How to Work with Layers and Masks in Capture One

Many photographers looking for a Lightroom alternative get pointed toward Capture One. Besides the price and joy of outright owning your software instead of renting it, one still wonders: what does Capture One have to offer that Lightroom doesn’t?

Lightroom, for all its strengths, doesn’t offer Layer Masks natively, for starters. For that sort of editing, you’ll need to resort to using a supporting program, like Photoshop. Or simply use a one-stop shop solution like Capture One.

Capture One’s Adjustment Layers are a way to edit your files in both broad strokes and with as much precision as needed. You can selectively create and place adjustment layers and make refined adjustments to subjects, sections, and even specific hues and tones without globally affecting the entire image.

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It goes without saying that using RAW files will give you the most latitude when working with adjustment layers due to the extra image data baked into the files compared to JPEG. Consider this an introduction to layers and masks in Capture One.

Selectively Adjusting a Fill Layer

When working with layers in Capture One you’ll be spending much of your time with the Colors, Exposure, and Details tool tabs in the upper left-hand corner of the screen. Go to the Layers Panel and hit the + icon to make a new layer.

Capture One Layers

Note that we have four Layer options to insert using the + icon. For the purposes of this tutorial, we’ll be looking only at the first two options. An Empty Layer and a Filled Layer. In the below example, I’ll be using a Filled Layer because I intend to Erase portions of the mask where I don’t it. If we were painting using the Brush tool, we might instead create an Empty Layer. The Clone and Heal Layers allow you to selectively remove pixels (and objects) from the scene.

Sometimes it’s a good idea to rename your layer to detail the steps of your processing once you start getting additional layers mixed in. “Layer 1” and “Layer 2” won’t help much if you’re trying to quickly isolate where you added a more subtle effect. Still, when locating where your layers are placed, you can hit the M key once the filled layer is in place. This paints the scene red, as shown in the picture below:

Add a mask to a layer in Capture One

If you want to apply a global edit to a layer like sharpening or color adjustments, it’s a simple matter to adjust the requisite slider. But why add a layer when you could simply manipulate the main image layer? As stated earlier, you can use layers in Capture One for greater precision.

Selectively Editing Your Layer Mask

We can create a fill layer, as we already have, above the background layer. From here, we can make the adjustments to the image we wish using the Color, Exposure, and Details tools. We’ll be using the Exposure option in the Exposure tab to adjust the Exposure, Contrast, Brightness, and Saturation sliders without adjusting the skin of the subjects in the photo.

The size of the brush you use to either paint or erase can be controlled using Ctrl + click on the image to bring up the Brush/Eraser settings. Or press E to activate the Eraser or B to activate the Brush.

Size, Hardness, Opacity, and Flow are the settings that most concern us in this edit. When looking at your brush, you’ll notice that there are two circles displayed. Size affects the inner circle, which is where the edit will be applied fully. Hardness describes the outer circle and is the zone of fall-off. A hardness setting of 100 means you’ll have a hard boundary for your edit. The smaller the number, the larger the outer circle and the more feathered your edit becomes outside of the inner boundary. For many types of edits like exposure adjustments having a gradient may be preferable to a hard shift.

Opacity controls how much of the background layer shows through. Instead of 100% changing the background layer, you can allow it to partially show through. The last option is Flow, which adjusts how extreme the application of your Brush or Erase edit is. In this very basic edit, I’ve set my Flow to 100. This way, I don’t need to make several passes with the Erase tool. “Painting” an adjustment with Flow is great for adjustments like Sharpening, where it’s not clear quite how much will get the job done. You can brush or erase your adjustment in, have a look, and then add more or take away as necessary. Using a Flow of 100, you’ll see the image shines through the mask, as below:

To get the rest of the boy’s hands, I made adjustments to the size of the brush as well as the falloff of the effect using the hardness slider. While you can spend time using a tiny brush to extra-refine your edit, the lack of hardness is fine in a demonstration edit like this.

Now, pressing the M hotkey (or click-holding over the Brush icon to find the “Always Display Mask/Erase” option), I can turn off the mask and make my color adjustments without affecting the areas of skin I’ve highlighted. Here I opted to tweak each of the Exposure settings slightly to give the colors a bit more zest.

