Lightroom: Import images with mattes (or alpha channels) created in Photoshop

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I've been working out of Lightroom for the past year and a half or so and I've thought of something that could be very useful.
As it stands (as far as I know), the only way to mask adjustments (such as the brush, radial, and gradient tools) is to "paint" them in and out using the provided brush options. For some images, especially ones that are particularly busy with odd geometric shapes or foliage, painting them out can become a hugely time-consuming chore, even with the "automask" feature...which is imperfect at best.

So right now the current method to get a precise matte would be to export the image over to Photoshop and use those tools to make the adjustments there. The problem however, is that one would either have to alter the original image to make the adjustment, or create a copy and save/import that back into Lightroom afterwards. Either way this detracts from an efficient, 100% non-destructive workflow. If I want to simply utilize Photoshop's selection tools, I lose the ability to make quick changes within Lightroom and use RAW white balance adjustments, etc.

So my proposed feature request would be to add the option of importing either an image with an alpha channel OR an RGB/Grayscale matte image that Lightroom could use as a mask. Ideally I'd be able to import multiple masks for different selections and layering.

My ultimate goal would be to be able to utilize Photoshop's precise (and comparatively faster) toolset to create mattes, import those into Lightroom, and apply them to an image so I can make non-destructive adjustments whenever I want instead of having to bounce back and forth between Lightroom and Photoshop every time .
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Joshua Gluck

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Posted 2 years ago

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Cristen Gillespie

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I must say, as a die-hard Photoshop user, I'm bemused by the many requests to make LR more like PS. I had thought the point of developing LR was to have a simple, easy to learn, interface that did what most photographers needed to get large shoots out to the client, 100% non-destructive, leaving Photoshop for the few serious edits that you needed to make. What do you actually do all the time that you wouldn't mind having a non-editable alpha channel in LR? It's pixels, so I'm assuming, anyway, that you wouldn't edit the alpha channel in LR?

Don't get me wrong. I have no dog in this hunt. I wouldn't mind being able to use TKActions for luminosity masking inside LR. I sometimes use 3rd party plugins in LR with the ability to reenter the plugin and reedit my settings. And I'm also fine sticking with a PS workflow for all advanced editing and never adding more editing capability to LR's Develop module than we'd add to CR's dialog.

But I wonder, since channels are pixel-based, not instruction based like the rest of LR, what all you professional LR users envision LR becoming?  Or what Adobe intended when they created LR as opposed to putting all those resources into simply improving Photoshop, which, wonderful as that app is, isn't quite yet perfect?
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Joshua Gluck

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It's not about making it "more like Photoshop". The fact of the matter is that Lightroom's selection tools are incredibly limiting. 

For the sake of example, let's say I need to replace a sky in a series of images. In some of the images, the sky is obscured by leaves, branches, people, power lines, etc. I need to make a detailed matte so I'm not messing with these foreground objects. Time and time again, the scenery has been too complex for the Auto Mask feature, and the semi-unpredictable feathering on the brush is difficult, to say the least. So I have to import it into Photoshop. The second I do this, all of the adjustments I made in Lightroom thus far are "baked in". I don't mean to say that I've lost data....but I have lost the ability upon re-import to undo my previous changes and the ability to see specific values like my White Balance. And if I'm doing this as part of a set, the exported/reimported images will then have different starting values as the images I didn't need to modify. So if I decide to make aesthetic changes to the whole set later, the Photoshopped files and the non-Photoshopped files will be out of sync and not have the same slider values. Plus, every file I send to Photoshop turns into yet another large file, wasting disk space. This whole process costs me flexibility and time, should I need to make large revisions to the whole series at a much later stage. 

