How to use the brush tool in Lightroom masking (2024)

The brush tool is one of the most useful tools Lightroom offers photographers for editing either specific areas of your image, from small areas to very large areas, or the entire image. Plus, the brush settings you create and save as presets can be used with other Lightroom masking tools, like the linear gradient and radial gradient. So learning how to use the brush tool in Lightroom will help you to get professional quality portraits.

Before we get into how to use the brush in Lightroom, please note that the brush tool shouldn’t be confused with the spot removal tool, which is often referred to as the healing brush. They’re very different editing tools.

PS: at the end of this tutorial you can see how I edited this photo with Lightroom brushes.

Where is the brush tool in Lightroom Classic

If you can’t find the adjustment brush icon, don’t worry, the Lightroom brush tool hasn’t disappeared. It’s just moved.

Up until 2023 the Lightroom adjustment brush tool was a stand alone tool in the local adjustment menu, just below the histogram.

As of the 2023 Lightroom updates you can find the brush tool by clicking on the masking icon, below the histogram in the right hand panel of the Develop module. The Lightroom brush tool is now a masking tool available in the masking panel and is no longer called an adjustment brush.

So even though the adjustment brush icon no longer exists, the good news is that the brush tool works the same way, but better. Way better!

Portrait of couple edited with Lightroom brush tool

How to open Adobe Lightroom brush tool

You have two ways to open the brush tool in Lightroom – the long way and the short way.

The long way to enable the brush option is to go to the Develop module in and click on the masking icon, below the histogram panel in the right-hand panel. Then select Brush from the dropdown menu.

Or, the short way, use the Lightroom keyboard shortcut by pushing K on the keyboard. This is a great way to open the brush tool from any module in Lightroom and go to the Develop module in just one click.

Brush settings in Lightroom Classic

Lightroom brush settings

The size and intensity of any brush can be adjusted with the adjustment sliders for dramatic or gentle brush strokes.  As a final tweak after applying a brush you can increase or decrease the effect with the amount slider.

Brush sliders in Lightroom Classic

  • Brush size – as you’d expect, the size slider adjusts the size of your brush so that you can work on a very very small area, or the entire image in just one click. Alternatively you can use your mouse wheel to adjust the size of the brush. Or you can use the square brackets to change brush size, just like you would in Photoshop. Left bracket to make smaller, right bracket to make bigger.
  • Brush feather – adjusting the feather slider changes the edge of the brush so that you can change the softness a soft brush with a large feather or on the other extreme a hard brush with hard edges with no feathering. So, the adjusting the brush feather slider is like changing brush hardness in Photoshop.
  • Brush flow – change the flow slider for subtle layering of an effect like when dodging and burning an area. Or, if you want the effect to be 100% with just one brush stroke you can slide it all the way to maximum. Use brush flow the way you would if you were spray painting with a spray can.
  • Brush density – the density slider is like a speed limiter on a car, except it’s for setting the opacity of the brush. Setting it to say 50 means that, no matter now many times you brush over an area, the brush effect will never be more than 50%. I don’t use this slider, so I leave it set to 100.
  • Amount slider – moving the amount slider adjusts all of the brush sliders equally so that you can increase or decrease the overall affect of your edit. Do this last.

Lightroom Classic brush sliders and checkboxes

Lightroom brush check boxes

  • Show Overlay – check show overlay to be able to see the mask or uncheck to switch it off. The colored square on the right shows the color of the mask overlay, which you can change by clicking on the three dots to the right of the color swatch. If it’s set to red and the area you’re working on is red, it would be hard to see where the brush is. So, in this instance a green overlay would be better.
  • Invert – to apply the settings to everywhere other than the area you’ve just brushed
  • Auto Mask – helps you to “stay between the lines” so that only similar pixels are affected
  • Reset Sliders Automatically – uncheck this to use the same brush settings on the next image, otherwise it does what it says on the tin and resets all the sliders

Brush tool under Lightroom Masking options

How to use the brush in Lightroom – step by step

Step 1

Click on the masking icon near the top of the right hand panel in the Develop module.

Step 2

Select brush from the dropdown menu.

Step 3

Either select a brush preset for a certain effect or select custom and change settings manually.

If it’s important to stay within an area, turn on the auto mask feature.

Step 4

Make your selective adjustments.

Step 5

If you accidentally brush over an area you can erase that part by clicking Erase at the top of the brush settings, or by holding down the Alt key (Windows) or Option key (Mac) button, to turn the brush tool into an eraser. You’ll see a minus sign in the inside circle of the the brush tool.

Brush settings for erasing are separate from the add brush settings, so you might need to adjust size, feather, flow and auto masking. Density can’t be adjusted for erasing.

Step 6

To close the brush tool click “Close” at the bottom of the brush panel or click the mask icon.

To delete a brush mask that’s open, simply click delete.

Brush options for different brushes

With the brush tool open you can either select a brush preset or enter custom brush settings, depending on what you want to do. You can make as many local adjustments as you like, but you’ll need separate brushes for different settings.

