Post-processing can be a big and scary world. There are endless software, terms, and techniques, so filtering out the most important things can be tricky. The terms Global and Local Adjustments are two that are crucial to understand.

You see, only applying global adjustments is very limiting. It gives you minimal control over how the various techniques and adjustments are added to your photo. 

In this article, we will look at what global and local adjustments are in post-processing, when to use them, the top ways of applying local adjustments, and why you need to understand them. 

What are Global Adjustments? 

To understand global adjustments, let’s open Lightroom or your photo editor of choice. In the Develop Module, the right-side panel houses popular adjustment sliders like Exposure, Contrast, Clarity, and Saturation.

These sliders, along with most others, are known as Global Adjustments. When you apply such adjustments, it affects the entire photo

For example:

  • Exposure: If you increase exposure, the entire photo brightens. Conversely, reducing exposure darkens the whole image.
  • Contrast: Adjusting contrast impacts the overall tonal range, making it starker or more subtle across the entire photograph.
  • Saturation: If you increase the saturation, the image becomes more, well, saturated.
Adjustments in Lightroom

Similarly, sliders like Highlights, Shadows, Whites, and Blacks, though seemingly targeted, are still considered global adjustments. Though the Highlights slider only affects the bright parts of the image, it affects all the bright parts and hence is seen as a global adjustment.

Global adjustments are important in post-processing as they help you “set the mood.” The downside is that they are restrictive, as you don’t have any impact on the specific areas in which they are applied. 

Most Common Global Adjustments in Post-Processing

Most sliders and adjustments found in RAW editors are global, but here are a few examples of the most common ones: 

  1. White Balance: The White Balance can neutralize or apply a color cast. This can help set the mood in the photo and work as your photo’s color foundation.
  2. Exposure and Contrast: Adjustments to exposure and contrast let you control the overall tonal range of the photo. This will also go a long way in setting the mood for your photo. Do you want it dark and moody or bright and happy?
  3. Saturation and Vibrance: The Saturation and Vibrance sliders are, similarly to White Balance, part of creating the color fundaments of your image. You can increase or decrease the sliders to make the images more or less colorful.

These are just a few of the global adjustments you’ll find in your photo editor, but they go a long way in creating the desired atmosphere for your photo. 

Examples of Before and After Global Adjustments 

Global adjustments might be restricted as they affect the entire image, but that doesn’t mean they don’t significantly impact your images. I recommend treating some of them with caution as too strong global adjustments can negatively impact the photo, but using just a few sliders can make a big difference. 

Here are a few before and after examples of global adjustments

What are Local Adjustments?

While global adjustments affect the whole picture, local adjustments are applied only to the areas you desire. This can be adjusting one specific color, decreasing the exposure in one section of the photo, or increasing the saturation around the setting sun. 

Local adjustments can be the same as global adjustments, but with one significant difference: they’re applied through a mask. Adobe Photoshop is the best for layers and masksbut even tools such as Lightroom, the Nik Collection, DxO PhotoLab, and Luminar Neo have certain masking options. 

Let’s return to two of the adjustments mentioned before: exposure and saturation

Moving the Exposure slider in any direction will impact the overall brightness. In other words, it’s a global adjustment. But if you create a mask that targets only the foreground, it becomes a local adjustment. 

In Lightroom, you can do this by, for example, creating a Linear Gradient Mask and pulling it from the bottom and halfway up the image. You’ll now see a similar slider selection in the right-hand toolbar. However, any changes made to these sliders will only be visible in the area selected by your mask. 

Linear Gradient Mask in Lightroom
Only the area marked with red will be affected by this adjustment.

Local adjustments give a new dimension of precision. They allow you to enhance a particular subject, correct imperfections, or balance exposure in a specific region. In other words, you have complete control over how an adjustment is applied to your photo.  

Most Common Local Adjustments

Adjustments that are applied locally are generally the same as those used globally. Here, you also have a selection of basic sliders such as Exposure, Contrast, Saturation, and Clarity. 

To turn them into local adjustments, you need to create a mask. In Lightroom, you have the following masking options: 

  • Subject: AI-generated mask that automatically detects and selects subjects.
  • Sky: AI-generated mask that automatically detects and selects the sky.
  • Background: AI-generated mask that automatically detects and selects the background.
  • Objects: AI-generated mask that automatically detects and selects objects.
  • Brush: A handpainted masking technique that lets you create the mask by brushing over the desired area(s)
  • Linear Gradient: A gradient mask that linearly applies adjustments at decreasing intensities. 
  • Radial Gradient: A circular mask that applies adjustments only inside or outside the selected area. 
  • Range: A mask that targets a specific luminance, color, or depth range based on the pixel value.

Masks in Photoshop are slightly more advanced and require more manual work, but they offer even more precision than masks in Lightroom or similar raw editors. 

