned how it will take some time to wrap one’s head around some of the “new masking” features — but if you used local adjustments before, I’m quite certain the update will quickly make you giggle with excitement. It’s really, really good and one of the biggest leaps forward in years of Lightroom updates.

Here’s a short video that hopefully illustrates quickly what’s exciting about the update:

Short video about Lightroom’s “New Masking”

Following is a summary of other new features, of which some are more “under the hood” and not directly visible to the end user. For the complete history of changes, you can also visit Adobe’s “What’s New” page for Lightroom 11.

Configure & Rearrange Default Metadata Display

In Lightroom 11, it is possible to customize the Library module’s “Metadata” panel, in the “Default” view (from the little dropdown menu). You can customize which fields you’ll see, and also rearrange the order in which they appear. At the bottom of the “Default” view is a new button “Customize” and it opens a dialog with (obviously) a plethora of metadata fields to choose from…

Quite frankly, after being a Lightroom user for over 14 years, I don’t see myself messing around with that. The new masks already require major muscle-memory adjustments. 😉

There are other updates to the metadata panel, making a rather obscure feature that decides whether changes affect all selected or just the “most selected” (or “active”) image out of a group of images. I must admit that, when I learned about this feature and the change, I had to look it up. I never knew that it existed in the first place!

Auto-Save into XMP Updates

One of the, for me, most welcome under-the-hood changes is how auto-saves into XMP are handled (here’s the link again why I like this feature). The writing is now consolidated into a single operation when you navigate away from a photo. In the past, when you’d move one and the same slider ten times, there would be ten write operations to update the XMP metadata. 🙀 Thankfully, that’s history with LR 11.

When there’s multiple updates to the XMP data, there’s also a progress indicator, and the progress of the background process that writes the XMP data is included in the activity center (where Preview rendering etc. show).

Multi-Tasking/Multi-Threading

Catalog operations are now multi-tasked: this means that you can, for example, apply a preset to a bunch of images (write operation) and then navigate away from that folder, to open a different folder (read operation). This read operation doesn’t have to wait for the write operation to finish anymore (another write operation would still be queued, though).

This improves perceived performance — and hopefully also fixes an ages old annoyance that would occasionally catch me, when I’d have to wait for I-have-no-clue-what to finish, when I try to navigate to a folder or collection. We’ll see…

Video

Video playback and navigation from/to videos in the Library appears to be much more responsive and smoother, at least on MacOS Big Sur. Video still isn’t exactly Lightroom’s strength — there’s still no option to rotate videos, for example (when the phone’s orientation sensor got it wrong). But it makes having the files in the catalog more tolerable. :P

New Presets

Lightroom 11 includes, yet again, more new presets. I’m not a fan of applying “looks” to photos via presets, but considering that Adobe keeps adding and adding them, they sure must be popular…

There are more than 20 folders of Adobe presets in Lightroom now — good grief! This stuff takes up screen space and makes it harder to find the few presets that I actually use (Optics and my own set of “tools”). Once more, I’ve hidden them from view, immediately. (How to hide Adobe’s default presets and profiles).

And I think that covers most of it. Congratulations if you made it through this wall of text! As I learn more, I’ll update this article, of course.

A SMALL DONATION will be very much appreciated if you found the information in this article useful.



Alexander S. Kunz is an expert, tutor and teacher for Adobe Lightroom in San Diego, California. His services are available both in person and online, using remote assistance/screen sharing software. Whether you're stuck with a problem in Lightroom and need help, want to learn Lightroom from the ground up, or need assistance setting up your computer, storage and backup for your photographic workflow - Alexander can help you. Please get in touch if you are interested!

All images and content © by Alexander S. Kunz, unless otherwise noted. No re-use without express written permission.

Previous: Three Views of Water

7 thoughts on “Lightroom 11’s Masking & Other New Features”

  1. Thanks, Alex. I’m really a simple editor and all these bells and whistles just make things more complicated for my small abilities. While I was trying to figure it all out I wondered if PS and LR would eventually become one app as it seems LR is heading that way.

    Reply
    • My wall of text probably doesn’t help to make it sound and look easy! :P

      At first I felt rather irritated and overwhelmed by the changes to local adjustments too I must admit. But after playing with them for a little bit, I really like what Adobe has done here.

      I hope you can make it to the SCPS “Happy Hour” next Thursday; I’ll talk about the new features there.

      Reply
  2. I am just glad I didn’t get kicked out of the upgrade cycle as I did with Photoshop because of my very old Mac. I am on Catalina though, so yea.

    I have just started to play with v11 so no real opinions on it yet. I believe I did find a bug in the masking, but it could be just knowing the correct way to do so. The “Select Subject” mask (in Photoshop) has been a great benefit to me lately in working with this leaf creature project in getting the background to pure black. I was using a brush adjustment in LR beforehand to just increase my chances of success. But in the case of LR v11, creating a subject mask, inverting it to the background, and then trying to stack a luminosity mask on the subject doesn’t work like expected. The luminosity mask selects tonal values that I had previously masked out with the inverted subject mask.

    Maybe this is just the way it works because no pixels are being changed – but the order priority in the masks doesn’t seem to be followed if one mask should overrule another.

    Reply
    • It DOES work, trust me. ;)

      I’ve stumbled over this as well and it’s one of the things that confused me initially as well: the luminosity mask overlay ALWAYS shows you the entire area as affected. It’s completely logical. The brush overlay always shows you the entire BRUSHED area.

      Hover your mouse over the MASK itself for the overlay though, and you’ll see what the actual mask affects (brush + Intersect with luminosity).

      Reply
      • Ok, I’ll have to look at that some more. It is just confusing because if you are selecting the luminosity range based on tonal values being shown, it isn’t accurate – you have to have in mind areas that were masked out. :(

        Reply
  3. Alex, your “wall of text” is fantastic, especially since I have to read and re-read it very carefully. The videos for LR are of no value to me because the presenter speaks too quickly and the screen shots too small. The mouse movement is impossible to follow. Please continue with these carefully through through text explanations. Thanks a million.

    Reply

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.