Brush tone panel

The tone panel has most of the sliders of the standard Lightroom basic panel. They are:

  • Exposure
  • Contrast
  • Highlights
  • Shadows
  • Whites
  • Blacks

Lightroom brush color panel

Brush color panel

The color panel contains the white balance Temp and Tint sliders so that you can warm up or cool down specific areas or remove a color cast.

It also has a hue slider like in the HSL panel for changing colors. There’s also a Use Fine Adjustment checkbox, which allows you to move the hue slider more slowly for fine tuning.

You can’t adjust Vibrance, but you do have the Saturation slider, just like in the standard Basic Panel.

Select a color to paint over an area by clicking on the color swatch box at the bottom of the color panel and then using the eye dropper tool to select a color.

Lightroom Classic brush tone curve panel

Brush curve panel

This is the same as the Tone Curve panel and has all the features you’d expect, including contrast tone curve and the RGB tone curves.

Lightroom brush presence panel

Brush presence panel

The presence panel has some of the same Basic Panel features, including:

  • Texture
  • Clarity
  • Dehaze

Like in the Basic panel, with all three of these brush sliders you can adjust the amount you’d like to apply to a specific area.

Lightroom Classic brush detail panel

Brush detail panel

The detail panel features some of the Detail Panel sliders as well as the Lens Corrections settings, including:

  • Sharpness – for basic sharpening you can increase to sharpen or decrease to soften. The sharpness brush doesn’t have the full functionality of sharpening for global adjustments (i.e. you can set radius, detail or masking)
  • Noise – the noise reduction feature on brushes works only on luminance noise, not color noise
  • Moire – brush the area and set the moire slider to the amount you require
  • Defringe – again, this is a basic adjustment for defringing, soy can only adjust the amount of defringing you want to apply to remove color fringing locally

Working in solo mode in brush settings

If you find it overwhelming, or you’re working on a small screen and don’t want to scroll up and down to use the different brush panels, you can turn on solo mode.

Position your mouse over the adjustment panels and right click, then select Solo Mode from the menu. To open them all again, right click and select Expand All.

This will automatically close all the panels, except for the one you’re working on. When you want to use a different panel, click on the triangle to the left of the panel and it’ll close the one you’re in and open the new panel.

How to brush straight lines with the brush tool

Sometimes you might want to brush in a straight line, like for creating shafts of light. You can do this two ways:

1. Create a straight line between two points

  • Click on the image where you want the brush to start
  • Push and hold the Shift button
  • Click where you want the brush to end

If you continue holding down shift and click elsewhere, another straight line will be formed to the new point.

2. Brush in a straight line (my preferred method)

  • Push and hold down the Ctrl key (Windows) or Cmd key (Mac)
  • Click where you want to start the brush effect
  • Push and hold down the Shift key
  • Brush

When you’ve finished release the keys.

The advantage of this method is that you can brush over the area several times until you’re happy with the effect without brushing outside of the line. Even if you don’t brush in a straight line, it won’t paint the effect elsewhere.

Lightroom brush panel showing with and without adjustments

How to see what brush settings have been applied

You’ll see an eye icon at the top right of the each panel header. When the icon is:

  • Light gray – indicates that settings in the panel have been changed
  • Dark – nothing in the panel has been adjusted

Before and after portrait edited in Lightroom with brushes

How to see before and after effects of brushes

Lightroom before and after features are a great way to ensure that you’re not over editing an image. You have two ways of using before and after with the brush tool:

  1. Eye icons that are light gray can be switched on an off to view the before and after effect of each panel in your brush mask. Click and hold to see before and release to see after.
  2. To see the before an after of all panel adjustments within one brush mask hover over the mask in the masking panel and an eye icon will appear on the right. Click and hold to see before and then release to see after.

Examples of different Lightroom brushes I use

Lightroom adjustment brushes can be used for a huge variety of portrait edits. In fact, almost all global adjustments that can be made to the whole image can also be made as local adjustments with separate brushes.

So, here are just a few examples of how I used the brush in Lightroom to edit the main image:

Local adjustments with Lightroom brush tool

I lightened shadows areas on her arms to create a smoother look and even out bumps and dents in the skin.

Specific areas painted in with Lightroom brush

I darkened distracting highlights in the background so that attention wouldn’t be drawn away from the couple photographed.

Lightroom brush menu selection to subtract from mask

After creating a Body Skin mask I clicked subtract and selected brush to erase a few areas where the mask leaked into surrounding areas (like the pebbles on the beach).

Using Lightroom brush with auto mask on

When I created a Sky mask to darken the sky, the area of sky between the couple was left out, so I clicked add and selected brush to paint in the bit of sky that was missed. Remember to switch on auto mask so that you can easily brush in only the area you want included.

Example of Lightroom brush tool without auto mask

This is what happens when you don’t have auto mask switched on.

If you think you’ll use a brush setting more than once you can create your own Lightroom brush presets for a consistent look and faster workflow.

Keyboard shortcuts in this Lightroom tutorial

The shortcut keys mentioned in this Lightroom tutorial are:

  • D – Develop module
  • K – brush tool

Here’s a list of all the shortcuts I use and highly recommend.

Leave a comment

If you have any questions about how to use the brush in Lightroom Classic, let us know in the comments.

Also, I love good news, so if my Lightroom editing tips have helped you to use Lightroom brushes, share that too.

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