In combination with the masks above, these are some of the most common local adjustments: 

  • Local Contrast: Contrast can be added globally, but the downside is that you’re brightening the bright parts and darkening the dark areas. A better way is to use a luminosity mask and apply contrast only to the midtones (pixels that are neither dark nor bright). You can also use a Brush or Radial Gradient in Lightroom to change the contrast in specific regions.
  • Local Sharpening: A blue sky doesn’t benefit from sharpening. Try to instead create a mask that targets the landscape and apply it to only this part. 
  • Dodging and Burning: A classic technique that allows you to brighten or darken areas of your choosing. This is a great way to add depth and contrast to your photo and make certain objects stand out. You can learn more about dodging and burning here.
  • Local Color Adjustments: Instead of increasing the overall saturation, target specific colors or areas where you can apply color adjustments. This can be adjusting the luminance of the blues or making the oranges more red. 

There is a wide range of local adjustments that you can add to your images. The exact selection depends on the processing software you use. In Lightroom, you’re limited to the sliders and adjustments found inside the masking panels, while in Photoshop, you can apply a mask to any adjustment as long as you use layers. 

Examples of Before and After Local Adjustments

Local adjustments are great when it comes to enhancing or improving specific aspects of your photo. In the examples below, you can see how a local adjustment can improve an image where global adjustments have already been applied.

Global vs. Local Adjustments 

Now that we know more about global and local adjustments, it’s time to look closer at their advantages and disadvantages.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Global Adjustments

By now, you know that a global adjustment is added to the entire photo. You have little to no control over where it’s applied. In some situations, this is a disadvantage, while in other situations, it’s desired. 

The biggest advantage of global adjustments is that they’re quick and easy to apply. They require very little manual work and provide a great starting point for your post-processing workflow. 

The disadvantage, however, is that there’s no precision to them. If you increase the saturation, you’re also affecting parts of the image that already are saturated.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Local Adjustments

On the other hand, local adjustments allow us to precisely introduce adjustments to specific parts of an image. This means we can make very detailed and personal changes.

This is the main advantage of local adjustments; they allow you to sculpt your photo with precision. It gives you total control over how and where an adjustment is applied.

The downside is that local adjustments are more complicated to apply. It requires a better understanding of your processing software and takes more time to apply. A global adjustment is added by pulling a slider, while a local adjustment needs a mask. Certain masks, such as Luminosity Masks, can be complicated and time-consuming to create.  

When to Use Global or Local Adjustments

There’s no blueprint for post-processing. The truth is that every image should be treated differently. Presets are great for getting started but rarely look perfect for every image. 

The same goes for global and local adjustments. Some images require more precision work than others. Other images only need a few global adjustments to look good. 

However, here’s a simple rule of thumb: start with global adjustments to set the overall mood, and then turn to local adjustments to fine-tune specific areas, adding depth and detail where needed.

Combining Different Adjustments

The real magic comes when you combine both worlds. It’s not a choice between only using one or the other. Most images will greatly benefit from the combination of both. 

Let me take you through a quick workflow example I often use: 

Start in Lightroom by adjusting the White Balance and Tone sliders. Next, I go to the Color Mixer and make some basic adjustments to the Hue and Saturation of the various colors before applying input sharpening in the Details tab. This typically sets the atmosphere of the image and concludes the global adjustments. 

Next, I apply some exposure and saturation adjustments through a Linear Gradient Mask before I open the image in Photoshop. 

In Photoshop, I apply the more advanced local adjustments. This includes midtones contrast, dodging and burning, local color and exposure work, and using a filter or two in Color Efex Pro.

This is a relatively simplified workflow, but it shows the importance of using both global and local adjustments. Below is an example of what an image looks like before and after such a workflow: 

Recommended Software for Global and Local Adjustments

Selecting the right software is an important decision in your post-processing journey. Here are some popular tools to consider:

Adobe Lightroom: A versatile and user-friendly tool that seamlessly combines global and local adjustments. It’s a go-to choice for many photographers.

Adobe Photoshop: Ideal for more advanced image editing as you have complete control over how and where adjustments are applied.

DxO PhotoLab 7: An easy-to-use processing software with some of the most powerful tools on the market. Similarly to Lightroom, it offers a range of global and local adjustments.

Luminar Neo: An excellent all-in-one solution for photographers who desire a simplified yet powerful post-processing experience.


So, there you have it, the power of global and local adjustments in post-processing. It may seem like a lot to take in, but with practice, it will become second nature.

To recap, global adjustments are like the broad strokes of a painter’s brush, setting the overall mood of your image. They’re your initial tools for making your photo pop. However, they have limits and might not let you get as close and personal with your image as you’d like.

On the other hand, local adjustments are your fine-tuning instruments. They allow you to precisely shape and enhance specific areas in your photo. Whether it’s a patch of vibrant flowers or a hidden waterfall in the shadows, local adjustments give you the necessary control.

The magic happens when you blend these two worlds. It’s like composing music; global adjustments set the rhythm, and local adjustments add the melody. Finding that sweet spot between the two is where your image truly comes to life.