So as to where my idea would fit in:

I need to modify a sky. Not replace...just modify. I export the image to Photoshop and create my matte(s). The image itself isn't saved, but the matte(s) are. Now I'm back in Lightroom with my *original* file and its original values. So now I can select an adjustment...let's say the gradient tool. And I draw my gradient like I would any other time. Maybe I use the brush mask to erase some of the center so it's more of a radial gradient than a linear one. Ok, cool. Now I go over to my suggested mask feature..where I can select my matte file and it uses it as an OVERALL matte. I don't need to modify that. This serves as a final matte that basically says "whatever adjustments you've made so far, it doesn't matter where they were drawn, it doesn't effect anything outside of this specified area". That matte doesn't need to change. I know this adjustment will never be used on any foreground object. So it allows my Lightroom brush adjustments to be broader and less time consuming because no matter how sloppy I am, it'll always be confined to the imported matte. 

But now I've only gone into Photoshop a single time, and if I need to make some mass change to the whole set later on, I can do so as many times as I want with my original values, with the whole set in sync, and without having to make duplicate files of the image. Sizing-wise, a grayscale matte, regardless of format is going to be significantly smaller than a copy of a full image, let alone a PSD or TIFF. 


So now you may ask why I don't just do a full Photoshop/Bridge/Camera Raw workflow. And I absolutely could. I've done so for years. But then I lose Lightroom's organization and non-destructive process, and it doesn't solve my syncing problems if I need to make broad changes to the whole set much later on. 

I can use matte files in pretty much every major software I work in (Photoshop, Nuke, After Effects), and if they're not going to improve Lightroom's selection tools, then it'd be wonderful if I could do so in there as well.
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Cristen Gillespie

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>  The fact of the matter is that Lightroom's selection tools are incredibly limiting. >

Yes, they are. Originally, if you recall, there were no selection tools. It was all global, and then we got local adjustments and everyone cheered.

>  don't mean to say that I've lost data....but I have lost the ability upon re-import to undo my previous changes and the ability to see specific values like my White Balance>

This is the number one reason I don't like to use LR as my main editor. I can retain a non-destructive workflow using CR/Photoshop, but LR wants me to stay in LR or else. . . I find if I go anywhere, my catalog soon becomes littered with copies that are intermediate stages.

I understand that the raw file can't be written to, but pixel-based edits made anywhere have to be the last step or it gets too convoluted a process. I don't know how much better LR could address the issue of wanting everything to stay in LR's catalog, keeping files instruction-based, and letting us round trip with pixel editors.  But I'd like that holistic solution even better than a piecemeal fix. I'm thinking vaguely of Smart Photos/Smart Objects, and Chris Cox is laughing his head off at my naivete if he's reading this. Certainly nothing simple on his end of it. I just want it simple on my end. <BG>

> This whole process costs me flexibility and time, should I need to make large revisions to the whole series at a much later stage. >

I can easily grasp that.

> This serves as a final matte that basically says "whatever adjustments you've made so far, it doesn't matter where they were drawn, it doesn't effect anything outside of this specified area". That matte doesn't need to change.>

I like it. I could use a luminosity mask to paint through in LR, if that were the only "pixel based edit" I needed to make to an image. And not litter my drives with duplicate half-baked files.  '-} I agree it sounds wonderful to use alpha channels in LR. I don't know what, if anything, would make that too difficult to do, or interfere somehow with the expected editability of the the file. I suppose we'd also have to be able to replace that alpha channel, and could we have more than one attached to our LR file?

But looking long-term, I wonder if this sort of thing is the "slippery slope," or if LR can walk that fine line between the "feature bloat" and complexity everyone complains about being in PS, and just adding some PS features here and there. Before LR Mobile, I rejected LR. Trying to find a way to incorporate LR more significantly into my workflow since that time, and now coming here to find out more and reading all the problems, I'm wondering if the simplicity they aimed for in the beginning isn't already being lost.

But I'll vote for this because I, too, like to use masks a lot, and if they can't solve all the other workflow issues I have with round-tripping, this could help make it unnecessary for me to always use Export (my current "best" solution) and use LR only to create the base image file for PS (which I won't do with my raw files, so they don't go through LR). It's a purely selfish vote, but I would like to be able to better target a restricted luminance or color than is at all possible now.