Linear Gradient Adjustment Masks

The Linear and Radial Gradient tools are another way to apply masks in a refined manner. Gradient masks are an option selectable by hold-clicking the Brush icon as before when we selected Erase. The Draw Linear Gradient Mask option appears, also selectable using the G hotkey. Linear Gradients are especially useful for landscape-type images where we want to bring one section of the image in balance with another. Quite often the sky will be over or underexposed at the cost of the landscape. A linear gradient allows me to selectively edit the sky, building, or foreground as needed.

Three lines show themselves once I’ve placed the linear gradient. The top line and everything above that line are at 100% of the effect applied. In between the midline and top line is 50% of the effect. And from there to the bottom line we eventually reaching 0%. Using the Alt key (Option on Mac), I can adjust the spacing of the lines to affect the overall gradient. The linear gradient can also be moved and rotated as needed to fit your scene.

With the mask selected, I can make my adjustments to the image within the gradient area. I’ll adjust first the Exposure sliders and then highlights using the High Dynamic Range function. This brings some details back to the sky. I could get a similar effect by using a graduated neutral density filter in front of my lens before shooting. If you don’t do landscape photography regularly, however, then the linear gradient mask is your best option.

Original Image

Final Image with Exposure Adjustments

The final image has quite a bit more pop compared to the original. I was able to make heavy adjustments to the building and sky while preserving the nicely lit foreground thanks to the Linear Gradient Layer Mask tool.

Radial Gradient Adjustments

Capture One also has a Radial Gradient tool that applies the gradient layer in a circular shape rather than a line across the image. Radial gradients are great for organic shapes like flowers and human faces, as well as making adjustments to light sources like a sunset or reflections on the water. Once more, we go to the Brush tab and hold-click, giving us the option to select the Draw Radial Gradient Mask (T hotkey)

This is a perfect chance to talk about the Invert Mask function as well. When the mask is first applied, Capture One will apply the mask outwards from the inner circle. However, in this application, we want to apply the mask specifically to the face of the subject.

When drawing a mask we can select our Layer, right-click and select Invert Mask to reverse the application. Doing so reverses the order of lines. Now the outer lines of the mask are at the 0% boundary of my effect, up to 100% within the inner circle. This way, I can use the High Dynamic Range slider to bring some details back into the shadows around the face.

Lines vs. Painting with the Brush Tool

One last function worth exploring in this introductory tutorial is applying the Brush tool to geometric shapes. This is especially handy for architecture photography and other application with strong lines to work with. You can save time in creating and editing layers in Capture One by snapping lines straight across your image. To do so, you’ll need to create a new layer, and then click a point along the boundary of where you wish to edit. From there, hold Shift and right-click. This will cause a line to snap from that point to the one you’ve just created.

Using Layers in Capture One

Once I’ve Shift-Clicked across the boundaries of the section I wish to make adjustments to, including the borders of the image, I can then right-click my Layer and select “Fill Mask.” By doing so, Capture One will make a mask within the boundaries of my selected area, as shown below.

Using fill mask in Capture One

Thanks to this flexibility, I can select individual buildings for editing without affecting the rest of the image. This is considerably faster than trying to paint an adjustment layer using the Brush tool normally. If I wished, I could also right-click the layer and use Invert Mask to exclude the building. From there, I could then highlight everything else with a mask.

Closing Thoughts

Layers are a deep subject in Capture One. There are many ways to achieve the same effects. It really goes down to expediency and your familiarity with Capture One. Drawing using the Brush tool can create the same effect as shift-clicking each point to create straight lines. One just takes longer to use but isn’t necessarily wrong. Using layers and masks gives you a lot of flexibility when editing your photos and combined with i.e. the power of C1 styles, you can improve the level of post-processing significantly.

Thanks to this introduction, you’ll hopefully be able to selectively edit your files with greater precision than before. And now have more confidence using one of the most powerful software tools available for photographers!

Author Details
Earl Goodson is a self-taught travel photographer and photojournalist currently based in East Asia. While having used a wide variety of camera equipment over the years he prefers shooting with the Fuji X system. You can find more of his work at humanelements and his portfolio Additional images can be seen on Instagram@humanelement2
Earl Goodson is a self-taught travel photographer and photojournalist currently based in East Asia. While having used a wide variety of camera equipment over the years he prefers shooting with the Fuji X system. You can find more of his work at humanelements and his portfolio Additional images can be seen on Instagram@humanelement2
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How to Work with Layers and Masks in Capture One

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