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Adobe has re-engineered masking in Adobe Camera RAW and Lightroom

Adobe has offered a sneak peek of its next version of Adobe Camera Raw (ACR) and Adobe Lightroom. While many new features will be added to ACR, Lightroom and Photoshop on October 26, today’s preview focuses on a redesigned masking engine and user experience.

Masking is a primary way that users can perform precise selective adjustments within ACR and Lightroom. Adobe is completely redesigning how masking will work, including through a new Masks panel. Adobe’s Josh Bury writes, ‘The new masking functionality represents the biggest change to providing control over selectively enhancing photos since the release of Lightroom 2 [in 2008].’

The impetus for redesigned masking tools was brought on, at least in part, but AI-powered selection tools such as Select Subject and Sky Replacement in Adobe Photoshop. These tools have been well-received, so the Adobe Research Team got to figure out how to incorporate these tools into ACR and Lightroom. The imaging processing engine in ACR and Lightroom was incompatible, so the engine needed to be reworked at a foundational level.

‘The new Select Subject tool automatically creates a precise mask of the salient subject with a single click, and works on people, animals, and inanimate objects.’ Image and caption credit: Adobe

To ensure that a core reworking made sense for its customers, Adobe reached out to tens of thousands of customers across ACR, Lightroom and Lightroom Classic userbases and talked to them about selective adjustment tools. The discussions took place over about a year and a half period.

Working AI-based selection tools into the ACR/Lightroom masking engine required considerable work, especially when considering how to get the tools to operate within Lightroom on mobile devices. The old selection technologies were vector-based. Adjustments made via brush or gradient were stored in the software as mathematical expressions. This required only small amounts of data. However, ‘new AI-based masks, however, require bitmap, or image-based, support.’ The AI-based masks create a grayscale image. Lighter and darker values represent different amounts of selection. Adobe needed to ensure both vector-based and bitmap-based masks could work together on the same image within the new masking engine. ‘The brush, gradients, and range masks continue to be vector-based (to limit space used when making masks) while the AI-powered tools such as select subject and select sky use these bitmap-based masks.’

You can use Select Sky and Select Subject and invert the selections to create a mask of the foreground and background, allowing you to edit everything but the sky and the person in the image. Image credit: Adobe

In addition to ensuring different masking technologies can work together within ACR and Lightroom, the team took the opportunity to change how users interact with masking tools within ACR and Lightroom. The Design Research team focused on delivering more control and flexibility, improved workflow and organization of selections, consistency across all devices, and improved in-app support.

To make it easier to work with mask tools, the team created mask groups. Within mask groups, users can combine any mask tools. You can create a mask using brush, gradient, luminance, color range selections and AI-powered tools in a single mask group. You can also subtract masks from any other mask. Bury writes, ‘The ability to subtract an AI-powered mask from another masking tool results in some amazingly powerful selections, and is one of my favorite ways of using these tools.’ Any selection can be inverted, as well. For example, if you want to adjust everything but the sky, you can use Select Sky and then invert the masked selection. Another new feature is the ability to use range masks globally, which was an oft-requested change from users.

Select Sky was first available in Adobe Photoshop. It couldn’t work in ACR or Lightroom, however, because the old masking engine only worked with vector-based masking, while the AI-based tools use bitmap selections. The new masking engine unveiled today by Adobe changes that, allowing Select Sky and Select Subject to be used within ACR and Lightroom (on desktop and mobile). Image credit: Adobe

Considering improved workflow and organization of selections, the new masking panel helps keep everything organized. You can name each mask to ensure you know what each mask is doing on your image. There are also improved overlay visualizations, allowing masks to be previewed in more ways.

Adobe has done a lot of work recently making sure that using Lightroom on desktop and mobile feels similar and offers users a like-for-like experience. Every masking tool now works on desktop and mobile, including AI-powered masking tools. Range masks, which were previously available only in ACR and Lightroom Classic, are coming to Adobe Lightroom and Lightroom mobile. The same goes for the options for modifying and refining masks.

Adobe has also improved how masks are organized and grouped. Image credit: Adobe

With big changes coming to masking tools in ACR and Lightroom, Adobe is also adding additional educational tools and support within the apps, allowing users to learn more about each tool and figure out how best to implement masking tools into their workflow.

The masking changes will be available to all users starting on October 26.